Our group from Cobb spent 10 days there touring WWII battle sites and spent the first three nights of our pilgrimage based in the ancient town of Bayeux, which was captured by the British so quickly (on the day after D-Day) that it fortunately escaped the fates of Normandy’s other big towns, like St. Lo and Caen, which were pulverized by the fighting. Bayeux’s quaint medieval street pattern worked to its advantage that day: Its cobbled streets were too narrow for British tanks to squeeze through, so they quickly bulldozed a road around the town — thereby becoming first city in Europe to have a “ring road.”
And no trip to Normandy should be without a visit to Mont St. Michel. Even if you don’t recognize its name, you’ll be familiar with its storybook appearance — the much-photographed islet just off the seacoast ringed by battlements and topped with a cathedral’s spires. It was a famous destination for religious pilgrims 1,000 years ago, but today is visited mostly by those of the tourist variety.
The island stands amid tidal flatlands pocked with quicksand and swept by some of the most dramatic tides in the world — withdrawing 12 miles out, and then racing back in twice a day at 200 feet per minute. There are drownings every year among those who try to hike across the sands, rather than stroll across the elevated causeway.
There are plenty of picturesque views on the climb up, but the showpiece is the abbey atop the mountain and its many chapels on its lower levels, some dating back to the 9th Century A.D.
Despite the herds of tourists, the abbey and its cloister, swept by the ocean breeze and standing high above their surroundings, impart a solitude that in this visitor brought forth memories of his visit to Alcatraz. And what do you know? Our guide said that after the French Revolution (which not only cost King Louis XVI his head but the Catholic church many of its holdings) the abbey was seized by the government in 1790 and used as a prison for the next 60 years.
Today it’s an odd blend of the sacred past and the commercial present. It is part world-class historic heritage site and part tourist trap, with its cobblestoned lower streets lined with overpriced eateries and souvenir stores. But that was the case a millennium ago as well. The only difference is that now the souvenirs are made in Singapore rather than along the Seine.
OUR NEXT STOP was Rouen, which straddles the Seine River near the sea and is where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. Even though 45 percent of the city was destroyed during WWII, much of the remainder retains its medieval feel thanks to the presence of some 1,500 half-timbered buildings. At the heart of the city is the magnificent Rouen Cathedral, parts of which date to the 12th century and which from 1876-80 was the tallest building in the world. Two decades later Impressionist Claude Monet painted a famous series of paintings showing how the appearance of its façade changed at different times of the day.
And from there it was to the city of Reims in the Champagne-Ardennes area of northwestern France. It’s a city that Americans pronounce “Reems” but which the French pronounce, well, let’s just say it is virtually unpronounceable — a simultaneously gutteral and nasal “R-r-r-r-antz.”
Eisenhower’s headquarters were in Reims when the war ended on May 7, 1945. His map room, in a local school he was using as a headquarters, was left just as it was and opened as a museum in recent years. It’s a fascinating time capsule.
Reims also boasts the biggest and most beautiful of the cathedrals we toured. It’s where French kings were traditionally crowned, which makes it the Frankish counterpart to London’s Westminster Abbey. Its downtown, which was almost completely devastated by German artillery fire during World War I, was completely rebuilt in the 1920s and ’30s.
We later swung through Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg, the latter of which seemed more Germanic than French. We stayed in Luxemburg City, which was by far the cleanest big city I’ve ever seen. That no doubt had something to do with that Germanic heritage.
OUR TRIP CONCLUDED IN PARIS. I had thought New York City was expensive — until I got to Paris. I’m sure there are some slums there somewhere, but the city looked to me like Fifth Avenue on steroids.
We saw the usual sights — La Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Arc de Triomphe. And some of us took a detour to the famed Père Lachaise Cemetery, where the crème de la crème of France’s cultural, political and military heroes are buried in elaborate tombs, as well as a notable interloper: American rock star Jim Morrison of The Doors. Even though it was early afternoon on an ordinary weekday, there were 20 or 30 people milling around his grave. Perhaps even more surprising, there also were groups paying homage at the nearby graves of author Oscar Wilde and pianist Frederic Chopin. It was easily the most fascinating graveyard I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of Arlington National Cemetery.
We also went to the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa — from across the room. The museum stays so crowded that you’d think they were giving out free Francs. While we were being propelled along by the crowd we also saw the “Venus de Milo,” “The Winged Victory of Samothrace,” and enough ancient Greek and Roman helmets, spears and armor, etc., to outfit a thousand “extras” in a Cecil B. DeMille movie.
The Louvre is housed in a former palace so huge that it took us 45 minutes of wandering its corridors to find our way out once we’d had our dose of high culture. Next time we go, I think we’ll leave a trail of baguette crumbs to make it easier to retrace our steps.
Next: Final impressions of France, and beyond.
Joe Kirby is Editorial Page Editor of the Marietta Daily Journal and author of “The Bell Bomber Plant” and “The Lockheed Plant.”