It has always been a life wish of mine to visit Normandy, France. I am not a fan of the term “bucket list”, so I term my travel wish list as my “life list” and always have a plan in mind for getting to see what both my husband and I desire to see. It is not always, and in fact almost never, a direct flight in and out of an area, but rather a trip designed with a soul to the excursion. The soul of this trip was Normandy.
Aboard Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, our recent voyage certainly covered more than just Normandy and is aptly named The Paris & Normandy Cruise. Anyone who enjoys a love of culture, art, romance, extraordinary landscapes, and of course, history cannot go wrong with this all-inclusive journey. In our case, we wanted to see the beaches of Normandy, the cemetery and museums before the 70th anniversary had passed us by, but make no mistake…enjoying the “The City of Light”, Honfluer, Rouen, and Avec Sur Oise was fabulous! Giverny is also a stop during the warmer months as well. The Seine is the amazing vein for all these must-see cities and it is a trip where you can sail without carting your luggage from hotel to hotel. The hotel travels with you and it is an amazing and very cost-effective way to combine all of your loves into a vacation to remember. I just love river cruising as a means to travel Europe and Asia.
The Normandy Cemetery Experience
Mulberry Harbor at Arromanches, also known as Port Winston, was a remarkable human undertaking with over 600,000 tons of concrete and equipment moved across the channel. This was all during an active war to create and serve as a base for the allied troops. It was, in fact, an artificial man-made port for supplies of men, weapons and ammunition. We explored the D-Day Museum and it became quickly apparent why this history-changing event had to happen here with the proximity to the sea. This beautiful coastline broke our hearts as we walked the beaches and became one with the realization of how vulnerable our brave young men really were to German fire power. With guns pointed at the sea at remarkably close range, there leaves little doubt as to why so many died so quickly.
Our fellow Canadian travelers had the same experience while seeing the museum at the Canadian Center and walk to Juno Beach where the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division landed into hell. The coastline for Americans to experience was Omaha Beach.
The American Cemetery and memorial to American soldiers who lost their lives is nothing short of breath-stopping. At one point, while walking and turning a hedged corner the thousands of crosses appear almost at once into view. You just don’t know where to look; the crosses, the lawn and the trees are perfect in every way, yet are sadly staggering. Aesthetically and geographically perfect in placement, this combination of peace and heartbreak will hopefully never be created again for any other generation.
Uniworld guests can participate in a special ceremony during their visit that involves a wreath laying ceremony, the American National Anthem, and a moment of silence. I believe all on our excursion participated and four of the passengers who were American Veterans laid the wreath for that day’s ceremony.
The French students are never the same
We stood in silence while the American National Anthem was played and wreath was laid. Then we were asked to turn in mass toward the direction of the United States of America with hand on our hearts, while Taps were blown in commemoration. For a point of clarification, the sea is behind the memorial and the direction of the US is looking towards and over the cemetery. If there were dry eyes among us, they eluded me, but it was the talk by the cemetery guide assigned to us that helped to cement the experience forever in our hearts.
She first made the acknowledgement and thanks on behalf of the cemetery staff for visiting. This is in part because it is we, the citizens of the United States, who must never forget the generation who made this sacrifice. Unlike all other battles, there are VERY few children who visit this remarkable place. Not that they are neglectful, but they do not exist for the most part. The young men buried here were between 17 and 25 years old. They did not live long enough to have children. Their sacrifice and subsequent slaughter on these shores bring home the obvious….they had no offspring to keep their memories alive and many of the young brides are dead or dying at the same rate as the surviving soldiers. We – nieces, nephews and grateful citizens – must continue to make this pilgrimage in whatever way we can so the sacrifice can be witnessed and appreciated fully for generations to come.
Secondly, she stated the French must remember, explaining that the French senior level high school students are now required to travel to Omaha Beach and visit the cemetery for a course on the war. The culmination of the study is that the students are ushered into a room and shown pictures of the dead young men one by one (many their own age). The appreciation of their sacrifice is brought home effectively and in the heart-breaking detail of the soldiers’ faces. We were told that these students “are never the same.”
Disney is not always the answer
With vacations few and far between for hard-working Americans, I know that your children will beg for the Disney properties, and of course, you will have a ball while spending oodles of cash, but please consider such a voyage to Normandy as they get older. The D-Day anniversaries come and go fast now, but the accomplishment against all odds and the price paid is something that you need to witness and explain to the next generation. It is indeed heartbreaking, but it also cements what we are and what we possibly misplaced over the past few years in our hearts: that America is a good light in the world and remaining so is important to the existence and the vein of Americans and the entire world. It will restore your pride in humanity and this great country.
On cruise stop on the Siene Voyage
The little maritime city of Honfluer in the Normandy region is picture perfect, and like some cherished European cities, escaped the ravages of time and war. With many French citizens and other Europeans making Honfluer a busy place at vacation time, it is equipped to house and feed them all in extraordinary fashion. It remains one of the most visited towns in France, with its gorgeous and narrow winding backstreets and original timber framed houses. The marina and fishing boats compete only with the art shops for the attention of the visitors. Monet, Coubet and others were inspired by and painted Honfluer and I doubt little has changed since that glorious time.
Auvers sur Oise
I must confess, this is my favorite exploration next to Normandy because of my love of Vincent van Gogh’s art. This town is closely linked to the artist because his most prolific days were spent in Auvers sur Oise, as well as his death and gravesite alongside his brothers. The town, which is a northwest suburb of Paris, photo illustrates the exact spot where Vincent van Gogh painted throughout the quaint village. You literally stroll from photo to photo of great works of art placed in front of the setting. For example, The Auvers Town Hall, which looks exactly the same as it did in 1890 sits proudly behind the street photo. It is surreal and wonderful!
You must stop before or after your town stroll at Auberge Ravoux for a tour and certainly a lunch or dinner. Room number 5 is the famous room where van Gogh stayed and enjoyed the café, the town and the friendship of Aurers while painting happily until his death. There is traditional bourgeois cooking shared here, as well as anything you may find in traditional Paris café cuisine and the wine list is extraordinary.
Rouen is often referred to as the historic capital of Normandy. It is also the site of the martyrdom of Joan of Arc. Rouen is aptly called the ‘City of Spires’ because of the cathedrals and churches lining the historical town. The charm of the half-timbered houses and narrow streets in this medieval city can almost make you forget this is a huge French city and one that boasts wonderful nightlife and of course…food. The source of Julia Childs’ inspiration sits grandly on Place du Vieux Marché in Rouen. By far, the best restaurant I have ever experienced and “experience” is the right word. If it has to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, make it the pressed duck.