As we inch closer to the 75th anniversary of D-Day, TERRILYN KUNOPASKI had the chance to join Insight Vacations on a guided journey through Normandy
It's bright and breezy at Juno Beach today. I pass a trio of kids playing soccer as I make my way across the sand to touch the ocean, hyper-aware of the sunbathers, the father-daughter duo splashing in the waves, the sailboats anchored not far from shore. There’s something eerie about how peaceful it is here, but I think that’s a good thing.
The opportunity to visit Normandy is what attracted me to this particular journey with Insight Vacations, eager to see for myself a place so important to Canadian history. We’ll be moving on to Brittany and the Loire Valley over the next week, but for now, it’s just about being in the moment.
As Canadians, we’re raised to understand and appreciate the sacrifices made for our freedoms during both World Wars; we learn about D-Day from the time we can read, and we recite “In Flanders Fields” every November 11 before a moment of silence. When we’re in elementary school, we write essays or submit artwork to the local Royal Canadian Legion as an ode of remembrance. We wear poppies on our chests as a sign of respect. But despite knowing – or at least, having a vague idea of – what history looked like, nothing can prepare you for the feeling of standing in a place where it was made.
History is omnipresent in this corner of the country; as our coach navigates through various small villages, we see armament on display by the road, buildings still marred by shrapnel and bullets, and Canadian, British and American flags waving alongside that of the French. Although June 6, 2019 will mark 75 years since D-Day, Normandy has many reminders that 75 years is not all that long ago. Larry, an American and one of the 29 other travellers on my tour, was five-years-old at the time WWII ended, and his wife, Susan, just a baby; the battles we are learning about today happened in their lifetime.
The day started at Pointe Du Hoc, where the cliffs drop more than 30 metres into the English Channel. It’s picturesque – the kind of place that, had it not been for the war, tourists would surely visit anyway just to enjoy the view. The morning sun was peeking through the clouds and reflecting off the still water – a sharp contrast to the conditions American troops were fraught with on D-Day, all those years ago. Ann, our local guide, shared with us all possible details of the battle that took place at Pointe du Hoc; she told us how things did not go according to plan, with towering waves throwing soldiers off-course, water pummeling their boats and many not making it to shore. Those who did make it scaled the cliffs, and although there was significant loss of life, they managed to seize the German fort.
From there, we made our way down the highway to Omaha Beach. Looking out at the wide stretches of sand between the ocean and the hills (where the Germans would have been waiting) made it easy to imagine but hard to believe Allied forces moving inland. There was no cover and their already heavy uniforms would have been weighed down further by the ocean water they were washed in before making it to solid ground.
At Omaha, too, children played on the beach and tourists snapped pictures with the memorials. One sculpture, called “Les Braves,” is composed of three different components, which artist Anilore Banon calls “The Wings of Hope,” “Rise, Freedom!” and “The Wings of Fraternity.” Each is defined, respectively: “So that the spirit which carried these men on June 6, 1944 continues to inspire us, reminding us that together, it is always possible to change the future; So that the example of those who rose against barbarity helps us remain standing strong against all forms of inhumanity; So that this surge of brotherhood always reminds us of our responsibility towards others, as well as ourselves.”
As I thought about those words, I decided that Banon was probably right in recognizing that it was spirit – sheer will, determination, love, bravery – that carried the troops forward. The fear they must have felt is inconceivable. Yet, they persisted nonetheless.
I’m not sure what I expected but it’s almost shocking to me how areas that once were battlegrounds, like Omaha and Juno, are now places of community, beauty and joy as much as they are about remembrance. That said, the reality of loss comes together at the Normandy American Cemetery. The crosses, almost all identical save for religious markings to identify the faith of the dead, are stark white and the grounds, pristine. You can see sand stuck in the etchings of some of the names, a symbol that families or friends of those individuals were recently there to seek out their gravesite. At one point mid-journey, the American national anthem echoed across the cemetery and we stood there, hats in hands and hands on hearts, to pay respect to the slain before us. I can’t speak for my travel companions, however, the thought crossed my mind as we silently sung the lyrics about whether the America these troops fought to protect is the country the world knows now.
So the weight of this day – what I've seen and learned and felt – are with me as I touch the ocean at Juno Beach. It’s impossible to have anticipated this wave emotion but surely it's understandable, knowing what this place was and seeing what it is today. So I linger for a moment as the water laps against my legs, looking around and feeling overwhelmingly thankful – thankful for the experience, thankful for the sacrifice, and thankful for this reminder that despite adversity, life goes on.
Thinking you want to do it for yourself?
(Picture above: Omaha Beach)
By all means – we can’t recommend guided touring enough! All the stress of planning your trip is immediately absorbed, and with Insight Vacations, you can count on having a great travel director and local experts to show you around. Plus, with optional meals and excursions available, you can opt to participate in group activities as much or as little as you want – so long as you make it on the coach before it departs for the next destination! PRO TIP: If you can swing it, travellers interested in booking Insight’s “Normandy, Brittany and the Loire Valley” trip should also consider partaking in Insight’s 17-day “Country Roads of France” journey, which visits Troyes, Chamonix, Côte d’Azur, Monaco and Carcassonne, to name a few of the many highlights. Contact your travel advisor to learn more!
(Picture above: Mount-Saint-Michel)
The beaches of Normandy were just the beginning of a beautiful guided trip that took us to other sites in the region, as well as to Brittany and the Loire Valley. Think beautiful landscapes, stunning châteaus and all the wine a girl could hope for. Here are a few highlights:
MONT-SAINT-MICHEL: Marvel at the stunning design of Mont-Saint-Michel – compact, mesmerizing and topped by a medieval monastery. Take advantage of Insight’s local expert, who will enlighten you to the history and mystery of Mont-Saint-Michel, and be sure to enjoy the views from the top.
BOUVET-LADUBAY WINERY: Take a cellar tour and enjoy some tastings at Bouvet-Ladubay Winery, located in Saumur, the heart of the Loire Valley. Discover traditional and modern ways of winemaking before indulging in a few variations of its sparkling wine. This is when it pays to have a driver…
THE CHÂTEAUS: Tap into your inner Disney princess during a visit to Château d’Ussé, the castle said to be Charles Perrault’s inspiration for "Sleeping Beauty." Travellers will also learn about the history of Château de Chenonceau and the love triangle that played out there.
CHARTRES: Whether to see the labyrinth or the magnificent sculptures of Chartres – inside and out – this will no doubt be a highlight on your journey. The beautiful cathedral dates back to the 12th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This piece was originally published in the Fall issue of Canadian Traveller magazine. Click to subscribe.