Normandy is the most northwestern region in France and is most known for the D-Day Beaches.
I felt compelled to walk in the footsteps of my father and thousands of other men, many who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the liberation of Europe. So, I had to go, and I wanted to be there for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day to honor my father. The books that I had read and the documentaries I had watched through the years had not prepared me for the emotions I felt during my visit. Follow our journey to Normandy.
DAY 1 – Giverny
On arrival in Paris, my son and I rented a car and headed to the quaint village of Giverny, the home and gardens of impressionist painter Claude Monet. As we neared the town of Giverny, we missed a turn and ended up in what felt like Monet’s painting, “The Poppy Field.” Each side of the lane had rolling fields of poppies in full bloom – it was one of those moments in time you wanted to freeze frame. We went on to find our lodging, the charming La Dime de Giverny, checked in, and wandered up the hill to a cute lane to find dinner. We found a café with a courtyard and stunning view to enjoy our delicious meal. The next morning, we awoke to the sounds of church bells, had a delicious breakfast at La Dime, and headed to the Claude Monet House and Gardens. We toured the home and gardens, and the inspiration for so many of Monet’s paintings was obvious. Visiting Giverny had always been on my list, and I’m so glad it did not disappoint. One tip, however: arrive at opening before the crowds arrive.
DAY 2 – Rouen / Dieppe / Honfleur
The next part of our journey was about chasing our roots. In recent years I have become interested in my genealogy and discovered that my maternal grandmother’s family had come to America from Dieppe, France. The curiosity to see the city where my family “boarded the ship” was building in my mind, and once again, I had to go. In preparing for the visit to Dieppe, I learned that our family records are now archived in Rouen, so we made a stop, and boy was I surprised at the charming city of Rouen. Although we did not have time search for our records, we did enjoy the most delicious savory crepe of our entire visit to France –(we tasted many, just for comparison, of course). Dieppe was a quaint, distinguished village with a beautiful harbor. I paused on the edge of the water to imagine my family boarding the ship to London and then on to Charleston, SC where they eventually settled. As the years went on and many children were born, some eventually made their way West and settled in Louisiana, my place of birth. If you have never considered making a trip to find your roots, I highly recommend it.
After Dieppe we headed for the picturesque village of Honfleur with its beautiful harbor. I had been wanting to see Honfleur for a while, as it is a stop on most River Cruises on the Seine out of Paris. Our dinner on the harbor felt like we were once again in an impressionist painting, and our lodging for the night was an old private school that had been converted into hotel rooms and lofts. I lay in bed that night wondering about the stories I would hear if those walls could talk!
DAY 3 – Omaha Beach / Normandy American Cemetery / Bayeaux
The next morning we headed towards Omaha Beach to visit the Normandy American Cemetery, and happened to arrive at the entrance of the museum at the same time as a group of about 15 WWII Veterans. All in their upper 90s or older, we learned that most of them had not been back to Normandy since they fought on its shores as young men. What an incredible and emotional privilege it was to walk through the museum alongside these brave men who were actually there.
After the museum, we reverently toured the cemetery grounds, stopping to overlook the coastline where thousands of brave men fought and perished. My son, Andy, was wearing the cap that my father used to wear to his 90th Division “Tough Hombres” reunions, and a gentleman stopped him to ask him about it. Turns out, that gentleman was the head historian for the 90th Division Association, and he ended up inviting us to join him the following day for at the Utah Beach Ceremony, where, we learned, my dad’s battalion actually landed.
Inspired by the turn of events, we decided to cancel the guided tour we had booked the next day and follow serendipity towards Utah Beach.
DAY 4 – Utah Beach / Bayeaux
We left our gorgeous bed and breakfast in Bayeaux early in the morning to avoid presidential and royal motorcades (Prince Charles was speaking down the street from us), and followed tiny backroads through the countryside towards Utah Beach…without a definite plan (which is not normal for me!)
We arrived a couple hours before the ceremony and took a slow, meaningful walk down Utah Beach, imagining what it must have been like for my father to land here as a young man 75 years ago. We stopped and talked to a few other families taking similar walks, and felt an immediate bond with them, sharing a deep sense of pride in the memory of our fathers/grandfathers for sacrificing their dreams, putting their lives on the line, and traveling across an ocean to fight for freedom.
The ceremony was about to begin, and we had planned to simply watch from the sidelines, when our new friend, Norm, from the 90th Division Association waved us over and said he had 2 extra tickets for seats in the VIP section! We scurried across the field and took seats between French dignitaries and uniformed officers! Three men from my dad’s 90th Division participated in the ceremony: From left to right, Carver McGriff, Tom Ingram, and Gene Kleindl.
The ceremony was incredible, and afterwards we ended up meeting many more families whose fathers also fought in the 90th Division alongside my dad. Also, we’ve stayed in touch with our friend, Norm, and in the weeks after our trip, he ended up finding detailed field reports from my dad’s battalion, helping us map his tour of service in Europe.
Have you dreamed of visiting the D-Day Beaches of Normandy? Maybe you have members of your family or friends who have shared stories with you of this tumultuous time in history. When we left Normandy in June, the notion came to us that we wish every American could have the opportunity to visit these hallowed grounds. It was truly a sobering experience.
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