Sweeping through Normandy to Omaha Beach

Anyone who has explored the beautiful back roads of Normandy will understand why Hitler’s tanks struggled there.

The roads and lanes of this historic area of north-west France are generally pencil-thin; more suited to bicycles than anything else; and bordered by tall, dense and tangled hedgerows.  

As you pass through towns, the roads can sometimes be so narrow it feels almost possible to reach out and touch the buildings on either side.


Partly shaped by modern warfare, some of Normandy seem monotonously flat, with huge swathes of agricultural and grazing land, broken by church steeples rising above towns and villages.

As the centenary of the end of World War I approaches, we’ve reflected on our sweep through Normandy’s beaches, bunkers and cemeteries.

It was a stunning Spring day and the fields of yellow rapeseed, apple orchards and dairying land were a far cry from the region’s past military role.

Driving from Paris, we stopped first at Armien to check out the city’s famous cathedral, sitting on a ridge overlooking the mighty River Somme.

Built between 1220 and about 1270, the Gothic cathedral is said to be the 19th largest church in the world – and the biggest of its kind in France.

Armien was fought over during both the First and Second World Wars, suffering considerable damage and being occupied several times by both sides.

The 1918 Battle of Amiens was the opening phase of the Hundred Days Offensive which led directly to the Armistice with Germany that ended the war.

Armien was also heavily bombed by the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

From Armien, we pushed through the Normandy countryside to the historic cities of Caen and Rouen, before hitting the famous sands of Omaha Beach.


Caen has a popular museum dedicated to the World War II D-Day landings, while Rouen boasts prominent quays on the river Seine, an historic city centre, and magnificent gothic cathedral.

Much of the city area south of the cathedral also has its own World War II story – flattened by Allied bombing raids and completely rebuilt.

We wandered through the city centre which was occupied by the English during the Hundred Years War and where the French heroine, Joan of Arc was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1431.

At Omaha Beach, we visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial (main photo) high on a clifffront facing the British channel.

This is quite a remarkable memorial, featuring the big areas of white crosses so common along the Normandy beaches.

From here, we swung along the shores, heading for the Opal Coast and the channel ferry port of Calais toboard a hovercraft for Britain.

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12 remarkable monuments

It’s not a cheery subject, but travellers encounter all types of memorials – many of them quite moving.

Ranging from grand structures to stark, simple and sometimes disturbing statements, memorials cover many subjects.

Some are subtle. Others are deliberately in-your-face.

All give cause for reflection.

Here are 12 of the most remarkable monuments that we’ve seen.

National September 11 Memorial and Museum, New York City, USA


This is a tribute to the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as people killed in the World Trade Centre bombing in February 1993.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin, Germany.

Located near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, this memorial can leave you feeling disoriented and uneasy. But, you won’t forget it.


The Cenotaph, London UK.

Situated in the Whitehall area of central London, this was originally a temporary structure that became permanent after an outpouring of national sentiment in 1920.


Neue Wache, Berlin, Germany.

This striking memorial for the victims of war and tyranny is incredibly powerful in its simplicity – a room empty except for a mother holding a child under an open roof, exposed to the elements.


World War II Valor in the Pacific, Pearl Harbour, Hawaii.

This memorial includes the sunken remains of the USS Arizona, lost in the Pearl Harbour attack.


American cemetery, Normandy, France.

Like much of this area of France, the sea of white crosses certainly gives cause to reflect.


The Australian War Memorial

Located at Canberra, Australia’s national capital, this is an acclaimed and intricate memorial.


Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial and Museum, Oranienburg, Germany.

This was one of the biggest concentration camps operated between 1936 and 1945. A visit to the site is a moving experience indeed.


Topography of Terror, Berlin, Germany

Few words seem to be spoken as people move around this huge display, in the former headquarters of the SS. Not for the faint hearted.


Soldiers and Sailor’s Monument, New York City, USA

An imposing structure in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, this one commemorates Union Army members who served in the American Civil War.


Monument Against War and Fascism, Vienna, Austria.

Simple yet memorable, this stands on the spot where several hundred people were buried alive in a World War II bombing raid.


The Anne Frank Centre, Berlin, Germany.

Located in Berlin’s Mitte district, this memorial also serves a dual purpose as an educational centre. Fittingly, it is somewhat hidden in an unremarkable building – signifying Anne’s life in hiding from the Nazis.


This is far from a complete list of prominent memorials worldwide.

For example, we have not seen the Shoes on the Danube Bank memorial at Budapest; the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington; Arlington cemetery in Virginia; or the Motherland Calls memorial at Volograd, Russia.

However those we have visited each left their mark in different ways. We recommend a visit to them all.

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In northern France, the fallen are honoured

It’s not a tourist hotspot. In fact, it’s only a small dot on the map of Northern France.

But the rural commune of Fromelles, in the Nord region near the city of Lille, attracts crowds of travellers – because of something horrendous that happened during the First World War.


On July 19 in 1916, more than five-and-a-half thousand Australians were killed or wounded near Fromelles in what still ranks as the worst 24 hours in Australian history.

That might sound like a big call, but the toll at Fromelles was equivalent to total Australian casualties in the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam War put together.

In the words of  Australia’s War Memorial, it was “a staggering disaster” – made even worse because it had no “redeeming tactical justification”.

We haven’t been to Fromelles and, as our readers will attest, we don’t usually write about places we haven’t visited.

Nor, we wager, is Fromelles the type of destination that usually fills travel columns.

A remarkable story 

But, alongside the official accounts of that terrible night is another, more recent story, that catches the eye.


For more than 90 years, the families of hundreds of Diggers who died during the Battle of Fromelles had no idea of their final resting place.

Their names were recorded on the wall at Fromelles’ VC Corner Cemetery, but they had no known grave.

Then, in 2002, an Australian art teacher and amateur war historian, Lambis Englezos, claimed that as many as 250 fallen soldiers were missing.

Where had they gone?

Together with a band of supporters, Lambis started pushing authorities and, after several frustrating years, an official geophysical survey in 2007 confirmed the likely presence of human remains in an area known as Pheasants Wood.


A high-profile Australian and British investigation known as the Fromelles Project then began the painstaking task of identifying the remains – using DNA technology, forensic science and historical data.

A new cemetery was built across the road from the Fromelles village church and, gradually, the lost soldiers were reinterred with full military honours.

Involving the community

To achieve this enormous task, the Australian Army established a register of thousands of relatives and descendants and collected hundreds of DNA samples for analysis.

The reburials of the Fromelles Fallen started in 2010 and continued through the years as the 100th anniversary of the battle loomed.

And, as a footnote to such an incredible story, Lambis Englezos was given an Order of Australia award by his government for the determined and tenacious way he fought bureaucracy on behalf of the lost soldiers.

Lest we forget.


Photos courtesy The Thomas and Jane Rose Family Society and cemetery photos courtesy Wernervcg and Wikimedia

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Montmartre is a lot more than just a hill

Montmartre, a 130 metre hill in the northern section of Paris, France is one of the best known attractions in the City of Light.

Crowned by the striking white-domed Basilica of the Sacre-Coeur and offering undoubtedly the best views in Paris (except from the top of the Eiffel Tower) Montmartre is part of the Right Bank in the city’s 18th arrondissement.


The summit usually attracts big crowds of people who have either walked up more than 300 steps or taken the automatic funicular railway from the streets below.

As well as gathering around the Sacre-Coeur basilica, the crowds spill into the adjoining Place du Tertre, where portrait sketchers and caricaturists compete for space.

However, there are some wonderful experiences to be gained by leaving the crowds behind and simply wandering among the cobbled streets of one of the most historic and fascinating neighbourhoods of Paris.

Montmarte vineyard

We started in Barbes-Rochechouart, to the east of the base of Montmartre.

This is a vibrant shopping area and street market, which runs down to the famous Moulin Rouge club.

After meandering among the stalls and exploring both tiny shops and big discount stores alike, we headed for the Rue de Steinkerque, which we had been told was a quaint and lively shortcut to the terraced gardens and grassy slopes beneath the basilica.

The Rue certainly lived up to its reputation. Its shops were busy with locals, but there appeared to be few visitors.

We opted to walk to the top of the hill and went looking for the Rue Foyatier, one of the most famous street in Paris, where steps carry you directly to the summit.


Have no doubt, Montemarte is steep and the ascent can be tough going.

But on the positive side, this is Paris – and even its stone steps are a work of art. These ones are lined by attractive lamps, handrails, trees and occasional seating.

Montemarte oozes history and many of the buildings are glorious. There are also lovely private gardens and the sight of grape vines growing on the slopes at Rue Saint-Vincent was intriguing.

Locals explained that the Clos Montmartre Vinyard still produces a few hundred litres of wine each year. Naturally, the drop is keenly sought after.

As we walked from the Sacre-Coeur through the Place du Terte, with its lines of modern artists, it was easy to visualise that the likes of Salvador Dalí, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh had either operated studios or worked in or around Montmartre.Sue in Paris

If ever there was a place to feed creativity and inspiration, this is it.

Avoiding the popular restaurants around the summit, we explored the older, church of Saint Pierre de Montmartre, before heading back into the surrounding suburb – content that we had visited an outstanding attraction, but also experienced the Montmartre that many of the tourists never see.

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Aussie music in Paris

The didgeridoo makes a distinctive sound all its own. You don’t easily confuse it with other musical instruments.

But you automatically associate the deep, earthy growl of the didgeridoo with outback Australia or with buskers in Sydney, Brisbane or Perth – certainly not glamorous Paris, France.

Imagine our surprise then as we came face to face with didgeridoo music swirling around the butte Montmartre, mingling with the chatter of tourists outside the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur.IMG_0900 We love Paris and, like most people, much of our passion is for the glamour, chic and carefree atmosphere of the City of Light.

With its secluded parks, artists’ studios, cafes and restaurants, Paris exudes romance like no other city we have ever experienced. We soaked it up – the delightful sound of the French language; the early morning smell of coffee and freshly-baked bread; and the colours of the artists and easels on Montmartre – the highest point in the city.

The romanticism of Paris couldn’t get much better. But then, as we paused to admire Sacre-Coeur, the drone of didgeridoo music took us completely by surprise.Sacre-coeur-interior Don’t get us wrong: it wasn’t offensive or overwhelming and didgeridoo music has long been a world sound – certainly not restricted to Australia.

It was just totally unexpected.

Here we were, a world away from ‘down under’, revelling in Parisian art and architecture, cityscape and riverbanks as we had earlier strolled along the Champs-Élysées and the Avenue de la Grande Armée – and ascended the Eiffel Tower. But suddenly, our homeland caught up amid our new-found bohemia.

image010We looked at each other and collapsed in laughter. The didgeridoo music – coming from somewhere below Montmartre – seemed so out-of-place echoing through narrow streets that had changed little since the 1800’s. In fact, when we thought about it, the situation was probably rather apt, given that the didgeridoo is an ancient instrument, possibly as much as 1,500 years old.

This incident made our visit to Sacre-Coeur all the more memorable. The Basilica is certainly stunning. We never tire of this marvellous icon in a city that also boasts wonders like the Palais Garnier opera house; Notre Dame Cathedral; the Louvre museum; and the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile.

Credit for photograph of Sacre-Coeur interior:   Nave, apse and altar of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, Paris, France. Date 9 May 2006 Source Own work Author Matthew Clemente

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