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.

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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.

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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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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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