Time is ticking towards ‘Jour J’

The Associated Press
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Bayeux boasts ancient tapestry, reporters memorial, D-Day history for 70th anniversary

There’s a digital clock on display outside the visitors centre in the charming Normandy town of Bayeux — but it doesn’t tell the time. It’s counting down the days until the 70th anniversary of D-Day in June.

The graves of British soldiers killed on D-Day and during the ensuing battles of the Second World War occupy a cemetery in Bayeux, France. — Photo by The Associated Press

My husband and I visited Bayeux last fall to spend the weekend at a conference. The “clock” seemed to indicate we had landed in the right place to squeeze in some historical sightseeing, since we weren’t far from the beaches where Allied forces invaded on June 6, 1944.

But we soon learned that Second World War-related tourism comprises only part of the attraction of Normandy, a region rich in history and natural beauty. The countryside also features quaint cities and centuries-old chateaus, as well as apple farms and windswept coastlines.

Bayeux, about three hours by bus from Paris, is a great place to start.

Billed as the first major town liberated by the Allies, Bayeux was miraculously spared damage during the war. Today, the old town centre boasts cobblestone streets, upscale shops, small eateries and picturesque mills along the narrow Aure River; lacemakers practise the intricate local art across from a cathedral with stunning Norman architecture.

And visitors flock to see the town’s namesake tourist attraction: the Bayeux Tapestry. The nearly thousand-year-old treasure, which is actually more of an embroidered scroll, depicts the story of how William, the duke of Normandy, became king of England.

I admit to being skeptical about how impressive this would be — textiles are not usually high on my list of sightseeing priorities. Yet as I moved through the dimly lit museum where the tapestry is displayed, the 70-metre-long piece of fabric came to life like a graphic novel. A quickly paced, handheld audio narrative conveyed an engaging tale of power, intrigue and double-crossing that culminates in William’s triumph at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The threaded illustrations of battle proved a fascinating contrast to the reason we had come to Bayeux.

We were attending events for the 20th anniversary of the Prix Bayeux-Calvados, journalism awards given each year to honour war coverage in print, photo, radio and video. Prize-winning pictures of global conflicts were exhibited at indoor and outdoor venues throughout the town.

The searing images inspired us to pay our respects at the reporters memorial, about a 10-minute walk from the heart of Bayeux. The quiet grove features a path lined by dozens of stone pillars engraved with the names of 2,000 correspondents who have died on the job since the Second World War.

Nearby sits Bayeux’s museum of the Battle of Normandy, marked by several tanks parked outside. It’s an analog affair by today’s standards — instead of interactive iPad displays there are department-store mannequins dressed in battle gear — but the building is packed with information, wall maps, military equipment and period artifacts.

Across the street lies evidence of the true cost of war: a British cemetery and memorial for soldiers killed in the campaign to liberate France. It’s hard not to be moved by the young ages on the headstones and the grateful comments left in the guest registry by tourists from around the world. “Thank you for my freedom!” was written more than once.

To reach the actual invasion beaches about 16 kilometres, you’ll need to rent a car or reserve a spot on any of several organized tours.

Each of the five “plages du debarquement” — Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword — has its own memorial or museum. The American cemetery above Omaha beach in Colleville-sur-Mer is the final resting place of 9,400 service members, its graves marked by sombre, meticulous rows of crosses overlooking the English Channel. A German battery at Longues-sur-Mer, between Omaha and Gold, still has its original guns.

Along that same stretch of shore, you’ll find remains of the Allies’ artificial harbour at Arromanches. Without access to a port to unload the tons of supplies needed to support D-Day, officials realized they’d have to create their own. So they floated over pontoons and other structures from England to create roadways from ships to shore; some are still rusting away on the beach. You can learn more at the waterfront war museum or, farther down the road, at a 360-degree movie theatre.

Our quick trip did not leave time for many other regional highlights, including the abbey on the rock at Mont-St.-Michel; the artist Claude Monet’s house and gardens at Giverny; and the renowned Gothic cathedral in Rouen, which took nearly 400 years to build.

Many of the region’s farms offer tours, tastings and demonstrations of cider making. It’s a favourite local product, and bottles of cider — as well as apple liqueurs known as calvados and pommeau de Normandie — are frequently found in souvenir stores. Such shops also have no shortage of war-related mementos, from cheap “Operation Overlord” wallets to old bullets and even “D-Day” branded beer.

Tourism is expected to be heavy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day — “Jour J” in French — with U.S. President Barack Obama and England’s Queen Elizabeth among the heads of state expected to mark the day. But the history and beauty of Normandy can be experienced long after the clock ticks down.

Organizations: Gothic cathedral

Geographic location: Bayeux, Normandy, Paris Aure River Omaha England France Utah Colleville-sur-Mer English Channel Longues-sur-Mer Rouen U.S.

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