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ONE WEEK IN NORMANDY

by.........Fred Melnick

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We arrived at CDG on Sunday in a thick fog. We picked up a car at the airport but couldn't fit all the luggage in. Ah, for the days when we were young and traveled with one carry-on each. So we traded in for a bigger car and headed for Honfleur where we were booked at Hotel L'Absinthe for two nights. In Honfleur we noticed lots going on so we dropped the bags at the hotel and went walking. It was a real happening with big crowds, bands playing, a parade, lots of fish sellers lined up along the water. We sampled the Crevettes Grises, tiny little shrimp. They showed us how to peel them and pop them out of their shells but we couldn't get the hang of it and finally decided it wasn't worth the effort for what was left to eat. We thought it was just a normal Sunday in Honfleur but then found out it was a very special day, "Le Festival de la Crevette and de la Peche," the Festival of the Shrimp and the Fish (in this case the word is "Peche," referring to fish that was caught, not fish served in a restaurant which is "poisson"). It's a beautiful city with the harbor, the ships, a beautiful park reserved for kids, small streets with shops.

Dinner was at Restaurant L'Absinthe which is part of the hotel but across the street. It was a wonderful dining experience food, service, the room - everything very fine and perfect. We knew we were in for a special experience when we tasted the rolls which were phenomenal and the butter, which probably has at least twice the butter fat we have here and absolutely delicious. Rabbit, duck, oysters, lamb - not a bad way to start our trip.

On Monday we headed to the northern Normandy coast to Etretat and Fecamp. We drove over the Pont de Normandie which looks like it was designed by a modern artist. A simply beautiful bridge, the most beautiful I've ever seen. Drove through Le Havre and then headed north. Spent some time driving to those towns and along the coast. All farm land lots of cornfields, lots of cows, especially the Normandy white cows. In all the towns there are plaques and monuments to the American and British armies. Etretat is a very charming little town; Fecamp a larger city. Stopped in the Eglise St Etienne in Fecamp which goes back 500 years. An organist was rehearsing so we sat and listened for awhile. Drove around the area and then headed back to Honfleur through more farmland and then walked Honfleur some more. Dinner was at La Terrasse de L'Assiette, very good but not in the class of L'Absinthe. Then it was back to the hotel to get ready to leave the next day for Bayeux, and some really emotional days.

On Tuesday we headed straight for Bayeux, an easy ride. We had a reservation to take a tour of the beaches with Bus Fly Tours in the afternoon. Our hotel was the Churchill so we checked in and went for a walk. I could only imagine what these streets were like during the war, house to house combat, streets with tanks rolling by. There are memorials all over, restaurants have photos of GI's. Had delicious crepes for lunch and pains aux raisins. Bus Fly picked us up at our hotel as scheduled and 8 of us headed for the beaches. We visited the area where 300 rangers fought their way up a cliff to knock out German gun batteries and lost 2/3 of their men. When the others finally made it and pushed out the Germans, they found there were no guns at all - they had been moved out a few days earlier so all those lives were lost for naught.

Then to Omaha Beach. The D-Day landing had to be made at low tide so they could see mines that had been laid by the Germans. The beach at low tide was 1/2 mile wide, The first to go in to the beach were the engineers - 600 of them to do soundings and survey for roads. They were all killed in the first five minutes.

From there to the cemetery. Unbelievable. White crosses and Stars of David lined up row after row as far as the eye can see. We just stood there and cried. We went around putting stones on as many of them as we could, crosses and stars (as is the Jewish tradition). Bobbi had a particularly tough time. Her father had spent five years in the front lines in the Philippines, was the only member of his company to come home, and didn't see Bobbi until she was five years old. She remembered waiting by the mailbox everyday and asking the mailman - "Are there any letters from my Daddy?"

We went on to Arromanches. There you can see what remains of the Winston. It was built to last 6 months; much of it remains after 60 years. I recognized the parking lot where they had the ceremony for the 50th anniversary reunion of D-Day. There's a wonderful museum there which tells the story of what happened there and a terrific film. If you don't know the story, in 1942 Winston Churchill realized that eventually there will be an invasion and there had to be a way of getting supplies to the army once they secured the beaches. He envisioned a port that could be built in England, taken apart and towed to France, then reassembled. The way it was done was impossible, absolutely impossible, but they did it. First 17 old ships were sailed across from England and intentionally sunk, lined up front to back parallel to the shoreline, to form an initial sea wall. Then large concrete blocks were towed over and sunk to form more of a sea wall. After that came the unloading platforms and the "roads", which extended from the beach a mile out into the water. There were three of these. They had to be bolted together and installed on columns so they could rise and fall with the sea. When finished, there were three docks to unload the ships and three roads a mile long on which the vehicles could drive from the unloading platforms onto the beach. In 6 days they unloaded 350,000 men, 50,000 tanks, jeeps, armored cars, kitchens, supplies, medical stuff, food, etc. This was in the middle of fighting a war and horrendous weather. They had the worst gale in history which broke part of the port but it was repaired. If someone wrote a book using that scenario, people would say that's silly - it could never be done.
On the way back to the hotel we visited some German bunkers. They lived underground just as they showed in "The Longest Day."

We walked around Bayeux and had dinner at Le Petite Normand. It was just OK. But the day was totally amazing and heartbreaking. I planned to go back the next day to spend a bit more time there. If you haven't been there, plan to go.

We were awakened early Wednesday morning by the sound of loud voices and hustle and bustle outside. Looked out the window and they were setting up for a market whoopee!!! So after breakfast we walked the market and sampled some goodies. Then we drove out south to the town of Balleroy. This town was built about 300 years ago along with the Chateau Balleroy. The Count was smart and a nice guy. When he built the chateau he built the town also, established some businesses for the people to work at, and treated them very well. Came the revolution the Chateau was left untouched by the mobs. In 1970 Malcom Forbes of Forbes magazine was looking for a chateau to buy and decided on this one. Now Malcom had three passions Ferberge Eggs, motorcycling, and hot air balloons. I knew him through motorcycling from my motorcycling days. He was directly responsible for getting the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey open to motorcycles. When he first took it over the townspeople were very upset - who needs this American? What will happen to our town? But Malcom was such a terrific individual, could relate to anyone, that he was soon a very popular, beloved figure. In 1975 he started the Balloon Festival that takes place every year there. They still have it but it's no longer what it was, without his presence. He was the spirit behind it. Along with some other people we took a guided tour of the chateau, which is still used by his family. It's beautifully decorated and very liveable. Almost everything has some relation to ballooning. Chandeliers in the shape of balloons, chairs with their backs in a balloon design, lamps in the shape of balloons, all the walls have paintings of balloons. Due to a connection through a friend of mine we met the manager, Monsieur Lenoir, and were given a special tour after everyone left the regular one. So we got to see all the private rooms and other things that aren't shown on the tour. They have a terrific balloon museum there also showing the history of ballooning.

Wanting to see more of the beaches we drove back to Arromanches and spent more time in the museum and watched the film again. Back in Bayeux we ate dinner at Le Rapier, excellent dining.

On Thursday we walked over to see the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which really isn't a tapestry but an embroidery and tells the story of William the Conqueror and Harold. Saw the totally amazing cathedral. How they built that in the 12th century I don't understand. Back in the car we drove to St Mere Eglise and saw the church with a model of the parachutist who landed there on the steeple (Red Buttons in the movie). Yes, it really happened. We stood in the square and looked up and could imagine the paratroopers landing in the area around the town and being picked off by the German soldiers. Had they landed a couple of days earlier there would have been no problem the Germans had arrived just the previous day. Walked the town, had a delicious lunch of chicken and we even (cover your eyes if you don't want to see this) ate the skin, the thinnest, crispiest, most delicious skin ever, then walked a market there.

Drove to Utah Beach. Much different looking from Omaha. Now we were up on the bluffs, the wind was blowing, the tall grass was waving in the breeze. Quite a feeling of sadness here. The calm and emptiness after the storm. They had a caf near there named after Teddy Roosevelt Jr. He was a general in WW II and won the medal of honor. The caf contacted the family and asked permission to name the caf after him and they said of course.

Headed back to Bayeux, stopping in some little towns along the way. Had dinner in a charming little restaurant called, amazingly enough, "Le Petit Restaurant." It was delicious but we didn't enjoy. We were just too full and should have taken the night off and just had some pasta or something. Ah, to be young and be able to eat as much as I wanted.

Drove back to Honfleur where we were spending one more night at the same hotel. Dropped our bags and headed for Deauville where they have a beautiful harbor and a pretty town. They had a market in progress so we hit that for awhile, had lunch, then drove along the coast and saw the gambling casinos and lots of hotels boarded up after the summer. Stopped in some little towns and ended up back in Honfleur and spent several hours walking around the town, the harbor. It's really a terrific town. Dinner was at L'Absinthe again - spectacular. One of the best restaurants we've been in.

Saturday morning it was RAINING but not much. We checked out and headed for our last day and night out of Paris, to the Moulin de Connelles in the town of Connelles, a beautiful four star hotel right on the river. The river flows under the center of the hotel. It was the most beautiful sight, with rowboats on the river, the forest around it. We checked in and headed to Les Andelys, a pretty town not far away. It was market day and they had a terrific market. How could the food in France not be great when it's so fresh? Ate Italian for lunch. Had a Fruits de Mer Pizza, then a lasagna super. The rain was very sparse and light so we drove to Giverny for our 3rd time there and we actually saw water lilies in bloom, finally. What a lovely, serene place. Back to Connelles for a nap and dinner in the Moulin - a wonderful, top-notch, first class dinner in their beautiful, fine restaurant. We had never stayed in a place in this class and it really was special and not expensive at all. $230 complete for a suite, demi-pension (dinner and breakfast for the two of us. Packed and organized for our drive to Paris on Sunday.

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