24
Jun
10

Caen, France

[The opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar winning movie – ‘Saving Private Ryan’ presents one of the most unforgettable and accurate depictions of D-Day ! Though the second World War stretched from 1939 until 1945, no other day in the six years of fighting had perhaps been as decisive and crucial as this day – the 6th of June, 1944. Today, one of the main reasons why tourists come to Normandy is to visit the D-Day landing beaches and its associated museums. Stretching across the English Channel coast, the five beaches code-named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah, were the sites where on D-Day, over 150,000 allied troops launched a simultaneous surprise invasion of Normandy, in a bid to free France (and subsequently, the rest of Europe) from the clutches of the Nazi Germans. The invasion had marked the beginning of the end of World War II ….and succeeded in driving the first nail into Hitler’s coffin !]

It was Day 3 of my visit to Normandy and I took an early morning train from Rouen to the city of Caen. Since I had just a little over half a day available in the city before catching a train back to Paris, I had to devise a clear plan of how I would spend it…… and that involved visiting Sword Beach and the 11th century Chateau Ducal (Duke’s castle) built by William the Conqueror himself. Sword Beach was one of the five D-Day landing beaches and I had chosen it mainly because it was the closest from Caen [located 15 km north of the city in the sea-side town of Ouistreham], and also, this was where the British troops had landed. [The Americans had landed on Omaha and Utah beaches, the Canadians on Juno and the British on Sword and Gold beaches]

Sword Beach on D-Day (Image courtesy Wikipedia.org)

Right outside the Caen train station was the Gare Routiere (the bus station) and I went in and bought a return ticket to Ouistreham from the lady at the counter. Must admit, all the people I encountered in Normandy have been very friendly and helpful, and with their broken English and my even more shattered French, we’ve been able to get along quite well. I had to catch the Line 1 service to Ouistreham and the bus arrived exactly as per the timetable that I had downloaded before setting off to France. It was a 30-minute ride to the sea-side town of Ouistreham and for the first time in my three days in Normandy, the weather was sunny and warm.

Ouistreham:

Sea-facing villas at Ouistreham

From Normandy, France

Ouistreham today is the port for Caen and is also a popular sea-side resort dotted with beautiful villas. Many of these villas were occupied by German officers during the years of Nazi occupation in the early 1940’s. Sword beach was a short walk from the bus stop and my first thoughts on seeing it was on how wide and long it was. The clear white sands stretched on for a few kilometres and the sea was several hundreds metres away from the beginning of the beach. Unlike other beaches I had seen in Normandy, at places like ‘Le Havre’, this one was not a pebble beach and looking at the conditions, it was clearly evident on why the allies may have chosen this place for their amphibious landing on D-day.

Sword beach today

From Normandy, France

There was hardly anyone at the beach that morning, except for a few people walking their dogs, but the lady at the Tourist Office near the beach told me that there were major memorial activities planned for the following week – during the anniversary of D-Day. I collected a shell from the beach as a souvenir and visited the D-Day memorial that stood nearby.

D-Day memorial at Sword Beach

From Normandy, France

A museum dedicated to the British No.4 Commando division who had landed on Sword beach, was just across the road, but I skipped it in favour of the Musee du Mur de l’Atlantique (Atlantic Wall museum), which is housed in an old Nazi bunker.

The bunker is actually a large 5-storeyed tower offering vantage views of the beach and it had taken the British 3 full days since D-day to storm in and take the 50+ Nazi soldiers holed up inside as prisoners. But 66 years later, all I had to do was to buy a 7 Euro ticket to get inside.

The Atlantic Wall Museum - in the old Nazi bunker

From Normandy, France

Outside the building were kept a few tanks and gun batteries used in the war, and amongst them, was an actual D-Day landing vessel. Incidentally, this was the very same vessel that was later used for filming the opening scene of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and had held in it, amongst others, Tom Hanks himself !

An actual landing vessel used on D-Day and later in the filming of 'Saving Private Ryan'

From Normandy, France

As I stepped inside the building, I was greeted by a large TV screen playing the movie […yea, you guessed right] ‘Saving Private Ryan’, albeit a French dubbing. The interiors of the bunker have been restored to what it may have looked like under Nazi possession.

Effigy of a Nazi officer inside the weapons room of the bunker

From Normandy, France

After grabbing a sandwich from a beach stall, I caught a bus back into Caen and headed for the next destination in my agenda.

Chateau Ducal:

Caen Castle

From Normandy, France

Right in the centre of the city, stands the Chateau Ducal or Duke’s Castle. Built by William the Conqueror in 1060, the castle had been in use throughout the middle ages and was also used as military barracks as late as during World War II.

In 1066, six years after building this castle, William, then the Duke of Normandy, had crossed the English Channel and invaded England, setting up a powerful new ruling establishment in the hitherto Anglo-Saxon country. It was the last time England was ever forcefully conquered by a foreign power and even the current queen – Elizabeth II can trace a direct line of ancestry to William the Conqueror ! William built many new castles around England, including the Tower of London [….whose White Tower is so named after the special stones from Caen that were used to build it]. The conquest earned William the title of The Conqueror, which may have very well justified the effort, ‘cos until then he had been referred to as William the Bastard, thanks to his illegitimate birth 😉

The castle complex was massive and interestingly, entrance was free. The lawns around and inside the castle seemed to be a nice hangout for French students, who were seen lazing around and enjoying the sun. And Caen being a college town, there were plenty of them around.

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