Normandy, France, smells like lavender…it is grown prolifically. Lavender blooms late May through July in Normandy. The fields, that were once fenced in by hedgerows pop a subtle but beautiful purple…it makes the surrounding grass and trees glisten bright green. Truly stunning to see. The beauty of these lavender fields hide a deeper secret though…a bloody secret. These grand fields of light purple were once the battlefield of Normandy in June 1944.
Normandy also smells like apples…actually apple cider, because it isn’t until the fall that the apple harvest comes in. I was in Normandy in late May 1997…so the apple trees were still growing small yellow apples…nowhere near ripe…but the smell of apple cider competed with lavender. Seems the Normandy French enjoy apple cider as much as they enjoy decorating their homes and fields with lavender. Every village seemed to have an apple press and cider house. Here is a older, but well-written New York Times article that discusses the sparkling ciders of Normandy and Brittany. Reading it makes my mouth water for apple cider.
When you are in Normandy you stop and visit the medieval tapestry makers of Bayeux. Castles…made of stone didn’t do very well when it came to insulating from the heat and the cold…primarily the cold. If you lived in a castle…and had enough money…you would buy grand wool tapestries to hang on the walls…they were more than beautiful tapestries…they were way to ward off the cold and an early death of you and your family. When you travel through Bayeux…you go and see the tapestries that have remained.
Some drive further afield in Normandy and see the Cherbourg peninsula. Driving tiny French backroads smelling of lavender and apple cider…small but swift streams are covered with stone bridges. It is glorious in a peaceful, idyllic way. One suddenly understands why the French beret isn’t so odd…and apple cider, baguettes, and cheese seems to be the perfect lunch. Further west you get into Brittany, less populated and with even smaller roads. You really have only one reason to visit Brittany and that is to see le Mont Saint Michel.
Le Mont Saint Michel was originally a small church built in 709AD, followed by an expansion in the 10th century, and finally becoming a monastery in the 13th century. During the French Revolution, the secularist government used it as a prison and troops of the Revolution went through and removed the head off of every Christian statue. This monastery sits upon a rock out in the Bay of Brittany and parking signs (in multiple of languages) inform you that if you park in certain areas at certain times…you might return after your visit to find you car underneath water. Le Mont Saint Michel is breathtaking and full of historical significance. It is a perfect side day trip after you have soaked in the lavender fields of Normandy.
But if you go to Normandy…you go for only one reason really. You go to Normandy to walk the D-Day invasion beaches, you go see monuments erected to American soldiers in the villages of Sainte Mere-Eglise and Sainte Lo. You go to see the old and decaying German bunkers (both artillery and machine-gun) of Point-du-Hoc. As beautiful as the lavender fields are, as wondrous as the smell of apple cider, and the stunning beauty of old medieval monasteries are…you are truly there to marvel at the major military operation known as “Overlord”…the Allied invasion of the Fortress Europa. Here in Normandy you marvel at beauty…but in your heart and head…you feel sad…you cry and wonder how such a beautiful place could have been the location of so much death and violence.
All the pictures above are beautiful…but in reality…this is what Normandy looked like to me:
Of course these were not the actual landscape and images before me as I was in Normandy…but this was what I say in my mind’s eye. The death, destruction, and violence of the Allied invasion. As I traveled from place to place soaking up the French spring sun of May…I had a disconcerting feeling that it was all a mirage…a film or layer lain across the landscape to hide the ugly beneath it. All of this ugliness though is removed when you enter the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer…a garden of stones and sculpted hedges and trees. The cemetery sits on a bluff above Omaha Beach…where the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions landed and got chewed to pieces…literally…by German machine-gun fire.
It was on Omaha Beach that (then) COL George A. Taylor, commander of the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, famously told the huddled men under his command
“There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here.”
When you stand on Omaha Beach and you look up at the bluff…where COL Taylor’s men and thousands of other men lay buried…where the Germans were dug in and waiting, you think only one thing…”my God, how did they fucking have the guts to actually exit their landing crafts and storm this beach?” Part of it was training, part of it was the Allied decision to use the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions. Both were filled with privates with no combat experience…young men who had no idea what they were about to face…and veteran NCOs and officers who knew exactly what they were about to face. The 29th Infantry Division (The Blue and Grey) was a National Guard division with young men from the mid-Atlantic and the 1st Infantry Division had exited the North Africa campaign over a year before and sat in Britain re-arming and getting its ranks filled with fresh soldiers. No one but the senior Allied leaders truly knew what these young men were going to face…in the end, they did get through the stormy waves…across the mine and concertina-wired beaches…up the bluff…and began the long deadly march across Europe. But before they entered Germany…or Belgium…or Holland…or Paris…they had to cross over a hundred yards of bare beach under withering fire…sheep to the slaughter.
I attended the Memorial Day ceremony at the American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. I was thanked by a crying French woman…and lavender and apple cider scents hung in the air.