Part I: Amsterdam to Caen
(Photos by Pat Jackson, unless otherwise credited)
Can I begin this blog post with a wish for you, my dear reader?
My wish is that, whatever stage of life you’re in, that you experience the well-spring of friendship. That you find the occasion to re-connect with people who mean the most to you, with whom you have shared vital life experiences, and who have helped shape who you are. You may have had the experience of doing this over the phone or thru social media if you’re at a distance. If you have been able to get together face-to-face, perhaps you’ve had the occasion of catching up over a lunch or dinner, a ballgame, or maybe even over an entire weekend.
But then, if you’re really fortunate, you might have had the chance to spend an entire week with friends in which the pressures of work deadlines and family responsibilities are held at bay. And then, in that generous space, you can renew bonds, revel in shared recollections, probe beyond the superficial as to each others’ hopes and challenges of life today. Even more, you have the opportunity to add yet new experiences to those treasured memories from years ago, a collection which you may have previously presumed was largely complete.
I recently had the chance to do all that in a way that I’ll never forget.
Rich, Chuck, Steve, Bob and I shared a house in our senior year at the University of Michigan. The above photo is from the cocktail party we threw for our parents on our front lawn at graduation in May 1985. (Photo credit: unknown, probably a parent!) Living in the house together that senior year was, I think, an unusual experience for a group of guys in that we operated like a family. Each of us had a night to cook Sunday through Thursday. So we would put together our collective shopping list and make a weekly run to the Krogers supermarket. On most nights Sunday through Thursday, all five of us were at the table. On the occasional weeknight when I was out because of a part-time job, I’d return to the house to find a plate of chicken curry or beef stroganoff warming for me in the oven. Perhaps those mealtimes meant so much to me because dinnertime was such an important element in my home-life growing up. Similarly, those mealtimes with Bob and Chuck and Rich and Steve bound us together. Not that there were never any disagreements — but that mealtime was the foundation of our life together.
And then of course there were the Michigan football games, the all-night RISK tournaments, the house parties, the forging of future careers, and more.
So this past December, I started by calling Rich to see if he’d consider making a trip to Europe while our family was living in the Netherlands. I began with Rich because I knew that he had had just one opportunity to travel to Europe before, a business trip to England some twenty years or so ago. When I put the question to him, Rich said, “Funny you should ask that. I sent my passport off to be renewed just last week!” I then emailed the rest of the guys with the same invitation. After calendars and families were consulted, Rich and Steve determined that they were able to come for a week slated late in May. (We’ll need to organize another reunion with Bob and Chuck!)
For Steve and me, this would be a special sequel as he and I both spent parts of our junior year of college in London and then traveled together on the continent, with stops in Amsterdam and Paris. I think we both relished the prospect of embarking on a 2019 version of “Let’s Go Europe,” minus the experience of youth hostels and surviving on the equivalent of $12 a day!
In case you need help in lining Rich, Steve and me up (but why would you??), here’s a translation between two photos taken 34 years apart!
Three last notes before we dive in. First, after writing half of this blog post, I realized that this ‘Ode to Friendship’ would best be shared in two installments. So this post is Part I. Part II will follow along shortly.
Second, I want to thank Rich and Steve — not just for traveling across the ocean — but also for putting up with my ‘occasional’ photography and then giving me permission to feature our time together in this blog.
And then finally, I want to thank my wonderful wife Janet. It was her loving, generous spirit that afforded me the opportunity to consider this extended adventure in the first place and then to carry it out.
So welcome to the journey. Across these two posts, I hope you will get a palpable sense of the delight, the discovery, the awe, the sorrow and the joy that we experienced as we traveled across three countries over eight days.
PART I: ODE TO FRIENDSHIP — FROM AMSTERDAM TO CAEN
There were two parts to my initial invitation to the guys. The first was “come to the Netherlands to experience the people, cheese, amazing art and architecture, and way of life.” And second, it also was an invitation to explore some of the U.S. military cemeteries in Europe. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that my last post featured the visit I made with my wife Janet and daughter Elyse to the Netherlands American Cemetery in the southeast corner of the country. So my first proposed itinerary was that after a couple days in Amsterdam, we could travel to the Netherlands American Cemetery, to some other sites nearby in Belgium, and then conclude with a run down to Normandy ahead of the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Rich dug into some research and came back with the proposal to go from Amsterdam to the Belgian city of Bruges, continue to Normandy via Dunkirk and the cathedral city of Rouen, visit Normandy, and then wrap up in Paris. We all conferred, and after a few tweaks, the final itinerary was set. Here it is mapped out:
I hopped on a train early that Wednesday morning in the northern city of Groningen and made my way to Schiphol airport. If you didn’t know, Schiphol airport sits on land that the Dutch reclaimed from the sea. Before the reclamation, that stretch of coastline was so treacherous that it was referred to as “Ship Hole” in Dutch, given the number of ships and crew that met their fate there. The airport retains that name.
As I stood outside the arrivals area, a father and his son stepped forward holding a very Dutch “Welcome Home” balloon for perhaps another parent or ‘Opa’ and ‘Oma’ — grandparents. (I forgot balloons for Steve or Rich.) Steve arrived first on his flight from New York and then Rich came through customs after his plane landed from Detroit.
We caught a train into Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, and then a tram to our hotel that was located alongside the Prinsengracht canal. It proved to be a perfect base for the next two days.
Amsterdam is a city of different personalities. See her one way as you ride along the trams that squeal and twist through the various straats and pleins (squares); see her another way walking along the canals and over those rounded bridges — taking care not (by your own inattention) to be flattened by a cyclist. See her yet another way from the water as you realize that the web of canals and harbor were actually the structure upon which she was built. So to the water we went for a tour.
Above, Rich snaps some pics of the beautiful facades that line the canal. Below, Steve, as we pass by the tower of the Westerkerk, the shadow of which falls upon the canal-side home where Anne Frank and her family hid out for two years during the Second World War. As we go along, an audio guide fills us in on the history of particular homes and civic developments from the Dutch Golden Age through to the present.
As our tour boat meandered through the city, we continuously were passing two rows of residences — the houseboats moored on each side of the canal and then the gabled homes on the streets.
Our tour concluded and we stepped off the boat. As we walked over a bridge, another boat passed by underneath with a somewhat more refined approach to touring the city’s canals. We turned, however, to find lunch on firmer ground in an outdoor square. (Photo credit: waiter from The American Hotel).
As you can tell from our sunglasses and the sky that day (below), the sun was definitely OUT. That was somewhat remarkable given that the weather for the prior 5 weeks in the Netherlands had been absolutely crummy, and the forecast for our trip just a couple weeks previous had called for a steady diet of clouds and drizzle. But then, enter Julie.
There were two women that senior year at Michigan who were dear friends and ex-officio members of our house — Julie and Suzie. Julie had the awesome responsibility for ensuring excellent weather for all Michigan home football games. So naturally, when our itinerary was set, we wrote Julie and tasked her with handling the weather during our week-long tour. Thus far, Jules was on the j-o-b!
Apropos of the advertisements above, our destination after lunch was the Heineken Experience Museum — a museum dedicated to telling the story of Amsterdam’s most famous home brew. As we entered the building, I was struck by their statement of welcome which filled the opposing wall.
For Steve and I, this was our second visit to the museum. Back in our London college days, we made a weekend visit to Amsterdam to take in the sights, including the brewery (at 9:00 a.m., no less!). To be sure, exhibits have been substantially updated into a complete multi-media experience as you are taken “inside” the brewing process.
The original, huge copper tanks used in the beer-making process are still in place. And Rich and I took a hand at the old craft of stirring up the hops. (Photo credit: Steve)
Of course a taste test was in order at the close of the tour. And then we checked out the gift shop. I opted not to go with the new Heineken fashion look (yes, a good decision!), and was struck by how Heineken packaged some of its beer to celebrate two Dutch art masters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Budweiser adorned with a painting by Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keefe or Andrew Wyeth!
(Photo credit left: Steve)
But it was ironic to see those bottles sporting paintings by Rembrandt and Van Gogh, as that was a preview of our main activities on Day 2 in Amsterdam. There are dozens of museums to choose from in Amsterdam, but two are essential — the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum — the national museum of the Netherlands.
So on Thursday morning, Day 2, we caught a tram over toward the Van Gogh museum where we had tickets to enter the museum between 9:15 – 9:45. Having picked up our audio guides and head sets (the Van Gogh Museum’s audio guide is superb), we entered one of the most extraordinary museum collections in Europe.
You can’t take any photos inside the museum proper, so here we are in the gift shop next to a reproduction of Van Gogh’s famous sunflowers painting — an astonishing study in all shades of yellow. I had been struck to learn that Van Gogh actively explored going into the ministry for a period of time before turning back to his wondrous, tormented pursuit of painting. That added a bit more meaning to these two paintings below, which I purchased as postcards and now use as bookmarks in my Bible.
Still Life with Bible, 1884
Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church of Nuenen, 1885
This last print, taken from the text I picked up, “Masterpieces in the Van Gogh Museum,” shows Van Gogh’s brilliant use of color and emphatic brushstrokes. I love the force and range of his expression and how he interpreted the world before him. That it came amidst such great personal struggle ending in his early death saddens me. But he remains my favorite Dutch painter.
Two hours after entering the Van Gogh, we emerged into the sun-drenched square of the Museumplein — a large rectangular space bordered by museums and, to the south, the Concert Hall, which Rich grabs a shot of.
We were due at the Rijksmuseum at 3:15 for a small group tour. So in between, we hopped on the tram for Dam Square to visit the Nieuwe Kerk (“new church”) and find a spot for lunch. The first structure of the Nieuwe Kerk was completed in 1408, but burned to the ground in 1645. You see the 17th century replacement at the end of the street above. (Even though its original structure dates back more than 600 years, it was labeled as the “new” church in relation to Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk (“old church”) which was founded in 1213. )
We ducked inside the Nieuwe Kerk which is a magnificent space. Today it is the site for special services and organ recitals, but serves mostly as a special exhibit space.
The grand pulpit features the typical overhanging cover which, as the medieval precursor to the modern sound system, helped project the speaker’s voice into the cavernous church.
The organ which dates from 1655.
The midday sun was streaming through the windows, dancing off the brass chandeliers and playing across the tombstone-cobbled floors. The scene reminds me of paintings of other Dutch painters showing people from centuries ago milling about in these airy spaces.
We stepped back out into the sunshine and made our way to a nearby cafe which extends its seating on nice days by placing tables across a bordering canal bridge.
We ordered the special Grolsch zommer beer along with lunch.
With a good night sleep and any jet lag behind Rich and Steve, we were settling into our week-long trip and beginning to unwind. Julie, as you can see, was outdoing herself with the weather.
After lunch, we took a tram back to the Museumplein and got ready for our tour at the Rijksmuseum. We were looking forward to the special Rembrandt exhibition which was commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Dutch master’s birth.
We joined a group of about 10 for our private tour through the special Rembrandt exhibition. Here’s our guide above.
The opening room of the exhibit had these two self-portraits by Rembrandt hung on opposite walls. I was fascinated by our guide’s commentary who said, “What is the one thing that a portrait usually highlights? The face, of course, and even more specifically, the eyes. But look at how the young Rembrandt in this first portrait cloaked his own eyes in shadow. What an unusual choice! What does that say about his view of himself as an artist at that early stage of life?”
Above, our guide walks us through Rembrandt’s “Painting of a Young Woman” (1639). He was animated as he described the technique Rembrandt used with his oils to paint such intricate details as lace and strands of hair amidst a darkened backdrop.
As Rembrandt aged, he became bolder in his use of color. Many of his paintings, such as “Isaac and Rebekah” (1665) have a sparkling, gold-tinged quality.
And of course we needed to see Rembrandt’s largest and most famous painting, popularly (and erroneously) referred to as “The Nightwatch” (1642). The actual title of this painting is the far less catchy “Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq.” (Rembrandt needed a copy editor!) Because the canvas had darkened significantly in its early years, people came to assume that what was originally painted as a day-time scene was instead a scene set at night, hence today’s common moniker. Only after a restoration removed layers of buildup on the painting was the original day-time setting recognized. The Rijksmuseum is now undertaking a new “live” restoration of the painting with the restoration team working inside a glass enclosure while patrons continue to visit the gallery space and observe their progress. You can livestream the restoration yourself at: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/nightwatch
After our Rijksmuseum visit, Steve took a leisurely stroll and Rich and I found a square where we could unwind for borrel — Dutch for happy hour. (Photo credit below: our waiter) We enjoyed some shrimp-flavored bitterballen and then Steve joined us.
Refreshed after our borrel, it was time for dinner. In what would become a pattern for our trip, the staff at our hotel recommended some great places to eat off the main tourist circuit. So we set off for the De Pijp district of Amsterdam, via tram and then Amsterdam’s still new metro system.
Heading down into the metro system, we saw yet another Rembrandt portrait, this time constructed from a map of the city’s different metro lines! After 350 years, the Dutch master is EVERYWHERE!
We got off in the De Pijp district and found our way (eventually!) to a funky neighborhood and a restaurant called Flinck. They claim that they serve the best barbecue in the city, so we all decided to give it a try.
Being most recently a Kansas City-area resident in the States, I’m a self-acknowledged BBQ snob. But I will say that these ribs were pretty fabulous!
It was about 11 p.m. as we made our way back to our hotel. The Prinsengracht shimmered in the lamplight. The next day we had 9:15 a.m. reservations on the Thalys fast train to Belgium, so it was time to pack it in for the evening.
Day 3. We took the tram to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station to board our Thalys train to Belgium.
We’d go through Rotterdam and Antwerp on our way to Brussels, where we’d connect to a regular train to the city of Bruges.
The Thalys ride was smooth and we easily made our connection to Bruges. Along that leg, Steve pulled up the weather forecast on his phone. The outlook: nothing but sun! We needed to think about picking up something for Julie on the trip.
We reached Bruges by midday and walked from the station to our hotel. I have had a number of experiences of the actual setting of a hotel being less appealing in person compared to what it looked like on-line. Not here. The view out our hotel room window was just as stunning as the website promised.
A ‘panorama’ shot from our room.
After getting settled in our rooms, we walked down a gable-lined street to find a place for lunch.
As we walked along, we saw the famous Bruges belfry and banners strung across the street depicting various religious festivals.
The ‘Procession of Blood’ is a procession through town that dates back to at least 1303 to mark the ascension of Christ. The 2019 procession would be held a week after we left. The imagery of the procession notwithstanding, it was time for lunch!
On a tip from our hotel staff, we stepped off the main streets and wound our way into a small square where we found a delightful cafe with outside seating. This was now our M.O. — find a quaint square free from the hubbub of traffic and commotion to enjoy the local fare, explore a new beer or wine, and unwind yet one notch further.
(Photo credit above: Our waiter!)
Steve and I, at the urging of our waiter (“you shouldn’t order ANYTHING else”), decided on the Belgian stew while Rich went with the fish of the day. And of course there were frites. It all was great.
Over our meal, we picked up the running conversation that we had started in Amsterdam about our families (parents, spouses, children, siblings), shared friends, careers (including our plans after the Netherlands), the upcoming Michigan football season and all things U of M, the state of U.S. politics, and other concerns of the world. Nothing was off-limits, nothing was concluded, the conversational threads remained untied, available to be picked back up at any time. Such was this luxury of time and travel as we reveled in the sights and these unhurried days together.
Fortified by lunch, we walked out of our tree shaded oasis into the main square of Bruges.
I loved the majestic architecture — and not a cloud in the sky!
The famous Bruges belfry, which dates from 1240!
Making our way through the square, we had to be careful not to be overrun by a pack of Segway Tourists!
Of course Bruges is famous not only for its architecture, but also lace and the beautiful canals. (Photo credit above: a tourist from Michigan or was it Ohio?)
On some canals, grand houses with patios and gardens line the water’s edge.
We made our way to one of the boat tour launch sites and hopped on.
(Photo credit: Steve)
In the warmth of the afternoon, people perched on the stone walls of canal bridges as though they were sofas.
As we continued on the boat tour, we would find that some bridges were lower than others! If you wish, step into the boat with us for a minute to experience the ride!
After our cruise, we wound our way back through town and stopped in the Church of our Lady which was first established in the 13th century. It would be the first of three “Notre Dame” stops on our trip. This Notre Dame is said to the be the second tallest brick structure in the world.
The inside is stunning.
I was amused as we went to exit the church by the scene above where she took hold of his camera to snap a pic!
We walked back to the hotel and then Steve and I set out to pick up our rental car for tomorrow’s journey. We had cut it a bit close time-wise before the Europcar location would close. With no cabs in sight, we thought, why don’t we just jog it?
Well, for (1), it was still about 90 degrees; (2), I’m not sure I believed Mapquest when it said it should only take 20 minutes to walk there (I’m convinced Mapquest bases all of its walking time estimates on peak-conditioned olympic speedwalkers); and (3), when was the last time either of us did any running?
But that was all just in my head. So off we went.
We reached the Europcar office with just five minutes to spare and drenched in sweat. We completed the registration process and drove off in a nice Mercedes touring van, with the AC cranked at full blast.
Here is a shot of our wheels for the next three days.
Driving around Bruges proved a challenge between navigating the medieval street grid, the plethora of one-way streets, cyclists and the parking garage that was playing hide-and-seek with us. We finally got the car stowed away in the garage, took much needed showers, and then turned toward evening.
I asked the hotel staff at the front desk for a restaurant recommendation. He looked at me like I was crazy. “This is a Friday night. In Bruges!! You won’t be able to get in anywhere without a reservation!” Then he said to hold on — he knew of a place. He rang up. Yes, I know it’s late. Yes, I know it’s a Friday night. But I have these three tourists. At least that’s what I guessed he was saying in Flemish. After he hung up, he turned to me and said that his favorite Italian place had been able to squeeze us in between their 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. seatings. We had an hour before the reservation, so we went off in search of another one of our squares where we could sample another legendary Belgian beer.
We found our square!
A perfect table opened up which gave us the benefit of the early evening sun. We were surrounded by other locals and tourists as I heard (at least) Dutch, German, French, English and I presume Flemish. All those seated in groups around tables or on outdoor couches were taking in this quintessential European experience of enjoying drinks and conversation in a beautiful open air setting, with no sense of needing to be or go anywhere else. Our waiter, who was the spitting image of screen star Jean Claude van Damme (was it Jean Claude??) brought us a round of superb Belgian beer.
We left Jean Claude and headed off towards our restaurant. By now, the soft early evening sun was causing the bright colored facades to pop against that azure sky.
We paused by a canal as we waited for our table to open up. (Photo credit: Steve) Osteria 45 was a very small Italian restaurant — maybe 12 tables. We were seated at one of the two next to the window.
The antipasti came out, then a main course.
It was fabulous. After dinner, we walked back through town to our hotel. Day 3 had been a treat — and we were all looking forward to tomorrow and our drive down the French coast, with our car that was snuggly tucked in at the parking garage.
Back at our hotel room, the evening light gradually faded as the spires of Notre Dame and the Church of our Savior lit up the night, their quarterly gongs announcing the transition from dusk into darkness, from Friday into Saturday.
Day 4 — France. We headed out Bruges early since we knew we had a 5+ hour drive to Caen along with some anticipated stops along the way.
Here’s the map of our route.
We planned to drive first to Dunkirk where we would get some breakfast and see that historic beach. After that, we would continue down the French coast and then veer a bit inland to go visit Rouen. I love visiting historic churches and cathedrals, but have never had the chance to see Notre Dame Cathedral in Rouen. I couldn’t wait. After Rouen, we would make our way via Honfleur to Caen where we would be staying for two nights.
I started the drive out of Bruges with Steve in the navigator seat and Rich in the back. There was a slight mist from the grey morning sky. We figured that Julie knew we were in the car for the morning so had relaxed her hold on the precipitation.
We came upon the highway exchange and Steve said, “Take this right exit. “Are you sure it’s not the next ramp?” I asked. “Nope, this is it” Steve said. But I knew better, so I kept going to the second exit. It was only as we were on that long arching exit ramp that was peeling off toward the north that I saw that I had taken the wrong turn.
This was an interesting moment in the trip. We would be driving together for the next three days and I had just blown off my navigator’s instructions, leading to a 10 minute detour, on a morning when we were aiming to get a good start. I told Steve I was sorry for having doubted and ignored his directions, but for Steve, it was no big deal. Zero rancor. A little grace. But then that was the way the whole week would go.
About an hour later, we pulled into Dunkirk and parked by the harbor. The nature of our trip was about to change.
But the first order of business was finding a bakery, or boulangerie, to find breakfast. I asked a woman passing by if she could direct us. “Vous venez de quel pays?” she inquired. (What country are you from?) I said that we were from the States and she exclaimed, “Vous êtes américains!!!” (You are American!) She then grasped me by the elbow and led me down the sidewalk, telling me about her four sons — the youngest isn’t married yet — as Steve and Rich followed behind. We stopped by her youngest son’s apartment building so she could put some envelopes through his mail slot, and then we continued on to her bakery. Standing outside the bakery’s picture window, we thanked her for her kindness and stepped inside. I was sorry later when I realized that I had forgotten to get a picture with her.
Our bakery in Dunkirk. You can smell those baguettes, can’t you?
There was a harder rain falling when we exited the bakery, so we stepped inside the church across the street where we found that a mass was underway for about 20 people sprinkled around the sanctuary. Stepping back outside, the rain had tapered a bit, so we started to walk back to our car. On our way, we passed this monument to both World Wars.
Back at the car, we drove to our main objective: the beaches of Dunkirk. They are WIDE beaches, these sands, where in an 8-day span in May/June 1941, 338,226 British (mainly), French and Belgian soldiers were evacuated by numerous allied naval vessels and a “citizen’s armada” that sailed from Britain. All told, some 800 ships and boats participated in the rescue. Steve took the photo of Rich and me along the beach. We all tried to imagine the scene on this beach 78 years ago.
Here’s a photo from those eight days in 1941. (Photo credit: bridgehead.ca)
Alongside the beach today is a strip of restaurants, hotels, apartment buildings, businesses, and a kid rollerblading — a scene that you would find in any typical seaside community. I wonder what the locals, who see this beach every day, think when they look out across its expanse. I would expect that daily routine would dull the remembrance. But as our travels in this part of the country would indicate, the signs of the war are everywhere. There would be no forgetting.
Steve in front of a modern pedestrian bridges that connects the beaches to Dunkirk’s harbor.
These WW II markers dot the walkways, telling some of the story from 79 years ago.
And a poppy, the symbol of remembrance for the first World War, had sprouted up along the walkway.
As we drove away from the beach area, we came to the Dunkirk museum which commemorates the experiences from 1941.
A young girl runs around the front of the museum before the smoke-filled murals from those years past. A boy, her brother perhaps, chases her. It’s a scene that would play out multiple times in these next two days, where evidence of new life, carefree life, appears side-by-side with reminders of the horrors from war.
We would have gone inside the museum, but it was closed for renovations. It was just as well that we got on the road. We had a ways to go.
We reached Calais. Our original planned route would have us stay on the A16 to make a beeline for Boulogne-sur-Mer and then turn south to Rouen. But we decided to get off the A16 and take secondary roads all along the coast (new route below). It would be the best detour of the trip.
We followed the coastal road below Calais and first came to the seaside town of Sangatte.
A historical marker in the town center commemorates the first flight across the English Channel. The French drop the ‘English’ and refer to the channel simply as ‘la manche.’
We continued along the beach road through town and looked for a spot where we could stop and walk out to the beach.
We found our opening in the seawall and pulled over. We hiked through the dunes and came upon a gorgeous scene.
Horse and rider made their way down the beach. Rows of wood pilings marked the beach off in sections. A generous (seemingly new) walkway then ran between the rocks and dunes and we could see down the way some families with dogs taking a morning walk.
Steve brings ROCKY to France.
We went back through the dunes to the car and got back on the road.
At the edge of town, we passed a crucifix and then entered a stretch of country that could have been mistaken for Ireland for its lush greenery. We didn’t realize it at the time, but our next stop would be at that tall monument off to the right in the photo above.
Click on the video below to join Rich in the back seat for a kilometer as we move along the coast.
We passed a monument to French seafarers and continued our way toward that tall obelisk. There was a drive to turn into from the road and we realized that this was a park of sorts.
We parked the car and then joined other locals or tourists walking on paths up to the bluff where the monument was.
The obelisk was a monument to French sailors in the early 1900s.
Once we reached up to the top of the hill, we could see the different bunkers and gun placements facing out to the channel that the Germans had installed in World War II.
Looking back to the north, we could see Sangatte and the way we had come.
Rich takes a moment to look straight out into the channel, to England.
There had been a fog hanging over the channel but as we watched this ferry ply its way through the water, we suddenly could make out the white cliffs of Dover that were 33 kilometers (20 miles) away. That expanse was all that stood between Hitler’s conquering armies in 1941 and the British Isles. It was sobering to think that German officers stood where we stood some 78 years ago — first with an eye toward conquering that island, and then later with an eye to detect the anticipated allied invasion.
To the south along the coast rose France’s own white cliffs. Many weekend hikers were out to take in that sea air and enjoy the beautiful day. Below, the rolling countryside unfolded toward Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Looking to the small village of L’Escale that was nestled in the small valley below.
We got back in the car and followed the bikers toward the small town to the south.
It was a gorgeous drive. If you would like, hop in the car for a 2 minute stretch through these curves, into L’Escale, and back out to the open country. To understand the banter in the car, Rich was raised and resides today in Clinton, Michigan — population 2,400 (approximately).
Road signs as we made our way south. If we went left, we could have headed for the Chunnel and London.
As we made our way along, we saw a number of small WW II museums.
Our country road then led us to the harbor city of Boulogne-sur-Mer.
From there, we hopped back on the A16 so we could make some speed to Rouen.
We arrived in Rouen and deposited the car in a garage (with minimal difficulty!). Then we made our way to the cathedral. As much as I’ve read about Rouen, as much as I’ve seen that series of paintings by Monet of its epic front facade, I still wasn’t prepared for the magnificence of the structure when we came face to face.
The front of Notre Dame Cathedral.
And the inside of the cathedral is as exquisite as its exterior.
When I enter a space like this, I just want to be quiet. The three of us took a minute to absorb the grandeur, the soaring, vaulted ceiling and arches. Then we drifted off at our own pace in our own directions to explore.
I was struck by the modern series of tapestries that were hanging, way up, in the nave.
Behind the altar was a banner with a reading from Isaiah 55:3 “Incline your ear and come to me; listen so that you may live.”
I walked to the very front of the church where this small chapel was situated. What I didn’t realize was that the most moving view for me of the entire cathedral lay behind me.
As I turned, I saw that I was behind the crucifix. Now in my Christian, Protestant tradition, the cross is always ’empty’ to reflect that Christ is risen. But seeing the cross from this vantage point, with the sacrificing Christ facing the vast sanctuary of the cathedral, took my breath away.
I walked back toward the middle of the nave where the cathedral’s middle tower rose. To the side, a stone staircase cascaded down the wall.
What was already a sublime visit was made only more so when suddenly I heard the rising voices of a choir that had assembled to rehearse for a coming concert. Hearing that choir gave me the further sense that I was not just visiting the cathedral of Notre Dame, but I was experiencing it. Give a listen.
When we stepped outside the cathedral, we were then greeted with a second unexpected concert as the bells in both towers started to ring. The sound, which reverberated off all the surrounding buildings in the square, was deafening. Dial up your volume if you want to hear the chimes that had to be heard far across the city.
With our pilgrimage to Notre Dame of Rouen complete, we grabbed a tasty lunch at a restaurant around the corner. Then we retrieved the car and headed on the final leg of our journey to Caen.
Our route took us over a couple cool bridges (I love big bridges!) on our way to the harbor town of Honfleur.
Honfleur is a charming place. The main street in town had been closed off to traffic and the restaurants had filled the space with tables.
We turned off on this road to head out of town. Each French town of any size seems to have its own “Champs Élysées”-style boulevard with perfectly groomed trees. We drove through the Hofleur Champs and continued on to Caen.
We found our hotel in Caen and squeezed the car into an underground garage across the street. After unloading our things, we set out for “our square” after a conversation with the front desk.
Caen had been heavily bombed in the war, but it still has its striking pieces of architecture — including Église Saint-Pierre, which evidently had had its tower cleaned somewhat recently.
Directly across from the church rises the Chateau de Caen — the castle of Caen — which was built in 1060 by William the Conqueror.
We walked on en route to our square.
Along the way, we saw (and passed by) this restaurant on the main street. And then we found our square.
We chose one of the restaurants and settled at a table for dinner.
As can often be the case in France, our dinner was as much a visual as a tasting experience!
My fish dinner had, shall we say, an intriguing presentation. The fish itself was delicious, but I had no earthly idea what the foam on the fish was — unless the chef was aiming for some sort of authentic surf effect on the plate.
Dessert was unreservedly beautiful and delicious. We lingered over the wine and desserts and talked about the range of sites we encountered that day — from Dunkirk, to our coastline drive below Calais, to the stop in Rouen, and now Caen.
On our walk back to the hotel, we stopped at the castle and walked up on the ramparts that, as it turns out, serve as a part of a city park. The pink evening sky was reflected in the clouds and steeple of Église Saint-Pierre. Turning around to face the setting sun and the Atlantic coastline, we saw a solitary French flag flying in the stiff wind.
As I left the castle and walked on toward the hotel with these two friends of mine, I realized that the first four days of our trip had been a prelude. Prelude to tomorrow, Day 5, when we would awake and set out for those beaches of Normandy that 75 years before were forever transformed into witnesses of sacrifice and devotion.