Part II: Normandy, D-Day and the City of Light
(Photographs & videos by Pat Jackson unless otherwise credited)
It was Day 5 of this journey with Rich and Steve — two college housemates from our days at the University of Michigan. We had previously traveled from Amsterdam to Bruges; down to Dunkirk and along the French coast to Rouen; and then last night, we arrived in Caen.
We woke up that Sunday morning to the slate rooftops and skies of Normandy. Our morning routine on the trip — at least the section in France — was to make a boulangerie (bakery) run. It was a croissant and coffee for Steve; croissant, OJ and water for Rich; and then a coffee and croissant for me + anything else that looked particularly interesting.
I walked over to Paul’s patisserie which was just a few blocks from our hotel. Outside, it looked like any French pastry shop.
Inside was pretty fabulous!
Breakfast provisions in hand, I met Steve and Rich who had pulled the car out of the garage. Off we went through the streets of Caen with Steve at the wheel, me in the navigator’s seat, and Rich in the back.
We made our way past L’Abbey-aux-Hommes on our way through town.
The previous night, after we got back to the hotel after dinner, Rich and I stayed up to finalize our route. This was our one full day in Normandy and we wanted to visit sites across the five landing beaches of D-Day, so we needed to be organized. You could easily spend 2-3 days or an entire week on such a tour.
What you didn’t know yet was that Rich was our resident World War II historian and his grandfather served in the war. Rich’s grandfather didn’t take part in the D-Day landings, but he came through Utah Beach later that June of 1944 and would go on to serve at that Battle of the Bulge. For Rich, retracing some of his grandfather’s possible steps would be a meaningful part of the day.
One further note. In case you’re wondering as you look at the map, we dubbed this the “711 D-Day Tour” because our house number that senior year in Ann Arbor was 711. Since graduation in 1985, all of our reunion activities have been tagged with that label.
I used the map found in the online version of this helpful guide (which I recommend) to create our own map for the day.
Above on the highlighted coastline you see (going left to right) the five D-Day landings sites and operations: Utah (American), Omaha (American), Gold (British) — and in the inset to the right — Juno (Canadian) and Sword (British). Allies from a host of other nations including France and the Netherlands also participated in the landing at Sword. As you see, we planned 8 stops (Stop #2 on the map actually involved two separate locations.) From one end of the D-Day coastline to the other (Utah to Sword) was 103 kilometers. It was going to be a full day.
Our first leg would be from Caen up to La Pointe du Hoc. (For all you route planners, we didn’t start at the far left at Utah and work right because the museum at Utah Beach wasn’t opening until later that morning.)
We hopped on the highway to make our way from Caen, around Bayeux and toward La Pointe du Hoc. Steve started the wipers as the rain began to fall. “Well,” I said, “this is Julie’s first miss with the weather. But hey, you can’t argue with 4 out of 5 days.”
As we drew closer to Pointe du Hoc, we exited the highway and continued toward the coast on back roads.
Clouds, mist and rain rolled across the farmland.
As we went though one small town, we saw a house flying both French and American flags. It would be a common scene that day.
We continued down these country lanes lined by the hedgerows that proved so nerve-racking and treacherous for the advancing allied forces. While pretty to look at on our drive, they provided ready cover and ambush sites for the German troops lying in wait.
We arrived at La Pointe du Hoc and Steve pulled into the largely empty parking lot, the loose gravel giving way as he steered into a space. Two American flags stood at attention, the flags snapping in the wind.
As you walk toward the point, you come to this metal panoramic display that shows maps of the D-Day operations and recounts some of the history of what happened 75 years ago at this place.
A closer shot of the coast with the five landing sites, with our route that morning from Caen to Pointe du Hoc.
We began to make our way out on this promontory which looks much as it did in 1944. As we walked along, huge craters, each of which could hold a half-dozen mini-vans, pock-marked the landscape. They were scars from the aerial and naval bombardment in the days and pre-dawn hours before the landings on June 6, 1944.
Looking toward the point and a monument to the Rangers that was built by the French. Below is an aerial view of the site (source: American Battle Monuments Commission). The French transferred this memorial site to American control in 1979.
We followed one of the paths to where the cliffs dropped down 100 feet to the beaches below. From there, we could see the place where early on that day the Rangers were tasked to scale the rock face and destroy the large guns that were believed to be positioned at the top and threatening the landings at Utah and Omaha.
Rich and Steve at one of the gun emplacement sites. As it turned out, the Germans had moved the five large guns a short distance away to protect them from allied bombardments. The gun placements were empty when the Rangers, under fire, scaled the cliffs and reached their targets. They went on, however, to locate the five guns a short distance away and took them out of action.
As we made our way to the point where the Ranger memorial is located, we came upon a group of teenage ‘Land, Sea and Air’ army cadets from the U.K. As we would learn, they were here to take part in the 75th anniversary D-Day commemorations that would take place in a week.
It was striking to me to see all these young cadets, teenage boys and girls, coming to see what other teenagers and young men, on both sides of the war, were called upon to do a few generations ago.
When the cadets moved out, we had the point nearly to ourselves.
Rich and Steve at the Ranger monument, which sits atop German bunker #13.
The same inscription appears on the other side of the monument in French.
We walked around to the right of the monument and then you see the concrete facade of bunker #13 which commanded the view of the coast.
We stepped down into the bunker . . .
. . . and saw these memorial plaques to the Rangers who lost their lives in the Pointe du Hoc assault and the nearby Omaha Beach landing. Most of the original 225 Rangers survived the scaling of the cliffs and taking of the point, in part because of the ongoing allied naval bombardment. But then the Rangers needed to hold the Pointe after the German units mounted repeated counter attacks. As the plaque below commemorates, of the 225 Rangers involved in the initial operations, only 90 were able to stand when reinforcements came on June 8th.
We walked into the foremost part of the bunker #13 — the part that peered out over the point and from which a German machine gun unit sought to fend off the Rangers. Standing there was eerie.
The view west, toward Utah Beach.
Steve took this photo of Rich and me at another of the emplacement sites for the large guns.
As I looked out past the monument, the Atlantic was both shimmering in the sun and streaked with dark hues from the clouds.
Another visitor of the site took this photo of us before we headed out.
The path back to the parking lot was lined by these plaques which memorialized the acts and sacrifices from that day.
An aerial shot from the bombardment of Pointe du Hoc before D-Day.
One soldier’s story.
A note about the impact of the D-Day landings on the local French population.
Amidst a light drizzle that had started to fall, we headed back to the car. As would happen throughout this day, there were times for solitary walks and a minimum of conversation as we tried to absorb what we had seen.
Back in the car, we headed off to our next stop. As we made our way across the countryside, a line of black sky and grey clouds ran parallel to the coast. It was at that point that I realized that the weather — to the degree that it mattered at all that day — was just what was called for. Throughout the day, there would be strong winds, intermittent showers, bouts of sunshine chased away by ominous clouds and a gray sky.
Our next destination was to a special church — Sainte Mère Église.
As we drove along the coast, we passed other German bunkers and this pillbox, relics of a war that seems omnipresent in this section of France.
The lamp poles along the road held photos of servicemen.
We passed through the town of Grandcamp-Maisy and saw the Statue for World Peace that was created by the Chinese artist Yao Yuan and donated to the town on the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
We drove a short of stretch of highway and then saw our exit for the Church.
We arrived at the church. It took me a few seconds to spot the monument.
And then you see him. John Steele was with the U.S. 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment which around 1:40 a.m. on D-Day parachuted into the town of Ste Mère Église. Steele landed on top of the church steeple, his parachute snagged by one of the parapets of the tower. Dangling in plain sight for hours, he pretended he was dead until German soldiers cut him down and took him prisoner. He later escaped and rejoined his unit. Rich recalled that Steele lost his hearing in one ear as the church bells were ringing to alert the village to numerous fires that needed to be extinguished.
After walking around the exterior of the church, we stepped inside. After the immensity and magnificence of Rouen, this beautiful country church, with ceiling vaults that seemed to cradle you, felt intimate.
Around the church were signs of an active local congregation. Care for the environment and peace were among their concerns.
On this wall, people had written their own prayers for peace.
I added a thank you in their guest book for their work for peace and for remembering the U.S. soldiers from D-Day.
Back outside, we walked past a garden filled with poppies on the way to the car.
Our next stop was Utah Beach — one of the two U.S. landing zones on D-Day.
We took the highway for a short stretch and exited at the sign for the museum at Utah Beach.
Riding along a country road toward the coast, we came upon this monument to Major Richard Winters and other junior officers who served on D-Day. The monument reflects the ongoing partnership between U.S. organizations and the citizens of local French towns.
Then we arrived at Utah Beach. It’s a wide expanse.
This is the beach where Rich believes his grandfather may have come ashore following the initial landings of D-Day. Rich shared the following reflection:
When you walk the path from the beach toward the museum, you come by this “Higgins Boat” and statues of men advancing forward.
It’s quite a perspective, standing in the landing craft — and imagining what it was like at the moment when the front steel section was dropped into the surf and voices shouted “Go! Go! Go!”
Next to the Higgins Boat statue is the U.S. Navy Normandy Monument, which pays tribute to the role of sailors and naval vessels in the D-Day operations.
Steve, taking a photo of the Utah Beach memorial. The museum is to the left.
Inside, the museum was filled with an array of memorabilia, historic displays, and other installations that depicted the action at Utah Beach. We watched the short film “Victory Beach” and then made our way around the museum.
On D-Day, the Americans at Utah Beach actually landed 2 kilometers away from their intended landing site. Commanding officer U.S. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (son of former President Theodore Roosevelt), upon realizing the error, made his famous declaration (above).
A view of the assault on Utah Beach that morning of June 6, 1944.
One of the aircraft involved in the bombing operations.
Another visitor took this photo of us before we left.
From Utah Beach, we drove the short distance into the town of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. (This is the same town that helped sponsor the monument to Major Winters.)
We parked in town and made our way to a cafe to get some sandwiches to go.
In town, another home bedecked with the Stars and Stripes.
Sandwiches procured, we made our way to our next stop — the German Cemetery at La Cambe (not Omaha as my label on the map above states).
We passed this church and small village along the way.
And then we arrived at the German cemetery. The metal sign on the wall, with its dark hue, sets the tone.
At the entrance.
The grounds of the cemetery contain graves for 21,200 German soldiers from the broader Normandy campaign. The cemetery is maintained by the voluntary German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge) which was first established in 1919 when the German government was unable to handle the task of managing military cemeteries.
What strikes you immediately are the rough, dark, crosses that spring up in groups of five across the cemetery. Like the sign on the wall, they have a dark, seemingly reddish tint. As if blood red.
The tombstones, instead of being raised up, lay flat on the ground — two men per marker. As we looked at these graves, we saw how young many of the soldiers were. From the dating on the graves (which follow the European form of Date-Month-Year), we saw that Kurt Swoboda was 18 and Hermann Kappner was 17. They were on the wrong side of an evil war, but in many cases, the German combatants were still teenage boys.
The road leading away from the German cemetery seemed to continue the morose atmosphere from inside.
From the German cemetery, we set out for the American cemetery at Omaha Beach. This, I think we knew, was the center of our tour that day, and the center of the entire trip.
A roadside sign indicated our turnoff for the cemetery.
We parked and made our way toward the grounds.
Along the way, we saw numerous large event tents being set up for next week’s 75th anniversary commemoration.
We reached a main lookout where you could see the beach, and the calm, gently rolling ocean, echoing the colors of the sky.
We walked a bit further and came to the cemetery proper, the final home for 9,380 American soldiers. You get a lump in the throat staring out across these grave markers, with the gray waters and sky behind them, reminding you of how these men had come to these shores, and died seeking to free the land that now held them.
Rows upon rows upon rows of crosses and stars of David, set upon that pristine green lawn, silence any conversation.
According to the U.S. National D-Day Memorial Foundation, 4,414 allied soldiers were killed on D-Day, including 2,501 Americans. Another 6,600 allied soldiers were wounded. The deadliest action occurred at Omaha Beach. Estimates of German casaulties that day range from 4,000 – 9,000 killed, wounded or missing.
The battle of Normandy would rage for three months and claim approximately 225,000 allied casualties, including 20,660 Americans killed and 100,000 Americans wounded or missing. Some of the fallen from that ongoing Normandy campaign (as well as before it) have been laid to rest at the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach.
The brief video clip below will allow you to step onto those cemetery grounds yourself. The video captures just a portion of the cemetery.
Given that our trip was a Michigan reunion, we looked for some grave sites of soldiers who hailed from the state.
As during my visit in March to the Netherlands American Cemetery, I was struck at the geographic cross-section of those who have found their final resting place on this bluff in France. Young men from Michigan were laid to rest next to those from Florida and New Mexico and Vermont and Texas.
As we walked around the perimeter of the cemetery, I came back to the edge of the bluff with a clear view down to Omaha Beach. With my zoom lens, I could see that there, on this cool day, ordinary life went on. Two people were on an afternoon stroll with their three dogs. That scene, normal anywhere else, seemed at that moment incomprehensible to me there. I couldn’t help thinking, “How could you go for a relaxing walk with your dogs on that beach? How do you toss a ball for your dog to retrieve in that surf?”
But then of course, life of goes on.
We turned and saw the stage area that was being constructed from where President Trump and French President Macron would speak in a week’s time.
Laborers were putting the stands together.
A whole series of floral bouquets were lined up — ready to be put in place when the stage was set. The bouquets came from Le President de la Region Normandie, the U.S. Embassy in Paris, the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as from various French cities and towns around Normandy.
Amidst all the red, white and blue bouquets, this arrangement, in the colors of the German Federal Republic, caught my eye. It was given by the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge — the German War Graves Commission.
As we approached the center of the Omaha Cemetery memorial, we ran into the cadets from the U.K., standing at attention as one of the leaders gave instructions. We continued to be impressed by how these young cadets conducted themselves.
Walking further, we came to the formal memorial that looks out over the different quadrants of the cemetery lawn. On the sides of the memorial were these huge maps which showed the flow of the D-Day operations (above) and the overall European campaign (below).
I was particularly interested in the section of the map which showed the liberation of the Netherlands by Canadian forces.
Then in the center of the memorial is this bronze statue titled “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.” Just beyond the statue, on a circular wall, are the names of 1,557 soldiers who were missing in action.
Around the base of the statue are words from the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Having completed our visit to the cemetery, we walked along with the cadets back toward the car park, leaving behind those brave soldiers, resting in formation, at their eternal posts.
But we weren’t quite finished in this place. We wanted to go down to the beach, their beach.
A side road swings you around the bluffs to the east, and then the ocean appears over the rise of a hill.
This is the place where you lose any control to your imagination, or, if you’re one of those fleeting veterans from 75 years ago, your memory.
Those grainy black and white photographs filled my mind of the troops who came in on those Higgins boats and waded toward this beach. I couldn’t help but imagine the fear, the chaos, the adrenaline, the determination.
Those who made it to the beach faced these bluffs, cloaked in early morning mist and smoke. Its a wide beach. I have to think it felt miles wide that morning as the soldiers looked desperately to the cover of those dunes.
The beach has always been a special place to me. The joke with my wife is that when we make a road trip to the beach, whether we had traveled from Baltimore or Kansas, no matter how late in the day when we arrive, I just need to get in. I just had to feel the water. I felt that impulse powerfully this day. I just needed to touch the surf, 75 years removed.
Steve offered these thoughts about making it to this beach:
And so here we stood, Steve, Rich and I. This Ode to Friendship, I knew from the start, was going to be written from two vantage points. First from ours — this reunion, this celebration, this rekindling of camaraderie first begun 35+ years ago in undergraduate years. And then with those men in mind from 75 years ago. For those who forged friendships in boot camp, or in England as they waited for the inevitable invasion across the channel. Or maybe they were already friends when they first signed up back in Michigan or Texas or New York or Georgia.
As friends, they boarded those landing craft in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944. As friends, they huddled in the landing craft as they made that turbulent channel crossing; as friends they pushed into the surf together; as friends they stormed these beaches together; as friends, some were wounded together; as friends, some died together.
Imagination grabbing hold again, we wondered what our fates would have been if the five of us who lived together that senior year at Michigan (with Chuck and Bob) had entered that war together as friends. It seems fanciful to think that all five of us would have survived that conflict. In our middle aged years, would we be four? Or three? Or . . . ?
And so this Ode to Friendship, while begun as a thanksgiving for the friendships that Rich, Steve, Bob, Chuck and I share, is dedicated to the friendships of those who out of devotion and love sacrificed all.
Walking back to the car, we came upon yet another of those scenes where normal life sprouts amidst the memorials of those who fought and perished. For her, at the fresh age of perhaps 4 or 5, this is just a beach like any other. For him, he knows the story of these sands and dunes on this gray, blustery day. And into the stiff wind that years ago bore the smell of explosives and the sounds of gun fire, yells and prayers — today, he flies a kite.
Steve drove gingerly out of the parking lot lest he bottom out the car on the gravel and sand road that led away from the beach. We went through a small town on our way to our next stop.
The hour was a little after 5:00 p.m. We decided to skip a visit at the Germang gun battery (#5 on the map) because we wanted to get to Gold Beach in Arromanches to see the highly recommended film “100 Days of Normandy.” We thought the film, which was shown in a theatre-in-the-round, would be a good way to cap our tour, We couldn’t tell by the website, however, whether the last showing of the film was at 5:30 or 6:00 p.m., so we needed to hustle.
Along the way, we encountered a series of different vehicles. First, there was this motorcycle convoy. Would that be a faster mode of transport to Arromanches?
Then there was the Triumph — perhaps the sweetest ride that we saw during the entire trip. But could the three of us fit??
And then last, alas, was this lumbering tour bus that evidently was also going to Arromanches.
We followed the bus into the town, which during the D-Day operations (given this was one of the two British landing zones) was dubbed “Port Winston Churchill.”
Unfortunately, we couldn’t shake the bus which crawled through the TIGHT streets of Arromanches as the clock ticked 5:25 . . . 5:26 . . . 5:27 . . . 5:28 . . . It looked like we might not make the film if the last showing was 5:30.
After missing a turn, we at last got on track and found our way to the Museum. It was 5:45. But as happened throughout this trip, we were in luck. There was a showing at 6:00 p.m. We bought our tickets and waited for the film to begin. And then we realized that we wouldn’t be alone. Instead, we were joined by our friends for the day . . .
. . . the cadets from the U.K.!
We entered the 360 degree theatre. The lights went down and the film began.
The opening scenes showed the geography of the conflict.
The map above shows well the five targeted landing sites and then the array of allied nations involved.
The opening minutes contained the few words of the film. Churchill. Roosevelt. Eisenhower.
The remaining 20 minutes were a rolling series of images from the various stages of the D-Day operations as well as the broader Normandy campaign which led to the liberation of Paris. Instead of words, we heard the drone of aircraft, the thundering of naval artillery and the sound of the sea.
And then at the close, the film — cloaked in black and white through all the wartime footage — erupted in bright color as beautiful, present-day scenes of Normandy unfolded all around us on the screens. Absent any dialogue, it was a silent thanksgiving for those who fought to liberate Europe and an homage to peace.
We exited the theatre . . .
. . . and then stepped out onto the lawn that oversees the town and beaches of Arromanches.
Steve looks out across the harbor. Those sunken blocks in the background are another part of the remarkable logistical story of the D-Day invasion. Because the Germans had heavily fortified (and then sabotaged) the main French ports such as Cherbourg, the allies built pre-fabricated harbors, called “Mulberries,” in England. Once the beachheads were secured from D-Day, the Mulberries were towed across the channel and installed at Omaha (Mulberry A) and Gold (Mulberry B).
The above photograph (C 4626 from the Imperial War Museums collection) shows Mulberry B port at Arromanches in full use. Mulberry A at Omaha was damaged beyond repair by storms on June 19th and abandoned, but Mulberry B continued in use for 10 months. Over that time (according to Wikipedia) Mulberry B was the entry point for 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supply to fuel the allied campaign.
Some of the cadets gather in front of one of the Mulberry sections and a monument for a picture.
They also were setting up for a special ceremony — a service of sorts — to mark their visit and salute those who came ashore here. In the British tradition, the “altar” is created by draping some flags over drums.
One of the cadets to snapped a photo of us.
From there, we drove down into the town of Arromanches and parked. We walked over toward the beach and could see some of the Mulberry sections that the town of Arromanches elects to leave where they are.
We then looked about for a place for dinner. As we did so, I spied these two ladies with their herd of cocker spaniels or other breeds.
We settled on this restaurant that looked out onto the harbor.
After this full day (and we weren’t quite finished yet), we welcomed the opportunity to sit down for a dinner and a round a beer. As you might imagine, we made several toasts as we thought over our path that day. La Pointe du Hoc, Ste Mère Église, Utah Beach, La Cambe, Omaha Beach. And now Gold. While you can read about the D-Day operations, there’s a powerful, cumulative effect to traveling to the different sites and seeing them with your own eyes. I think it was going to take each of us some time to process it all.
After dinner, we walked through the streets of Arromanches and wound our way back to the car.
Our final objective was to just drive along the coast to see the beaches of Juno (Canadian) and Sword (British + other allies).
The light was starting to dim as we pulled into the parking lot for the Juno Beach museum. The Canadian and French flags stood side by side.
The Juno Beach museum. It had closed hours ago.
A statue on the grounds.
We continued our way toward Sword along the coast.
Some monuments on top of the sea wall.
At the end of the Sword landing area, we came upon this museum of the Atlantic Wall.
It was around 10 p.m. as we reached the end of the coast at Sword, the end of our day’s tour. We got out to stretch our legs for a few minutes at the beach and then got back in the car. We were pretty spent.
Steve turned the car toward Caen and we made the trip back to the hotel.
final chapter — the city of light
We awoke on Monday, Day 6, to a morning bathed in sunshine. It was a new day, but I think our minds were still walking along the cliffs of Point du Hoc, the beaches of Utah and Omaha, around the grave sites at La Cambe and Omaha, and in that 360 degree theatre in Arromanches with all the cadets.
But at least physically, if not mentally, we were going to leave Normandy this morning and head to the City of Light, Paris, for the last two days of the trip. We originally were going to turn the rental car in at the Europcar location in Caen and take a train to Paris, but then we found that there was a big savings if we returned the car in Paris — so that was the plan.
I made the bakery run at Paul’s, got the regular provisions, and then we made our way through the streets of Caen toward the highway.
Caen’s version of the Champs Elysées.
Before getting on the A13 to Paris, we stopped to fill up the gas tank.
Steve painstakingly cleaned the windshield to ensure that I had a smudge-free view for photographs on the way to Paris.
Rich consulted with his broker.
In case you’re wondering, here’s the tab for filling up the car! I’ll assist you with the liters to gallons conversion. 45.75 liters = 12 gallons, so in U.S. terms, the gas costs $6.70 per gallon. Now you see why Europeans drive those smaller cars!
We got on the highway — it would be about 3 1/2 hours to Paris.
We followed this truck out of a toll booth. Tolls on the highway from Caen to Paris ran us about 14 euro. (Rich won the guess-the-total-cost-of-the-tolls contest.)
Along the way, we mapped out our itinerary for our two days in Paris.
As we entered Paris from the southwest, the Eiffel Tower came into view.
Our route to our hotel would carry us around the traffic circle at the Arch de Triomphe.
The traffic circle has about 4 to 6 lanes (sometimes hard to tell!) with everyone in a constant state of merging. Steve did a masterful job of snaking through the circle unscathed and aimed for our exit street — no small task given that there are 12 streets that feed into the circle! Making your way around that circuit is like experiencing a blend of Ben Hur and Fast and Furious. (This will not be my last Hollywood analogy concerning driving in Paris.)
Having cleared the circle, Steve drove toward our hotel. Motorcycles streak through any perceived openings in the traffic.
I liked this guy’s single-size capsule ride.
And then this shot gave me a warm remembrance for my dear Netherlands. But bicycle riders were in the distinct minority on Paris streets.
We reached our hotel in the 9th Arrondissement, a stone’s throw from Gare Austerlitz and bordering, appropriately enough, Rue d’Amsterdam. We unloaded our bags and I grabbed some sandwiches at a boulangerie around the corner. We then had to make one final drive to deliver the car to the Europcar location across town.
Steve was back at the wheel as we made our way to the Europcar drop location at Gare du Nord. I love the architecture of Paris.
We rode along the Seine and the famous stalls selling books and prints.
At last we arrived at Gare du Nord. We pulled into the garage and went down an endless series of parking levels until we found the drop off location.
Steve backed the car into a spot and cut the ignition. I felt a sense of relief, since you never really know what will happen when you rent a car in a foreign country. Between the unfamiliar driving patterns and road signs, the cyclists and motor scooters, and then making the extended trip from Bruges to Caens, along the Normandy coast, and then over to Paris — anything can happen. So — and I realize for some this may seem a bit over the top — I felt a bit like Jason Bourne (cue Hollywood reference #2) in The Bourne Identity when he and Marie elude a slew of police in an epic car chase through the streets of Paris in Marie’s red Mini. Having finally given that last police officer on the motorbike the slip, Bourne whipped the Mini into a parking garage, pulled into a space, cut the engine, and breathed a sigh of relief. That’s how I felt.
Okay, maybe that is a tad overwrought. Be that as it may, we left the car, and — without having any Paris police in hot pursuit — we entered the metro on our way to the Louvre.
We walked through the archway from the Rue Rivoli toward the grand courtyard of the Louvre. The stunning glass pyramid designed by I.M. Pei, who just recently passed away, is a dominating presence.
The courtyard was filled with tourists, merchants . . .
. . . and posters, including this one which had been updated to read “The yellow jackets will triumph!” alluding to the ongoing demonstrations in Paris.
I snapped a pic of Rich and Steve in front of the Louvre entrance, and then, with our Paris Museum Passes in hand and great expectations, we stepped forward to enter one of the most magnificent museums in the world.
That is until this gentlemen showed me this notice. The Louvre Museum workers were on strike THAT DAY!
We were outraged, crestfallen, bewildered — or in French style, désolés. Today was Monday and the Louvre is closed every Tuesday — so this was Rich’s only chance to see the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, and the other treasures held within.
On the upside, it was a gorgeous day (thanks Julie!) and so we took the extra time to enjoy the Tuileries Gardens.
People were chilling by the fountains.
And of course there were souvenir and merchandise vendors everywhere.
I entered into some conversation with this gentleman from Senegal, Mr. Lo. Grasping for some Wolof from my days in the Peace Corps in Senegal, we exchanged traditional greetings and entered into some of the lively banter that is just one delightful aspect of that beautiful culture. Given that we’d be doing a lot of outside walking on this brilliant sunny day, after a respectable amount of haggling, I purchased a hat.
Steve snapped a pic with my new style!
After another pic, courtesy of a tourist from Colombia, we headed off to Musée de l’Orangerie — the site of perhaps my two favorite rooms in any museum anywhere.
Steve secured a place in line among others who had migrated over from the Louvre. Happily, our Museum Pass got us in with just a brief wait.
And then we were there . . .
The water lilies. The upstairs of L’Orangerie has two oval rooms customized to perfectly display 8 canvases by the French impressionist Claude Monet.
Monet promised the canvasses to the French state on November 12, 1918 — the day after the Armistice that ended the first World War. Monet meant them to be a gift for peace. They were installed (per schedule) in 1927, a few months after Monet’s death.
A teacher speaks to a class of elementary age students about one of the masterpieces. We would see several classes in the museums we would visit in these two days.
Steve photographs one section. Monet worked on the water lily panels over a period of three decades from the 1890s until his death in 1927.
You can easily lose yourself in these sublime paintings.
According to the museum’s website (www.musee-orangerie.fr), taken all together, the eight panels provide nearly 100 linear meters (or 328 ft) of painted canvas. Monet wrote that the display of the lilies in these two rooms were meant to provide the “illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore.”
To experience a bit of that ‘endless whole,’ click the video below. In addition to the water lilies, you’ll also get a little touch of romance in Paris. (How’s that for a teaser?!)
After drinking in Monet’s water lilies, we headed to the lower level of L’Orangerie which has a permanent collection and exhibits which make this museum one of the gems of Paris.
Argenteuil, painted by Monet in 1875, is far more portable than the lilies on the first floor!
Rich snaps a pic of a striking pair by André Derain — Harlequin with Guitar (1924) and Harlequin and Pierrot (1924).
I loved this other painting by Derain, Portrait de Madame Paul Guillaume au Grand Chapeau (1929). The tones are so remarkably warm, juxtaposed with those assertive lines in black.
This painting, Notre Dame by Maurice Utrillo (1918), caught my eye as we — along with the rest of the world — were horrified just a month before to see this magnificent cathedral engulfed in flames.
We emerged from L’Orangerie and made our way over to the Eiffel Tower, a must-see on Rich’s inaugural visit to Paris.
The afternoon continued to be gorgeous, the dark brown iron of the tower standing out against the blue sky. We made our way around the glass wall perimeter (a feature of the age of terrorism in Paris) and proceeded through security which is as thorough as at any major airport.
We had tickets to go up the tower between 5:00 – 5:15 p.m. We were all hungry so we got a snack at the one concession stand at the base of the tower within the security perimeter and found seats on one of the few benches around. Pardon me for interrupting this blog post, but I need to make a customer service request.
TO: The Paris Visitors and Convention Bureau
FROM: Pat Jackson
RE: Amenities at the Eiffel Tower
Paris is an amazing city! The architecture, the art, the cafés, the parks! C’est magnifique! And the Eiffel Tower is certainly la crème de la crème! However, I
beg implore insist would suggest that you consider expanding your food options (which are presently pathetic inadequate) and add some additional seating options for all tourists who are stranded marooned waiting for their time slots to go up in the tower. Merci!
Okay, I feel better. Back to the blog!
We filed into the elevator that takes you the first third of the way up the tower. It was only when the elevator began its ascent that Rich mentioned, “Uh guys, I’m not so good with heights.”
We got off at that first viewing level where you have a great view of the Trocadero across the Seine and (below) the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris (Sacré-Coeur).
The other towers I loved belong to this orthodox church which borders the Seine.
I could also see into the circle of traffic swirling around the Arch de Triomphe.
Steve and I left Rich at the lower altitude and took the second elevator to the top of the tower. There, the view is dizzying.
There’s a wonderful view of a long walking park set right in the center of the Seine. At one end you find a smaller scale replica of the Statue of Liberty which France gave the United States in 1884.
We made our way back down to the first observation platform and caught a pic with Rich and Steve and a Michigan towelet that looks like it dates (at least) to 1985.
After descending the tower, we got in a cab to head off for the extra-special treat of the day. The cab dropped us off at the Ile de la Cité — one of the two islands in the middle of the Seine that were the site of the very first settlements of Paris and continue to be the heart of the city. It is on the Ile de la Cité that you find Notre Dame. We stepped out of the cab and saw that the street crossing the center of the little island and bordering Notre Dame was closed, with a number of Gendarmes posted there with automatic weapons. A multiple block area around Notre Dame in fact had been sealed off.
We, however, had a different destination in mind. We were walking over to the second jewel of the Ile de la Cité — Sainte Chappelle.
We walked around the outside of Saint Chappelle, which was commissioned by King Louis IX and consecrated in 1248. The outside gives you just a hint of what you’ll find inside.
We stepped inside the Palais de Justice and made our way to the entrance of the chapel.
Walking into Sainte Chappelle for the first time, I think, is an emotional experience. I first stepped foot inside in 1984 — and I still remember how I felt — and that involuntary gasp. You are struck by a scene of beauty akin to an extraordinary sunset, or the view across majestic alpine peaks.
The inside of the chapel is ethereal. Its seems as though there’s hardly any masonry, that instead it is built nearly completely out of glass.
We filed in with the other patrons who like us, were awaiting the string quartet which was going to perform a concert of selections from Vivaldi and Brahms.
As the music began, the delicate quality of the melodies seemed to fuse with the web-like architecture of the space. Violins, viola and cello spirited up and down the musical score, naturally inviting you to look up and around, as the evening sun played through the panes of stained glass.
It was at that moment that the juxtaposition between Day 5 and Day 6 struck me most poingnantly (although not for the first time). Yesterday in Normandy — stories of those who scaled cliffs, parachuted onto church steeples, waded through bloody surf and sand, and by the thousand rested in orderly, elegant rows which belied the grim circumstances of their deaths. Today in Paris — people dipping their feet in the fountains in the Tuileries, those two rooms that embraced water lilies without a horizon, a tower of iron and rivets which arch high, ballet-like, into the sky, Yesterday, we stood with all those cadets in that theatre filled with the sounds of buzzing planes, ships churning thru sea and pounding artillery from the invasion from 75 years ago. Tonight, it was the allegro, forte and pianissimo of strings amidst this kaleidoscope of stained glass.
As the quartet concluded their last piece, the approximately 150 people in attendance jumped to their feet and applauded with vigor. It was truly magnificent. After leaving the stage, the four musicians were wooed by the applause into an encore. To everyone’s surprise, just a slight moment within taking their seats, the string players were off and running in a galloping piece that left us left us, let alone the musicians, out of breath. Rich caught a portion of the encore as it streaked to its conclusion in the video below. (This video is for the sound rather than the visuals. I somehow added a blue line on the video, but I’d simply invite you to click on the video, close your eyes and be swept away.)
After the applause finally subsided, we exited Saint Chappelle and headed out for dinner. At 9:00 p.m., the sky was still bright. We choose a route to our restaurant which would take us past Notre Dame.
There the grand cathedral stood, scarred from the inferno just a month before.
The beige wall running the distance of the photograph is part of the cordon set up to keep people away from the cathedral.
Steve shot this beautiful photo looking west as the sun started to dip.
We arrived at our restaurant and enjoyed another tasty French meal.
As usual, presentation was half the dining experience.
Day 6 nearly done, we walked across the Seine to the Pont Marie metro station and caught a train back toward our hotel.
Tuesday, Day 7 — the final full day of our trip. We started by walking down the street to the boulangerie for our breakfast. Baguettes, coffees and OJ in hand, we caught a metro to the south side (Left Bank) of the Seine.
The building housing the Musée D’Orsay was formerly a railroad station and itself is a work of art.
After queuing in line for about 20 minutes, we were in.
The center space of the museum is filled by this terraced sculpture garden.
The space is magnificent.
The painting collections are spread out on a number of floors. Several of the works are of an extraordinary size!
Walking through the exhibits of impressionism is like being in a candy store. Here, Renoir’s A Ball at the Moulin of Galette (1876)
Edgar Degas. Repetition of a ballet on the stage (1874)
Claude Monet, The Path to Chailly (1865). I’m intrigued by the meeting of the sky and the path on the far horizon point in this painting. It just pulls me through that opening of the trees.
And then I was transfixed in this room and the series by Monet of the Rouen Cathedral of Notre Dame from 1893. After years of admiring these paintings, I could now revel in them having stood before the cathedral, mesmerized by the intricacy of the facade, and stilled by those bells.
A photo from our visit to Rouen.
I delighted then in this depiction of Notre Dame of Paris. I expected it was by Paul Signac or Georges Seurat, but no! It was painted by a Maximillien Luce (who was he?) in 1901 and titled Le Quai Saint-Michel et Notre Dame.
And then, a nod to my Dutch favorite, Van Gogh. Here are his L’Eglise sur Oise and La Siesta (below), both done in 1890. What color! What brush strokes!
The audio guide told the fascinating stories behind many of the works in the collection, including The Excommunication of Robert the Pious by Jean-Paul Laurens in 1875. The tension in the painting is palpable. The exiting clerics have just announced the Pope’s decision to excommunicate Robert for marrying his second cousin, Berthe of Burgundy. In shock, Robert has dropped his scepter while a trail of smoke lingers from the candle tossed by the clerics to the floor. Who needs Netflix?
This canvas, after our tour of Normandy, made me linger. Edouard Detaille painted The Dream in 1888, after a series of French military defeats. Here, the soldiers bunked down in a field dream of triumphing in their next battle.
Walking out of a gallery you come across one of the two enormous clock faces that adorn the side of the building and look across the Seine to the Tuileries and the Louvre. This setting draws a steady stream of photographers. With a zoom, you could readily capture the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur on one of the main hills of Paris.
Steve got a great shot amid the darkening clouds.
My last stop in the museum was in this unusual and captivating exhibit on Le Modele Noir — The Black Model. The exhibit documented the use of people of color as models by well-known artists. A couple of the paintings were familiar to me, but in numerous cases I was seeing works for the first time by famous artists which featured people of color as the primary subject.
The Black Scipio, 1868, by Paul Cezanne
The Player of the Mandolin (1930) by André Derain — who, as you know by now, has become one of my favorite painters!
Aicha and Laurette by Henri Matisse (1917).
Rich, Steve and I met back up in the sculpture gallery and then headed out. Our next stop: across the Seine and up the hill to Sacré-Coeur.
We rode across town in a cab. As we did, we saw a cloud front that made me think I was back on the Kansas plain.
We drove through la Place Vendôme– an elegant square with the Vendôme pillar in the center. The pillar was begun by Napoleon to commemorate his greatest triumph at the battle of Austerlitz. It is (no surprise) his statue which sits atop.
The column, which is modeled after the Trajan column in Rome, retells the story of the battle in the relief that spirals to the top.
We continued on and made our way up the sloping hill toward Sacré-Coeur.
We walked the final stretch up to the Basilica itself. There was, as is usually the case, a lively crowd of tourists, locals, vendors, musicians and probably a pick-pocket or two.
This singer had a great voice. Catch a bit of his music plus the Sacré-Coeur vibe in the video clip below.
With the weather starting to threaten, we ducked inside the Basilica for a look. It’s beautiful inside, but no photos allowed.
We left the Basilica and went in search of a café for lunch. We stepped into this place just in time as the skies opened up and it began to pour.
As the sun returned, Rich enjoyed some French onion soup while I Steve and I enjoyed our meals.
As we ate, the sound of a violin came from across the street. There’s no shortage of music on the streets of Paris! Take a short listen in the video below as people stroll along in this bohemian Montmartre neighborhood.
After chipping in to the violinist’s collection, I rejoined Rich and Steve. As we wrapped up our lunch, I noticed this t-shirt hanging up in a shop across the street. I grabbed one for my daughter.
After lunch, we walked around the corner and entered the Place du Tertre, the artists’ square. Usually, a small army of portrait artists, like this gentleman above in the red scarf and the one below, are displaying their work and inviting you to sit for your own portrait. But to my surprise, I see that a cafe (above) has been built in the center of the square, taking up about half of the space that was previously available for the artists! Why they would do that when the square is already ringed with cafes is beyond me. I feel a second memo coming on. Come to think of it, the solution is obvious! Relocate this superfluous cafe from the Place de Tertre to the cafe desert underneath the Eiffel Tower! Voilà! Two problems solved in one stroke!
As we continued around the square, a light sprinkle fell. Luckily, Rich was ready to cheerfully ensure that my photography could go on unabated.
Steve on one of the famous staircases of Montmartre.
Up on that hill, we could peer over some rooftops to see the Eiffel Tower standing tall against the sky.
We flagged a cab and headed back to the hotel so we could have a breather before setting out for our final night together.
As we made our way, it was evident that schools were letting out and crossing guards were on the job.
After some down time, we regrouped and headed back toward the Eiffel Tower, which is where we would board one of those boats for a cruise down the Seine.
The gray skies and rain from earlier in the day were gone, replaced by brilliant blue skies and sunshine. The fountains at the Trocadero, which I looked down upon yesterday from the Eiffel Tower, were firing their jets of water at full force.
We reached the boat landing area along the Seine, boarded, and were on our way.
Rich snapped this pic of Steve and me as we enjoyed the cruise from the open air section at the back of the boat.
Steve captured this dazzling sunset shot.
We sailed past the Musée D’Orsay — with those large clock faces that we looked through earlier in the day.
When you travel on the water, as in Amsterdam, you see a different view of the city. On this balmy Tuesday night, people were out all along the Seine, enjoying an early evening walk, a picnic, maybe a date.
We passed below Notre Dame and her bandages were again readily apparent.
This stretch on the water was another time to resume conversations that had begun in the Netherlands, continued in Belgium, and expanded along the French coast. The sun was setting on this cruise as well as on this extraordinary week that the three of us had shared. Thinking back over all that we had seen and experienced, it was hard to believe that we had only been traveling for one week.
If you would like to feel the breeze, hear the water, and watch the river banks pass by, then join us on the back of the boat through the video below.
It was after 9:00 p.m. when we stepped off the boat and it was time for dinner. I had read an article about six months previously about certain restaurants in Paris that specialize on serving ONE thing, and doing that one thing exceptionally well. One that caught my eye was Le Relais de L’Entrecôte, a small chain of 4 restaurants in Paris, that specialize in entrecôte — steak! We couldn’t make reservations and the restaurant review said it was fruitless to go before 9:30. So after the cruise, we took the metro over toward the Champs Elysées and walked over to the restaurant which sits on a corner with classic red awnings splaying out in all directions. By the time we arrived, it was 10:00 p.m. and there were still about 15 people in line. We joined the queue. ‘
From our spot in line, we could see the brightly illumined neck of the Eiffel Tower, which like a coastal lighthouse, was sweeping the city with a swath of light.
We were seated in the restaurant at a table by the window — a perfect setting at which to unwind for this final dinner together. The ordering process was predictably streamlined given you had just one choice — the entrecôte and frites. (You could add other sides.) As this was our last night in France and the final dinner of our trip, Steve ordered up a French Bordeaux that was full and smooth.
The food arrived and we dug in. If possible, the steaks exceeded our expectations. We didn’t know what they did to that steak, but it was out of this world.
When we had all nearly cleared our plates, our waitress Zuzu came back around with a second serving of entrecôte and frites! Naturally, that required a second bottle of Bordeaux.
It was an evening to savor in all respects. We walked back through the past seven days, trading personal highlights, toasting Julie for a truly exceptional job on the weather, and still finding that we had yet to absorb all that we saw on Day 5 in Normandy.
The restaurant, packed when we were first seated, was now thinning out as our dessert arrived. Zuzu snapped a pic for us.
Eating dessert at nearly midnight in Paris — could there be a better way to wrap up this week and this trip with great friends?
We were among the last to leave the restaurant, and then took an easy walk back over to the Champs Elysées so we could see the Arch de Triomphe at night. Once across, we caught a cab back to our hotel and called it a night. We all had a full travel day ahead of us tomorrow.
In the morning, we settled on breakfast in the hotel. It felt strange, after a week that was so unhurried, to now be back under a schedule. The taxi for Charles de Gaulle Airport arrived and Steve and Rich walked their bags out to the street.
With warm farewells and best wishes to our respective families, Rich and Steve got into the back of this black, unmarked, Volkswagen van with frosted glass. As the van moved down the street, I had to laugh at the silly thought that they looked like they were in some getaway car in a B-grade espionage flick.
But as that amusement subsided, I felt full. Full of gratitude for this special time that we shared. It turned out to be even more than I hoped for.
I had an afternoon train to catch, and therefore a bit more time in the City of Light. So I slipped back down to the Louvre where they honored my now expired Museum Pass. With Rich in mind, I passed by Mona, walked up the steps to the statue of Winged Victory, and strolled through a few of those monumental galleries.
Then it was time for me to get going. I picked up my bag at the hotel and took the metro over to Gare du Nord. While Rich and Steve were still in the air making their way to Detroit and New York, I caught the fast train back up to Amsterdam. There, after stretching my legs for a short walk around the plaza outside Amsterdam Centraal Station, I caught a second train further north to Groningen.
By the time the train arrived in Groningen, it was dark. I grabbed my bag and headed to the garage where my bike had been sitting for the week. I pulled it down off the storage rack, and headed towards home.
The streets and canals were quiet as I rode along. I thought about this extraordinary week and felt the warmth from rekindled friendship and the new chapter that we had added to our college lore. It was a feeling I didn’t expect would subside anytime soon.
This is the last post that I am writing from the Netherlands as my family and I are returning back to the United States later today. But I will be adding one more concluding entry to My Dutch Diary, Post No. 15 — These are a Few of My Favorite Things. Until then!