Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pilgrimage to Normandy

Friends, I am so excited to share with you the details of my travels to France!  Many of you followed along as I posted photos on Instagram and Facebook.  I truly appreciate your prayers for our safety and blessing in travel.

To say that we were grateful to make this trip is an enormous understatement.  Visiting Normandy was a lifetime dream of my husband's, so it became my dream as well.  To be in the places where such momentous events of the 20th century took place was, for us, a pilgrimage.

As you know, beginning in 1939, Hitler's forces occupied much of Europe, including France.  The Nazis heartlessly visited their plans for domination of much of the free world upon all who would stand in their way.  Most notorious for their systemic extermination of millions of Jews, the Nazis also killed and enslaved hundreds of thousands of others, all of whom they deemed to be inferior to the "Master Race." Allied with Italy and Japan in a quest to rule the world, Nazi forces had to be stopped.

But stopping a war machine as effective as the Nazis would not come easily.  Allied leaders knew that defeating the Nazis would require an invasion of territory occupied by the Germans.  To be successful, the effort would require huge numbers of troops as well as massive quantities of ammunition and supplies.  Organizing an effort of such scale took many months of planning and the efforts of millions of people, both military and civilian.  Those efforts came to fruition on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the Allied forces mounted a successful invasion of Nazi-occupied France.  From beachheads established in June 1944, Allied troops were able to push the Nazis back into Germany, liberating thousands of people who had suffered under Nazi rule and culminating with the eventual defeat of the Nazi forces and suicide of Adolf Hitler in the spring of 1945.

But what a cost.  On D-Day, the Allies landed around 156,000 troops in Normandy, including 73,000 Americans.  By June 11, over 325,000 troops had gone ashore in Normandy.  The evil of fascism was defeated at a huge price.  Over 209,000 Allied troops were killed, wounded, or went missing during the Battle of Normandy.

70 years later, we who live in relative peace and prosperity owe much to the generation of men and women who paid dearly for that freedom.  For us, visiting the sites where so many lives were given in the defeat of evil was a deeply spiritual experience.  We have so much to be thankful for!

If you're not familiar with the historical events of 1944, I encourage to read about it.  There are many authors who have written about the Battle of Normandy, and many of them are so good.  I particularly recommend the works of Stephen Ambrose and Martin Gilbert.

And now a pictorial review of our time in Normandy!  We took over 700 photos, but I'll share just a few.

First of all, we were amazingly blessed with a wonderful place to stay.  I found the Chateau de Neuilly la Foret online, and after staying there I told my family I felt that I'd won the internets.  In the 11th century, William the Conqueror gave some of the land in the Elle and Aure valleys to his half-brother Odon, Bishop of Bayeux. Odon had a chateau built in the marsh, which became an important fortress during the Hundred Years' War.  Over the centuries, the chateau was used as a country residence for the bishops of the diocese, and it served as a place of refuge for the bishops during times of unrest. Gradually it was used less and less by the bishops until it was finally sold at auction.  Part of the chateau was destroyed at the beginning of the 19th century, but part of it survives to this day--and that was the house I found as a vacation rental.

Be still, my history-loving heart!

From what we'd read online, we knew the house would be special, but our hearts skipped a beat as we drove up the lane.

Oh, my.

Although much of the original chateau has not survived, the remaining house is amazing.

And the grounds?  Well, see for yourself.

Remnants of a stone chapel and barn grace the landscape, just outside a beautiful walled garden.

Above the kitchen sink was what I think of as a "Monet window."  See how thick the walls are?

The view out the window on a foggy morning looks like an impressionist painting:

Here's one of my favorite Instagrams from our trip: a little late-evening snack at the chateau.  We enjoyed flowers from the garden and camembert made right in Normandy.

Just beyond the chateau gardens were pastures of Norman cattle.  No wonder Normandy is known for its butter and cheese--there were dairy cows everywhere!

If you've never rented a vacation place, I suggest you try it!  Sites such as are easy to use; just be sure to read the reviews and ask questions of the owner.  We've had great luck finding wonderful places to stay both in the U.S. and abroad.  Staying in a house or apartment is so much nicer and more budget-friendly than staying in hotels, particularly if you're traveling with a family.
While we weren't relaxing at the chateau, we were driving all over Normandy (northwestern France).   Here are peeks at some of the most notable places we visited.
The American Cemetery at Omaha Beach.  Over 9000 Americans are buried here, laid to rest in the country they gave their lives to liberate.

I never realized this cemetery is right on the hill above the beach--see the English Channel in the background of the photo?

Particularly moving to me was this monument at the American cemetery, a tribute to the citizen soldiers of the U.S. armed forces.  It reads:  "For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace.  They fight not for the lust of conquest: they fight to end conquest.  They fight to liberate. . . . They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home."

Omaha Beach is huge; you can get an idea of the expanse of the beach by seeing me and my boys standing there.  Today it's a peaceful place for French people on holiday.  (Of course, this area is not really named "Omaha Beach"; Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold, and Sword were the code names assigned to the five D-Day landing sites.  Utah and Omaha were taken by American forces; Juno, by Canadian troops; and Gold and Sword by British forces.  While the landing at Utah Beach went fairly well, Americans suffered terribly heavy casualties at Omaha Beach.)  

Utah Beach is beautiful and serene, but the German bunkers still stand intact today, 70 years after D-Day.
One of the most moving places we visited was Pointe du Hoc, the site of huge German gun emplacements that overlooked both Utah and Omaha Beach.  U.S. Rangers scaled these sheer cliffs with grappling hooks in order to the destroy the guns.  When they reached the top, the guns had been moved, so the Rangers moved inland, located the guns, and put them out of commission.  Their bravery saved countless lives.

Here I am walking around with my three sons, ages 23, 21, and 17.  Had we lived 70 years earlier, my boys might very well have been among those troops who landed on D-Day.  My heart breaks as I think of the agonizing sacrifice of young lives made on these battlefields!

Another of our favorite spots was the village of Sainte Mere Eglise, made famous when many members of the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions landed here.  As you can see, St. Mary's Church is still standing.


The gun batteries of Longues sur Mer were amazing.  Here the gun emplacements stand in excellent shape, having withstood heavy bombardment and 70 years of time gone by.

This photo will give you an idea of the size of those guns:

As you can see, the fortifications of Hitler's Atlantic Wall were intended to withstand heavy assault.  Thank God the Allies were able to prevail against the Nazi forces.

We also really enjoyed the Pegasus Bridge museum, located between Caen and Ouistreham.  This bridge was vital to the invasion plan, and it was captured by a glider-borne unit of British airborne troops in the first few minutes of June 6, 1944.  The bravery of the glider pilots and troops is especially inspiring to me.

We loved the fact that the historical sites are a boon to the local economy.  These folks had to suffer through the devastation of having critical battles take place in their hometowns; how fitting that they would now benefit from having people visit!  All over Normandy we saw signs that read "Welcome to our liberators!" and we were thrilled to see British, Canadian, and U.S. flags flying alongside the French flag.

We enjoyed visiting some other wonderful places in France as well as the battle sites.  Here are a few of our favorites:

Mont St. Michel

(We snapped this photo from the car window, so delighted were we at the sight of the abbey rising from the sea just beyond the farmland.)

Bayeux Cathedral and the Bayeux Tapestry (remember, we were staying in the home of the Bishop of Bayeux)

Hon Fleur

and of course Paris sites such as the Eiffel Tower

the palace at Versailles

and the Arc de Triomphe.

Our trip was filled with fun and laughter, and we are grateful for a lovely vacation.  We are most thankful, though, for the chance to show these boys of ours--boys who have lived primarily with peace rather than war--what a high price has been paid for their freedom.  Having seen firsthand the vestiges of this awful war, I believe they're more deeply committed to peace.  And I think they're more grateful for all that's so easy to take for granted.  I know I am.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, harmony;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

(20th century French prayer, often attributed to St. Francis)

Have you ever made a pilgrimage?  How has the experience shaped you?

I'm joining these lovely parties:
Thought-Provoking Thursday at 3-D Lessons for Life 
Thoughtful Thursday at Eat Sleep Be
Weekend Bloggy Reading at Serenity Now


Debby Ray said...

Oh Richella...what a wonderful post about your fabulous trip! I am sure you are still trying to get back down to earth after an experience like that! What an absoluetly breathtaking chateau to be able to call home for a few days...haunting and peaceful all at the same time. The way you were able to capture that cemetery in your photos...well, just beyond amazing....memories of lifetime for all of you!! Thanks for the history lesson and sharing your experience!

marty (A Stroll Thru Life) said...

Richella, this is such a lovely and inspiring post. I so enjoyed all the photos. Beautifully done.

Rita C. said...

Great post, Richella. My father served in WWII (mostly Italy). I haven't yet, but would love to make a pilgrimage to Europe. Thanks for sharing.

Richella Parham said...

Rita, please thank your father for his service! I hope you do get a chance to visit Europe. There are so many places there that could serve to nourish your soul. Every blessing to you!

Sue said...

Richella, we visited everyone of those sites on our trip to Normandy 9 years ago. They are all still vividly in my mind. It remains one of my most favorite trips and it certainly sparked a renewed interest in WW2. We stayed in a home too, near Dives sur mer. I loved the view out our window too ~ cows and pastures.
Thanks for bringing back some lovely memories.

Linda said...

An amazing trip. Thanks for sharing your experience with some of the history too.

Shelly W. said...

Wow. This makes me choke up so much because just last night we watched "Saving Private Ryan" with our girls. It was about the third time I had seen the movie, but it is always impactful. I would love to visit Normandy some day. Looks beautiful, but also very meaningful.

Melissa Smith said...

Incredible, what a trip of a lifetime! I would LOVE to go there, but I feel like I was there with your beautiful pictures and descriptions. So glad you were all able to go and experience--I'm sure you were counting your blessings to have your boys there with you and not on the battlefield.

Lisa @ Texas Decor said...

Thank you so much for sharing your trip with us, Richella! Such a blessing to make that trip with your beautiful family. After we finish paying for college for our two boys, we hope to take a big trip to Europe with them. :)

Shirley@Housepitality Designs said...

Oh how I loved seeing these pictures as I dream about going back to Normandy...we unfortunately did not get a change to visit the Memorial...stayed pretty much in the Honfleur area and certainly would be great to stay in a Chateau that has so much history as the one you stayed in...thanks for the "tour" and the wonderful history....the people of Normandy have not forgotten how the Americans saved their way of life..and they remain truly grateful...Loved following you on Instagram while you were there...

laura Madalene said...

Oh, my all time favorite style. I've read several articles about their beautiful work. Thank you for such an inspiring, interesting post.
The perfect Interior in Café au Lait

Dayle Allen Shockley @ A Collection of Days said...

What an amazing adventure. Wonderfully inspiring post. I would love to visit France but I don't think I'll ever get The Man out of the good old USA, even though he is a major history buff and especially military history.

The thing that struck me, outside of the amazing shots from your trip, is how you can't possibly be old enough to have such grown sons. They are all handsome, for sure.

Anonymous said...

Richella, thanks for putting this beautiful, meaningful album together and making it available to me! My uncle Henry Tron was involved in some part of the Normandy invasion. He never spoke of it, so I don't know any details. But he was never able to go back to work. He was able to garden, work in the kitchen and do the upkeep on a home, to be a wonderful husband and neighbor to everyone, and to love all of us in the family. In fact, he walked me down the isle to "give me away" to Dallas in 1955. Dallas and I were able to see the main sights in Paris but not Normandy. THANK YOU for investing in your boys' knowledge of the costs of our freedom. Blessings all! Jane

Parlor Room Ponderings said...

WW2 was such a devastating time. So much sorrow. My parents were in Holland during the war and every year the Dutch remember the sacrifices made and especially thank the Canadians for the final victory there. The school children are all taught about it and they are just as grateful as those who were there and remember. It was so nice that you could go as a family. I have an 18 year old son and I can't even imagine him going off to war. So many mothers with broken hearts. Your pictures are beautiful! A treasured memory for your family for sure!
Blessings, Diane

Pat@Life At Lydias House said...

What a wonderful post. I have been away for 2 weeks without internet and just got to read it. Thanks so much for sharing the photos and the info . Normandy is definitely near the top of my husband's bucketlist so I'm pinning this post for future reference.

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