Monday, May 18, 2009

Bayeux and Beaches

The album that's been illustrating the last couple of posts. Enjoy!

After a magnificent English breakfast on Easter morning, we loaded back into the car and drove into the small town of Bayeux which is famous for housing one of the masterpieces of early Medieval art: The Bayeux Tapestry.

The tapestry is really an embroidered comic strip that tells the story of the Battle of Hastings when William the Bastard became William the Conqueror.

Edward the Confessor, the king of England and the Saxons, was getting old and feeble and never produced an heir. He had two options: He could pass the crown to his son-in-law Harold, or he could give it to his nephew, William, who was reigning over Normandy. Edward decided to crown William, and he sent Harold to tell the future king the news (a really stupid plan). Edward dies and Harold takes the crown after swearing a sacred oath of allegiance to William. The betrayal isn’t taken lightly by the king of the Normans who sails across the channel with a massive cavalry, an army of foot soldiers, and a bunch of archers.

The battle ensues at Hastings and William wins, leading to Francophied English and a long, bloody debate over who rules France and who rules England.

The tapestry is 70 meters long and presents each event with Latin surcaps. It’s a fantastic insight into life almost 1000 years ago. The armor is rendered in intricate detail, food items are identifiable, and historians have used it to understand the most important values of early European monarchs.

After the tapestry we wandered through exhibits that explored the details of the time period and the battle with models of castles, characters, and family trees. I walked out vowing to read up on my early British and French history (post-Roman, that is).

We then wandered to the Bayeux Cathedral where Otto, the brother of William, set up a massive church to glorify the Normans and house the tapestry. We were also in time for the Eucharist on Easter morning. After exploring the Romanesque and Gothic interior, we piled back into the car and headed for the beaches.

First we drove near Omaha Beach. We enjoyed lunch at a small hotel/restaurant that overlooked the waves. The region is famous for supposedly inventing the omelet, so I ordered one for lunch. I wasn’t sure if that would be enough, so I ordered what I thought would be crab cakes, or maybe crab salad. I received a crab. The boiled arthropod stared me down, challenging me to figure out what to do next. I’ve eaten an entire lobster, but never tackled a crab. Eventually through a process of elimination I figured out where all the meat was and can now say I dined on crab on Easter Day in France. Don’t know when I’ll say it, but know that I can.

We started with the World War II memorials along the coast and I dunked my toes into the water. Then we drove up the coastline to the American Cemetery. We didn’t have a lot of time, since the place closed a 4:30. We were just in time to see the flag lowering performed by an American family, and assisted by a private security guy who is presumably employed by the U.S. Government. For some reason I thought we would see military personnel at the cemetery, but I suppose resources are a little too thin.

The iconic fields of marble crosses were breathtaking. So many names. So many people who never made it past 23 or even past 19. As I reverently walked past crosses of unknown soldiers, and soldiers whose families had recently decorated their graves with flowers, a slow rage began to build. This didn’t need to happen. Some historians cast Hitler as an inevitable figure. Germany was kicked into the dirt after the Treaty of Versailles, was suffering through ineffective governance, and was in the midst of depression. Someone would rise.

But it didn’t have to be Hitler. Most of Europe, most of the world, was going through depression and political turmoil. The monarchies were dead. People needed to figure out how to run their country. Fascists and communists vied for attention and power. Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler. The first two were terrible dictators and made noises about inciting war, but neither could make their threats real. There was too much internal dissension. Hitler had a vast majority of German hearts and minds behind every damning decision. His hatred for minorities and non-German nationalities was no secret. He preached oppression and anger. Most went along for the ride. There were a few voices of opposition, but not enough to change the self-destructive momentum of the country.

So, these young men had to leave their homes on the other side of the Atlantic to stop a lunatic and the willing followers he created. Hitler wasn’t inevitable, but he was made possible by German politicians, and more worryingly, normal citizens. I don’t hold modern Germans responsible for the actions of their ancestors, but standing in that cemetery I couldn’t shake my anger with those ancestors who let this happen. The rage subsided.

The cemetery was closing. We got back into the car and waited in a long line of traffic to drive further up the coast to Utah Beach. On the way we stopped in a town that was a German garrison on D-day. As paratroops started dropping into the village, the Germans were thrown into confusion, but eventually started to open fire on the descending soldiers, one of whom was caught on the church steeple. He survived by playing dead and cutting himself down. The village became the first French town liberated by the Allies, and they memorialized the event by installing unique stained glass windows. Instead of fluttering angels and putti around the Virgin and St. Michael, heroic soldiers waft through the air.

Utah preserved the beach obstacles, barbed wire, and German guns that fortified the beach. It was easier to imagine the chaos of that day as soldiers rushed across the beaches and into open fields in one of the largest operations in history.

Everywhere French, Canadian, British, Norwegian, American, and Belgian flags reminded me this was a coordinated, international effort. I tend to focus on the American side of the story, but the British had their own beaches to take (Sword and Gold), along with the Canadians (Juno).

After a day of heavy history that began with the Normans crossing the channel to fight the British, and ending with the British crossing the channel to liberate the Normans, we drove back to Bayeux for dinner. The restaurant was recommended by the Michelin Man and Rick Steves. Each dish was elegantly –maybe gaudily – presented. Dad’s chicken came with a glass of gravy crowned with a chicken leg making it tough to eat. It was all delicious, but you felt a little guilty rearranging the chef’s ornate creations.

Back to the manor to sit on the couches by the fire and prepare for another day in the car, retracing the trail of the advancing Allies up through Belgium to the Rhine.

Pictures again.

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