WWII

Normandy – It Just Felt Odd

Bayeux Market

I love visiting countries where English isn’t the primary language spoken – language is so much a part of a culture and a national identity. But, as someone who speaks only a smattering of other languages, communicating in these countries can sometimes pose a bit of a problem.

I usually find that people in the larger cities speak at least a little English. In smaller centres it may not be quite so simple. Interestingly, Bayeux was the exception to this rule.

At times I felt like I heard more English than French when we were there. I suppose this was mainly because of the close links between Normandy and the Allied landings in WWII – the town was full of tourists from UK, Canada and the USA exploring sites related to the June 1944 landings. So we heard a lot of English in restaurants, tourist sites, and wandering the streets of the town.

The high number of English-speaking tourists meant that most locals spoke good English. Which makes a certain amount of sense. But I found it somewhat unsettling after spending a week in Paris, where I was surrounded by the poetry of the French language.

In Bayeux, Craig and I were in the minority when we stumbled along in our broken French when speaking to locals, whether visiting sites or ordering food. In a few cases our attempts were met with polite acknowledgement and a response in English. But, far more often, the people we spoke to smiled warmly and answered in French.

The one area we encountered very little English was in the local produce market. And that was fine – we managed to communicate well enough to buy what we were looking for.

In some ways, the high level of English made our trip to Bayeux easier. We could always fall back on English if our limited French wasn’t enough to make our needs understood, whether trying to find out information we needed. But, like I said, it just felt a little odd to me to be in such a historic French town and yet hearing so much English being spoken. At least, that was my impression.

Apart from the language issue, which I never really adjusted to, I found my time in Bayeux and Normandy a real pleasure – Time seemed to flow just a little bit slower there. I found it both peaceful and restful – something I was in desperate need of after a busy few months in Cape Town and a chaotic week in Paris.

I’d definitely recommend Normandy if you’re planning time in France and looking for a quieter area to spend a few days. And Bayeux is a great base from which to explore the region.

Sadly, our trip – like all good things – had to come to an end and it’s now time for us to pack our bags and head back home to Cape Town. I hope you’ve enjoyed spending a little time with me in France, both in Paris and Normandy.

I’m sure it won’t be long before the travel bug bites again, and I’ll be sharing plans for our next trip…

Normandy-A Contradiction in Terms

Landing craft on Omaha beach

It was the sense of tranquility and beauty that struck me most on our visits to Juno and Omaha beaches in Normandy. Which feels slightly unbelievable considering that these were both beaches that thousands of Allied and German soldiers met their deaths during the D Day landings on 6 June 1944, during WWII.

If you’ve studied accounts of the brutal and bloody fight that took place on the Normandy beaches , or have watched movies like Saving Private Ryan, or The Longest Day, or the series, Band of Brothers, you’ll probably have a sense of why I was so startled by the peace of the beaches now.

If you’ve never looked into the event, it was when more than 200 000 Allied forces attacked the heavily defended beaches of Normandy to start the liberation of France from Nazi domination.

With my husband’s interest in WWII, it was no surprise that we visited the sites of the landings. As we drove around the region where the fighting took place, we listened to a detailed audio guide of what happened on that fateful day. It was with the soundtrack of these accounts in our minds that we stepped out of the car and made our way to the beach known as Juno.

And how beautiful and tranquil it was – a slight breeze rustling the nearby trees and the sound of the rhythmic waves as they ebbed and flowed gently onto the sand. Although we knew we hadn’t taken a wrong turning and landed up at a different beach – the large gun housings, examples of the 2 million metal caltrops that had been scattered across the beaches to deter landing craft, and a replica of a landing craft that we were able to explore were all vivid reminders of the past.

Visiting Omaha Beach was much the same – the peacefulness of the area nowadays seeming almost incongruous considering the massacre that took place there on 5 June 1944. And yet, maybe that’s how it should be. Because it left me with a profound sense that peace, tranquility and beauty can eventually replace the horror and brutality of war.

Normandy-The Normandy Airborne Museum

Airborne Museum

I’ve never enjoyed going to museums. Actually, I should rather say that I’ve never been a fan of old-style museums. You know, the type that hides the exhibits away behind glass. And I think you‘ll understand when you consider what that might be like for a visually impaired person for whom sight isn’t an option.

Far more fun for me are museums that try to draw visitors in with interactive and multi-sensory experiences. Amongst my favourites are museums I visited in Poland – the Schindler Museum in Krakow and the Warsaw Uprising Museum in Warsaw.

What does this have to do with my recent trip to Normandy in France?

I knew we would be visiting some WWII museums while we were in Normandy. I just wasn’t sure what type of museums they’d be. Sadly, I found that most of them weren’t of much interactive interest to me. Until we visited the Normandy Airborne Museum.

Admittedly, I wasn’t able to access many of the exhibits in the Airborne Museum. But those that I was able to engage with using my other senses more than made up for the rest.

The first was a replica of the gliders that carried Allied forces into Normandy to capture control of strategic roads and bridges to help gain a foothold in Normandy. I was able to walk around the outside of the full-scale glider and explore it using the sense of touch. I was also able to climb aboard the glider and feel what it must have been like for the soldiers as the gliders were towed across from England and then set free to glide down into Normandy.

But the real treat awaited me on the upper floor of the museum – a simulation of a troop plane that carried the paratroopers who formed the first wave of the attack. As we stepped into the shell of the large plane we could feel the thrum of the engines beneath our feet, hear the thunderous roar of the engines and the crackle of radio messages from the cockpit. It was eerily authentic to walked through the plane, as the paratroopers would have done so many years ago.

Leaving the plane, you stepped out into a visual representation of what the paratroopers might have seen – the vague shapes of a string of parachutes opening below you, the dim view of the ground far below, with farmhouses, towns, church steeples, fields and woods. Although I wasn’t able to experience this part of the exhibit, my sighted husband said it had a powerful impact on him.

The next part of the simulation was based on what the paratroopers may have experienced on the ground – the chaos, destruction and, above all, the constant stutter of machine guns and explosions. It was an over-stimulation of the senses that left me feeling anxious, unsettled and drained.

Of all the experiences I had in Normandy, this was the one that gave me the clearest idea of the reality of what happened on D Day – 6 June 1944. And the experience was sobering, to say the least. After the simulations, I cannot even begin to comprehend what the reality must have been like.

Why Visit Normandy?

the image shows a large old gothic style cathedral

So, now that we’ve arrived in Normandy, I guess the next important question is what we’re going to do while we’re there?

For my husband Craig, the obvious answer was to visit the sites of the WWII Normandy landings – not just the beaches themselves, although Omaha and Utah were easily within driving distance from where we were based. But the story of the allied landings encompasses far more than just the beach landings – the forces still had to move from the beaches and penetrate into the countryside to open the way to Paris. Normandy is an area that is rich in WWII history, as we discovered while were there, and we spent many fascinating hours tracing the history through several villages, museums, memorials and sites, accompanied by an informative audio tour of the area.

While I was also interested to visit the WWII sites, I’ll admit my main area of interest was in the earlier history of Normandy. I wanted to learn about the Normandy of William the Conqueror, who successfully invaded England in 1066. And the magnificent Bayeux tapestry that tells the story of that invasion.

And, of course, we both wanted to sample some of the local specialties that Normandy is known for – salted caramel, camembert cheese, and the delicious apple brandy known as Calvados.

In the coming articles I’ll be sharing some of those experiences with you. But first, I want to tell you about an inspiring gentleman I had the privilege to interview on my travel podcast, A Different Way of Travelling.

Paris – The World of the Dead

The image shows a dark-haired woman walking in a well-lit tunnel using a white cane.

It may sound macabre to willingly take time to wander through a subterranean mausoleum containing the bones of more than 6 million people. In some ways I guess it was. But that was what Craig and I did when we toured the Catacombs of Paris, France.

Here’s a brief historical note to give you a little context: Paris started as a Roman town – Lutetia for those who, like me, was an avid reader of the Asterix books written by Goscinny and Underzo. In time, as Paris continued to grow, the existing cemeteries became overcrowded. During the 1780’s it was decided to use part of the abandoned network of limestone mines beneath Paris to store the remains.

At first, the bones were simply dropped down a mineshaft and left. Until 1810, when the Minister of Mine Inspections, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury began to organise the bones and create a more respectful resting place for the centuries of Paris’s dead. As an aside, the ossuary takes up only a small fraction of the network of mines under Paris.

Admittedly, I wasn’t really interested in the ossuary itself. I certainly had no wish to explore the collections of bones using the sense of touch which is how I’d have to have done it due to my blindness – if I’d been allowed to, which I most definitely wasn’t! Rather, what interested me was the history behind the creation of the limestone mines, and the process through which these old abandoned mines had been renovated and became the ossuary that is now a popular tourist site in Paris.

As the story unfolded on the audio guide that was provided as part of the tour, I was enthralled to learn of different events that had taken place in the ossuary and nearby network of mine tunnels. Once the ossuary was open to the public from 1874, it became a popular party and concert venue. The mines were used by the French Resistance during WWII to smuggle information and people, and as a meeting place. In turn, the Nazi’s located a subterranean bunker in the mines. They’ve been used for several movies across the years and Airbnb invited people to spend a night in the mines as part of a marketing campaign. But my favourite has to be the discovery of an illicit movie theatre, complete with large screen, seating, sound rig, a fully stocked bar and restaurant, that was discovered by police in 2004 – they even discovered film reels of recent movies and noir film classics!

It was that history that kept me enthralled during the 90-minute tour of the ossuary.

So, if you still think Craig and I were weird to spend 90 minutes in a subterranean mausoleum for 6 million people, just remember that the Catacombs were visited by 480 000 people during 2018 alone… which means we are by no means the only weird people in the world!

The photo shows me navigating my way through the Catacombs using my white cane.

Deciding on a Destination

Selection of flags hanging on a wall

Craig and I have a tradition. When we travel to a new country, we buy a small flag of whatever country we’ve been to. These flags are displayed in our indoor braai room –barbeque, for those who aren’t South African. So far, we’ve collected around 20 flags.

This begs the question of why our recent trip was to France, since we’ve already been there and have a flag.

The decision came out of a marathon that Craig wanted to do. It was a marathon through the winelands of Bordeaux, with an amazing array of food and wine at the various water tables. If I’m honest, it sounded almost good enough for me to consider taking up running as well. Almost, but not quite! Anyway, Craig didn’t manage to get an entry for that race, but by then we’d already started chatting about what else we could do when we were in France.

Another factor that played a role in the decision was that both Craig and I are fascinated by history. Granted, my interests focus more on ancient history while Craig tends to enjoy both ancient and modern history. As such, it seemed like Normandy would satisfy both of us – the ancient history being that of William the Conqueror, who became king of England in 1066, and the more recent history of the Allied landings in Normandy towards the end of WWII.

Okay, we also wanted a slightly smaller French flag than the one we had, since our collection – shown in the photographs – is becoming quite full. But that was only a secondary consideration.

And so it was that we spent time in France – a week in Paris and 10 days in Normandy. Over the next few weeks I’ll share a few highlights… and lowlights… of our wonderful trip with you.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to add another new flag to our collection next time we travel. But that remains to be seen – we haven’t started planning our next trip yet.

PS: How many of the flags can you identify? Sorry, no prizes for correct answers.

The City and the City The City and the City

Cds IMG 0060A little while back I read “The City & the City” by China Mieville. It’s a story about a city that, for some inexplicable (or in my case forgotten) reason has been divided into two totally separate cities. As a citizen of one city you are not permitted to acknowledge the existence of the other city and its inhabitants even though you may share the same roads and the same neighbourhoods.

At the time I read the book we were planning our trip to Europe including a few days in Berlin. I found myself wondering whether living in Berlin before the Berlin Wall fell in 1990 was anything like what was portrayed in Mieville’s novel.

Even though Berlin is a united city once more and has done much to reinvent itself since 1990, the strange circumstances in which the city found itself for 45 years has had an unusual impact on the geography of the city.

Usually when we tour a city we find one or two central areas where most of the historic buildings are situated – but not in Berlin. As we navigated round the city Craig commented that many of the sites seemed far away from each other, and that he had underestimated the amount of time it would take to travel around.

Here’s what I think. From 1945 – 1990 Berlin was split into two geographically similar cities. Each city had to develop separately, with systems and services being needed by both. So much was duplicated – within the boundaries in West Berlin, and, often on the outskirts, of East Berlin. So, while many historic buildings are near the Brandenburg Gate, which lies on what was the boundary between East and West Berlin, many are not. And I think that’s the reason it takes so long to travel the city.

You may laugh, but I had a second realization when I was in Berlin. I’d always envisioned the Berlin Wall as being there to keep East Germans “in”. In reality, since Berlin was surrounded by East German territory, the Berlin Wall was built to enclose West Berlin. I guess I equated West Germany with freedom and East Germany with confinement and that dictated my mental image of the city. Still, it was quite a revelation to me when I realized how my reality had been shaped by the words I used.

And so, back to where we started – China Mievilles novel “The City & the City”. I have no idea if living in a divided Berlin in any way resembled the novel, but the book certainly sprang to mind many times during our time in the city & the city that are now united once more.

Fiction Becomes Reality

Cds IMG 6265 Pano procWhen I was in high school I went through a protracted phase of devouring any novel or movie I could lay my hands on that was set during WWII. Even now, every now and then I’ll settle down to enjoy a book that’ll take me back to this period in history.

So it’s no surprise that I was excited to have the opportunity to visit Berlin as the final destination on my recent travels. I know Berlin has a much richer history than just what’s happened over the past hundred or so years, which was reinforced when we took a walking tour of Berlin’s history. But somehow I’m never been as fascinated by the city’s more ancient history.

As I walked the streets of the city that had witnessed the rise and fall of Hitler’s regime and had subsequently become such a symbol of the divided East and West, I found my imagination being triggered into memories of things I’d read or seen in movies. I’ll admit it was both exciting and a little daunting.

Cds cds IMG 6230 1 2 tonemapped

In the next few Blind Tourist articles I’ll share a few of my most memorable experiences of Berlin. Starting next time with my first startling realization of how Berlin’s experiences have shaped her geography.

Wroclaw: Discovering Context on the River Oder

Cds IMG 3793

I usually try to find out about a city before going there. Learning a city’s story helps me build an impression of what I might find when I arrive. And then I use my experiences in that city, and all that I learn from my other senses, to build a more complete picture.

That wasn’t possible when we went to Wroclaw. We only planned to go to the city later in our trip. Our plans changed when the weather in our next proposed destination, Zakopane – a small but beautiful ski resort in the mountains outside Krakow – was dismally unpleasant. So we went to Wroclaw instead. Which is a very long and complicated way of saying that I had done no research on the city.

I was delighted when we took a tour on the river Oder and discovered our skipper/guide was a goldmine of information of the history of his city. More than that, since we were the only passengers on the boat, we were able to ask questions and dig deeper into any aspects that intrigued us.

Here’s my potted recent history of Wroclaw, based on what I learned from our guide:

Wroclaw has a fascinating recent history. It only became a Polish city when Europe was carved up following WWII. Previously it was a German city named Breslau, with a strongly German population. When the new borders were confirmed, there was an almost total population change – the Germans left (or in some cases were forcibly removed) and the city became populated by Polish nationals.

After WWII, Poland fell under the domination of the Soviet Union. The underground anti-communist organizations Fighting Solidarity and Orange Alternative were founded in Wroclaw. Orange Alternative used an image of a dwarf to help members find their way to secret meetings, and the dwarf symbol has now been adopted in a wonderfully unique way – but more on that in my next article.

With the fall of Soviet power in 1989, Poland started becoming the friendly, fun and dynamic country Craig and I enjoy visiting. Which doesn’t mean everything in Wroclaw has gone smoothly…

In 1997, the river Oder flooded with devastating effects – it was the worst flooding in post-war Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. About one-third of the area of the city was flooded and took huge amounts of time and money to repair.

Nowadays the city has a population of around 1 million, with almost 130 000 students studying at the university, which gives it a very youthful population.

Cds IMG 3782

After our river tour we started exploring the city on foot. As we visited interesting buildings, sampled the city’s markets and eateries, and engaged with people, I was struck by how young and cosmopolitan the city is.

While Wroclaw isn’t a hugely popular tourist destination, we encountered tourists from several countries and heard different languages and dialects. I found most people friendly and happy to chat about the city to an inquisitive tourist (me) which leads me to agree the city motto is an apt one: Wroclaw – The Meeting Place.

I’m not sure I’d go back to Wroclaw to stay for an extended period of time, but I would be very tempted to go back to meet more of the Wroclaw dwarves – which I’ll tell you about in my next article!

The images show a view of the river Oder taken on our tour, and a shot of one of the busy outdoor markets in the main square of Wroclaw.

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Note: My use of the term dwarf is not meant as an offensive and non-politically correct reference to persons of small stature; it is the term used by the city itself – and I’ll explain more in my next article.

Gorlitz – A Charming Start to our Adventure

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There’s something special about medieval towns. I don’t know if it’s the charm of cobbled streets, the beautiful old buildings, the sense that time flows a little slower than it does in a modern city, or a combination of all of those.

Whatever the reason, I found myself falling under the spell of the town of Gorlitz, our first stop on our recent trip to Germany and Poland, almost immediately.

Gorlitz is the eastern-most town in the region of Saxony in Germany, on the banks of the Lusatian Neisse River which forms the border between Germany and Poland. On the other bank of the river lies the Polish town of Zgorzelec.

The difference between the two towns is marked – Gorlitz is a beautiful, old medieval town. Zgorzelec, at least the parts that I experienced, appears to be more austere with streets lined with modern apartment blocks, as you can see from the photo taken from the German bank of the river.

One of the things I found most fascinating was the fortuitous location of the towns –neither Germany nor the Allies were willing to bomb the towns for fear of bombing their own people. So the towns made it through WWII with no damage.

Gorlitz is far from being a tourist location, which is part of its charm. Sure, it means that few of the restaurants have English-language menus, but that’s not a significant problem and ordering food in German or Polish soon becomes part of the experience. We found some delightful local restaurants, including one that had a maze, that I may write an entire article about in the coming weeks.

Considering it’s not one of the usual tourist stops, a surprising number of people in Gorlitz speak good English so it’s not hard to make oneself understood, though our smattering of German and Polish did prove useful on occasion.

In the past few years , Gorlitz has gained a degree of popularity as a movie location – the 2013 movie of Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” was filmed there, as was the movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.

So, if it’s not usually a Tourist destination, you’re probably wondering how Craig and I landed up in Gorlitz. We were there for two reasons. It seemed a great first stop on our road and rail trip from Berlin to Krakow. The timing also just happened to coincide with the Europa Marathon which Craig hoped to run – watch for a possible article on that as well.

That’s just a brief introduction to what turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip – it certainly was a fantastic place to start off our adventure and, if you ever find yourself in Saxony, I’d definitely suggest you give it a visit.

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