Despite the best efforts to stay awake and enjoy the French countryside on the two-hour ride from Paris to Normandy, most of us slept on the gently swaying bus with the cozy chairs simply out of necessity.
Our first stop was at the town of Benouville to the Cafe Gondree (Pegasus Bridge Cafe) where we enjoyed our first meal in France--fresh French bread with french cheese and ham. To call it simply a 'ham sandwich' would not do it justice.
As the parenthetical nickname suggests, the cafe is alongside the Pegasus Bridge which spans the Caen Canal on the eastern flank of the invasion area. This was the location of a famous glider landing by British troops the night of the invasion. The British 6th Airborne Division, commanded by Major John Howard, landed their gliders within yards of the bridge, disembarked and defeated a German machine gun nest within three minutes. With support from paratroopers, the British troops fought off German counterattacks for 12 hours until relief arrived. Their efforts prevented a German attack on nearby Sword Beach where thousands of British soldiers landed the morning of D-Day.
The current bridge over the Caen Canal is actually a replica of the original bridge that is on display adjacent to Le Musee du Pegasus Bridge (The Museum of Pegasus Bridge). The original bridge is on display, complete with bullet holes from the operation. It was a very interesting museum and a great place to start this fantastic tour of D-Day sites. The bravery and sacrifice that took place here, right at the earliest hours of the invasion, really set the tone.
Our next stop was the Museum of the Atlantic Wall--Grand Bunker (Le Grand Bunker Musee du Mur de l'Atlantique) in the town of Ouistreham along what was called Sword Beach on D-Day. The museum is a former bunker that served as the central command post for all the German artillery batteries along the mouth of the Orne River. There was an actual landing craft there as well as a German 88mm gun that wrecked havoc on the Allies.
The museum had numerous displays with a ton of artifacts from both the Allied and German forces. This was no small bunker--it is five stories tall with multiple rooms on each floor. One of the displays outside the bunker showed scenes from the movie "Saving Private Ryan" and talked about how Steven Spielberg modeled that first bunker the forces stormed after the Grand Bunker. For those keeping track, the movie starts on Omaha Beach and the Grand Bunker is on Sword Beach.
That was it for touring for the day but it wasn't the final lesson of the day. After checking into our hotel rooms, we went along with a group of students and teachers for a fabulous French dinner at Le Drakkar Restaurant in the town of Bayeux. There are a ton of restaurants and shops in the town but we selected this one because it looked to offer a delicious menu that included plenty of seafood choices.
Escargot, clams, oysters, duck, chicken, beef, salmon and a host of side dishes tickled our palates. Forks were traded all around the table as most of our group tried at least one food item for the first time. Our group also chowed on plenty of bread that just kept on coming. The town of Bayeux has a music festival every June 21 and our walk back to the hotel was filled with the sounds of numerous bands that lined the streets. My favorite one was the band of middle-aged women playing Red Hot Chili Peppers songs and doing a pretty good job of it!
Sleep came quickly at the end of this longest day of the year--a day that lasted around 36 hours. This is going to be one magnificent trip if today was any indication!