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Normandy: Then and Now

© David Nicolas

There is no place in France where so many American flags fly as in Normandy in June. The Stars and Stripes festoon the windows of ancient farmhouses. Old Glories catch the Atlantic wind over the beaches, waving above stone walls and the patchwork of orchards and pasture that borders the cliffs or descends to the edge of the tide. Everywhere you look, it seems, red-white-and-blue flutters against lush green farmland. Flags are stickered on snack-bar doors. Sometimes, accompanied by Union Jacks and Canadian Maple Leafs, they’re arranged like bouquets of long-stemmed flowers for sale in front of souvenir shops. And of course they fly in June, as they do all year round, above the vast garden of stone at Colleville-sur-Mer, where so many thousands of GIs lie buried. These French remember, you think when you first see it all. And they do.

But there is more than recognition and hospitality for Americans here. The memory of that great sacrifice and long-awaited liberation, in 1944, has been internalized over six and a half decades by the Europeans who gather in Normandy in June, and there are some surprising celebrations of Americanness by people who speak little English, if any. Scores of local Harley-Davidson owners in black leather jackets parade along country roads and through village streets with their star-spangled banners raised high. Others, Belgians as well as French, don the uniforms of forties GIs, authentic down to the boot laces, and they pretend over beer in Isigny-sur-Mer to relive the liberation that took place before any of them were born.

Here in the central square of Isigny, the town where my late father-in-law came ashore in the fourth wave, I happened upon a loudspeaker outside the Maison de la Presse playing Artie Shaw’s “Stardust,” a song as full of heartbreak and hope as the landing itself. And I thought, “Thanks for the memories.”

It was Sunday morning, June 7, the day after President Barack Obama spoke at Colleville-sur-Mer alongside the brooding British prime minister, Gordon Brown, and France’s fidgeting president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Politicians love the June 6 D-Day anniversary. But 24 hours later the cemeteries and surroundings seemed more dignified without the dignitaries. Their entourages and the hordes of press and the warships off the coast providing security were, mercifully, gone. And I was thankful to break free at last from teleprompted ceremony and choreographed protocol.

Coming here to Normandy over the years as a reporter to hear presidents, or just to walk with family along the cliffs above the beaches, I had often wanted to turn away from the main roads and best-known sites and experience more intimately the drama that’s written into the land, the sea, the sky. And this seemed as good a day as I would get to search the countryside for…I knew not what. I was hoping the combination of place and history would offer the kind of mystical connection with the moment that is, to my mind, the greatest reward for traveling and exploring.

Even before mankind appeared in Normandy, of course, there were the cliffs and waves and the winds that rush clouds from horizon to horizon, opening vast expanses of blue sky in a matter of minutes or, just as quickly, shutting out the sun behind an encroaching storm. Maybe Nantucket or Big Sur could give a taste of what nature offers here. But when man did arrive thousands of years ago, he began to build a history that few places in the New World can match.

For even longer than it’s been the land of conquerors, Normandy has been a land of pilgrims. Out among the crops in farmers’ fields, standing stones, or menhirs, mark sites where Neolithic peoples gathered to perform rituals at the edge of an infinite sea. In the eighth century the Archangel Michael was said to have appeared three times before the Bishop of Avranches, bidding him to begin the construction of Mont-Saint-Michel, that most spectacular of France’s great abbeys. Built atop a rocky islet at the mouth of the Couesnon River, it is surrounded by tides that rush, as countless guidebooks warn us, faster than a man can run. And yet millions have made their way across the wet rippled sands to the mount. From the darkest days of the Dark Ages, the faithful came through Normandy on pilgrim trails that are still being rediscovered and re-marked today.

The paths of piety and conquest, literature and luxury crisscross all over this region. Here is the route that William the Bastard took from his castle, deep in the countryside, to Dives-sur-Mer on the coast. Here—with hundreds of boats loaded down by horses, prefabricated fortresses, and men in iron chain mail—he launched his invasion of England in 1066. And there, just across a little inlet a few hundred yards away, is the Belle Epoque beachfront in Cabourg that Marcel Proust called Balbec. There is the Grand Hôtel from his Remembrance of Things Past, where “the visitor was only a sort of spectator” but “was perpetually taking part in the performance….The lawn-tennis player might come in wearing a white flannel blazer, the porter would have put on a blue frock-coat with silver braid before handing him his letters.”

On this morning after the 65th anniversary of the Allied landing, I was thinking that the experience I was looking for might be found in less ostentatious settings, among the narrow lanes that run among the hedgerows in the farmlands above the sea.

Nearly every historical account of the 1944 Normandy campaign talks about those enclosures. Stephen Ambrose wrote about hedgerows scores of times in his D-Day, which was published 50 years after the landing. One of “the great failures of Allied intelligence,” he concluded, was the misjudgment about just how big these walls were. Seen from the air, their scale wasn’t apparent. Seen from the ground by members of the Resistance, they looked perfectly normal—for Normandy. But as a sergeant in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne remembered, “We assumed that they would be similar to the English hedgerows, which were like small fences that the foxhunters jumped over.” In Normandy they were six feet high or more and all but impregnable, and the roads between gave the Germans what amounted to readymade trenches. But they are all peaceful now—so peaceful and perfectly, beautifully bucolic, with spotted dairy cows and big cream-colored Charolais beef cattle grazing beside them.

I wanted to start my exploration near the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula around Cherbourg, then work my way back down. So I headed north by northwest on the N13, the main highway that allows one to move almost anywhere in this part of Normandy in a matter of an hour or so. This was the road the Allies wanted to reach and control on D-Day to cut off Cherbourg’s deep-water port from German reinforcements. The N13 was a primary objective of the paratroopers who landed, famously, in the streets and on the slate shingles of the church at Sainte-Mère-Eglise. And now, as I drove near the village, I saw a big propeller plane circling above. Suddenly, like flowers bursting forth beneath the low clouds, canopies of parachutes appeared. An American airborne unit was reenacting in late morning the drop that originally took place in the dark of night. From this distance the spectacle was silent, a brief vision of history that seemed both as real and as ephemeral as a dream or a half-remembered movie.

For many Americans, any idea they have of Normandy comes mostly from films. There was John Wayne in The Longest Day in 1962, and of course there was Saving Private Ryan in 1998, which, visually and emotionally, is the most accurate depiction of war I’ve ever seen. History and Hollywood come together in our sense of this place. And there are other traces of theatrical artifice. All along the N13, signs mark the names of cities that were bombed almost flat by the Allies and that had to be rebuilt. Caen was the scene of such civilian carnage that even the Nazis could claim to be appalled. Saint-Lô was all but destroyed. So, too, was Cherbourg. Some of the cities had their ancient precincts lovingly re-created like expensive Hollywood sets. But they are surrounded by the dreary architecture that called itself modern in the fifties and sixties, built atop the rubble. With the exception of exquisite Bayeux, with its cathedral and its magnificent tapestry telling the story of the Norman Conquest in 1066, I try to steer clear of the cities.

Almost at the coast, I turned east off the N13 near a café that advertised itself as being “at the end of the world” and headed toward the pastures and the ocean. Rain began to fall like a beaded curtain across the landscape. I put the heat on in the car, reminding myself, once more, that this was June. Then the sun came out like a gift from heaven, leaving the clean-washed fields sparkling.

Every so often, small roads led to villages with square church towers and stunning views: hamlets where two cars could barely pass each other on the narrow streets. At Néville-sur-Mer, a town that farmers and their livestock share with a few weekenders from Cherbourg and Paris, a path dropped gently toward the ocean, growing narrower between the walls and hedges until there was hardly room for my rented compact to squeeze through. High grass closed in on each side, gently slapping the doors like brushes in a car wash. Then suddenly: open air, open water, and, overlooking the empty beach, the silhouettes of wrecked German bunkers and pillboxes, those modern concrete menhirs left by the war.

Nobody else was there. On this day, there were no flags, no motorcycle parades, no Belgian GIs. Nothing but me, the fields, the ocean, and that inexplicable sense of magic that lingers around some corners of the earth like electricity in the air.

Staying Over

In the weeks after that moment, I went back to Normandy with a sense of excitement I’d never before felt about the place. But there was a practical question: Where to stay? Where to base oneself to maximize that cumulative sense of historical, topographical, and meteorological drama?

Accompanied by my wife, I thought I’d take a Proustian approach. A hundred and fifty years ago, the great beach resorts of the Atlantic coast frequented by the French began to migrate. Dieppe, in the north, and to some extent Biarritz, in the south, lost favor—the former too cold, the latter too far from Paris and London. Aristocrats attracted by the therapeutic effects of the sea and the allure of elite camaraderie gravitated initially toward Trouville and, a bit farther down the coast, to Proust’s Cabourg or that little gem of gingerbread-by-the-sea, Houlgate. Then Trouville came to seem too common, and life in the other towns was too restricted to the families and friends who went season after season, year after year. The Duc de Morny, a leading French financier and statesman, created the resort known as Deauville in the 1860s, and by the early 20th century it had grown increasingly attractive to Paris society, with its casino, its racecourse, its wide, wide, ever-so-well-raked beach, and its grand hotels facing the sea.

We stayed at the Royal Barrière, where sunsets fill the formal dining room with a golden light. But I am not sure I’d sleep there again. Such establishments were built on antiquated notions of elegance and service that no longer pertain to the lives we lead and are no longer available in any case. But I do love the beach in Deauville in early summer or early fall, when you wear a sweater, not a Speedo, to walk down to the water in the morning. And maybe there’s a romance remembered not quite subliminally from the scene of slow-motion lovers running toward each other in the 1966 movie A Man and a Woman. If you ever saw the film, it’s hard not to hear the theme when you walk on that beach.

Another time in Deauville I hope to stay at Villa Joséphine, a smaller hotel in the classic Norman style, a couple of streets from the water. The minute I walked in the door I felt at home, even though I didn’t have a room. And I’ll probably spend even more time eating. The adjacent town of Trouville offers some wonderfully convivial restaurants, the best known being Les Vapeurs, which specializes in mussels à la Normande steamed in cream. At the Pillet-Saiter fish market, there is great soupe de poisson à la façon de Jeannette to be taken away in plastic bottles or heated in a battered microwave by women who can be described, without prejudice, as rugged fishwives. Every so often they put out a bowl of the little whelks called bulots for anyone to sample, and the taste is so fresh-shellfish sweet it’s hard to stop eating them.

In Deauville itself we had dinner at one of Chez Miocque’s outdoor tables in the middle of town. We hadn’t been able to get a reservation until 9:30 P.M. and thought we’d be among the last people there eating fresh fish and knocking back the house wine. But in fact we were among the first. In the late twilight of early summer, the restaurant was still packed at 11 P.M., and many of the patrons were familiar faces from French television. It’s that kind of place, filled with spectators who are also part of the performance.

We had done a lot of driving that day. From Deauville we’d gone up the coast to Honfleur, a fishing-and-tourist town that is pretty and precious and full of people who speak no French. We had bought a case of sweet cider at a farm overlooking the sea—one does not go to this part of Normandy without drinking cider and, for that matter, Calvados. Farther up the shore, past Le Havre, we came to Etretat, where a fairly ordinary golf course sits atop extraordinary cliffs. The great 19th-century author Guy de Maupassant passed much of his childhood in the town, which might give it a mystique were there not so many low-rent tourists sunning on hot pebbles above the waterline. Normandy north of the Seine may have wonderful charms, but I was not tempted to explore them further.

Indeed it wasn’t until the next morning when we turned back toward the pastures, coppices, and hedgerows of the département of Calvados that I started to feel again the sense of drama that had excited me so much. In this land of conquerors and castles we searched for a château that, for a night or two at least, we might call home.

There are, to be sure, many châteaux in the region, some of which offer rooms. The one at Asnières-en-Bessin is a bed-and-breakfast just a few miles inland from Omaha Beach. But I think there is no place quite so spectacular and so beautifully, comfortably maintained as the Château d’Audrieu, located in a tiny village a little more than halfway from Caen to Bayeux. That it has its own very particular and tragic history makes it all the more unforgettable.

Parisians love their country houses, and among les people, as the French call their tabloid celebrities, the Norman hinterland has become almost as chic as Deauville. Glossy magazines are forever telling readers about “the life in the wild” of some actress or television personality who’s getting back to her roots by redecorating a manor house among the fields. And maybe a little of that Fauve fashion can be felt at the Château d’Audrieu.

The owners have constructed for teenagers and intrepid adults a solid tree house high—very high—in the branches of an enormous beech. I don’t think many people go up there, although I did, climbing the wooden stairway toward heaven. It’s just a folly, as the French say, a place where you can take a bottle of wine and watch from on high as the shadows lengthen on the fields. On another part of the property, the swimming pool lies next to a trail that leads out into the woods: an example of the organized wildness that’s landscaped into corners of great palaces like Vaux-le-Vicomte. The garden is, in fact, multiple gardens—one in the chaotic English style, one full of botanicals, and another with manicured rosebushes. Everywhere you go, the scent of flowers lingers in the air.

All of this reflects the owners, Gérard and Irène Livry-Level, who are themselves images of elegance dating back to another time. Their property is as immaculate as their persons, and this 18th-century château is not one of those musty castles where mildew passes for atmosphere. It’s a first-class hotel rated among the most agréables in France by the Michelin Guide, which also gave its kitchen a coveted star. As we walked through the public rooms with Monsieur Livry-Level, a waiter was ironing the white cloths on the dining tables. Through the windows I could see hay drying on the lawn that stretched a third of a mile to an ancient obelisk that marks the edge of the parc. In the bar the view is across a pond to the local Romanesque church that dates back to the 12th century, as Monsieur Livry-Level was happy to point out.

“We visited the church before we came here,” I said.

“My ancestors are buried there,” he said, noting two paintings above the fireplace.

“In front of the church,” I said, “there is a little monument to the Winnipeg Rifles. It looks like something terrible happened.”

“That’s right,” said Livry-Level. “Twenty-seven prisoners of war were shot.”

“What happened?”

“There was hard fighting close to here,” he said, then stopped himself. “Look, there is a long story about that.”

It is told, in fact, in a book called Conduct Unbecoming, by Howard Margolian, who goes into exhaustive detail about the actions of a reconnaissance battalion of the 12th SS Division “Hitler Youth” that briefly used the château as its headquarters. Under fierce bombardment it finally pulled out, and the next day part of a British Dorsets Regiment moved in.

“The Dorsets could not help but marvel at the beauty of the surroundings,” writes Margolian. “Thinking the place deserted, they were pleasantly surprised when Monique Level, the daughter of the château’s proprietor [and the older sister of Gérard] emerged from the main house. Refined in manner and fluent in English, Mlle Level offered food and cider to the new arrivals. After having endured the rough Channel crossing, the bitterly contested landings, and two days of almost incessant close-quarter fighting, the battle-weary British troops must have thought that they had entered Shangri-La.”

Then Level went to talk to their major. “She recounted for him the previous day’s nightmarish events,” writes Margolian. “The major learned that at approximately 2 P.M. on June 8, more than two dozen POWs had been escorted onto the grounds of the château, interrogated in small groups by the German commander, then ushered into the adjacent woods and shot.”

It is hard, knowing this story, not to look at that path behind the pool and think of those moments. It is hard not to see ghosts among the hedgerows that were liberated at such an enormous cost. But then you don’t come to this part of Normandy to forget. You come to remember—and, yes, to be remembered.

Address Book

Chateau d’Asnieres-en-Bessin $ Rooms, $110. Two rooms only. Closed late September to early April. Asnières-en-Bessin; 33-2/31-22-41-16

Chateau d’Audrieu Rooms, $230–$700. Closed in January. Audrieu; 33-2/31-80-21-52; chateaudaudrieu.com

Royal Barriere Rooms, $630–$6,075. Closed November to March. Bd. Eugène Cornuché, Deauville; 33-2/31-14-39-59; lucienbarriere.com

Villa Josephine Rooms, $270–$530. 23 Rue des Villas, Deauville; 33-2/31-14- 18-00; villajosephine.fr

Chez Miocque Dinner, $60. Closed in January. 81 Rue Eugène Colas, Deauville; 33-2/31-88-09-52

Les Vapeurs Dinner, $55. 160 Bd. Fernand-Moureaux, Trouville; 33-2/31-88-15-24; lesvapeurs.fr

Pillet-Saiter Fish Market Ten fishmongers offer daily catches as well as hot soups. Open daily, year-round. Bd. Fernand-Moureaux, Trouville; 33-2/31-88-02-10

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.