Places to visit in France: Omaha Beach
When visiting France, there is one place I recommend above most - The Beaches of Normandy. But with this recommendation I will warn you, these aren't beaches on which you will get a tan or enjoy a lazy day in the sun. Rather these are the areas on which the Allied forces in World War II landed and ultimately liberated Western Europe from Nazi tyranny.
In 1994 my wife and I visited Omaha Beach. The month was February and winter winds and spray off the English Channel were harsh and relentless. The entire region seemed enveloped in a penetrating mist that, no matter how subtle, ended up soaking you to the bone after several minutes' exposure. Villages still had welcome signs posted for visiting American veterans; it was the 50th anniversary of the invasion. But oddly enough, nothing felt exploitative - there were none of the usual tourist traps you would see at such places as the Sacre Coeur in Paris or at Notre Dame Cathedral. Actually, the somberness of the location seemed to permeate the very fabric of life there - locals were very respectful of the beaches and of the nearby cemeteries dedicated to the fallen. It is one of the few places I have been in France that has not been marred by graffiti.
On June 6th, 1944, Allied forces crossed the English Channel for a planned landing at several beaches along the Norman coast. Beaches were code named Utah, Sword, Omaha, Juno, and Gold. Omaha Beach was the bloodiest of all. All total, nearly 10,000 men lost their lives on the Ally side in combined fighting. Estimates range from 4,000 to 9,000 killed on the German side. The beach itself bears little in the way of scars from the original battle. The ocean has taken care of that. However the land above the beach at Omaha still bears bomb craters as a testament to that awful day. Signs are posted in various languages warning of "unexploded ordinance." Digging anywhere at the site is expressly forbidden. German concrete fortifications and their heavy guns stand silently in the wind. Sometimes known as casemates, these fortifications are pock-marked by artillery still to this day. You can tour these German fortifications, and we did. The ceilings of these blockhouses were constructed of wooden planks. Allied flamethrowers were used to clear or rather burn German soldiers from them; charring on the ceilings is still visible today and the fortifications still smell of burnt wood.The American Cemetery is nearby. Row after row of crosses and the occasional Star of David mark where the fallen are buried. Officially part of the United States, the cemetery is meticulously maintained - much like Arlington National Cemetery in Washington. This is the cemetery seen in the opening and closing scenes of Saving Private Ryan.
It is a somber place to visit, but one that will leave an indelible mark on your soul.
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