“A” for apples, “B” for brandy, “C” for cows and cheese and “D” for D-Day, June 6, 1944 – all things Normandy is famous for. When Santa Barbara Bank & Trust’s travel group, “Our Gang,” proposed a trip to Normandy (named after Viking Norsemen or Normans who conquered the area in the 9th century) that included Omaha Beach, we signed on. Don had sailed by that area on merchant ships just after World War II but had never been ashore.

We went because of D-Day but soon learned that besides beaches, Normandy has lots of apple orchards. The bucolic black and white cows that look like they are wearing black spectacles, graze in the lush green pastures underneath the apple trees. Then the apples are harvested and head for distilleries where they are processed in gorgeous shiny copper pots, aged in oak casks and become the famed Calvados (brandy.) We tippled some!

And then there’s the cheese. Normandy, in particular, is renown for three (all named after villages), Camembert being one of the most well-known throughout the world. Legend says that a local woman, Marie Harel, invented the cheese with the help of a Parisian priest who was escaping from the new republic. (They liked to kill priests in those days.) Good quality Camembert is packed in the wood of the poplar trees so it can breathe. In days gone by farmers who had a baby girl used to plant rows of poplar trees that were harvested 20 to 25 years later. This would provide a dowry and pay for the wedding. You could also tell how old the girl was by the size of the trees. The second cheese is Pont l’Eveque, which was created by monks in the 13th century. The third is Livarot, which is nicknamed the “Colonel” because of the paper stripes binding the reddish, wrinkled skin. Some of Normandy’s other cheeses like Neufchatel date back to 1035 AD.

Along with the hedgerows and ubiquitous half-timbered houses of Normandy is Impressionist Claude Monet’s pink house with green shutters at Giverny (zhee-vehr-nee). We strolled the paths by the water lily ponds that inspired his famous series of paintings, crossing over the arched Japanese bridges and then into a tunnel under the road that separates the ponds from the house and flower gardens. We wandered through the house where Monet spent the last half of his life, dying there in 1926 at age 86. His huge studio is now a gift shop lined with copies of the Lilies.

One thing I particularly wanted to see on the trip was the 1,000-year-old Bayeux (bah-YUH) tapestry in the town of that name. I’m a docent at Casa del Herrero on East Valley Road and in the children’s bedroom is a painted border of the tapestry by George Steedman, the first owner of the house. It shows only a few scenes of the 58. The original is not a tapestry at all, but an embroidery – the largest in the world at 231 feet long by 27 inches high done on linen with colored wool thread. The first comic strip of history. It depicts William the Conqueror’s (or Guillaume Le Conquérant) invasion of England and the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and illustrates what life was like in the 11th century. Monks in Kent, England created the tapestry just a few years later.

Tides and Beaches

If Saint Michael had kept his mouth shut, there would be no Mont Saint-Michel. Legend has it that Saint Michael, the Archangel, appeared to Bishop Aubert of Avranches and told him to build an oratory on top of a 264-foot granite rock off the western coast of Normandy. When the bishop didn’t respond the Angel persisted a second time. The bishop’s small sanctuary was built 1,300 years ago. The abbey that was added and its many additions is called “The Marvel of the Western World.” It is not only an abbey but also a town, ramparts and a fortress. The sea known for its tides, which rush in and out creating treacherous quicksand, surrounds it. Pilgrims have always come but today there is a causeway so they don’t have to dodge the tides. One wonders how those men many centuries ago could haul granite from miles away and pull it up the sides of the rock, then chisel it to match the contours of the Mont itself. No wonder it is the top tourist site in France.

But for us the highlight would be going to the Normandy beaches where the D-Day invasion took place. One of our guides brought World War II down to a personal level. His mother had him, her fifth child, on a board in a field with the cows four days after D-Day. They lived in a trench. As we stood on the shore by the German gun bunkers we could almost see on the horizon 4,000 ships, 5,800 bomber planes, 4,900 fighter planes, 153,000 troops and 20,000 vehicles that took part in Operation Overlord. Or as one British soldier said, “It was as if every ship and every plane that had ever been built was there.” Then we walked on Omaha and Utah beaches and looked over at the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc where thousands of American soldiers, young and old, had died.

One thing I never realized was that Winston Churchill knew the invading army would need a prefabricated harbor that could be brought with them and constructed on Arromanches Beach in order to land the tanks, trucks and supplies to carry on the European campaign. A year before the invasion in England they began the monumental task of building one. As the invasion occurred there were 17 old ships that crossed the Channel simultaneously. Their crews sank them bow to stern about one and a half miles from shore. Then concrete pontoons weighing 3,000 to 6,000 tons and 220 feet long, 60 feet high and 52 feet wide were towed across the Channel by tugs. When in position they were also sunk on the reefs. This created a four-mile-long breakwater.

Four floating roads to the shore were created by linking platforms with legs that adhered to the seabed by pressure allowing the platforms to move up and down with the tide. One road was for ambulances, command cars and jeeps, one for tanks, bulldozers and cranes and two for unloading cargo. Sometimes there were 280 ships unloading at the same time in the artificial Mulberry Harbor.

Resting in Peace

Today all is quiet at the American Cemetery and Memorial – 172 acres located on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel where 9,387 servicemen and women are buried. In all the photos I’d seen, I thought the crosses were white-painted wood about a foot high. What a surprise to see they are all white marble and an impressive three to four feet tall. One of the crosses marks the grave of Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the son of President Teddy Roosevelt. France deeded the land to the United States and our government maintains the property. It is one of 14 permanent American World War II cemeteries on foreign soil. Nearly 30 cemeteries (including American, British, Canadian, French, German and Polish) hold the remains of almost 100,000 soldiers who never returned from their service in Normandy. I saw a sign on a restaurant window in Lisieux, France where we stayed all week that said, “Thank you, our liberators” and it showed the flags of all the Allied countries.

Father Dennis Edward O’Brien (a Guadalcanal veteran of World War II) said it best: “It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to demonstrate, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag.”

Our Gang

We trekked through Normandy with 20 other folks from Montecito and the local area and Phillip Insalaco, our tour director. During our visit to the beaches, we discovered that one member of our group, Major General Jack Barnes (Ret.), was revisiting his past. Jack’s dad had graduated from West Point in 1918 and Jack had followed in his footsteps graduating in 1942. Twenty-one days after D-Day Jack, who was then a young Captain, came ashore on Utah Beach with the 51st Engineers Combat Battalion. They were in charge of building and repairing roads and bridges, clearing minefields and creating obstacles to prevent German attacks. This infrastructure was needed for the advancing Allied Forces. When we see how peaceful it is today, it’s hard to imagine the chaos that was then. Thanks, Jack, for sharing a moment in history with us.