Readers often ask me if I think there are real Mitch Rapps out there and I recently had the honor of going to a place where many of them fought: Normandy, France. It would actually be hard to write some of these soldiers’ stories because they would seem too far-fetched. People climbing cliffs with ropes and grappling hooks to assault massive German bunkers. The defenses and artillery fire that the Allies faced. The incredible rate of casualties that never dampened our troops’ resolve.
Many historic locations around Normandy have remained unchanged and are hard to fully grasp without standing in the middle of them. Pointe du Hoc, the elevated site the Germans used to bombard Omaha Beach, is the perfect example of this kind of place. Covered in overgrown bomb craters and bunkers, this spot tells the story of the soldiers who scaled a 100-foot cliff while Germans shot down on them. Despite incredible odds, they managed to accomplish their mission.
Get the enemy’s perspective from a German gun placement. Drive through the countryside and see for yourself why our men got bogged down in the fields. Touch the remains of a Mulberry harbor, a mobile structure for unloading troops and supplies, left behind on Gold Beach. There are also many war museums and other interesting stops in the region, but it was impossible to see them all in one trip. I chose to meander and get an overall flavor with the plan to return for a more in-depth visit in the future.
The Normandy American Cemetery and Monument at Colleville-sur-Mer is everything I expected it to be—an airy and bright celebration of heroism and sacrifice. It’s hard to imagine what more than 9,300 deaths look like until you walk through the orderly rows of simple white crosses. While I don’t have any relatives buried there, I can imagine what it must feel like for those who do. It’s a powerful place, without doubt.
I wouldn’t say that I think a lot about graveyards. That is until I visited La Cambe, the German war cemetery that is only a few miles from Omaha Beach. The experience was jarring as the clouds rolled in and the atmosphere turned heavy on the out-of-the-way plot of land. Passing through the entrance couldn’t have been more different than what I’d just experienced on American soil an hour earlier. The dark carved stone crosses are used sparingly, and simple flat stones mark the graves of more than 21,000 German soldiers. They surround a large central mound topped with an ominous sculpture that seems designed as a counterpoint to draw a stark line between good and evil.
Architecture and Food
Normandy is easily one of the most beautiful regions I’ve driven through in France. Green rolling hills meet seaside towns and the buildings feel old and aristocratic. Half-timbered houses made of lumber and stone are also a common sight here and create endless variety.
I’d read that the most popular cuisine in Normandy can be summed up with the four Cs: cider, Camembert, cream sauces, and Calvados. After the first day, we realized that one of the hardest parts of this trip would be to not gain thirty pounds.
Mont Saint-Michel is a UNESCO-listed medieval town and ancient abbey perched high on an island in the bay between Normandy and Brittany. Depending on the tide, it may or may not be surrounded by water when you’re there, but either way, it was a beautiful last look at France’s northern coast before we headed back to Spain. Photo credit: WikiCommons Hans Hillewaert
Bayeux, a town close to Omaha Beach, is a popular and convenient base for exploring the WWII sites. Visitors also come to see the Bayeux Tapestry, a UNESCO-recognized embroidered cloth that’s nearly 230 feet long. It depicts the duke of Normandy’s conquest of England in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. From what I’ve read, this medieval masterpiece will be loaned to the UK at some point in the near future.