The trip had been on my mind for some time. I wanted to take a memory-making river cruise with my elderly father. But where to? Searching online I found the perfect combination of place and personal significance – a leisurely glide along the Seine from Paris to Normandy.
We flew from Toronto to Paris and spent a couple of days jostling with the crowds at the Eiffel Tower, cruising the art galleries and sampling exquisite French cuisine.
After the frenetic pace of Paris, it was a relief to board our ship, lean back into the lounge’s plush cushions and sip a cup of tea. The focus of the cruise was the Second World War and I had picked it because my 93-year-old dad, Gordon, was a sailor on a mine sweeper with the Royal Canadian Navy on D-Day. His ship cleared the way for American troops who landed on Normandy’s Utah Beach on that fateful June morning in 1944. A few years ago, the government of France had honoured him with a Legion of Honour medal for being part of the D-Day operations that liberated the country. My knowledge of the invasion was gleaned from history books and movies, and I was eager to see the sites of the elaborate Allied operation that led to the end of that horrific war.
River ships move at a slow pace, land is a stone’s throw away, and the views of castles and ancient villages were spectacular. The cruise was not only about the war, but also historic locations along the Seine. On our first morning, we disembarked and traveled by bus to Giverny, Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s home for almost 43 years.
The gardens were in full bloom and identical to the paintings of them I had seen at the Musée d’Orsay. It was as if they were under a magical spell cast long ago by the great artist. Later that day we went to the sleepy little town of Les Andelys. Hiking up a steep slope, we came to the ruins of what was once a formidable fortress, Chateau Gaillard, built by England’s King Richard the Lionheart in 1196.
Our guide told us many medieval conquests occurred here (King Richard was also the Duke of Normandy), but eventually the French claimed the Chateau and by the 1600s it was in ruins. I could almost hear the heavy clanking of armour and see a procession of crusading knights mounted on great war horses crossed the drawbridge and made their way to safety within the castle’s immense walls.
Another stop along our route was Caudebec, where we visited Vendry Monastery home to 30 monks who work and pray in silence. Luckily, they appointed a member of their Benedictine order, Brother Lucien, to tell us the story of the 14th century abbey, one of more than 100 abbeys that once graced this region. He told us of the hand-crafted apple cider the monks produced, showed us the library with more than 200,000 books, and pointed us in the direction of the gift shop where I picked up a bottle of the apple brew and a recording of the monks’ Gregorian Chants. I have found there is nothing more powerful for conjuring memories of a place than tapping the senses of taste and sound.
The next morning, we received a notice under our cabin door. It was a copy of General Dwight Eisenhower’s statement, distributed to 175,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force on June 6, 1944. “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you…” began the missive. I was especially moved by its conclusion. “I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory. Good Luck. And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
“I’ve seen that notification before,” said Dad when I showed it to him. “It was posted on our ship the morning of D-Day.” The expeditionary forces had sailed from southern England on the night of June 5. In the early morning hours of June 6th, Dad’s ship had skimmed along the Normandy coast, clearing it of mines so the troops would be able to land. “It was very quiet,” he recalled. “We were fearful of waking the Germans, but luckily that didn’t happen.” The thundering of guns and great waves of landing troops was to happen a little later. Dad truly experienced the calm before one of the world’s biggest storms.
We spent that day in the Juno Beach region, where the Canadian troops had landed. First stop was Pegasus Bridge, where British paratroopers flew in on six silent gliders and were able to capture the bridge over the River Orne. Replaced in 1994 with a more modern version, the original bridge is now owned by the Juno Beach Center museum where you can also see a replica of the gliders, not much more substantial than a balsa wood model plane.
The Juno Beach Center honours the Canadian soldiers who fought on D-Day. It’s full of individual’s stories, photos and exhibits. “That’s a uniform just like mine,” Dad said, pointing to a sailor’s navy serge pants, and jaunty white cap. After watching a video that recapped the June 6th operations, our guide Pauline came up to Dad and said quietly, “Thank you sir, for everything you did.” Dad smiled. “Bienvenue, and merci beaucoup,” he replied. Growing up in Montreal, Dad still has a smattering of French often pulls out appropriate phrases at moments like these.
West of Juno Beach was Arromanches-les-Bains. A seaside holiday town, it was where Mulberry Harbour was set up during the amphibious actions. Great hulking slabs of concrete emerged from the sea, remnants of the temporary dock erected to allow heavy military equipment and vehicles to land.
One of the most moving places we visited was the Canadian War Cemetery, located about eight miles north-west of Caen. Here we wondered the grassy paths and looked sadly upon more than 2,000 tombstones. Our guide had given us roses to lay at the graves and Dad chose a young man who had been from Montreal. Most of the soldiers killed were 19 or 20 years old. When Dad joined up, he was 18. It was very moving to contemplate these acres of silent headstones and think of the young men, boys really, cut down in their prime. We both were quiet much of the way back to the ship.
The person aboard who made the reality of wartime come to life was Nigel Stuart, a writer, researcher and artist from Manchester, England, who has lived in France for more than 20 years. Every evening Nigel gave a presentation on a fascinating aspect of the war or the region. One evening it was about the Société Latham Seaplanes, built in Caudebec-En-Caux, a town we drove through on one of our land activity days. The Latham 47 was the plane that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had disappeared on in 1928 during a rescue mission to the North Pole in search of Umberto Nobile. A memorial to Amundsen was erected in the town in 1931.
On another evening we learned about Nancy Wake, a servicewoman who became know as the “White Mouse,” a nickname given her by the Gestapo for her elusiveness. Wake, who had lived in Paris and was originally from New Zealand, spoke French fluently, was a good shot, liked a drink and had countless life-risking adventures with the Special Operations Executive (SOE). She died at the age of 98.
Stuart told us of the horrifying casualties during the Battle of Normandy – 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded or went missing. He brought individual’s stories to life for us including that of David Curry, a Canadian soldier who fought hand-to-hand combat with SS troops and died in Saskatchewan in 1986. And then there was Dad, who told us of standing on deck looking in the water as a German U-boat torpedo narrowly skimmed by his vessel’s anchor line only to explode a nearby hospital ship. The vision was gut wrenching.
I can only hope the confrontations and assaults we hear of every day on the news never escalate to this level again. We tend to forget about the deep atrocities, the untold deaths, the undo-able damage that war can bring.
Every November 11th Dad is asked to help lay the memorial wreath at his church and I look on proudly. This year, I’ll remember our trip and watch him with a bursting heart.
GETTING YOUR BEARINGS IN PARIS
If you want to get acquainted with Paris fast, The Paris Pass is an invaluable tool. It includes Hop-On-Hop-Off sightseeing tours with Big Bus Tours that cover the main parts of the city. The pass also includes admission into museums and galleries and allows you to bypass often snaking lineups. An added bonus is a 30-minute river cruise. To top it off, you get a metro ticket which is useful for getting around the city quickly on buses and subways. The Paris Pass: www.parispass.com
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