Ten years after being advised by Dick Allen, Steve Foote and Gary Ford to organise a bike tour around Normandy, and finally prompted by my brother Mike’s good sense, The Chain Gang will offer bike tours around Normandy, and I’m delighted.
There’s significant history in Normandy. This was home to William The Bastard, son of the Duke of Normandy and his mistress ‘The Beautiful Arlette’ – what a great name eh? It was only his famous victory against the English at the Battle of Hastings that allowed him to ‘upgrade’ his name to ‘The Conqueror’, a good swap in anybody’s book. Normandy is littered with references to ‘Guillaume le Conquerant’, but my favourite story relates to how he met his wife, Matilde.
William proposed to Matilde of Flanders, daughter of the Count of Flanders. She replied that she’d rather become a Nun. His response was to ride all the way to Lille, burst into the Count’s castle, grab Matilde by the hair and kick her round her own castle. Comtemporary accounts report that she was suitably impressed and promptly agreed to marry him. You couldn’t make that up, could you? so it must be true!
William and Matilde were distant cousins, and their marriage was frowned upon by the Pope, so they built two abbeys in their capital of Caen, the Abbey of Men and the Abbey of Women. They’re still there, and still amazing – remember that anything to do with William and Matilde is almost 1,000 years old.
On their own they’d justify a visit to Caen, but as well as William’s huge castle in the centre of town there is the world-renowned Peace Museum (Le Mémorial). There are so many moving monuments and museums to the 2nd World War in Normandy that the bar is set pretty high. This is the best , a commentary on conflict and peace that goes from the rise of Fascism in Germany to the present day – just have a look at the comments on Tripadvisor to see the effect this memorial has on people.
Before we get to Caen we’ll spend some time in the ‘Pays d’Auge’ to the South and East of Caen.
You may think you’ve never heard of the Auge, but you’ve heard of Camembert, Pont l’Eveque, Livarot and Calvados, and this is where it all comes from. It’s the centre of gastronomic Normandy, so it shouldn’t a big surprise to see The Chain Gang cycling through it.
Naturally we’ll also spend time exploring the history of Operation Overlord, the Normandy invasion of 1944.
The scale of what happened in Normandy challenges comprehension. The artificial Mulberry harbour established off the coast at Arromanches became the busiest port in the world for 3 months in the summer of 1944.
The area is littered with monuments and cemeteries for the British, Canadian and American forces. Each country deals with this legacy in a subtly different way. There are more than 20 cemeteries of British and Commonwealth soldiers, small and intimate, with each headstone carrying a personal message from the family – except of course for the thousands of anonymous dead who are simply “Known unto God”.
The Canadians are remembered at the Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles-sur-Mer, an interesting museum as well as a shrine to the dead. On an much grander scale is the American cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer, technically US territory, a huge, beautifully manicured centre with a reflecting pool and memorials in the grand style.
To give an idea of scale, after the war the dead soldiers were disinterred. The French were buried in their local cemeteries, over half the US bodies were repatriated, the rest were buried in Normandy. In total 140,000 bodies were disinterred. Naturally this included German soldiers, and they too are buried here, almost 50,000 of them, in four cemetries, the largest at La Cambe. There are no inscriptions, no monuments, no names, no attempt to defend the indefensible. You can only imagine the bitterness these places provoked among the local French, but they are as beautifully maintained as the American, Canadian, British and Commonwealth graves. It would be unthinkable not to include a visit to La Cambe.
A few days in this area is very moving, but not in any negative way. There are a lot of visitors, and the atmosphere of tribute and collective memory is palpable. But in the various museums you get a clear sense of the astonishing, barely credible level of ingenuity, scale, and engineering involved in this operation.
Over the next few months I’ll detail our Normandy tour and you’ll be able to read much more about it on our website and in our new brochure.
I wanted to introduce to you what a fascinating and delicious place we’re going to be biking round, and I’ll particularly be writing about two of my favourite sites, the Basilica of Sainte Thérese in Lisieux, and the world-famous Bayeux Tapestry just West of Caen.
Hopefully see you there.