July 25th - Normandy
On Sunday I took the long awaited trip to Normandy and the D-Day battlegrounds. When I first looked at the map of Brest, I saw that Normandy didn't look so far away, a lot closer than any other attraction that I wanted to see in France like Paris. A lot of other people on the ship felt the same way. The Captain's aide, Anderson Smith, who arranges the tours for us, tried to get a Normandy tour from the ship's agent in Brest. Apparently no one else who goes to Brest goes to Normandy. There were no "canned" tours to Normandy available. Not to be daunted, he was able to rent busses for us to take us up there where we would meet a local guide to take us around.
Two days were set up, Saturday and Sunday, for 80 persons each. They sold out quickly. As it turns out Normandy wasn't that close, the tours were scheduled to be 18 hours long! Most of that was traveling time to and from the region. Originally, I planned to go Saturday because I knew such along day would wear me out and I'd be exhausted Monday when we departed.. I reconsidered and booked for Sunday when I realized that almost everything in Brest would probably be closed that day.
The tours were scheduled to leave at 04:00, way before dawn. We left an hour late in a Breton rain with about 3 hours of the driving in the dark. What a lot of driving it was. It took us 5 hours total to arrive in the town of Bayeux, home of William the Conqueror. Unfortunately, we were running late and didn't get time to walk around the town. We met our guide and headed on our tour of the D-Day battle sites.
We passed some sites, such as the British and German cemeteries, without stopping, while our guide regaled us with facts and stories about the invasion. Our first stop was the town of St. Mère Église. This was the town where the U.S 82nd Airborne paratroopers landed the night before the invasion to act as pathfinders for the invasion force. Located here is the Musée Airborne devoted totally to the airborne aspect of the invasion. Moving on, we went to Utah Beach, the westernmost beast of the invasion and the one with least casualties. Little remains of the gun emplacements or any other traces of the war. Only a few monuments dot the site.
Next we went to Pointe du Hoc, a 150' high, jagged cliff that 225 Army Rangers climbed to successfully capture a Nazi gun emplacement, only 90 survived. The landscape is still littered, like the surface of the moon,with bomb and shell craters 20' deep. A very surreal spot.
We finally drove to Omaha Beach which was the bloodiest of all sites in the area. It's easy to see why it was such a killing field. It is a wide beach at the low tide that the invasion took place. There is no place to hide. The Nazis had an unobstructed view of the entire beach from their machine gun nests on the bluff above the beach. We hiked along the beach and up the bluff where there are now stairs. At the top is the largest of the American war cemeteries in France. It is a magnificently beautiful spot, perfectly manicured bushes, trees and grass with row upon row of stone crosses and Stars of David. Over 9,000 Americans were left here. Many more of the dead were sent home at their families' wishes. All of the stones face home to the west. There is a beautiful chapel and a memorial with the names of those missing or never identified. It is an incredibly moving spot that really makes you appreciate the sacrifices made by those men and women (there are 4 here).
After the cemetery it was time to bid adieu to our guide and head back to the ship. We arrived back at 23:00, exhausted, but inspired by the sites of the day.
July 24th - A visit to Quimper
After being underwhelmed with Brest, I decided to go south on Saturday. The seaside tours that the Ship had arranged had fallen through due to lack of interest and I had already decided to switch to my Normandy trip to Sunday. I had read about the Festival de Cornouaille in a town called Quimper in the Fodor's guidebook and it looked interesting. It was touted as a 9 day street celebration of Celtic heritage held in a quaint Breton town. I confirmed on Friday at the Brest tourist office that the festivalwas still going on for the weekend.
Leaving the ship early on Saturday morning, I encountered a Sandy from theChartwell's food service crew who expressed an interest in going along. So about 09:00 the two of us set off to Quimper, some 70 miles to the south. Luckily, we were able to catch the first Ship's bus of the day into downtown Brest which deposited us off right in front of the Gare SNCF(train station). We got a noon train with a 19:00 return for only 20€, giving us a good 6 hours to roam Quimper. The 70 minute ride was very pleasant, traveling on the super-modern SNCF train through the Breton countryside, making 4 stops in some of the smaller towns on the way. We spotted about a half dozen Maritime cadets on board also getting out of Brest for the day.
When we arrived in Quimper, there didn't seem to be much activity around the station. It was already their 4 hour lunch break and most shops in the vicinity were closed. Asking for directions to the fair, we hiked toward the center of the town. After about a 6 block walk along the lovely, florally decorated river quay, we spotted the first stalls of the festival vendors. Luckily, it was early and the festival wasn't too crowded yet and we were able to move through the stalls without having to fight our way through crowds.
There was an interesting variety of locally produced goods at the stalls along the quay: jewelry, artworks, Quimperware (locally produce pottery) and food. We snacked at a crepe stand, bought some edible seaweed spread and some souvenirs. Unlike the rest of the town, the shops along here stayed open instead of closing for their mid-day siesta which was a nice treat.
The fair led off the quay into the winding streets of the old town. There was a central food market in the town with excellent fresh foods; fruits,cheeses, breads, fish, pastries, etc. We got a variety of stuff there and had lunch on the street French peasant style.
Wandering on further we came to the town square where they had a Celtic orchestra accompanying 2 groups of native dancers having a sort of ancient"dance off'. It was amazing to watch.
Heading back, we went to Quimper's cathedral of St Corentin, the 2nd largest cathedral in France. It was magnificent. The festival continued in the courtyard where they were having an "American Idol" style competition of Celtic music. By evening, the clouds that had kept us cool all day began to drizzle on us and it was time to return to Brest.
July 23rd - Exploring Brest
We docked this morning at 09:00 at Brest France. After anchoring last night off the coast, we met the pilot, entered the harbor and pulled in at at the French Navy base. It took an extraordinary amount of time before we could get off due to the fact we couldn't use our own gangway The tides are too high here so the Navy had to move their gangway in with a crane.
The town is pleasant enough. I expected worse. A nice complex of medieval buildings at the town entrance and the new constrution not as bad as I was led to expect. The only problem was they are ripping up the entire main street of the city to make a new boulevard with a light rail running down the center.
Captain Stephens and I had a great dinner at a French restaurant with the cooperation of a very patient waiter who spoke some English. After dinner we hit some of the local shops before they closed. Everything in Europe closes so darn early.
The tour to the coastal towns, that I was supposed to take today, was cancelled due to lack of interest. Too bad, it looked good. The Normandy trips for Saturday and Sunday are both still on. They were very popular. Both are full. I decided to go Sunday. Since it won't be back until late, I probably won't be able to post any pics until I get home 2 weeks from tomorrow. I don't know what I'm going to do tomorrow. I may head 60 miles south to Quimper where there is a Celtic festival going on. It looks cool. We will see. Au Revoir for now.