I imagine it is theoretically possible to visit Normandy without thinking about D-Day. Measured in hours, the invasion wasn't much more than a blip in the history of France's northwest coast. It's certainly easy to put the focus on sipping calvados with a gooey wedge of Camembert, or decoding the Bayeux tapestry, or walking a cow path through a rustic pasture to a 400-year-old barn that's still in use. You could wander through villages where inhabited half-timbered houses date back almost to the Middle Ages and slurp your way through a lunch of oysters harvested earlier in the day. Yes, theoretically, the subject of war might never come up.
Of course, in reality there's just no getting past the fact that millions of lives -- and the course of the world -- were changed here by the invasion 70 years ago this June. Visitors tend to approach D-Day in one of two ways. Some take the full-immersion approach, dedicating a few intensive days to the battles, the American Cemetery, Omaha Beach and the German bunkers that still frown from the brow of oceanside bluffs. Others prefer to "take it as it comes," wandering Normandy and next-door Brittany, blending their WWII moments with the rich cultural and culinary pleasures of the place. Both ways work. What they have in common is the experience of tapping into a collective human memory that's astonishingly vivid even if you are a bit fuzzy on the details.
The people here who lived through it all certainly can't forget the occupation, invasion and liberation. I once asked Dominique, a friend of mine who is a local guide for Classic Journeys, how D-Day is remembered here, and she immediately told me a story of innocence skipping under the radar. "During the occupation, my grandparents would send my mother -- then just a child -- to the village on silly little errands. 'Why this purchase? Why this shop?' she remembers thinking. Only much later did she grasp that she was actually delivering secret messages to aid the local Resistance."
Dominique also remembers the stories of her father who was supposed to scour the sky for American and British planes, but who went "blind" if he actually saw one. Resistance fighters knew they could hide at the family's stud farm. "The people don't speak of it so much now," she adds. As long ago as the 50th Anniversary of D-Day in 1994, none of the teenagers interviewed in Argentan realized that their town was so devastated that only 21 homes survived. Despite all of the reverently tended sites and carefully cataloged relics, 70 years have inevitably softened some edges.
Consider Arromanches. The Norman coast had no harbors large enough for the invasion force; those that did exist were heavily defended by the Germans. So the Allies built enormous caissons in England, filled them with 600,000 tons of cement and tugged them across the Channel. Deployed offshore at Arromanches, they formed an artificial harbor through which 2.5 million soldiers, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies passed. Today, as you stand on a lookout over the beach, the last of them barely tilt above the waves, like stubborn salutes to ingenuity.
Even Omaha Beach bears virtually no trace of the epic landing. It's surprisingly quiet; today, you find a few cottage rentals here and there, but the blue water is too cool to be a major draw. The people of this region always lived with the beach to their backs, as farmers and dairymen rather than sailors and fishermen. The broad, flat expanse of sand is just soft enough that you're tempted to take off your shoes. And then you flash to G.I.'s splashing their way onto it in combat boots, heavily laden with their weapons. To stand ankle-deep in that sand -- back to the water, facing the bluffs that were lined with wall-to-wall firepower -- is a moment that etches itself in the imagination.
If you're on alert, the vestiges of Operation Overlord are everywhere. Road signs point to Caen and Saint-Lo, towns that were burned into the headlines. It seems that every village has a commemorative statue, fountain or plaque. Markers along quiet rural lanes note the progress of the liberation forces. You can duck into the stark German bunkers that still stare fixedly at the horizon that bristled with ships on that morning in late spring. I don't even know how to capture the feeling as the shadow of a lone cloud floats across the Cemetery as Taps echoes in the air.
The D-Day sites can be heroic and beautiful, humble and humbling, serene and fascinating and inspirational. In the end, that's even more the case because they co-exist alongside such rich cultural sites that aren't primarily about World War II. There's Mont-St.-Michel, soaring over the sea as it has since the 15th Century. In Bayeux -- one of the rare cities in these parts that was spared from bombing -- the 230-foot-long tapestry portrays the Norman Conquest. And believe me, as you sip (hard) cider in a sunny farmyard with the low, slow rustle of a breeze through the orchard in the background, the only battle on your mind may be the one to stay awake.
In the end, Normandy affected me like I had never predicted. I'm no war buff, yet I came away with a real sense of the scope and near-cosmic grandeur of the undertaking. I felt how much it means to preserve the memories of a time that for many of us is still only a generation or two away. I will always remember it.