Caen shades

Caen shades

At six in the morning we stood there in Saint Lazare station of Paris waiting for the train towards Normandy, the northwestern region of France. Mike, my friend, was taking me to his hometown Caen, which I had not even heard of. With most tourists opting for snowy locales of French Alps or the exotic beaches down south, very few visitors to France, especially from Asian countries, seemed to go there. As the train slithered away silently we began to enjoy the endless views of the country side. Landing at our destination exactly after two hours, we started off doing the sights right away as we had long journeys and a few places to visit.

Caen, also known as ‘The City of William, The Conquerer’, on the banks of river Orne is cool and pleasant with a few canals connecting it to the sea and some sprawling gardens and parks spread all over. It has also gained a lot of attention, of late, as a city known for higher education and ultimate facilities for sports activities. But all these facts seem to take a backseat  when it comes to its historic importance and the wars that the city has faced, more of which I was to learn later.

We came to the city centre to an imposing monument, the Abbaye aux Hommes. This Abbey meant for the men was built by the Duke, William in the year 1063, as gesture to reconcile with the church and absolve his strange marriage to Mathilda,  sister and a distant cousin. Mathilda, for her part got an abbey built for the nuns, the Abbey aux Dames. The Abbey for men was built into the church of St Etienne with two tall spires. On the south side the structure was extended to be the monastery for the monks. Later on it became the City Hall and presently it is the grand hotel of De Ville. The entire complex looks very attractive with a blend of styles from 11th to 18th century.

The interiors are exquisite too. The wooden panels of the well seasoned oak trees seem as fresh as yesterday. And the staircases carved out of Caen stone, used profusely in local architecture as also exported widely, are indeed unique in that no cement was used for the steps that are held by pressure. However, the most appealing sights within the Abbey are the period paintings of various artistes.The collection of works dating from 17th to 19th century is remarkable.

Homage beach

Resuming the journey we paid a visit to the Abbey for nuns too, before heading off for the beach. Crossing the Pegasus  Bridge, which is a strategic link between Caen and the English Channel we came to the sea. Any idea that conjures up here as a beach destination would not be as appropriate as these very beaches had witnessed the bloody battles during World War II. Famed as the D-Day beaches, the stretch of sea for about 80 kms from here along the coastline were where the Allied Forces landed to fight a severe battle to beat back Germans and free Europe from them.

The Allied forces comprising the American, Canadian, British contingents planned the surprise attack, termed Operation  Overlord, and took Germans by surprise on the D-day: June 6, 1944. In a meticulously executed operation lasting till about August the forces, supported by air raids, heaped a multipronged offensive and finally the Germans had to give up thereby liberating Europe. The event, which went down in history as the Battle of Normandy, was a significant turning point in World War II.

So, we went around the beaches in a different perspective as we drove off along them. The barricades and bunkers were too frequent as well as the many memorials in honour of the martyrs. At the end of drive we arrived at Bayeux, another historic town and the first city to be liberated. As such not much of damage has been done to its buildings which date back to the pre- war period. The typical houses built with a combination of wood and stone can still be seen. The city is well known for its work of art, the Bayeux Tapestry. It is a 50 metre long and half metre high band of linen on which a series of embroidery figures are knit. The story depicted relates to the life of William and his conquest of England. 

Another important sight in Bayeux is the Cathedral of Notre Dame. In fact, several other cities, including Paris also have the same church. But this one is really gregarious and imposing. The many spires that rise high into the sky lend character to its appearance. As we walked through the entrance flanked by two large towers, the wide and spacious corridors with few chapels greeted us. The  paintings with fine detail on the high ceilings are awesome.  But the glass stained windows with colourful images of saints and ceremonies really steal the show. This Norman-Romanesque cathedral, consecrated in the presence of William, the Duke in 1077 has been well preserved as a national monument.

Back in Caen by evening we had little time to relax before visiting the Chateau de Caen, the Ducal castle. This was built in the middle of 11th century by William to mark his Crowning as King of England. Perched on a little hillock right in the middle of the city this fortress with rock solid bastions has seen the wars over a hundred years. Though bombed severely in World War II, it has miraculously survived with some embellishments from time to time. Though we were late for the museums here, we could catch an amazing view of St Pierre church in a pink twilight of the sky.

As the hectic day closed in, I wondered at the feeling of spending a night in the battle ravaged land of Normandy.

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