“Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
The oldest part of Bayeux is a charming collection of narrow, cobbled streets full of structures from the 16th century through the 19th century, all dominated by the towering Cathedral. The river Aure flows through the town and in several spots, postcard-like scenes present themselves in the form of an old mill perfectly juxtaposed to a tall, weeping willow blowing in the breeze.
We’ve visited many little quaint European towns, and Bayeux fits that bill and then some. But besides having a snapshot moment around every corner, the town is still quite alive. There is a hospital just a few hundred yards from the Cathedral, and townsfolk are hustling and bustling by. As we were walking down one of the main streets snapping pictures of special moments, a woman was leaving the little pedicure shop saying “Au Revior” to the shop keeper as she walked out hobbling away in her sandals so as to not mess up the nail polish.
Bayeux has a mix old, Norman architecture with half-timbered facades (like the ones we saw in Rouen) as well as a great deal of very formal 18th century architecture that reminded me a more toned-down version of what we saw in Aix en Provence last summer.
But as beautiful and laid back as Bayeux seems today, there was a time when things were far different. In World War 2, Bayeux (and most of northwestern France) was occupied by German forces beginning in the Summer of 1940. All along the coast, the Germans were creating the Atlantic Wall, to prevent any invasion by the Allied Forces. For narly 4 long years, this town was occupied by Germans and faced severe daily food rations, as well as a curb on every day freedoms. Not to mention the constant bombing of nearby towns by Allied forces, trying to squeeze the Germans out. Bayeux was saved from damage to its historic core mainly because the Allies were targeting the nearby city of Caen, which was a German stronghold.
It was on June 7th, 1944, just one day after the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy, that Bayeux was liberated from German occupation. It was British (and later American forces) that freed the people of Bayeux, and to this day, they honor both countries as hero nations, and the British and American flags are seen all over town.
When I was going through World War 2 photos of Bayeux on the internet, I noticed a building that looked familiar to me. In the photos above you can see the on the left the British forces walking through Bayeux after liberating the town…notice in the photo at the right, behind the truck you can see a half=timbered building. And then the photo on the right is my photo of the same building some 70+ years later!
Bayeux is home to two World War 2 places of interest, and we visited both of them. The Museum of the Battle of Normandy, as well as the Bayeux Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery. Both were a walk away from our Hotel, and we visited the Battle Museum first.
They have quite a collection of American and British military vehicles, uniforms, military gear, soldier paraphernalia, and the Museum tells the story of the occupation of France and how it played out in the area in and around Bayeux. It was well worth a visit, and as the first of many stops relating to World War 2, it was a good primer on the history of the war.
On the other hand, the Cemetery was a beautiful, yet solemn place. Holding the graves of 4, 648 British soldiers, (338 of which are unidentified) , the Cemetery is the final resting place for Soldiers that for the most part fought in the Battle of Normandy, and it’s the largest British war Cemetery in Normandy.
The Cemetery is a beautiful spot, with the Bayeux Cathedral visible from several places. it is meticulously maintained with leafy trees, wisteria trellises and bursts of color in the red poppy memorial wreaths.
We will be visiting the American beaches of the Battle of Normandy as well as the American Cemetery in a future post.