NORMANDY, February 7, 2014 – For nearly a thousand years, the region of Normandy in northern France has been a place of transition, turmoil and events that have altered the course of history.
Yet to visit the picturesque villages and fertile landscapes today seems to contradict the region’s frequently turbulent past where 360 miles of dramatic coastline sweep along the shores of the English Channel. Here gentle pastures of grazing cows blend with rolling terrain, pristine forests, stone houses and half-timbered cottages. It is also a place of inspirational light that has been a source of fascination for poets and artists alike.
Despite its placid charms, Normandy’s coast, overlooking the Channel between England and France, has frequently been a gateway for military conflict. The birth of Normandy traces its roots to the Battle of Hastings when William, the Conqueror sailed across the Channel at the head of 696 ships holding 7,000 men. King Harold of England, who was unprepared for the onslaught, was shot in the eye by an arrow and died on October 14, 1066. Thus William the Bastard, as he was previously known, became William the Conqueror and the Duke of Normandy captured the throne of England.
William’s triumph at Hastings brought an end to England’s Anglo-Saxon rule over Normandy. As a Frenchman, William’s ascension to the throne virtually wiped out English aristocracy, establishing a completely different culture and, in the process, eliminating English control over the Catholic Church in England.
With the creation of the Domesday Book (basically a census that meticulously documented the property holdings of English landowners), William systematically dispossessed his previously wealthy English subjects and conferred their property to his French counterparts.
William was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas day in 1066. Ultimately arranged marriages and treaties and alliances between England and France dominated both countries for centuries to come.
For the next thousand years Normandy became a window on history playing a significant role in the Hundred Years War, the plague, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the French Revolution and the Impressionist art movement before becoming the site of Operation Overlord where the largest military invasion in history began on June 6, 1944. It was known as D-Day.
Now, some 70 years after that massive attack which ultimately liberated Europe, Normandy will honor those who sacrificed their lives and the remaining living participants for perhaps the last time in June of 2014.
People now living for whom the story of D-Day is found only in books and black and white newsreels should know that the past seven decades in Normandy have been filled with appreciation for what took place so long ago.
Such dedication became brilliantly clear in 2001 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
On September 14, 2001, three days after the WorldTradeCenter fell the NormandyAmericanCemetery at OmahaBeach seemed an appropriate place to be. Solemn and reverent; it was a haven for reflection amid an apprehensive world suddenly filled with uncertainty. A place where timelessness merges with infinity.
Shortly before noon a ceremony began without fanfare. A small procession of people solemnly marched forward, forming a line in front of the 22-foot bronze statue symbolizing The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves. Moments later the chimes of the carillon rang out with the American National Anthem followed by three minutes of silence, a rifle salute and the haunting music of Taps. And then it was over.
But it was the participants at the ceremony who made it meaningful, for they were dignitaries from every village and town along the entire coast of Normandy who had gathered to pay their respects to the American people. An America that had liberated their own country nearly sixty years before.
After wandering almost aimlessly around the grounds, I strolled past the statue on my way out. As I passed, I noticed something that had not been there before the ceremony. At the base of the sculpture was a single basket of flowers which had been placed by an anonymous donor. Tucked behind one of the flowers, to hold it in place, was a picture; a photograph of the twin towers of the WorldTradeCenter.
But there was something even more telling about that tiny, unidentified tribute, for I knew it had been placed there by someone who had survived the Battle of Normandy in 1944. The answer was written in four simple words along the sash that draped across the basket; “We have not forgotten.”
And therein lies the message of Normandy, for it is a land where time remembers and its people do not forget.
It happened on an autumn day in September, 2001 in a place that has witnessed more than its own share of turmoil and grief. A place the world knows as Normandy.
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com).
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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