We recently spent a few days on the Cote Fleurie on France’s north coast and apart from one spectacular thunderstorm we had good weather which should be regarded a bonus for this area – Normandy is green for a reason.
Once we’d done the beach-sitting, people-watching and strolling around the picturesque towns of Trouville and Deauville we availed ourselves of some of the freshest seafood you are ever likely to find. The Poissonerie on the quayside at Trouville is open from seven in the morning till seven at night and is frantically busy all day. Several small market stalls are crammed together side by side and compete for business, displaying the morning’s catch in ever creative ways, tempting tourists and locals alike.
Each stall has its own tiny ‘bistro’ attached – in reality, a few stools and tall tables under parasols where you can sit and sample the shellfish, prepared in front of your eyes by friendly staff. They will supply a chilled bottle of wine to go with the food but if you want bread, you must visit the nearby Boulangerie. Paper napkins, wet wipes and an empty bucket for the shells and then you just tuck in with your fingers – delicious!
So feeling replete, it was time to head out for a little sight-seeing – of the historical variety.
A few kilometres along the coast to the west lays the Orne River, peacefully flowing its way through lush Norman countryside out towards the English Channel, or as is politically correct from this side of the sea, La Manche. At this time of year the river-banks are full of reeds and wild flowers and the trees, heavy with leafy greenery, dip their branches into the water while fish surface occasionally, leaving lazy concentric pools.
We stopped near this rural idyll, just outside Ranville, the first village to be liberated by British forces on D-Day (6th June 1944) and whose cemetery is the resting place for many British soldiers killed in action after a short but epic battle to secure the bridge across the River Orne. This was one of the major objectives of the British airborne troops in the opening moments of the Normandy Invasion and would prove crucial in limiting the effectiveness of a German counter-attack.
Imagine flying into an area you’ve never seen – in a glider – under the stealth of a pitch black night and landing safely within yards of the river. This is what Major John Howard and his Glider Unit of the British 6th Airborne Division did. Transported from their base at Tarrant in Dorset, they travelled in Horsa Gliders towed by bombers and landed virtually intact. One plane did land some seven miles away, near Dives, but the troops made their way through German lines towards Ranville and were reunited with British forces.
There is now a memorial on the spot where Major Howard’s glider landed, a peaceful garden adjacent to the river.
The bridge that Major Howard and his men were tasked with capturing crossed the River Orne from Ranville to the neighbouring village of Bénouville.
Next to the bridge, on the Bénouville side, was a small restaurant, the Café Gondrée. Here Georges Gondrée lived and worked, running his small establishment but also working for the Resistance.
Information about explosives under the bridge and the location of a switch in a pillbox was discovered by Georges, passed on to British Intelligence and was instrumental in the success of this operation.
Nowadays, Café Gondrée is run by members of the same family and exists as a tourist attraction as well as a café serving the worst coffee I’ve ever tasted in France. The staff were offhand – not unheard of in France, let’s be honest – although this, I felt, was scaling things to a whole new level. Large hand-written signs warned customers not to take photographs inside the building. (Son told us on our return that the newer establishment across the road is the place to go, and is full of friendly information for the visitor as well as decent fare).
The bridge was christened Pegasus on 26th June 1944 as a tribute to the British troops who wore the emblem of the winged horse on their sleeves. Today the original bridge resides in the grounds of the Pegasus Museum. A new bridge, constructed in 1994, now spans the river.
The Pegasus Museum was officially opened in 2000 by HRH Prince Charles and is worth a visit. Weapons, documents and photographs as well as the old bridge, a tank and a Horsa Glider are on view. Explanations of the mission are simple to understand or there is a guided tour which takes about an hour.
Heading back through Ranville it is apparent that much of this sleepy little village was rebuilt after the war. It is possible to visit the nearby Batterie at Merville where British troops overcame German forces intent on building their ‘Atlantic Wall’ – but we had done this on a previous visit and more shellfish was beckoning…
With some 4000 memorials in Normandy, commemorating acts of bravery and heroism undertaken during the Invasion, there is plenty of history here so there is always something to see, however often you visit.
The French call this area the Musée à Ciel Ouvert – ‘Open- Sky Museum.’ It makes sense.