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6 Giugno 1944: at 2 AM 18.000 allied paratroopers (british, french and americans) are the first allied forces to set foot in occupied France. Their plan: prepare for the greatest sea invasion ever that will take place 6 hours later on the Normandy coast, on 5 beaches codenamed Gold, Juno, Sword, Utah and Omaha.
58 years later I went too, but not on landing craft, with a motorbike.
Total Kms: 1784, petrol: 77 lt, average 23 Km/lt
Average speed: 76 Km/h, top speed: 128 Km/h
Average cost: petrol: 0.98 e/lt, sleep: 46 e/night (who said that B&Bs are cheap??)
Of this day I only have the ritual first photo, in Dieppe it was raining too much to go around dicking with the camera.
Wake up at 6am, ready to go before the Great Jam on Amsterdam's Ring. Look out the window and... it rains! After a shower and breakfast, put everything on the bike. Since I've reserved all the B&Bs via Internet, I'll carry just the minumun (that is going to be even too much). On the tank bag the maps and other "comfort goods"
First stop: the bank, to get some cash. Second stop: the tank station to fill up and then GO! To France!
I leave Amsterdam directed to Utrecht/Breda/Antwerpen and then Gent.
What began as a light rain get worse and worse, around Gent it gets quite heavy rain. At Gent I encounter the first problem, I can go to Oostzende, Kortrijk or Gent. Two are ok, one is the wrong. Guess which one I pick? Result: I go to Bruxelles and add 80 Km to my trip.
Around Bruxelles stop for refuel, a sandwich a coffee and a better look at the map (note for me: chuck away this stupid thing and get one where the cities' name is in the same language as the road signs).
In the end I decide to go towards Roubaix/Lille and once there take the Route Nationale 13 to Arras, then the R.D. 925 to Abbebille and then Dieppe.
The D925 turn out to be a large road, that crosses a huge number of small villages and poke marked with roundabout "french style", the kind that you can't see shit 'till the big truck coming the other way is above you.
The road goes through the hills, the rain gets worse and worse, I reach the hills around Dieppe and... lightnings start caming down! At that point I think: "wonderfull! I'm on the top of an hill, I am the tallest thig on the hill, and lightning are landing all over the place... "
Then I see a cafe' around the road, with 3 or 4 cars around, so I decide to stop and get away from the lightning, and discover that the cafe' has just been hit by a lightning! The TV set is smoking. After a little while the situation gets better and I decide to take the road again.
Arrive in Dieppe around 17.30 and begin to look for the B & B. I know that is aroun the Golf... but I've no idea where the Golf is!
I finally find it (by mistake), park under the porch, meet my host and dump my luggage. What I want is: get away from the rain, go to the toilet and get a coffee. In this order.
For dinner I dress up with the full motorcycle gear, except for the helmet and borrow an umbrella from my host. I find a nice restaurant along the harbour and while I'm feasting with muscles and swordfish 3 things happens: my stomach stop grumbling, my core temperture goes from "alien monster frozen in the polar ice" to "toad waiting for spring" and last but not least, the rain stops!
Tonight, early in bed, tomorrow: Caen.
Km: 605,8 (see what happens in getting the wrong map?)
Yesterday's forecast for today said that the bad weather was going to move east, now that was ok for me, since I'm going the other way, and in fact I get up with birds singing and a grey but dry sky.
I leave quite early (around 9am) and take the way towards Caen. Big commercial city on the rivers Orne and Dives. Caen itself was a target of the d-day, but it was so well defended that the Canadians could enter the town only at the end of June, after a month of battling, and after the whole town was destroied by bombardment (faith followed, more or less, by all the French cities, with the exception of Paris).
I reach Rouen and then I take for the Normandy Bridge. The architect that designed this thing should have been an expert in designing rollercoasters.
Crossed the Sein I finally get to Caen, and at that point the bike start making an awful noise!!.
Let the accelerator go and the noise get lower, clutch, brakes, nothing, still the same. Ok, is not the engine, is either the chain or the wheels.
Then I see a sign pointing to an Ipermarket (Auchan), get in, park in the undergrownd park (if it rains, I'm dry, if there is the sun, I'm in the shadow) and start looking at the bike.
I find almost immediately the problem: the sproket is covered by a protective cover, through which the gear lever goes, the cover is kept in place with two bolts, but one is missing! The loss of a bolt let the cover swing and that touch the chain.
Get in the supermarkt, buy a lot of "essence a lavaire" (aka: petrol), surgical gloves and a couple of bolts (thanks to Honda they used the same bolts in the whole bike) and in ten minutes the problem is fixed. If you're going to ask what did I do with the gloves, they were to not to turn into a drunken mechanic.
Solved the problem I take the road (after a sandwich). Get to Verville where the famous Pegasus Bridge is. No, Aprilia has nothing to do with it, the Pegasus is the symbol of the 1st British Airborn Brigade that, in the wee hours of 6 June, captured the bridge and kept it until midmorning, when the british Commandos arrived from Sword (if you've saw the movie you know).
I reach the bridge and see a lot of people, lots of uniforms, there is also a military band... eh, right, it's the 6th of June!
From the bridge, I go to visit Sword beach and Ouitstreaham, where the French Commandos assaulted a Casino'. On the beach there is also the 4th Commandos Museum.
At that point it's about 4pm and I decide to go to Caen, I stop to visit the Normandy Battle's Memorial, big collection of photos and documents. Only one thing: if you pass by, and you have half an hour free, stop and watch the movie.
I find, not without difficulties and not without getting lost a couple of times the B & B, get a shower and then for diner. Tonight, rosted duck. Tomorrow is Omaha Beach time.
Total kilometers today: 162,88
I leave Caen around 8.30 and ride directly to Omaha Beach, where the American's 1st Division lost almost 3000 men before finally breaching the german's defenses.
To get ther I take the D56, that turn out to be a small "deformé" road, quite narrow and used by french car drivers unobvious of safety distances and french autobus unobvious of right-to-pass.
At one point I have a Bus basically on my read wheel and I cross two more in the narrowest point of the road... I leave them to discuss between themselves. I haven't see them anymore and I've been at Omaha for a while... maybe they are still there arguing...
Omaha beach is now a simple beach, all Rommel's defenses invented to stop an invasion and bog the invaders down are now gone. A lot of "mounuments" however are still there. One of these is a bunker equipped with a nice gun on the top of an hill right over the beach. I sit down and think what the german soldier must have thought when he looked out and saw 5000 ships by the beach.
I stop for a sandwich at the beach (the bar is called "the Invasion" of course). The sandwich turn out to be an entire bauguette, cut in half and filled up with everything.
From the beach I go to the Omaha Beach Cemetery, that is just above the beach and contains 4800 graves, all of them perfectly allined,
After the visit I leave for the Point du Hoc, where 253 rangers climbed the 27 meters tall cliff to take a bunker that turned out to be empty. The ground is still littered with bombs holes and craters.
Left the coast I go toward Cherbourg following the N13, that goes through S.Maire Eglise.
This little, almost insignificant, town is just on top of the main road, so it was a strategic target for the invasion. For this reason the main core of the american's 101st airborne division was sent to conquer it.
I arrive in St. Maire Eglise and discover that the town has been again conquered by the americans, this time a little more pacifically. They are there for a reenactment of the evenment. A little excessive maybe, since they have attached a dummy to the church's tower to remember private Steele, that was there for a few hours after a disastrous jump from the plane. I visit the memorial and then try to get some food.
From St. Maire Eglise I depart toward Cherbourg, that wasn't in fact a target of the invasion, but it become one later. However, the city was only captured after a month by the americans, again after so many bombardment that the harbour (the real target) was useless.
Kilometers done today: 162.28
I leave Cherbourg quite later and go directly south, towards St.Lo. I follow for a while the path that Gen. Bradley's men must have followed during the "breach" of the german lines (codenamed "Operation Cobra").
Along the road I stop in Orglandes and Marigny, where the two Germans cemetery are. While the American's and British's are well known and visited, these are almost unknown. You're either a german, an history buff or you don't know. In fact, at Orglandes I find a bus full of germans, judging by the age, somebody must have some ex-comrades here. One of them greets me with "hail" (???).
At St.Lo I stop for lunch and then proceed towards Bayeyx.
There I stop to see the museum-memorial over the battle, with a lot of documents and again photos. From June (d-day) to the end of August (Paris' liberation). Just one thing doesn't really match: the fact that the french insist and tell anyone (anyone willing to listen of course) that Paris was saved by the intervention of the French Resistance. Unfortunately for them, it didn't went this way. The german commander had no intention of destroy Paris as per Hitler's orders and tried everything to deliver the city intact to the allied.
Just by the memorial there is the Commonwealth's cemetery (British, Australians, Canadians...) Very well kept. Unfortunately, the place is right between a soccer stadium and a very busy road. The americans avoided the problem buying the whole area for 70 ectars all around...
As soon as I get in the wather become tipically "british"... that means that it begin to tain. Oh, well... time to go look for the B & B.
Kilometers today: 195,77
I leave towards Dieppe in the hope that the weather will be nice for a day, and it rains (!).
However, I arrive in Dieppe and for a while the weather seems to adjust. In fact, I can visit the Canadians' Cemetery and the beach.
Dieppe wasn't a target of D-Day, but it was the general reharsal. It was here that in the august 1942, 6000 canadians attempted a full size invasion, supported by 4 battleships and 18 airplanes squadrons. It was the so-called "operation Jubilee"
The result was a disaster: over a 1000 dead, 2000 prisoners and nobody knows how many landing crafts, ships, tanks and other equipment lost (between these the battleship HMD Berkeley).
The operation tought an important lesson to the allied: if they wanted to invade, they had to do it away from any harbour or town, too well defended to be invaded. The lesson was brought to practice with Overlord, but it toke 2 years.
After a tour of the town (there is a dog show, one of these thing that dog and dog owners have to look ridicolous to win) I decide to eat something and go look for the B & B. I go to something like a bakery and ask them where is "rue de Capucin" the woman behind the counter tells me that "there is no such place in town", I assure them that the road exists, she checks on a map and, oh look, it does exsts (!).
I get to the B & B, park the bike and it begin to rain.
Tomorrow is time to get back home.
Kilometers today: 192,76
I get up and... it's raining. What the heck is wrong with this place?
It rains more or less along the whole road, besides around Gent, where it gets reaaaaally heavy!
Besides the rain the trip has nothing to offer.
Kilometers today: 526,7