Sunday: October 22, 2000. Restless, I awake before dawn. As quietly as possible, I leave Mary Ann for the continental breakfast being served in the Hotel La Marine’s nearly empty dining room. I choose a table overlooking the English Channel. In the pre-dawn light, relics from D-Day begin to reveal themselves in the morning mist, remnants of concrete caissons the allies sank to provide the breakwater for an artificial harbor to support the invasion. The forces of nature; time, the tides and countless storms have moved these enormous caissons so that they are scattered about in a haphazard fashion.
I return to our room with a hot cup of coffee, artificial sweetener and a croissant for my bride who I find awake and waiting for the excuse I provide to start her day.
Today, we will hike 12 miles west from Gold Beach, the eastern most of the three British landing beaches to Omaha, one of the two American beaches. That is our plan, but as the saying goes: “Plans go to hell after you take the first punch.”
The first half of our hike is a pleasure. Once again, Peggy has arranged for our luggage to meet us at a B&B in Colleville and we three couples, Don and Helen, Mike and Peggy and Mary Ann and I gather outside to see our baggage depart. A light mist engulfs us as we set out in hats, rain jackets jeans and hiking boots. We pass new vacation homes under construction as we leave town. Ironically, just below this new construction, we pass a sealed German gun emplacement with its gun port trained on the town below.
The trail leads us to the top of the bluff where we hike while the sun slowly burns off the mist. The views are spectacular. We take them in as the sun and clouds flirt with each other all morning long allowing us to stow our rain jackets in our knapsacks. The cliffs below the trail must fall at least 200 feet to the beach, but it appears that the French do not concern themselves with lawsuits as we encounter few warning signs or any fences to prevent hikers from getting too close to the cliffs.
We locate other artifacts from the war at Longues-sur-Mer. The first structure we see is a reinforced concrete command bunker close to the cliff. It is in remarkable condition and we wonder if this is the bunker used in the movie, The Longest Day? The guys can’t resist going inside to look out of the narrow opening and reenacting the scene from the movie when the area commander first discovers the invasion fleet.
Further along the trail, we find four additional bunkers, each the home of a German 88 mm cannon. These cannons were the Nazi’s most feared guns effective against troops, tanks and aircraft. GIs called the sound that their incoming shells made, “screaming meemies” and once you heard that whistling sound, you were in trouble if not already hunkered down.
It is at this point in our journey that we begin to realize that this is going to be a long day. There are several places along the trail where valleys break the bluff requiring descents and ascents. Here is where mud comes into play making the going difficult. Both Don and I slip and fall, fortunately, without injury.
We do catch a break. In the distance, we see a breakwater jutting out into the channel. As we draw closer, the fishing town of Port-en-Bessin reveals itself. A groomed set of dirt steps leads us down from the bluff and into town. We observe several small German fortifications and the remnants of a trench system on our way down.
We stop for lunch in Port-en-Bessin and eat in an outdoor Brasserie. This is the exact time and place when I discover my favorite French sandwich, the croque monsieur, their exquisite interpretation of a grilled ham and cheese sandwich.
A perfect interlude, but far too brief. By now we are forced to accept the reality that we still have many miles to go before we can rest. Worse, time isn’t on our side.
We press on, once again climbing the bluff. We follow a detour around the perimeter golf course and are surprised to spot a concrete bunker right next to a fairway. Once we return to the coast, we spot a modern military facility surrounded by barbwire. The building has a tall tower that supports all variety of antennas and dishes. Two men in uniform appear and enter an outside walkway observing our passage. We cease talking, put one foot in front of the other and refrain from taking photographs. Paranoia runs deep.
The trail turns inland following the contour of the land. We pass farms and cows grazing in the fields. Fatigue sets in leading us to lose the trail in a nameless town. We separate and I continue about 150 yards before I am called back. Mike reversed course to find a by passed marker about a ¼ mile before the town. We return to the trail that follows a shallow but steep stream. After a rough time descending the trail, it turns left forcing us to climb a hill back to that same town. At the top, we reach the same road I had explored. We are only 25 feet from where I turned around. Frustrated, I am mad as hell, but I keep it to myself since there is nowhere to direct it. The trail leads our sagging spirits back toward the beach.
Daylight is fading as we reach Omaha Beach. We pass the closed gates of the American Cemetery. Darkness drops upon us as we reach a highway, but cannot find a sign, any sign directing us to Colleville. Finally, I spot a sign and I ask Peggy, “What does that say?”
Peggy replies: “Thank you for coming.”
I wonder what’s on the other side of that sign. I walk away from my friends and turn around to read the other side. Sure enough, even I can understand what it says in French: “Welcome to Colleville!” Another incident to add to our memories of what makes this trip unique.
Peggy approaches a nearby home. The residents gladly allow her to call our B&B which we locate it in short order. All is well that ends well.