Friday, July 19, 2019

Thoughts from Caen

Dear people of the blogosphere and travel enthusiasts,

I've been taking a bit of a different approach with my travels this summer and have planned my few overnight trips less than 48 hours before departures--and sometimes only the bare minimum: transport and accommodation. The sights I sort of decided on the fly.

Last week, my visit to Caen was no exception. I didn't really know where I wanted to go, but thought it'd be cool to see Juno beach since I'd already seen Dieppe and both were major incidents for Canadians during the Second World War. A quick google search spoke of William the Conqueror's castle and I was sold. (My patron, upon learning I was going to Caen, couldn't really understand the attraction aside from the nearby D-Day beaches. He argued that people go near Caen, but not to Caen. So maybe it was also part stubbornness that firmed my decision).

Most of the city was destroyed during the summer after the D-Day landings and in the late 1940s/50s, the main goal was to rebuild quickly so that people had places to live. This means that unlike some other cities in France, there are not as many stereotypic picturesque streets, although there are a few gems and hot spots. During my first night in the city, I learned about the Caen Memorial and decided to make it my first stop.
Photo of the Caen Memorial. Source: François Monier, Calvados Tourisme.
I didn't realize how big the memorial was until I stood at the entrance. I wasn't sure what to expect, initially, but it wasn't the structure that stood before me.

In the memorial, they had recreated a wall
covered in propaganda and news.
The giant slab of stone, rising from a well maintained field of green, had the words, "La douleur m’a brisée, la fraternité m’a relevée, de ma blessure a jailli un fleuve de liberté" written across its surface (Pain broke me, fraternity brought me up, from my injury flowed a river of liberty). An imposing reminder.

I arrived early just as the memorial opened at 9am and opted to get the audio guide for an extra couple of euros (ticket just under 20 euros, audio guide just under 5). In hindsight, there was a lot of information even without the guide and I wouldn't say that it was necessary to enjoy the museum and the experience. At times, I struggled with the guide because I was trying to read and listen at the same time--which I know uses the same part of your brain and doesn't work, but still... There was just so much to look at!

For those interested, you could also arrange a tour to the beaches, but as I already planned to head out to the Canadian Juno Beach Centre the next day, I decided not this time.

The memorial had a really cool set up and was divided into different zones. At the start of the tour, I entered a door marked pre-1945 and was taken on a directed journey through twisted corridors and a labyrinth of rooms (or at least, that's what it seemed like).
Anti-Hitler teapot. Would you keep
it after the war?

The walls were lined with various sources from photos, maps, journal/news excerpts, video interviews, and explanations. Along the way, they would show updated versions of maps, depending on the year/month of the war, for both the war in the pacific and Europe to show the stages of military and country control. Certain sections were set aside for daily life during the war, the holocaust, and key points of conflict, but on the whole it was structured around the timeline. I really liked learning about some of the ways the governments raised money for the war effort: anti-Hitler themed teapot, card games and board games being some examples.
Part of the display on the
Jewish Discrimination

In the post-1945 section, they not only discussed the immediate conclusions, but the dynamics of the cold war, the changing relations of power and between countries. There were even pieces from the Berlin Wall, which was definitely cool.

Overall, I really enjoyed the experience and thought it was presented and organized well (with a decent gift shop for war related materials). Unfortunately, I also quickly got information overload. From the text, visuals and audio stimuli my brain had trouble digesting and processing all of the information.

I spent about 7 hours at the museum and mainly left because (1) I felt like I couldn't absorb anymore information, and (2) I still wanted to see a couple other things in the city and I needed to be mindful of closing times.

So, while my patron questioned why Caen, I found a gem well worth visiting in a city that has been through a lot. If you are in Caen or visiting the beaches, I highly recommend you check it out!

Love and Hugs

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