Peaceful Trip to Normandy; Ros Dodd Discovers That France's Most Poignant Area Offers a Dignified Lesson in History

Article excerpt

For many of us - particularly those not born when Hitler began his bloody rampage - the Second World War comes to life only when a significant anniversary is marked with due solemnity and circumstance.

The 50th anniversary of the D-Day Landings in June 1994 brought home - in some cases for the first time - the desperate nature of war and the enormous sacrifices made by those brave men who stormed the Normandy beaches.

Walking through the quaintly picturesque city of Caen - a short drive from the landing beaches - on a crisp winter day is in itself a reminder of the horrors of battle.

Rounding a corner, the magnificent edifice that is L'Abbaye aux Hommes (the Men's Abbey) looms suddenly and breathtakingly into view.

Now home to the City Hall, this former monastery - built by William the Conqueror in 1063 - was one of the few buildings in Caen to escape the German bombs.

Used as a hospital during the war, a huge Red Cross flag was draped over its spectacular roof and, happily, it was left alone.

Browsing through the elegant Chapter Room (now used for civil marriage ceremonies) and marvelling at the oak panelling sculpted during the 18th century in the styles of Louis XV and Louis XVI, one can only regret the other architectural gems that were lost to future generations half a century ago.

Across the street from the abbey is a church which was only half-destroyed during the war - its roof wrenched off - but still stands, proud and defiant.

It is another stark reminder of the key part Caen and its embattled inhabitants played in turning the military tide against Hitler's invading armies.

In fact, Normandy as a whole was the most significant theatre of operation of the Second World War in Europe.

To mark its historic role, a harshly-modern building - strangely at odds with the surviving pre-war architecture encountered in the region - has been built in Caen to house an extensive and thought-provoking war memorial museum.

Or, rather, not a war museum but, as its name suggests, a memorial to peace.

Situated on the outskirts of the city, the memorial's many and varied exhibits trace the history of the 20th century, explaining what led up to the Great War and how, despite the loss of millions of young men, another major world conflict erupted just 21 years later.

Posters, newspapers and films bring the occupation of France to life. Archive footage of the D-Day landings and the 100-day Battle of Normandy transport visitors back to the dark days of the summer of 1944.

The memorial is not just a place for remembering, however. It is a tribute to all those who fought for peace, to be one day publicly acclaimed through the Nobel prize.

Of course, the entire region is an open-air war museum. Eight themed routes, clearly signposted "Normandie Terre - Liberte" and in chronological order, allow visitors to discover all the places connected with D-Day and the ensuing offensive in the three departements of Calvados, Manche and Orne. …