Day 2 – Wednesday 26th of August – Saintes to Caen (562km)
Just as in the successful French comedy Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis, the old cliché about the north and the rain proved to be true one more time.
On the way to Cherbourg and the Cap de la Hague I wanted to stop at Mont Saint-Michel. I expected it to be full of tourists this time of year and I did not have much time, but it did not matter, I had already visited it when I was in Brittany years ago and I just wanted to drive by and see how it looked today. As I approached the region under the sun, I saw the sky was cloudy ahead of me, as if the line of clouds indicated the border of Normandy. The thought of stopping and putting on the waterproof crossed my mind, but I told myself that it did not look that bad and I could likely reach Mont Saint-Michel before it started to rain, since I wanted to stop there for lunch anyway. A few kilometres before the town of La Grève, a few drops started to fall and I stopped at a picnic area to put the extra layers on. I spent ten minutes fighting with clips, zippers and a very strong wind and by the time I was done the rain had stopped. Well, at least I would be warm now, the wind was freezing on the motorway, but I still think that this kind of setup requires a lot of forward thinking, I would have got soaking wet if the rain had started suddenly. Since I was there and it was not raining, I had some lunch and went on my way.
Mont Saint-Michel was the same I remembered it, but with a lot more tourism, which meant that new car parks had been built closer to the town, and it was not possible any more to drive near it. Obviously, all of them were paying car parks, so I just drove a bit further down the road to the east to see the Mont and take some pictures, by which time it was raining harder.
I got on the bike before the rain got worse with the intention of heading to Cherbourg fast, but I got distracted by a sign by the side of the road that pointed to a German military cemetery.
I had no idea that the side who lost the war had such things in France, and least of all here, so close to the coast where D-Day took place, so curiosity got the best of me.
It turned out that it was not a cemetery, but a mausoleum, and a big one. It is called Le Mont de Huisines-sur-mer, and is a circular building of almost 50 metres in diameter with 34 crypts in two levels that open to a central lawn. There lay the remains of 11,956 German soldiers.
The allied invasion and the battles that followed left very heavy casualties in the German army in this region, and in 1954, only ten years after the landings, the French and the Germans signed an agreement to take care of several cemeteries in the region. This mausoleum was built by the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (the German Popular Association for the Maintenance of Military Tombs) with important funds from the German government. In 1961, the transfer of the bodies from cemeteries in Morbihan, Ille-et-Vilaine, Mayenne, Sarthe, Loire-et-cher, Indre-et-Loire, Viene and Indre started, and the mausoleum opened in September 1963.
As I walked through the gates into the circular lawn the rain intensified. The circle that the crypts form is underground, but while the mausoleum is not visible from the distance, the cross that stands in the middle is, it can be seen from Mont Saint-Michel. It is difficult to describe what I felt walking from one crypt to another completely alone, the echo of my footsteps and the rain hitting the ground the only sounds that filled the void of the vast space.
History is written by the victors, usually in black and white, and the entertainment industry takes good care of turning it even more black and white. It is easier to see the world with clearly defined borders around good and evil, and in the case of WWII the defeated side were so evidently evil that it is difficult to think otherwise. But who were really these people whose names lined these walls by the hundreds? Most of them had been born in the early 20s, they were young men, not commanding officers, who lost their lives fighting for a country, just like any other soldiers. They just happened to have been born in the country with the wrong leader. I am not going go into the argument of how much the regular non-SS German soldier or citizen knew, if any, about the atrocities that their leaders were committing, I am not an expert on the subject, so I had better leave the debate to those who are better informed than I am, but looking at those graves, I felt horrified at how random it is. You are born in a country. That defines your nationality, your language, your way of thinking and should it go to war, which side you are going to lose your life fighting for. Sure, there are people who see further, people who ask questions, both to themselves and to others, who see the world through different eyes and question it, but most people are just followers. These people here did what most people would do if their country went to war. And they probably did not have much idea what was happening. And they died. They just happened to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After the visit the day was grim as my thoughts. The rain did not let go, it only got worse and the suit was starting to soak up water – it would not be long until it seeped through. It was starting to become clear that I was not going to make it to Cherbourg (150 km to go) so I turned towards Caen in search of the Youth Hostel there. When I stopped for fuel I thought I would take the chance to reprogram the GPS since I was sheltered from the rain at the pumps, but up here it rains sideways, so even under the petrol station roof I could feel the rain pelting against my helmet. I got on the bike again, used the good old method of following road signs and made it to the hostel.
On the positive side, the hostel only cost 13€. On the negative, it was for a bed in a dorm, and when I walked in I found the usual zombie that one sometimes finds in these places, a young guy sleeping on his bunk even though it was only 4pm. He was still sleeping by the time I had unloaded the bike, had a shower, calculated the expenses of the day, planned the route for tomorrow and sat down to write these lines. Only by dinnertime had he risen and the bunk was empty. It looks as if it was only the two of us in the dorm… I prayed he would not snore.
More pictures here.