Weather in Normandy had been iffy for days. Showers and wind gave way to sunshine, then lightning storms over the sea.
We watched and waited for the signal to jump. With a window of only a few hours, I began to doubt our chances.
Finally the message my companions and I had been waiting for arrived: The jump was on.
Unlike the paratroopers of the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions who jumped into Normandy on D-Day 70 years ago, our orders came not from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, but via text message from our paragliding instructor.
My wife and I had come to Normandy ahead of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings to explore the region’s history, cuisine and culture.
I’d been to the U.S. military cemetery at Omaha Beach years before, a trip that’s still a must for many Americans visiting France.
But this time we wanted to explore farther afield. We’d crisscross the region from the cheese-making town of Pont l’Eveque in the east to the isolated Gatteville Lighthouse in the west.
Near Omaha Beach, Claude Bellessort runs Elementair, a paragliding school in Port-en-Bessin. An expert pilot who’s led paragliding excursions as far afield as Nepal and Morocco, Bellessort has offered tandem paragliding flights here since 2002.
The thrill of taking off from the cliff top and swooping over the beaches, imagining how it appeared on D-Day, made the 10-minute flight an unforgettable highlight of three days in Normandy.
Local officials estimate that the invasion anniversary will attract several hundred thousand tourists to Normandy this summer. The commemorations culminate June 6 in Ouistreham, where President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II will gather to remember the more than 9,000 Allied soldiers killed or wounded that day.
We spent the night after our jump in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, a tiny village in Omaha Beach. This was one of the invasion’s five famous landing areas spread over 50 miles of coast where 160,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops came ashore on D-Day. Omaha, where the U.S. 1st and 29th divisions landed, saw some of the day’s bloodiest fighting.
To look out to sea here or at the nearby Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, and imagine the scene at dawn on June 6, 1944, is breathtaking: 5,000 landing ships and assault craft assembled in the largest armada in history lined up across the horizon.
Our host for the night was Sebastien Olard, 46, a bakery supply salesman and passionate amateur D-Day historian. Olard grew up in the village of 200 inhabitants on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. Fifteen years ago he bought a stone house surrounded by a sheep pasture that village elders say was the first home liberated by American troops on D-Day. He’s turned the home into a museum-cum-vacation rental called “La Maison de la Liberation” (House of the Liberation). For 80 euros, guests can overnight there and enjoy a history lesson.
Olard’s grandfather, who lived in the neighboring village of Vierville-sur-Mer, feared a German counterattack after the invasion, and walked with his wife and children to Saint-Laurent to seek evacuation to Britain. “They had to step over bodies. My grandfather told his children, ‘Don’t worry, just walk. They’re sleeping. Go!’ ” he recalled.
There are many D-Day museums in Normandy, so I narrowed our selection to two using a $5 smartphone app “Normandy D-Day 1944”: the Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum in Bayeux and the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Bayeux uses film, photographs and other artifacts to provide an overview of the battle. The Airborne Museum narrows the focus to paratroopers who dropped behind enemy lines the night before the invasion; displays include one of the C-47 “Skytrain” aircraft that flew them from England.
A few miles south near Carentan, we met Franck Feuardent, owner of the Manoir de Donville. This 18th-century manor house was the site of the Battle of Bloody Gulch, made famous in an episode of the television series “Band of Brothers.” American paratroopers were nearly routed by an SS tank division until saved by the arrival of the U.S. 2nd Armored Division, a.k.a. “Hell on Wheels.”
On a tour of the manor grounds, Feuardent pointed out foxholes and let us handle examples of the 12 tons of weapons, helmets, grenades and other artifacts he’s dug up.
In his 200-year-old home, Feuardent points out traces of blood stains on the wooden floor of his sons’ bedroom, where two soldiers’ bodies, one German, one American, were discovered after the battle. “They fought hand-to-hand in my home!” Feuardent says with awe.
“We try to keep the spirit of the Americans who died here alive,” Feuardent says. “We never forget. This isn’t a museum for me, it’s my home.”
There’s more to do in Normandy than visit war memorials. The Pays d’Auge around the small town of Cambremer is the heart of Normandy’s traditional apple cider and apple brandy-making region.
We stopped at Stephane and Lucile Grandval’s distillery, Manoir du Grandouet. The family has made cider here for three generations; one of the giant oak barrels where the heady, intoxicating apple brandy known as Calvados is aged dates from 1792. We bought a few bottles of a lush, creamy, award-winning cider and they added one as a gift.
The friendly gesture reminded me of a line from the classic D-Day war film “The Longest Day.” Gen. James “Jumpin’ Jim” Gavin of the 82nd Airborne tells his troops, “When you get to Normandy, you’ll only have one friend – God … and this,” lifting a rifle.
For visitors 70 years after the invasion that helped liberate Europe from Adolf Hitler, that’s happily no longer true.