DAY 4: Carentan and Utah Beach


It was D-Day.

June 6th, 2019. We were on the road again, and the road was red. Red, because we were attempting a massive roundabout approach to the town of Carentan, traveling on a regional motorway.So far, D-Day, 75 years later, was a bust. The arrival of bloated dignitaries from various western nations had constipated the already existing blockade of the region even more. Blockade? Sadly, yes. The scale and importance of this anniversary had so overwhelmed the local capacity of Normandy, that a large “exclusion zone” had been created around the main D-Day sites. Only those residing in the area, or in possession of a special permit sticker, could enter by car. Even though our host was gracious enough to check with the local mairie in Cabourg, we were aware that obtaining said permit would be next to impossible.

There was no way to pierce the barricade with our Peugeot, and our location in distant Cabourg prevented us from going in on foot to the main sites around the Omaha and Utah beaches. Yes, even here, there was no escaping the likes of Trump and Theresa May – and so, far, they had proven good for nothing more than ruining the festive mood and making logistics very difficult for us.

Since we had already seen Omaha, we decided that today, on the big day, we had to attack Utah. Also in our sights was the nearby city of Carentan, the largest French town in the Utah Beach sector of the Cotentin Peninsula and the site of a number of showdowns between the US 101st Airborne and the German 6th Fallschirmjager Regiment in June of 1944.

Given the situation, we saw three possible choices of assault:

-Hire bicycles in Carentan and move about on two wheels
-Use local public transport (which was very sparse and questionable) in an attempt to enter the exclusion zone
-Go around the hullabaloo and, hopefully, sneak in with our car

The first option had already failed. A questionable encounter with BimBimBikes (and, of course, its Bulgarian customer service representative) the evening previous, had left us with an apparent successful reservation. We had, however, just awoken to an e-mail that we were not in fact in possession of any bike rentals for the big day – the victims of wild demand and poor database management.

Upon discussing the second option, about as futile and doomed to failure as the first one, we finally resigned to the fact that another long day of driving was our only hope. On to Carentan then.

The red road was at its end

and apparent success was now our companion. We had entered the town without any trouble, after more than 100 kilometers and over an hour and a half of driving. It was lunchtime, and we were already feeling tired – perhaps mentally more than anything else. A quick look about the town, followed by food and drink seemed to now be top of mind. As we looked for a place to park the Peugeot, we notice that the town was in a festive mood The burden of Nikolay’s film camera was finally beginning to pay off. In his Kodak Portra images, it seems like we were transported back in time to browse the streets of the town during the war daysWe wasted no time and quickly ducked into the shaded lanes to walk among period-piece buildings. The old-time streets of Carentan are captivating As we made our way toward the Église Notre-Dame de Carentan, we encountered many atmospheric and wonderfully-aged doors. Surely some of these were witnesses to what unfolded here in 1944 Engrossed as we were in the cobblestone labyrinths, it seemed like no time at all had passed when the enormous stature of the Notre-Dame Carentan cathedral finally stood before usThe view was fairly epic from all sidesA building this marvelous on the outside, surely must feature an interior just as impressive. To our luck, the cathedral’s doors were open, and we ushered ourselves in to conduct a mini self-guided tour. Stained-glass windows and vaulted arches welcomed our arrivalAnd impressive altars ornamented many corners of the cathedral, aspiring toward the lofty ceilingsAged stone and wood combined in an atmospheric duetAnd statues kept watch over usSomewhat refreshed by the alleyway tour and the beautiful church, we soldiered on toward the Port of Carentan. A little more than a glorified canal, it was, nevertheless, a very picturesque place. A small plaza gave way to a the beginning of the waterway, filled with docked boats. Nikolay and his Kodak Portra once again captured the scenery in a most atmospheric and vintage mannerTurning back toward the plaza, now totally and unremittingly driven by hunger, we quickly found shelter in a nearby pizza cafe. We had been living on an almost constant diet of dough and starch, as the French cuisine around us seemed to allow for little else (especially where vegetarians were concerned) and now it was time, willingly or unwillingly, to surrender hunger to carbohydrate once again.

The cafe was filled with modern-time, actual soldiers – members of the 101st US Airborne were all around us. The young privates passed by and saluted the older officers sitting at the table next to us. It was the bridging of seventy-five years of military tradition – they were here to pay respects to their comrades from the 101st and beyond, that once upon a time fought for this small, but important town’s liberation.

Beer and pizza were soon on their way

– as if we needed any more help in feeling sleepy. C’est la vie. Upon consumption of both and sufficient time spent lagging and lazily yet secretively observing the military men next to us, we thought we’d pick ourselves up and soldier on. The effort required to do so was cyclopean. We had fairly melted into the semi-comfortable chairs. But we needed to go – it was D-Day, after all.

Something drew us to the canal. Whether it was the nice day and the appeal of the shadowed grassy areas lining its banks, or its old-world charm, we couldn’t tell. However, at this point, we were beginning to realize that our tired state, as well as the general congestion and blockage, were going to limit our D-Day to Carentan and Utah Beach. We thought we might as well make the most of it and linger around the atmospheric city a while longer.

We were not sure if any battles or historically-significant events took place here on the outskirts of the town, but the small waterway was ripe for photography. Captured on film, it seemed otherworldly – one can hardly tell what year the photograph was takenWe soon headed for the tree-lined banks nearby. The view was quite scenicWe then passed by an interesting concrete structure – it seemed to cover a road passing underneathAnd the shaded meadow, covered by trees, made for a captivating sightWe kept walking alongside the canal, heading northeast. A small paved pathway ran alongside the water, featuring locals walking fuzzy puppies or simply enjoying the nice spring weather Then all of a sudden, we heard it. A startling roar, which appeared to come from the wooded area located west of us, across the canal. We thought we spotted a dark green blur through the foliage, but it was hard to be sure. Nevertheless, the sound was growing in volume and pitch by the second.

It could only be one thing. Our musings about the origin of the commotion were soon interrupted by a final confirmation, as three dark shadows appeared on the horizon. We had already ran out of our wooded cover and were craning our necks up to the sky. Then, as if out of nowhere, they appearedTo our uneducated eyes and ears, the craft were hard to recognize. French? American? Perhaps. Maybe our lunch companions from the 101st had finished enjoying their pizza and coke and were on their way back to base. We wondered if it was them, or parts of their unit, that were in these steel birds. Nevertheless, it added to the sense of authenticity, as we wandered around amidst the ghosts of the Battle of Normandy in this small town.

We continued walking along the water, until we reached a clearing. It seemed we had reached the Pont Bailey bridge. The bridge actually has a war story – it connects St Hilaire Petitville to Carentan and was destroyed by the Germans on June 11, 1944. It was rebuilt under enemy fire by the Americans, under the orders of Major John E. Tucker, who was killed during the process. Pont Bailey, also known as Tucker Bridge, was named in his honorThe expanse of nature around this historic point was picturesque and lush with greenery. The quietude was disrupted only by the occasional car passing us by Nearby, the confluence of the Douve river and the Carentan canal, leading straight to the sea, was bathed in surreal lightIt wasn’t exactly what we had planned this day, the 6th of June, 2019, would look like. But in a strange, roundabout way, we were enjoying just being in the presence of history and walking in the footsteps of those who were part of this conflict, even if there was not anything seemingly out of the ordinary that we were a part of. Carentan, and its waterway, had turned out to be more enticing and interesting than one would anticipate and we were happy we spent the time to explore it a bit. However, it was time to move on. Utah Beach was waiting for us.

The dilemma still remained.

As soon as we hit the road again, we ran into the same old – blocked routes, police and diversions. It was once again very difficult to get around, even though we had driven all this way to surmount the obstacle of the D-Day 2019 blockade. We were checking the map and constantly changing course, in an attempt to find some small road, somewhere, that would lead us to the coveted beach. The Allies were trying to get away from the water and move inland all these years ago, and now we had reversed the strategy, desperately trying to find a way to the English Channel. At last, we succeeded in somehow breaking through on the tiny artery of D129, that eventually led to the parallel, coastline route of D421, running right along Utah Beach.

When we reached the larger road, we were no longer surprised to find it busy with vehicles. Tourists, reenactors and locals all competed for the same small piece of French asphalt real estate.

Utah was a bit further down the road, in a southeasterly heading. However, seeing from afar the melange of people congregated in the vicinity, and the clog of vehicles we would have needed to surmount to get there, we immediately became content with simply pulling off the road and heading over to the beach right where we were – a bit further down the main road from where we had intersected our way in. We were still on Utah sands, just a bit removed from the main monument.

And when we managed to finally cross, and set foot on the infamous beach, the veil of fatigue that had been gathering for days now, descended upon us with an immediacy that could not be resisted. We had made it at last, but now every sandy grove was a bed, every patch of grass a pillow. It was inevitable and only fitting with our unusual D-Day routine so far, that the nap on Utah Beach had to become a realityIt was remarkably comfortable. Or maybe we were just exhausted. It didn’t matter. After a chunk of time of undetermined length had passed, a sense of refreshment, even if a temporary one, had replaced our tired moods. We felt empowered enough to put our shoes and socks back on and meander around the Utah Beach landscape for a bit, to take a few shotsA glance over the grassy bank revealed that the road was looking better now, and we decided to push further up the D421, and actually visit the main landing site, its German defense bunkers and its monument. We collected our mini camp, gathered up cameras and made back for the vehicle.

On arrival, as we parked the car on the roadbank yet again, Nikolay managed to document yet another piece of history on film. A reenactor Willys MB parked right across the road from us, with Utah Beach in the background, made for a strong imageWe wasted no time in walking across the asphalt again. Soon, we were confronted by the German defenses, whose concrete heavily ornamented the landscape near the sandsRemains of gun mounts, bunkers and various structures were everywhereAs we inched nearer to the beach, the channel waters began to show in the backgroundSome of the viewpoints were dramatic. The presence of so much defense fortifications made for a poignant commentary on the reality of the struggle that the Allied forces landing on these beaches were up againstWe were almost onto the beach now, and the German defense positions continued almost up until the very edge of the sandsMaking our way up to the Utah Beach monument, which we decided would be the wrap up to our D-Day, we ran into what looked like bits of a Mulberry artificial harbours. I was surprised to see them here, since, at least to my knowledge, they were not employed on Utah Beach. Perhaps there was a gap in my history, or these were remains of a different kind. Nevertheless, perfectly reflected in the water, they made for impressive photography And now, one last thing remained. We were walking down toward the monument – one of the main sights at Utah Beach. It was to be our final stop on this unusual, yet rewarding in its own way, D-Day 2019. As we trudged on through the sands, the wind began to pick up its pace, intent on penetrating through our layers. It was rustling the grasses that ringed the Utah sands, but it could do nothing to obscure the stone mass that was slowly beginning to come into view. Making a right turn through the vegetation, we set our sights on the landmark, first noting the large French and American flags waving near it. Surprisingly, it stood unattended by any human presence. It might have been that the weather’s changing favors had begun to drive the crowds away. We took final pictures and spent a few quiet moments remembering the events that had brought into being this slab of monumental stoneAs we walked back to the car for the long drive back to Cabourg, I reflected on how D-Day, the day I had wanted so much to be in attendance for during that first visit of 2016, had gone.

Perhaps, on this day of days, we accomplished nothing more than stroll through Carentan like run-of-the-mill tourists and, tired by the commotion that had been the 75th anniversary of D-Day, take a cat-nap on the sands of Utah beach. But in spite of the somewhat anti-climactic unfolding of June 6, 2019, I still felt strongly that we had not wasted our time.

The spirit of what is perhaps the most important day in modern history was present all around, even in the annoying crowds and in our supposedly mundane activities. Lying on the sands of Utah Beach, the same ground that saw the landing of the invading Allied forces seventy-five years ago, I realized that scrambling frantically to engage in some “special” activity on the anniversary of a big event is not what makes the experience memorable.

Rather, taking time to quiet down, going within and trying to appreciate the spirit of what took place and to personalize and internalize remembrance as much as one can for oneself, is the true way to connect with the heart of an experience. I think, in spite of the difficulties, at least I managed to accomplish this, and in doing so was able to take away memories for a lifetime. Maybe this won’t be the last D-Day attended, and maybe we will come back again in the future. But for now, even though it had unfolded in its own way, of its own accord, the experience of D-Day 2019, was one that we were more than glad to take away with us.

Get scammed with us on Day 5

| Text by Manol Z. Manolov
| Images by Manol Z. Manolov and Nikolay Bratovanov © 2019