Bayeux is probably the best-preserved of the cities in Normandy province. I say that because it looked very much like it did in 1944, restored to look as it did when it was liberated during D-Day. A number of towns and villages can make the same claim, indeed the architecture style was common throughout the region, but Bayeux's look transcended the others. Perhaps it was because she retained much of her own history separate from the mystique of D-Day. Her canal-laden downtown was reminiscent more of a miniature Bamberg than the monument-overrun Arromanches. To be sure, Bayeux had its war memorials as well, but most of them were outside town. Walking down a Bayeux street, one seemed to forget that such a terrible war ever happened there.
The first photograph gives some of an idea of what I mean. The buildings and the layout of the town were classic old France. The basic beige-ish mortar and brick and the canal's dirty water gave the city a dull look, as if my camera was in sepia mode, except for the greenery along the canals and streets. The distinctive towers stood in the distance marking the church, a symbol in nearly every French town. And of course, the canal supplied most of the town's character. All that was missing was an old guy with a cow. This shot appeared on a number of postcards I saw on sale in the town -- except the postcards were taken on a sunny day and were retouched so the water looked a lot cleaner than shown here. But make no mistake, Bayeux was far from spared from the War. In fact, it was among the first cities liberated from Nazi Germany control after D-Day. Reminders of that fact were numerous, as you will see below.
The towers in the center of the first photograph belonged to the Bayeux Cathedral, shown in the second photo. The Cathedral was easily the most conspicuous building in town. It was the only structure clearly visible from the nearest highway, about a kilometer away. It was a shame that this cathedral was under such heavy restoration when I was there. I have seen gorgeous pictures of her without the scaffolding on the web taken from roughly the same spot as mine. She was modified on the interior to include a number of memorials from World War II, mostly of Frenchmen who not only fought the Nazis but also those who participated in the resistance.
Bayeux also had a dedicated memorial to the Resistance not far away. It looked like a plain town hall building with French flags flying from every window, except that a large concrete sculpture resided where one would expect the entrance.
Other points of interest in Bayeux include museums dedicated to two very famous people. Shown in the third photograph is a museum dedicated to William the Conqueror (or William the Norman as the French call him, explaining how the region of Normandy got its name). He was the same William the Conqueror who formed modern-day England when he booted the Celts out in 1066. Along with all things 11th Century, this museum contained a special item called the Tapisserie, a massive tapestry depicting the region's entire history. It was easily the most impressive historic attraction I'd seen in France. It was so renowned that signs throughout town guided visitors to the museum by the word "Tapisserie" and not by the museum's name.
The other point of interest was for Charles de Gaulle, who was the recognized leader of the French people during the years of German occupation (1940-1944), and who served in exile in Britain until D-Day. He returned to France afterwards and gave an important speech in Bayeux to establish the newly-liberated France. He helped organize the local resistance to form new armies to help with the push back to Germany.
Outside town were two very significant war memorials. The fourth photograph shows the Museum of the Battle of Normandy. This was an excellent museum that describesdthe D-Day invasion by the Allies along with the follow-on fighting that went on through late July -- when the Allies finally broke through the German lines and pursued the Germans eastward during the summer and early fall of 1944. The museum was across the street from the other significant memorial -- the British cemetery, where over 2,500 British and Canadian soldiers of World War II were buried. Being a British cemetery, it was not uncommon to see wreaths laid in this cemetery made from paper poppies, as opposed to living roses and other flowers which was the American tradition.
Bayeux was a great place to visit, especially on a warm sunny day (which can sometimes be tough to find in Normandy, I admit!) It was within reach of a number of Normandy's other attractions, and had plenty of character of its own for those wishing to take a moment away from touring battlefields.
Trip Taken 2-3 June 2002 -- Last Updated 04 October 2006 -- (C) 2006 Tom Galvin