Monday, September 23, 2019

A Visit to Normandy's Past and Present

Allianz haunted me on Gilda’s and my recent trip to Normandy. Just two doors down from our headquarters hotel, the Mercure, in the picturesque seaport of Honfleur, an Allianz office sign greeted our week’s comings and goings. 

Long time readers may recall Allianz, a German financial services company, had sought to procure naming rights to the Meadowlands stadium the New York Giants and Jets were about to open in September 2008.  It was only after my letter to The New York Times pulled back the curtain on the company’s historic profile as an insurer of Nazi extermination camps, slave labor plants and concentration camps, plus its reluctance to honor life insurance policies absent a death certificate, that public outrage forced the teams to quickly abandon the $25 million proposal. Instead, the Giants and Jets play their games in MetLife Stadium (

Haunting aside, our stay in Honfleur was idyllic. Cobblestoned streets in the quaint downtown, difficult to navigate, at times made one look to the ground and away from centuries old structures. Some of the buildings have outcroppings on the second and third floors, a successful Middle Ages attempt to add square footage to residences that were taxed based on their ground level frontage. 

Escaping bombardment during World War II, Honfleur boasts France’s largest wooden church with a separate bell tower. Built in the 15th and 16th centuries, St. Catherine Church is beautiful inside and out with a spire that dominates the skyline. 

A tourist attraction for natives and foreigners, Honfleur restaurants specialize in seafood. Streets are lined with small shops which curiously did not stay open late as they would in American tourist venues. Perhaps mid-September is beyond the shopkeepers’ expectations for tourists willing to splurge on delectable chocolates or chic scarves and tops, or just plain kitschy souvenirs. 

As in most any French community, fresh—really fresh—baguettes and pastries attract passersby. To walk clutching a two foot long baguette makes one look instantly like a local. 

From the window of our room in the Mercure we could see the graceful Normandy Bridge, at one time the longest suspension bridge in Europe. Though rain was forecast for the full week after we departed Sunday, Gilda and I reveled in the sunny 60-70 degree temperatures with soft breezes that greeted us every day, making our explorations of the Normandy coast, including D-Day beaches, and nightly promenades exhilarating. 

We had come to Honfleur on a Smithsonian Journeys tour program with 25 others from across the States. Informed by local experts and Rob Dalessandro, deputy secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, we learned the history of the region that spawned William the Conqueror, who prior to his invasion of England was known as William the Bastard because he was born out of wedlock. We marveled at the magnificent Bayeux Cathedral and the Bayeux tapestry (really an embroidery), some 70 yards in length that depicts the story behind William’s invasion. We traced and climbed the unimaginable construction feat of Mount Saint Michel; we learned how the area’s signature Camembert cheese and apple cider are made, and enjoyed tastings of the products. From a descendant of a member of the Resistance we heard of life under the Nazi occupation. We somberly reflected on the bravery and sacrifice of American and Allied servicemen, along with the logistical feat of D-Day during visits to Utah and Omaha beaches, the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc and the symmetrical, egalitarian gravesites of more than 9,000 Americans who lost their lives on the shores of Normandy June 6, 1944, and the subsequent fighting in the region for the next 90 days 75 years ago.