Ridley’s heart sank within him. Physicians say that this cannot happen, but editors know a sensation which may not be described in any other phrase.”Robertson Davies, Leaven of Malice
Re-reading the last travelogue I published, so long ago now it defies reason, I was struck by the intense emotions which had been inspired by my research into the bombardment of Caen during World War Two. Before even embarking on the tale of my 2015 trip to France, I had known that many of my recollections would result in revisiting the hard feelings which accompanied almost all of our war-related outings but I confess I have been surprised by how much these musings have affected my psyche. So much so that often weeks or months pass before I feel that I can once again return to those days filled with, yes, adventure but also intense explorations of the human suffering that was the constant soundtrack to the World Wars.
Even now, all these weeks since I posted my last travelogue, I find I have to give myself a few moments to digest the thoughts and feelings laid out so honestly in my travel diary before I can even begin to craft another post.
And so, without further ado, we return to Caen, France to finish up the tale of our visit to that glorious if pained city in November of 2015.
When I last left you, dear reader, I had just spent the bulk of the post trying to wrap my head around the damage done to Caen and its people by the allies during their supposed “liberation” of the city. Unfortunately, to begin this post, I must return to these musings as there is much to tell.
After contemplating the centuries old chapel which had survived untold adventures and mishaps only to fall to allied bombing during the Battle of Normandy, I needed to take a break from all the tales of death and destruction. I needed a breath of fresh air.
In order to clear my head so that my darker thoughts wouldn’t overwhelm me, I walked up to the ramparts of the old castle we were in the midst of visiting and looked out at the city far below. To me, from that vantage point, it looked crowded and bustling, a little dirty and sprawling, but … so alive. This was enough to pull me out of my despair and back into the far more pleasant excited state in which I usually conduct my travels. Because that’s what matters, isn’t it? The city was still there. People had survived, and life did indeed go on.
Though dusk was fast approaching, we couldn’t help but duck into the Church of Saint-Pierre for a few moments – especially since it was right in front of the castle. It’s as if it was calling to us – begging us to cross its threshold and explore its stories, even if our visit was only brief.
The building was extraordinary.
Having mostly survived the bombardment of Caen (when almost nothing else did) it was hauntingly beautiful and expansive with its high, sweeping ceilings and hidden side chapels and alcoves. We walked around the whole interior, quietly as this was one of the few cathedral we had been in which was actually being used for prayer at the time.
While beautiful, it seemed like most other old churches we had been to, only bigger. It had that same cool dampness to it, smelling of wet rock and stained wood – the kind of atmosphere that just inspires rest and quiet reflection. And yet, there was a feeling of stoic defiance within its walls. Almost as if they were whispering to the gathered disciples of both history and faith within that if the crash of innumerable bombs could not crumble its grand façade, nothing ever would. It would stand the tests of time – forever.
There is something about these gloriously enduring monuments to faith that pique my interest no matter how many I visit. Whether exploring them as an adherent of faith or historical enquiry, they beg to be explored as they hold such exquisite secrets and hidden history – free for those willing to put skepticism and cynicism aside in favour of open-minded curiosity.
What struck us about this particular place was the display they had about the building’s history, featuring a few panels about the damage sustained during WWI and the renovations required afterwards in order to bring the cathedral back to its full glory. In these pictures, we were also able to see the devastation wrought on the city as a whole which was heartbreaking and incomprehensible.
Though the church had only lost part of its steeple, the rest of its bulk seemed to rise from nothing as everything around it had been reduced completely to rubble. It was impossible to imagine the firepower it would have taken to destroy the old city so completely.
Why do humans do this to one another?
To say my heart sank may seem physically impossible but it is quite literally the best way to describe how I felt while gazing at these desolate images in disbelief. There are no other words which so viscerally describe the feeling when attempting to contemplate such a horrific loss of life. No words at all.
The next chapter, which I hope will be written up sooner rather than later, concerns our first impressions of charming Bayeux and should be lighter in tone than the last few have been.
Until then, despite these reflections on the sadder scenes of human history, I hope you do remember…
Life is beautiful.