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  • Writer's pictureyatri gulaak

Updated: Oct 3, 2021

Operation Overlord

One 4th June’1944 the American forces marched victoriously into Rome marking the beginning of the end of Axis forces. German troops fled to safety to the North to fight another day. Sensing defeat on the European front, Axis partner Japan launched a series of desperate attacks on Indian cities of Imphal and Kohima. They however failed to take them and decided to withdraw by late June. This combination of stunning reverses of Axis powers encouraged the Allies to finally launch an overwhelming invasion of France from the English Channel and liberate it. They would then meet the Soviet red army marching from the east and crush the Germans once and for all. The masterminds of this plan known as Operation Overlord, were American General Dwight D Eisenhower and British General Bernard Montgomery. At that time two options had lain before them:

1) To attack where English Channel was at its narrowest, at Calais, where it would be easier to provide infantry with air support from Dover. But it would be too obvious a move.

2) Or to attack at Normandy. To fool the Germans they would launch phony attacks at Calais and feed them fake intelligence to make them believe that an attack was imminent at Calais.

The second option was chosen with 5 infantry divisions (2 from US, 2 British and 1 Canadian) to make an amphibious landing at Normandy Beach heads code-named (from west to east) Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. An amphibious floating platform known as Mulberry harbor would be placed over the sea for storing materials and supporting the infantry.

Hitler had already sensed that an attack from across the English Channel was inevitable and had enlisted legendary General Erwin Rommel (famously known as Desert Fox consistently defying the allies in Northern Africa) for defending the coastline. Rommel built a nearly impregnable chain of defenses along the along the coast of German occupied lands consisting of mines, bunkers , coastal guns and booby traps . This was known as the Atlantic wall.

5th, 6th or 7th June'1944 were chosen by Allies to mount a massive invasion of Normandy. Because it rained heavily on 5th and visibility was poor, Allies finally landed on 6th June’1944. This Day became famously known as D-Day and has been the subject of many movies, literature and folklore.

So when we decided to visit France, we included Arromanches les Bains in the itinerary as there lies the famous Gold Beach.

Arromanches Les Bain is the site of Gold Beach

Arromanches Les Bain

The first 15 minutes of movie Saving Private Ryan show how gruesome, bloody and brutal the landings were for all the forces involved. Depiction was so realistic, that many war veterans who made the landings, walked out of the theatre in the first 10 minutes. Post-traumatic stress disorder was re-triggered in many veterans. Omaha beach was especially known as “Hell on earth” as over 2000 troops were mowed down by German artillery fire. But this was over 75 years ago. Arromanches les bains is now a far cry from the gory depictions of torn and scattered limbs in mini series Band of brothers and Saving Private Ryan. It is now a tranquil and idyllic town where sea breeze flows gently over wild flowers, gulls quack over remains of mulberry harbor, hay stacks are neatly packed and cyclists whistle their way up to the cliffs through narrow footpaths. However, remnants of harbor, coastal guns and a war museum still serve as a grim reminder of 4.5 lakh people that died in Battle for Normandy including Indian soldiers at both sides. Flags of Allied countries are still flown at high mast at the museum.

How a place so peaceful picturesque could have been a site of so much bloodshed defies imagination. There are a number of trails along the sea shore and across cliffs that can take one to all the landing beaches. The place is often visited by relations of those who died here during D-Day or those like us who come out of plain curiosity. After spending an hour or two walking along the many footpaths overlooking the sea, we headed back to our hotel.

Sun rises over Gold Beach
Chunk of mulberry harbour lying stranded on Gold beach
Tranquil waters of English Channel
Remnants of Mulberry harbor in the background
Cliffs overlooking the channel
Haystacks in fields of Arromanches Les Bains
Wildflowers fed by sea breeze
Cycling track
Still from movie Saving Private Ryan depicting Omaha Beach
Famous photograph: Taxis to Hell – and Back – Into the Jaws of Death by Robert F Sargent
Coastal Gun at Arromaches Les Bains
Cliffs of Arromanches les Bains

See our other posts on France



and other famous beaches




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  • Writer's pictureyatri gulaak

The bus from Pontorson meandered through the laidback country side of Manche. It was still early in the day and the village folks were bringing back freshly baked baguettes and a single horse buggy had already started its daily regimen by racing along the perimeter of equestrian centre near Beauvoir. The sun had risen behind the corn fields that surrounded us on both sides and before long we could see the turrets of Mont St Michel. Verily it looked like a mysterious Disney castle, rising suddenly from the mudflats exposed by the receding tide. The logo of Walt Disney pictures is indeed inspired from the abbey. But it was not until when our bus had reached the new bridge, that connects the mainland to the tidal island on which abbey is placed, that we truly realized the majesty of this medieval monastery. It rests on a huge mass of granite that rises from the mudflats that surround it on all sides. The tides are treacherous and water can rise to 15 metres in no time and encircle an unwary traveler “as swiftly as a galloping horse” as Victor Hugo famously described. The strange setting of the town lends an immeasurable enigma and easily makes it one of the most awe-inspiring sites anywhere in the world. Predictably the history of Abbey and monastery located at the top of the island is as fascinating at its setting. It has been a place of worship, of education, an impregnable bastion in a war that lasted for more than 100 years, a prison for the most notorious detainees of the state and a symbol of national pride of France.

As per legend in AD 708 a local bishop named Aubert received a vision from St Michael, the militant arch angel who is the head of heavenly army, to build a place of worship on top of the rock. When the bishop did not pay much heed, the arch angel appeared again and drilled a hole in his skull with his finger. Terrified the bishop completed the oratory in 709 AD. His purported skull with a neat hole near the crown, is kept on display nearby in Saint-Gervais Basilica. Another legend speaks about how the mythical King Arthur slayed a ferocious giant that lived on the mount. Also a passage from Book of Revelations of the Bible says

"And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not… the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the Devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him"

It is believed it was here, on this island that St Michael fought with the dragon (Satan).

In 10th century Benedictine monks settled in this isolated abbey and a small village grew up below its walls. St Benedict (480-547 AD) was an Italian Christian monk who had developed a set of rules on how monks should stay in monasteries By 10th century most of the monasteries followed Benedictine rules.

In 1337, the hundred-year war began after King of England Edvard VIII declared himself to be the heir to French throne and French king Philip VI claimed English territory Guyenne by the Bay of Biscay. The war saw many phases and multitudes of warring kings and dragged on for 116 years. During the war, France suffered serious reverses but Mt St Michel remained free throughout because of its natural defences and dogged resistance of the residents. Its ramparts and fortifications combined with tenacity of residents negated all English attacks. This stubborn resistance against incredible odds bestowed upon Mt St Michel an element of divinity. It was said that the arch angel kept the abbey under his protection against the invaders. It became a symbol of national pride and inspired the Maid of Orleans – Joan of Arc who led the French in a succession of stunning victories over England. The English had won may famous battles but it was France which eventually won the war.

After the French revolution in 1789, considering its insularity, it was converted into a prison to detain political prisoners and remained so till 1863. It was Classified as a historic monument in 1874 and notified as a world heritage site in 1974 by UNESCO. “

Abbey of Mt St Michel which has inspired the Disney Logo

Causeway built over Couesnon River
Mt St Michel From Mudflats
Monks carrying the cross

It is so physically awesome that we decided to take a walk around the abbey before going inside. Though there was no water in front of the monastery and land was dry, on north side the mudflats were being gradually filled up and at a distance we saw the granite island of Tombelaine. It was occupied by the British during the 100-year war to plan a siege of the mount. The current had increased by then and pre-empted our plan to visit the island. We were without a guide and sea water which was barely covered our ankles, now lapped against our waists. The crescent moon shaped depressions on the mudflats which appeared like an aerial view of sand dunes of Sahara, got inundated in no time. We turned back and saw the golden statue of Saint Michael perched on the steeple, twinkling in the overhead sun. It made me wonder about the biblical figure. Disciple John while incarcerated on Greek island of Patmos received a vision wherein Jesus Christ showed him a titanic battle between good and evil where arch angel Michael leads the god’s angels against the evil angels of Satan. Eventually Satan is defeated and flung in a lake of fire. This is as per Book of Revelations of Bible. He is the patron saint of soldiers and doctors. Commonly he is shown with a raised sword in one hand and a pair of scales in the other to weigh the goodness of souls in the Last day of Judgement. Naturally the good one get to go to heaven and the wicked follow Satan into the lake of fire. He is usually depicted killing a dragon or a serpent. Also on the steeple of the monastery, St Michael is shown crushing a small dragon beneath his golden boots.

Granite Island of Tombelaine
Vast sweep of mudflats around the monastery

After wading around the monastery for some time, we entered the village at the foot of the abbey. The streets buzzed with activity and the aroma of giant omelettes of La Mere Poulard teased our nostrils. The restaurant was founded by Anne Poulard in late 19th century, for serving monks and visitors alike. She and her husband were innkeepers on the island and due to unpredictability of tides visitors were either too few or too many. Hence she used make only a single large omelette. Omelette de la mère Poulard are world famous and an attraction in itself . It is believed if a French presidential candidate visits the island and does not eat the omelette, the candidate loses. However they don't come cheap.

Frightening gargoyles howled at us as we climbed up the cobbled pathway to the abbey. A giant golden three fingered claw creeped down a steep wall. What was it? Satan trying to sneak its way back into the abbey? Vaults of the abbey were turned golden by sunlight pouring through the windows. There were some symbols which were lost upon us such as thousands of feathers hanging from the roof of refectory. A refectory is sort of dining hall where resident monks take their meal. Some symbols we could understand such as that of an Alpha and Omega embossed on the wall which refers to the passage of Book of revelations "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End."

Creepy claw
Vaulted staircases and halls abound in the monastery
Thousands of feathers hanging from the roof of refectory
I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end
Gargoyles of Mont St Michel

There are few experiences as rewarding as roaming through ancient buildings which are still in use, their continuity unbroken through centuries, and wisdom passed on through war and peace, feast and famine . This was the first time I had been to a Christian abbey dating from medieval times. Roaming through its corridors, cloisters and vaulted halls, deconstructing hidden meanings in its symbols , I felt like a character from one of my favorite books The Name of the rose by Umberto Eco.

For France, Mt St Michel and the region around it is a symbol of strength and perseverance , a place where good triumphed over evil. It was here Arch Angel Michael prevailed over Satan. It was only fair that on 6th June'1944, the combined might of Allied forces chose Normandy to make their final assault at evil forces of Nazism. But that tale and place deserves a separate blog post.


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  • Writer's pictureyatri gulaak

In modern era, Paris is widely considered to be the fount of fashion and haute couture. But in the 18th century it was a crumbling, stinking and overpopulated metropolis; bursting from the seams. Patrick Süskind in his seminal work “Perfume: The story of a murderer” wrote that

“In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlours stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulphur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master's wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter. For in the eighteenth century there was nothing to hinder bacteria busy at decomposition, and so there was no human activity, either constructive or destructive, no manifestation of germinating or decaying life that was not accompanied by stench. And of course, the stench was foulest in Paris, for Paris was the largest city of France"

At the center of this miasma pervading Paris, was Les Innocent cemetery situated right in the heart of the city. Over more than 600 years old, the cemetery was overflowing with half decomposed bodies in late 18th century. An estimated two million dead were packed like sardines in this small enclosure. Sometimes the dead used to fall in neighboring houses. The stench was getting unbearable and threat of widespread disease loomed large. Then one day in 1780, wall of an adjoining basement, of a restaurateur collapsed and rotting corpses flowed into it. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and King Louis XVI decided to exhume the dead and shift them to abandoned limestone quarries on which Paris rested. This giant ossuary came to be known as Catacombs de Paris and became sort of a tourist attraction when Napoleon Bonaparte opened it to public in 1809 for limited audience.

St Innocent cemetery in 1550's

On a hot and humid August day in 2016, I found myself wiping my forehead in a snaking queue in 14th arrondissement. I had come to know about these catacombs through the horror film “As above so below” which was about a group of adventurers trying to find Nicolas Flamel’s Philosopher’s stone. A miniscule area of catacombs is safe and open for tourists, a mere tip of the iceberg. When my turn came, I stared, momentarily at the ominous warning at the entrance “Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort ("Stop! This is the empire of Death") and then stepped down a winding staircase leading into the bowels of Paris. The passage is extremely narrow and due to this reason only a handful of tourists are allowed in at one time. Hence, when inside I was almost alone.

Poster for Movie "As Above so Below"
Passage leading to Catacombs

In total contrast to streets above, the catacombs are very chilly and quiet. You can get occasionally spooked by a remote, disembodied laugh or chatter of a fellow tourist in some hidden passageway. Icy draughts of air suddenly winnow through your hair and catch you by surprise. Although the routes are well marked, the maze of catacombs can be claustrophobic and disorienting. You are well advised to walk on the designated routes and not try something adventurous like poor Mr Philibert Aspairt who was a doorkeeper in a hospital during the time of French revolution in 1793. Overpowered his craving for more booze, an already drunk Aspairt decided to go through the catacombs to enter a nearby liquor cellar. He soon lost his way and his light from a single candle, and died alone; stumbling through these catacombs in pitch dark. His body was found 11 years later. He was identified by key ring of the hospital he had on him. Reassuring part is that it is the only death reported in catacombs so far. The place where he was found is now a meeting place of Cataphiles. We will come to this group later.

Since the ossuary was a former limestone quarry, water percolates down from the surface and falls on the floor in distinct plops. You sense someone is behind you, only to find out it is the echo of your own footsteps. But the most disconcerting thing about the catacombs is, piles and piles of skulls, femurs and tibias of 6 million parisians stacked on both sides of the pathway. Occasionally a cockroach would scurry out of an empty eye socket or my eye would stare fixedly at an imaginary shape conjured out of the shadows. This place abounds with unpleasant legends about ghouls of famous revolutionaries such as Robespierre and Marat, our Mr Philibert Aspairt who is said to haunt these alleys on 13th November every year, of missing personages and certain whispering voices that coax you to venture deeper and deeper into the catacombs. But all said and done, visiting this part of catacombs is safe and an experience unlike any other, especially for those served with an extra dose of morbid curiosity. I finally came out after spending about a couple of hours there, out of an opening in the pavement which was lined with showrooms of premier fashions brands like Prada, Gucci, Tommy Hilfiger etc. I found tourists strolling on the promenade and clinking wine glasses at roadside cafes; oblivious of the terrors lying below. Two faces of Paris, separated by mere 20 meters.

Skulls and Femurs stacked in Catacombs

Who are Cataphiles: They are a bunch of intrepid urban explorers who illegally enter the restricted and still unexplored area of catacombs which is spread over 280 Km in length. They risk their lives and reputation to surmount obstacles both earthly and otherworldly such as police, vengeful spirits, cave ins, getting lost, flooding, claustrophobia and asphyxiation, to explore these caves. Their entrances to catacombs are secret and inconspicuous such as sewers, manholes, ventilation shafts etc. Some do it for propagating their art, using this subterranean network as their canvas, partying, picnicking, some out of plain curiosity and some like the group Les UX to beautify ugliest corners of Paris. For them it’s a free zone where they can do what is prohibited above. The bête noir of Cataphiles are Cataflics, a specialized police force trained with geography and paths of catacombs. In fact in 2004, the French police stumbled upon a fully equipped cinema hall with videotapes of noir films, a fully equipped bar, electricity and three phone lines, in an uncharted area of catacombs. Three days later police came back with electricity board officials only to find the electricity and phone lines cut. A note was found in middle of the amphitheater which said “Do not try to find us”. Cataphiles of Lex UX took responsibility.


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