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Pedaling Normandy's epic landscape

Email|Print| Text size + By Timothy Leland and Julie Hatfield
Globe Correspondents / February 18, 2007

NORMANDY, France -- In December 1944, as the Allies chased Hitler's troops out of France seven months after the D-Day invasion, German Lieutenant Colonel Jochen Peiper, commander of the 1st SS Panzer Division Regiment, complained that the roads the fuhrer had assigned to him "were not for tanks, but for bicycles."

Riding our bicycles through Normandy more than 60 years after the invasion, we were able to make far better use of the beautiful little roads than Peiper had .

Biking was our pleasure as we pedaled through this historic area, stopping to visit beaches, bunkers, cemeteries, and memorials to the soldiers who fought here six decades ago to end Nazi tyranny.

We had come to steep ourselves in World War II history while also enjoying a biking holiday. Happily, we were able to do both.

We pedaled down pencil-thin lanes bordered by the dense, 8 -foot-high hedgerows made famous -- or infamous -- during the first few critical weeks of the Normandy invasion in June 1944. Hedgerows are perfectly named : rows of thick hedges that have grown together for hundreds of years, in some cases espaliered, to produce a virtually impregnable boundary line separating farmers' fields in this part of France.

They severely restricted the Allied forces ' attempts to break out of their beachheads in the drive across Normandy to Paris. The Germans, with time to prepare, used the tangled growth as defensive lines, setting up their machine gun emplacements with deadly fields of fire behind them. It was many weeks before the Americans figured out a way to jury -rig metal rods on the front of their tanks to help bore holes through this armor-like vegetation.

As we rode down these narrow lanes, it was hard to believe that in WWII this bucolic countryside was the site of so much death and destruction. On a late spring day, the fields were in full flower. We biked through swaths of brilliant yellow rapeseed, past topiaried wisteria climbing the walls of quaint stone houses, stands of deep purple lilacs, beds of pink coralbells, and stunningly beautiful blue bushes identified by an innkeeper as "ceanothe."

We had seen the flowers of France before on European "luxury" bike tours that provided elegant château accommodation s , five-course gourmet meals, and wine tastings. This time, we chose Euro-Bike, a company that offered a less expensive trip. The "econo tour" provided fewer group dinners and smaller three- and four-star European-style hotels, but cost nearly $1,000 less. The little hotels were as charming as the châteaus -- and the opening and closing group dinners were every bit as fancy and the wine was included (which isn't always the case on luxury bike tours).

Our first dinner, at the Grand Hotel des Thermes in St. Malo on the Brittany coast, featured the fresh mussels and oysters for which this area is famous, as well as crabmeat in an avocado sauce and an enormous assortment of local cheeses. The Burgundy wine flowed. Our final dinner was at Le Lion D'Or in Bayeaux, one of the region's best and most expensive restaurants and, according to historian Stephen E. Ambrose, writing in "Citizen Soldiers," General Dwight D. Eisenhower's favorite. Although the staff had no record of what Ike liked, we loved the warm croustade of Camembert (a nearby town), the poached white fish in a Granny Smith apple sauce, and the mille -feuille of pear and crepe with caramel ice cream and pear sorbet.

Before leaving on our trip, we had read several histories of the D-Day invasion to prepare for what we would see. These made our bike tour of Normandy much more meaningful.

We knew we had arrived near the invasion site when we began to notice small white plaques on our bike roads. Each one told the sad story of a young life given for freedom in that area. "Olle Road," for example, was named "in honor of T/5 S.J. Olle, 531st Engineer Shore Regiment who was killed in action June 6, 1944."

As we biked along, more and more of these poignant little markers came into view. We also began to see German bunkers -- massive cement hulks, still intact, buried in the earth. We took refuge in one during a sudden rain squall, climbing down the steps to huddle in the damp, dark space below.

Then we reached Omaha Beach. Today it is a wide, sandy expanse where the waves splash gently on the sand. But at 6:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, it was hell on earth. Thousands died here before the day was over. The Omaha Beach Museum on a hill overlooking the sea is one of many that memorialize the bloody Normandy invasion through films, photographs, scale models, documents, and equipment displays.

On another day we biked to Arromanches, where the Allies constructed an artificial harbor for ships to unload men and materiel in support of the invasion. The Cinema Circulaire dramatically brings the sights and sounds of war to life with a 360-degree screen that puts one in the middle of the action. For anyone interested in World War II history, it shouldn't be missed.

Nearby, we stood in the bunker made famous in the scene from the film "The Longest Day" when German soldiers caught their first glimpse of the immense Allied invasion armada heading toward them in the early morning gloom. All around us were deep craters from the bombs dropped by our planes in that spring of 1944.

Each day's bike route brought us to a cemetery, a beach, a bunker , or a museum that told the story of this terrible war. One of the most dramatic sites of all -- save for the poignant marble crosses at the American Cemetery -- was the life-size model of a soldier hanging by his parachute harness from the church steeple in the little town of Ste . Mere Eglise. That was American paratrooper John Steele, who dangled there for three hours on the night of June 6, 1944, until his fellow paratroopers rescued him. An excellent museum sits across the street from the now world-famous church.

Euro-Bike provided us each morning with maps of the route we were to take, as well as detailed written directions and plenty of historical background material on the area. In addition, our delightful Dutch guide, Loek Toepoel, offered us a cellphone to put into our bike bag in case we got lost, something that happens often on these winding little roads.

Contact Timothy Leland and Julie Hatfield, freelance writers in Duxbury, at julhatfield@comcast.net.

If You Go

Euro-Bike & Walking Tours

DeKalb, Ill.

800-321-6060

eurobike.com

Rates: Eight-day Normandy and Brittany Coast Tour, $3,420. Eight-day Normandy and Brittany Coast Econo Tour, $2,570.

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