Falaise has a history any tourist board would pay for. The seat of the Dukes of Normandy, it was the birthplace of William the Conqueror. The castle that overlooks the town endured and survived seven sieges in the late Middle Ages. It’s more recent history made Falais world famous.
In 1944 one of the most important battles of the Normandy Invasion, the Battle of the Falaise Pocket, took place here. This saw the Western Alies defeat the German armies in a battle that opened the path to Paris.Given this is the type of stuff that draws most people to Normandy I assumed Falaise would be thronged with tourists. However when I arrived yesterday I found the town quiet, almost empty.
True the tourist season is coming to an end but other towns with a less rich history are still draped with Union Jacks and Stars and Stripes catering to buses of tourists. From my very limited experience, Falais seems less comfortable with its World War II heritage.
The streets have no banners or tour buses. Most people who visit Normandy want D-Day museums and in Falaise the story of D-Day and liberation gets complicated. It’s not what we expect or perhaps want to hear.
During its liberation in 1944 Falaise was flattened. The western Allies destroyed 70% of the buildings in the town killing hundreds of inhabitants in their effort to break German resistance.
What was rebuilt lacks the character of other medieval towns such as Rennes and parts of Bayeux. While this was the fate of many other Normandy towns like Saint Lô and Caen, the tourist trade is aimed at stories of soldiers storming beaches, fighting Nazis being cheered on by an exultant French population.
In Falaise I did not find anything as clean cut or inspiring. Unsurprisingly in 1944 the people there did not always greet their liberators with open arms. Many were angry their loved ones had died in allied bombing and their town was destroyed. They had experienced the dark side of war and this shapes how they engage with World War II tourism today.
There are no US or UK flags and the town hosts a museum dedicated to civilian life during the war. This is sobering at times but fitting given huge price Falaise paid for its liberation.
While theirs is perhaps a more accurate experience of war, it contributes to why Falaise is somewhat off the tourist trail. The destruction left a town that is often souless, while the story of Falaise is not as easy to celebrate as that of the Normandy coast.
There you find the story of families and houses destroyed in aerial bombardment while liberation followed by years of hardship (the people of Falaise lived without gas or electricity for two years after the war.)
It seems they have the wrong kind of history, one most of us are not particularly interested in, given we can check out the landing sites of D-Day instead.