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May 25, 2014

Normandy, 70 years later

COMMES, France — Weather in Normandy had been iffy for days. Showers and wind gave way to sunshine, then lightning storms over the sea.

We watched and waited for the signal to jump. With a window of only a few hours, I began to doubt our chances.

Finally the message my companions and I had been waiting for arrived: The jump was on.

Unlike the paratroopers of the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions who jumped into Normandy on D-Day 70 years ago, our orders came not from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, but via text message from our paragliding instructor.

My wife and I had come to Normandy ahead of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings to explore the region’s history, cuisine and culture.

FARTHER AFIELD

I’d been to the U.S. military cemetery at Omaha Beach years before, a trip that’s still a must for many Americans visiting France.

But this time we wanted to explore farther afield. We’d crisscross the region from the cheese-making town of Pont l’Eveque in the east to the isolated Gatteville Lighthouse in the west.

Near Omaha Beach, Claude Bellessort runs Elementair, a paragliding school in Port-en-Bessin. An expert pilot who’s led paragliding excursions as far afield as Nepal and Morocco, Bellessort has offered tandem paragliding flights here since 2002.

The thrill of taking off from the cliff top and swooping over the beaches, imagining how it appeared on D-Day, made the 10-minute flight an unforgettable highlight of three days in Normandy.

TOURISTS

Local officials estimate that the invasion anniversary will attract several hundred thousand tourists to Normandy this summer. The commemorations culminate June 6 in Ouistreham, where U.S. President Barack Obama, French president Francois Hollande and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II will gather to remember the more than 9,000 Allied soldiers killed or wounded that day.

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