A visit to Normandy brings D-Day to life beyond the beaches

A visit to Normandy brings D-Day to life beyond the beaches

To this day, the shrapnel remains sprinkled in the sand, a hard-hitting reminder of the bravery of thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in battle. For the D-Day beaches are no mere pleasure spots by the sea, but meaningful memorial locations, celebrating the moments in World War II when Western Europe was led to freedom.

One of the most important historical events commemorating the relationship between France and the USA is that of the D-Day Landings. Here, along with British and Canadian troops, both countries battled to successfully liberate France from the clutches of Nazi Germany.

As the location looks set to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status soon, a visit to the Normandy beaches where the action took place is an increasingly popular prospect. For anyone with an interest in history, the sites make for a moving, poignant, and absolutely unmissable memorial trip.

Start by traveling from Paris to the gateway city of Caen

Normany

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For those keen to get straight to the D-Day sites, the route that’s most hassle-free is simply to hop on a BlaBlaBus vehicle direct from Paris’ Charles de Gaulles Airport. With a journey time of less than three hours and prices starting from merely 2.99 euros each way ($3.40), it’s the most budget-friendly way to arrive in the gateway city of Caen. The service also picks up passengers in Paris’ city center along the way, with stops including Gare Montparnasse.

Naturally, it’s also possible to hire a car, or — for the quickest route of all — trains leave both Gare Montparnasse and Gare Saint-Lazare several times a day and arrive in Caen in as little as two hours.

This “town of a hundred bell-towers,” founded in the 11th century by William the Conqueror, is a perfect place for a stroll and a bite to eat before embarking on the final leg of the journey to the D-Day sites.

To taste food the way the locals like it, sample the traditional Vallee d’Auge chicken dish — cooked in the famous apple cider for which the region is renowned, flambéed with locally produced Calvados, and topped with slices of buttery apple. Few dishes are more authentically Norman and you’re unlikely to find this delicacy on the average menu in Paris. Just look out for the phrase “Poulet Vallée d’Auge.” Chicken aside, Le Bouchon Du Vaugueux is also worth a visit for its beautifully presented and typically French dishes, and its rich berry-focused desserts. Alternatively, for a quicker snack on the move, choosing one of the creperies the city streets are lined with is your best bet.

Le Memorial de Caen

Photo: Le Mémorial de Caen/Facebook

Once you are satiated, it’s almost time to get back on the road for a slice of war history. However you shouldn’t leave this city without a visit to a site often skipped by D-Day tourists in their hurry to get nearer to the famous beaches — the Memorial de Caen. This museum covers everything from the origins of WWII to the tragic genocides and the determination of the Resistance movement, all the way up to the end of the battles. One section is located underground, in a former quarry once used by a German commander as his headquarters, which adds to the atmosphere. A network of secret buried phone cables allowed for discreet communication. There are also American, Canadian, and British-themed gardens all in honor of the Allied troops who fought in Normandy. Finally, visitors can watch an immersive film about the war effort, Europe, Our History.

If overnighting in Caen, Les Chambres de l’Abbaye is an unparalleled choice. This beautiful historic building, preserved since the 18th century, comes with a view over the jaw-dropping Abbaye Aux Hommes, founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century. Those wishing to see his tomb are able to visit the interior too. If hoping to catch a glimpse of Normandy as it originally looked before the war wreaked destruction, this is the location. The hotel is an authentic and very refreshing alternative to the string of generic chain hotels that proliferate in the city — and it should be considered as a base for the entirety of your Normandy trip.

Normany

Photo: mountaintreks/Shutterstock

Before bidding Caen a temporary farewell the following morning, check out the Pegasus Bridge across the city’s canal, the first to be liberated from oppressive Nazi rule. Although it has been reconstructed since its WWII days, the original bridge can still be seen in the nearby Pegasus Memorial Museum, alongside a reproduction of a wartime glider. Guided tours of the museum last an hour and a half and it can easily be reached by bus.

Check out your first D-Day sites via Sword, Juno, and Gold beaches

Normany

Photo: illpaxphotomatic/Shutterstock

Moving on, Sword Beach is the first of the five beach landing sites you will see that were used for the Allied invasions on D-Day. The immediate area is not especially well-developed for tourism. There is, however, a small beachfront museum called Commando No 4 at the port of Ouistreham, not to mention a Grand Bunker Museum, located within a former Atlantic Wall firing command post. Within just three days, British troops had snatched the latter from Nazi hands, and the reconstructed bunker captures the drama of these heart-pounding rescue moments.

Lesser-visited areas like these are not included on the average guided tour, so they provide a great way to experience some of the D-Day sites without the presence of large crowds. That said, those who are low on time may wish to skip these attractions and head straight to Juno Beach further along the coast. It is just a 19-minute drive from Caen, or a brief bus ride (check the Bus Verts website for the latest timetables).

Centre Juno Beach Juno Beach Centre

Photo: Centre Juno Beach / Juno Beach Centre/Facebook

Juno was primarily the responsibility of Canadian troops. Consequently the Juno Beach Centre Museum in the town itself, commemorating the 45,000 Canadians who lost their lives in battle, is designed to mimic the shape of the country’s national emblem: the maple leaf. Inside, an immersive experience places visitors inside a simulated aircraft while the voices of war veteran survivors ring out, recounting the battle, and movie imagery is projected on the walls. It’s well worth a visit, but bear in mind that this museum is closed completely throughout the month of January.

Continuing the journey along the coast, Gold Beach is next — the location, along with Sword Beach, where British troops saw off the opposition. The museum by the same name documents struggles and triumphs alike, although the exhibition space is small — a visit takes less than an hour.

Relive the past in the cobblestone streets of Bayeux

Normany

Photo: Stefano_Valeri/Shutterstock

By the third day of your trip, heading to neighboring Bayeux, a bustling town of timber buildings and cobblestoned streets which, on June 7, 1944, was successfully seized away from Nazi dominion by British troops, should be a highlight. It was the first town in mainland France to achieve freedom, and — up until Paris’s liberation on August 25 — it was temporarily crowned the country’s capital.

Nearly a thousand years earlier, on the other hand, French soldiers had seized Britain during the Norman Conquest of England. The world-famous Bayeux Tapestry documents those 11th century events through the intricate illustrations stitched onto its fabric — and for any traveler to Normandy with more than a passing interest in history, viewing it up-close is a must. Even better, the town is well served not just by bus but also by train from Caen.

Bayeux Museum

Photo: Bayeux Museum/Facebook

Yet the most fitting attraction of all here is the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy, which bills itself as the only museum to present all the military operations that took place during the summer of 1944. Detailed film footage plus collections of everything from artillery to artifacts make this a moving experience. Combination tickets can be purchased, giving travelers access to this museum, the Bayeux Tapestry Museum, and the Baron Gerard Museum of Art and History for a one-time fee of 15 euros ($16.50). There is also a cemetery plus a War Reporters Memorial Garden dedicated to the cause of press freedom. The names of over 2,000 journalists who died on the job are honored here, and Bayeux is known as the location for the post-war rebirth of the newspaper.

Should you decide to spend a night in historic Bayeux, Hôtel d’Argouges is an 18th-century mansion, steeped in history and with a walled garden. Finally, you shouldn’t leave the town without picking up some delicious cider or Calvados from Lecornu, which is created by a third generation producer using organic fruit from local orchards. Tastings take place at 2 Rue Bourbesneur every day except Mondays, and the family also owns a B&B next door.

Normandy

Photo: Shandarov Arkadii/Shutterstock

From Bayeux, buses regularly run to Arromanches where the highlights include a visit to Port Winston, an artificial portable harbor used in the war effort and named after British leader Winston Churchill due to his role in commissioning it. The nearby D-Day Museum reveals in great detail how the harbor was set up, while Arromanches 360 offers a compelling film about the 100 days of the Battle of Normandy delivered across all four sides of an immersive circular cinema.

Explore the American contribution to the war effort

Normandy

Photo: Jrossphoto/Shutterstock

Not far from here, Pointe du Hoc is a rugged and beautiful 100-foot-high cliff situated between the two key beaches of the American D-Day Landings, Omaha and Utah. Less than half of the US rangers successfully scaled the cliff despite the use of ladders, ropes, and grappling irons. Today, it’s a must-see photo stop and, as such, it’s optimal to arrive as early as possible in the morning to avoid competing for camera space with large crowds piling out of tour buses later in the day.

Colleville-sur-Mer, France The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

Photo: Satur/Shutterstock

Less than an hour later, you’ll be ready to head to Omaha, where the heat of the action took place. High above the beach lies the American Military Cemetery of Colleville sur Mer. There might be little to distinguish it from any other peaceful tree-lined field, were it not for the thousands of bright white crosses, each one planted in the ground to honor a soldier who died in battle here. Stars of David also appear here, marking the contributions of those of Jewish faith. The cemetery is a sobering tribute to those who stormed these battlefields, ready to die to defend their cause and knowing in their hearts that they might never make it back home.

Meanwhile on ground level, two excellent museums are available to document the American contribution to the war effort. While back at Pointe du Hoc, the battle scars of war are still etched into the ground, the Omaha Memorial Museum provides an insight into the events that led to those scars. A self-guided tour here reveals uniforms, weaponry, war vehicles, and more.

Overlord Museum Omaha Beach

Photo: Overlord Museum – Omaha Beach/Facebook

Then, set in a striking forested area very close to the war cemetery is the Operation Overlord Museum. Here, an extensive collection of war memorabilia — even down to the pumice soap still stashed in the pocket of a soldier’s backpack — is on display. Events covered span from the D-Day Landings of June 6 all the way up to the liberation of Paris on August 25.

Head to the village where Walt Disney’s ancestors once lived

One unmissable spot that the average D-Day itinerary won’t include is the coastal village of Isigny, located between the Omaha and Utah beaches. Just 25 minutes from Omaha is where Walt Disney’s ancestors once lived and were given the titles of the Lords of D’Isigny as thanks for fighting alongside William the Conqueror in the Battle of Hastings. This name was anglicized to ‘Disney’ when the family relocated to the UK, and years later, Walt’s great grandfather set sail for the USA — yet it all began here. Proving that the patriotic fighting spirit of his ancestors was alive within him too, Walt himself traveled to Normandy as a teenager to work as a World War I ambulance driver, paramedic, and waiter in a Red Cross canteen. The little-known story of the early war efforts made by the founder of the $130 billion Disney brand brings this town to life.

Fast forward to June 9, 1944, however, and amid the brutality of the battles, Isigny was on fire. The day before, 60 percent of the Nazi-controlled town had been destroyed by bombardments, and now American troops were storming it fast and furiously to liberate French territory. A signpost in the region today states that the liberation of Isigny was a pivotal Allied objective helping to “force a link between the American beach-heads of Utah and Omaha.”

It is a fitting place, then, to pause and reflect on the sacrifices made. Later, perhaps snack on the world-class caramels produced in the Dupont D’Isigny biscuit factory before continuing on your journey. The local Isigny-brand butter and Isigny Ste-Mère Camembert are also renowned for their quality. After filling your bags with fuel for the road ahead, it’s time to head to Utah, the final beach.

End your journey at Utah Beach

Normandy

Photo: s74/Shutterstock

Worth at least a half day in your itinerary, the area includes the Utah Beach Landing Museum. Unique about this location is the chance to see an original B2 Bomber plane, one of only six still remaining in the world. There’s also an award-winning documentary film, Victory in the Sand, to watch. For those with extra time, the nearby village of Sainte-Mère-Eglise reveals some excellent wartime history, including the moment American paratrooper John Steele was left dangling from the tower of a church after his parachute got caught on it. Finally, the village also has the Airborne Museum, which promises to take onlookers right into the heart of the historic conflict.



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