On June 6, 1944, the Allied armies invaded the coastal region of France, opening the second front in Europe with an attack that greatly eased the pressure on the Soviet Union in the east and eventually spelled the end of the Nazi regime. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose called this the climactic battle of World War Two.
The Normandy Countryside
More than 60 years later, the beaches, towns and fields of Normandy are full of reminders of the life-and-death struggle that gripped Europe. Though Normandy is small enough to see the highlights in two days, it is recommended you rent a car. The ideal place to stay is the town of Bayeux, which has a host of hotels, restaurants, museums and a Gothic cathedral, along with car rental offices. Bayeux is easily reached by a three-hour train from Paris (Gare St. Lazare station).
Though the amphibious assault from the sea is the most famous aspect of the D-Day invasion, it actually began in the dark hours of the night of June 5 – 6 when American and British paratroopers jumped into an unfamiliar landscape filled with the enemy. Scattered throughout the countryside, most having missed their drop zones, the men formed mixed units and secured several key victories in advance of the invasion.
Sainte-Mere-Eglise is the iconic town associated with the airborne phase of the invasion and can be reached by traveling west on the N13 highway from Bayeux. The town is the home of the Airborne Museum, which tells the story of the American airborne landings and has many life-size dioramas featuring mannequins in uniforms, aircraft and gliders.
When the first soldiers dropped on Ste. Mere-Eglise, there was a fire, and the villagers were fighting it under the supervision of the German garrison. Many of the paratroopers were killed in their parachutes as they got caught up on buildings and telephone poles. One soldier, John Steele, got stuck on the roof of the church in the center of town in his parachute, and survived by pretending to be dead until the town was taken around 5am. His story was made famous in the film The Longest Day, and a memorial to him and the other paratroopers killed in the battle takes the form of a mannequin hanging in a parachute from the church steeple.
As dawn broke on June 6, the German commanders had been on alert all night trying to piece together what was happening. The troops on the five invasion beaches codenamed Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword, however, had no doubt that the invasion was taking place.
Thousands of warships and transports appeared on the horizon as aircraft rumbled overhead. As soldiers clambered into landing craft, the Allied invasion fleet opened fire, turning the once-peaceful vacation resort into a war zone.
Ste. Mere-Eglise is just inland from Utah Beach. A visit to this beach is worthwhile, but Omaha Beach, down the coast to the east, is the best sight in Normandy associated with the invasion because it was the hardest-fought beach and a loss there would have spelled the end of the invasion and prolonged the war. The beach is also home to the American Cemetery, operated by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Just before reaching Omaha Beach, take the time to stop at Pointe du Hoc, the spit of land jutting into the sea between Omaha and Utah beaches where U.S. Army Rangers scaled 100-foot cliffs on D-Day to neutralize a gun battery. Although the battery had been moved inland and telephone poles were in the place of the guns, there was a vicious fight for the important high ground. The missing guns were discovered and destroyed shortly thereafter. The terrain at Point du Hoc has been left largely untouched to this day. Take the time to walk in the massive shell craters and look at the demolished German bunkers before taking a short trip east to Omaha Beach.
Park at the American Cemetery at Saint Laurent. Walking past the nearly 10,000 white crosses and stars of David, you will begin to understand what the ground you walk on cost. Though the men buried there were not all killed during the Battle of Normandy, they all died in the fight to expunge the Germans from the occupied countries. It is an overwhelming emotional experience to walk through row upon row of perfectly aligned grave markers and see elderly veterans seeking out specific headstones to pay their respects to brothers in arms lost more than half a century ago.
From the cemetery, you can walk down a paved path to Omaha Beach itself. It is best visited at low tide, which was the condition when thousands of young Americans charged ashore into hell on earth. Standing at the waterline, it is impossible not to be amazed at how far the soldiers had to go, withstanding machine gun and artillery fire, before reaching the relative safety of the shingle wall.
Throughout D-Day, Allied warships engaged German batteries. One such battery is the four-gun emplacement between Omaha and Gold beaches at Longues-sur-Mer. It is conveniently located on the road from Omaha Beach to Bayeux, and is the only nearby emplacement that still has its artillery in place. The concrete bunkers are still pockmarked with shells.
Longues-sur-Mer can be visited by car without any guides, but organized, guided tours in English and French are available through the Bayeux tourism office for €7 per person from April to October. The tours must be arranged in advance.
Looking east from Longues-sur-Mer to Gold Beach, it is easy to see the remains of the Mulberry Harbor, one of the solutions to the biggest logistical problem of using Normandy as a landing site. Without any harbor facilities, Allied commanders had to deal with the problem of getting enough men and equipment ashore to not only fend off German counterattacks, but to mount an offensive and secure real port facilities.
The solution was one of the most ingenious feats of military engineering. A mixture of concrete blocks, old ships and numerous other components were towed across the channel and sunk at Omaha Beach and Gold Beach, at the town of Arromanches. They were called Mulberries, and they were designed to last three months. The one in front of Arromanches lasted eight months, and the remnants of it can still be seen today. The second Mulberry was at Omaha Beach, but was destroyed by a storm just 13 days after the invasion.
Continuing farther east, you can visit the Canadian landing site, Juno Beach, and the second British beach, Sword.
A trip to Normandy is not truly complete without a visit to the museum containing the Bayeux Tapestry in Bayeux. The tapestry tells the story of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066. It is one of the best-preserved medieval tapestries, and the story it tells marks the beginning of the Norman rule in Britain that included famous kings such as Richard the Lionheart.
Today, Normandy is a region full of life. The countryside is beautiful, full of farms, centuries-old stone manors and storybook villages. It is easy to see why the region was a favorite spot for French vacationers before World War Two. Today, though the natural beauty and timeless traditions of the area mask its violent past to the casual observer, a visitor does not need to look far to find reminders of the fact that Normandy was the scene of the greatest invasion in history – an invasion in which the Allied armies breached Hitler’s mighty Fortress Europe and began the campaign that would liberate a nation and eventually bring about the closure of the bloodiest war in history.
Eat & Drink
Food can be had in all price ranges. For lunch, it’s a good idea to stop at a grocery store before leaving Bayeux, buy sandwiches, a block of camembert cheese and a bottle of wine to take to one of the sights and eat while you gaze at the English Channel separating France and the United Kingdom.
If packing a lunch doesn’t suit you, there are numerous cafes in the villages and cities of Normandy, and the owners are friendly and usually speak passable English.
For a good meal in Bayeux, Le Domesday (33) 02-31-22-01-21 is the perfect place. A meals for two will run between €50 and €75, and the selection includes pizzas, crepes and salads. The attraction of Le Domesday is in its location. At 20 Rue Larcher, it is across from the Bayeux Cathedral, allowing you to share good times and a bottle of wine in an ideal setting. Le Domesday is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
Another culinary option, also in Bayeux, is La Rapiere (33) 02-31-21-05-45, a restaurant serving Norman specialties. Prices range from €15 to €33, and it is located a block from the cathedral at 53 Rue Saint Jean. It’s closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Where to Stay
There are numerous hotels and bed and breakfasts in Bayeux, including the three-star Churchill Hotel. Rooms run from €85-€150.
14-16 Rue Saint Jean, Bayeux
A bed and breakfast located in the old town near the cathedral is the Hotel Tardif. The four-star establishment varies in price depending on the number of people, with a two-person room running from €80 – €190.
16 rue de Nesmond
Accommodations get cheaper near the outskirts of the town, but the best place to stay is in the old town. When reserving a room, make sure there will be a place to park your rental car, as the streets are narrow and spots are at a premium.
Hertz has an office in Bayeux on the Route de Cherbourg Departementale 613 (+33 02 31920326) open daily from 6am-10pm.
Airborne Museum, 14 Rue Eisenhower, Ste. Mere-Eglise
Open year round except closed December and January, hours vary
€6 for adults and €3 for children up to 15
Open every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day from 9am-5pm. As it is operated by the American Battle Monuments Commission, it does not close for French holidays
The Bayeux Tapestry Museum, Centre Guillame Le Conquérant, Rue de Nesmond
Hours vary depending on the time of year, and it is closed on nine holidays
€7.70 for adults and €3.80 for children, and admission for children under 10 is free
Mont-Sant-Michel, near Pontorson close to Brittany, is a fortified monastery on an island in the tidal flats about 1km off the coast linked by a single road. Used for centuries as an abbey, it was later closed and used as a prison during the French Revolution. Now it welcomes tourists and is open every day except January 1, May 1 and Christmas Day. There are four museums on the island, Maritime Museum, Archeoscope, Museum of History, Tiphaine’s House, open from February – November 11 and during Christmas holidays.
Abbey open 9am – 7pm from May 2 to August 31; 9:30am – 6pm September to Apri, last entrance hour before closing. On the December 24th & 31st: last entrance at 4 pm, closing time at 5pm.
Abbey admission: €8.50 adults, €5 students, free under 18; Parking is €4 for the day
Museum admission: €16 adults for 4 museums, €8 for 1; €12.50 students (18 – 25) for 4; €9 children for 4 museums, €4.50 for 1