We have had numerous holidays in France and even lived/worked in Paris a few years ago, but have never visited this corner of France. The Normandy coastline lies to the north-west of Paris in between LeHavre and Cherbourg. This area is full of historical stories dating back to when the Normans conquered England and William became king. The area is perhaps best known for the Normandy landings on Tuesday, 6 June 1944 which formed part of the Allied invasion of Normandy in Operation Overlord during World War II. We found the area quieter than other regions of France we have visited in August and absolutely loved the beautiful sandy beaches, picturesque towns and rolling countryside with its castles and forests.
If you’re not sure what you should do whilst visiting Normandy, here are some suggestions from our holiday here, although there’s much more to do than just these suggestions:
1. Juno Beach Memorial Tour
In 1994 at the 50th D-day anniversary memorial, Canadian veterans who were revisiting Normandy and Juno beach felt that they wanted a more permanent reminder of what happened on D-day in 1944. They decided to raise money to build and run a visitor centre. As a result, the Juno Beach Centre was opened in 2003 by veterans and volunteers, today many of the staff are bilingual Canadians who come on placement to work as guides. These guides provide English and French tours of the beach, bunkers and the Centre itself, passing on memories of the significant events that took place.
We felt this was an excellent way to hear about the experiences of D-day and we were interested to learn about how the area looked back in 1944, particularly as the sea level has moved significantly. Allow half a day here to get the most out of your visit; you can also cross the river and walk along the promenade of Courseulles-
2. Sword Beach – cycle or walk
This is a very picturesque long stretch of beachfront and there is a good cycle path from Ouistreham to Saint Aubin-sur-mer. (13 km). We decided to cycle from Ouistreham so that the wind was on our backs for the return journey. As you cycle along the promenade, the route passes various monuments and small coastal towns with restaurants, cafés and market stalls. At Collevillette you will pass the memorials to Piper Bill Millin whose chief ordered him to pipe the troops ashore on D-Day and also the Free French troops, We found the variety of coastal properties along the route fascinating, especially the half-timbered
3. Utah Beach Memorial & The D-Day Experience at Saint Côme-du-Mont
On D-Day and in the weeks that followed, the US troops were charged with taking the Cherbourg peninsula including the strategically important port of Cherbourg. Utah Beach was their northernmost entry point and they used this position to cut off supply routes. Walking along the beach and amongst the memorials is very thought-provoking as the area is fairly quiet and remote amongst the sand dunes. The museum is well worth a visit; we were glad that we were persuaded to go inside by the threat of imminent rain. There are plenty of quality displays which really help bring details of the allied invasion to life. Parking was free and there was plenty of space for cars and camper-vans. The D-Day Experience Museum is about 5 miles inland from here and is also well worth a visit.
4. Bayeux: Tapestry and Cemetery
Firstly, it’s worth noting that a great way to see Bayeux is by bike as it has very good cycle lanes running all the way around. If you are in the area, you really should pay a visit to the Bayeux Tapestry museum in the town centre. This amazing 70 metre long embroidered cloth tells the story of the events around the Norman Conquest. The queues to enter can get quite long as the tour is organised so that you pay for your ticket and then queue again for an audio hand piece. You then walk along the tapestry listening to the audio which brings the story to life. Bayeux Cathedral is also very impressive and the Liberty Tree planted in its grounds has night-time
The latin inscription above the monument at the Bayeux War Cemetery brings together the events of 1066 and 1944. ‘NOS A
5. The American Cemetery & Sunset at Omaha Beach
Just on the coast by Saint-Laurent is the American Normandy Cemetery which sits on the eastern edge of Omaha beach. Its size alone will amaze you and bring home the enormity of sacrifice made during the Normandy Campaign. Covering over 170 acres there are just under 10,000 graves here.
The memorial and centre at Omaha Beach were ideal to visit in the evening and we were able to watch the sunset over the
6. Longues-sur-Mer Battery & Arromanches-les-Bains
Set in the countryside and close to the cliffs are the best remaining battery guns at Longues-
A short drive away is the seaside town of Arromanches where we watched another beautiful sunset. Immediately after the D-Day landings, the armies created temporary harbours using submersible pontoons. Many of the concrete structures can still be seen out to sea and some, like the one in the picture, are on the beach. These pontoons made a harbour sea protection wall and piers allowing large ships to unload vital supplies in the times before the large ports of Cherbourg and Caen were secured.
Films to take with you to watch
Saving Private Ryan (15) – starts with D-day landings and gives a very realistic impression of the battle scenes that
The Longest Day (PG) – plenty of historic detail about the
Storming Juno (15) – portrayal of the Canadian forces campaign at Juno beach. Well worth watching before/after your visit to Juno Beach.
Band of Brothers TV series – One the most extravagant TV shows ever made. Follows US Easy Company as they prepare and then drop in on D-day. Episode 1 is them preparing in England, Episode 2 is D-day.