Visiting Normandy, France
Normandy as an Essential Paris Side Trip:
There is something confounding about French culture that makes it difficult for meat-and-potato Americans to consider vacationing in France. There are the lingering animosities regarding hostilities in Iraq, but the differences lie much deeper. Not surprisingly, most Americans settle for small, bite-sized trips to France, never dreaming of taking on the challenge of a regional tour. Paris is often considered more than enough for a single trip, but it is easy to include a Normandy side trip with a visit to Paris. For many Americans the D-Day Beaches hold a powerful attraction and Normandy is a favorite on many travel wish lists (regional maps).
Around the 60th anniversary of the landings there was a lot of interest in Normandy. With the the exchange rate so unfavorable for Americans, interest seems to be declining, however, there continues to be wonderful stories in the press about a reunion in Normandy. France has recently awarded a group of American GIs for their heroism in the landings, including Bernard LaPlante and Joseph Pelletier.
The D-Day Beaches are in a maritime province about 150 miles west of Paris, easily reached in two hours and ten minutes on the main rail line (French National Rail site). The beaches are on 40 miles of contiguous coastline (battlefield map) that can be explored in two or three days of good weather, depending on how absorbed you become by the museums and memorials. If you're curious, like many are, I can tell you first-hand that Normandy retains powerful, present-day reminders of the battle. It also carries the sacred honor as the burial grounds for thousands of war dead.
Normandy shares its D-Day identity with the world and the many visitors who arrive each year to pay tribute. Because of the D-Day affiliation, and a history shared with nearby Britain, many Americans find Normandy more familiar than some other French destinations. The local cuisine features heavy farmhouse dishes, excellent cheese and varieties of apple cider and brandy. The hearty northern fishing towns, dressed in an informal uniform of the trademark broad-stripped shirts, have a robust and pleasing character. People in the fishing towns seem more concerned about boats, traps and nets than the worldwide tourist trade.
Just a Jump From St-Lazare:
The ancient city of Caen, on the direct line from Paris Gare St-Lazare, is an ideal jumping off place for a tour of the landing beaches. There is bus service to the D-Day Beaches, and some sporadic regional train service, but a rental car offers optimal flexibility and freedom of schedule (more ground transportation info). Hertz and Avis have offices directly across the street from the Caen railroad station that allow an excursion traveler to leave Paris in the morning and have lunch near the invasion beaches. I'm often asked about the need for a car and posted a web log on the topic on June 18, 2003. My personal answer to the car question is aways the same: you really ought to get a car (details). With a car it is easy to make a detailed tour of the Calvados countryside, spending as much time as desired at the many memorials, museums and battle sites.
Bayeux, with its manageable size, its proximity to the invasion beaches, and its guest accommodations, provides excellent access and convenience for a Normandy excursion. The near proximity of Bayeux to the battle beaches is reflected by the fact that Bayeux was the first town liberated in the Battle of Normandy. It is a small medieval town famous for its Norman-Gothic cathedral and the 225-foot-long Bayeux Tapestry. The tapestry was crafted in 1067 to illustrate 58 scenes of William of Normandy’s conquest of England in 1066. Bayeux’s Musee de la Bataille de Normandie (Battle of Normandy Museum) offers an extensive array of uniforms, weapons, war equipment and paraphernalia. It also features films depicting the invasion and exploring its background.
The Invasion Beaches:
To appreciate the epic contest of the D-Day battle it helps to consider some of the strategy that shaped the decision to invade here (fact sheet). Because Normandy is separated by rivers from Paris and the German divisions defending Calais, the Allied invasion planners found Normandy an attractive target. By securing or destroying key bridges in the region the Allies might limit the size of a German counteroffensive after the invasion had landed. The German defenders were aware that Normandy posed an invasion risk so they fortified the beaches with an efficient and deadly system of reinforced concrete blockhouses and gun emplacements, many of which survive to the present day.
The beaches stretch in roughly an “L” shape with the American landings having taken place to the west (maps). Utah Beach, where the American VII Corps came ashore on June 6, 1944, is the most remote of the landing sites, about 50 miles west of Caen. In addition to Utah Beach, and the adjacent areas near St-Mere-Eglise where the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions fought, American forces were heavily involved at Omaha Beach, the location of the American Cemetery. Omaha Beach is just east around the coastline from Utah Beach. This is where the US V Corps landed against determined German forces on D-Day. Continuing east along the coast from Omaha Beach toward Caen, British-led forces landed at Gold Beach, Juno Beach and Sword Beach.
On 2:30 am on the morning of June 6, 1944 the invasion began with the American Airborne Divisions being dropped into Normandy to secure critical areas near Ste-Mere-Eglise. The town has been made famous from movie depictions of a parachutist from the 82nd Airborne who became hung up on the church tower during his drop. Ste-Mere-Eglise is approximately 50 miles northwest of Caen and only seven miles from the Utah Beaches. The Musee des Troupes Airoportees (Airborne Troops Museum) is located here. Ste-Mere-Eglise has much to offer in a visit, but Bayeux is a better base, providing a more central location, access to the railroad, and a larger assortment of restaurants and hotels.
Perhaps more dramatic than Utah Beach are the low bluffs of Omaha Beach where American forces suffered the heaviest fighting of D-Day. To the west of the beach on rocky cliffs overlooking the landing zones are the remnants of the German gun positions at Pointe-du-Hoc. The undulating terrain, with shell craters large enough to hide sports utility vehicles, still shows evidence of the heavy aerial and naval bombardment of June 6, 1944. Despite the massive bombardment effort it still required an American cliff assault with rope ladders to subdue the German positions. Some train tracks and a railroad turntable for handling ammunition for the six 155 mm guns still exist here. The dome-shaped forward observation post survives almost intact despite bombardment including 14-inch guns. The cliff top bunkers, connecting trenches and steel doors, are a vivid testament to German mettle and American resolve.
Omaha Beach is perhaps the most sacred Normandy battle site. The beach here is no longer covered in small pebbles - or “shingle” - like it was on June 6, 1944. The beach now has a peaceful, sandy slope leading into a rise of dunes. Above the beaches and behind a cool screen of evergreen trees is the American Cemetery and Memorial. Here the symmetrical lines of bone-white marble crosses prompt a reverent hush from the many visitors from all over the world. The scrupulously groomed grounds contain a chapel and a memorial that sets out maps of the campaign in stone mosaic.
At Omaha Beach the Allies constructed an artificial harbor out of a breakwater made of hollow, floating concrete barges manufactured in England and towed by boats to the invasion sites. There were two prefabricated ports, code named “Mulberries.” On June 19, 1944 a fierce storm completely destroyed American Mulberry near Omaha Beach, but the British Mulberry partly survived a few miles east at Arromanches. The remaining floating caissons, with stenciled numbers on the top half and a rich green pelt of algae on the bottom half, still exist at Arromanches. Arromanches also has a seafront museum overlooking the remains of the artificial harbor, the Musee du Debarquement . There is also a 360-degree movie theater with circular screens where the 18-minute film, “The Price of Liberty” about the D-Day landings is shown.
The realism of D-Day is brought to life by the chilling presence of German fortifications throughout the area. Despite a determined pounding by airplanes and naval guns, many of the reinforced concrete German gun casements survive to the present day. These can be found at locations including Longues-sur-Mer, Pointe-du-Hoc, Port-en-Bessin, St.-Marcouf and Azeville. Pointe-du-Hoc is perhaps the most moving example of surviving battlements because of the dramatic Cliffside location overlooking Omaha Beach, the extent of surviving evidence of the battle, and the realization of the daring required for Americans to take the position. Between Port-en-Bessin and Arromanches is a surviving cluster of four heavy gun casements and a forward observation post. The Port-en-Bessin battery is notable because three of the 155-mm Czech-made guns survive, two of them remarkably intact. These outposts stand out of time on the horizon, frozen in an eternal, coast-watching vigilance, with their long, black gun barrels and squat, powerful casements facing the sea.
The comforts of hospitality on the Calvados coast, the peacefulness of the beaches and cemeteries, are at odds with the physical remnants of the June 1944 battles. But in the comfortable sanctuary of this land of hardy French fishermen there is a rare opportunity to see, touch and feel the evidence of a watershed moment in history. Hitler’s pale gray concrete endures half a century after it was hastily poured to fend off invasion. The muscular architecture of the German structures suggests a deadly military competence that was poised directly against our invasion forces. There is an opportunity here to relive that history on very personal terms, and also to honor the fallen dead, so gracefully enshrined in the military cemeteries.
(All phone numbers listed are for dialing from the US; to call from inside France drop the 33 country code and add a “0” to the beginning of the number.)
Air travel – International travelers can catch regional flights to Caen from London and Paris.
Train travel – Trains from Paris St-Lazare station run about every 90 minutes on the weekdays, arriving in Caen in slightly more than two hours ($38 second class, $47 first class each way, plus $11 per seat for advance reservation). There is also service to Bayeux from Paris St-Lazare, departing on weekdays about every four hours (this costs a couple of dollars more and takes 18 minutes longer than the Paris-Caen train). Other regional train service to smaller towns is sporadic and presents a real headache.
Car rental – Renting a car is highly desirable because of the nature of exploring the D-Day beaches, close access to the sites, and customizing your trip to suit individual needs. Caen’s Carpiquet Airport offers a host of rental car options. Perhaps the easiest plan is to take the train to Caen and then walk across the street from the Caen train station to Hertz or Avis: Hertz, 34 Place de la Gare, 14019 Caen, France (33-2-31-84-64-50); Avis 44 Place de la Gare, 14019 Caen, France (33-2-31-84-73-80).
Accommodation in Bayeux – Bayeux is perfectly situated near to the beaches, but also very near to the regional hub of Caen. The Lion d’Or (Golden Lion) is a centuries old courtyard hotel in the middle of Bayeux with a restaurant that was reportedly a favorite of General Eisenhower. Lion d’Or – 71 rue St-Jean, 14400 Bayeux, France (33-2-31-92-06-90), double rooms with bath approximately $90/night.
Accommodation in Caen – Best Western operates a stone walled hotel, a former priory from the 1100s, which is in the middle of Caen and boasts a nice restaurant on the property. Le Dauphin, 29 rue Gemare, centre-ville, pres du chateau 14000 Caen, France (33-2-31-86-22-26), double rooms with shower approximately $65/night.
Between Bayeux and Caen - Nine miles southeast of Bayeux is a 29-room, family-owned hotel within a palatial chateau that is listed as a historical monument. This hotel, Chateau d’Audrieu, boasts a gourmet restaurant, a pool, and even a heliport. Chateau d’Audrieu - off of N13 highway between Bayeux and Caen, 14250 Audrieu, France (33-2-31-80-21-52), rooms approximately $130 to $350/night.
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© Copyright 2006 Chris Cloud.
Last update: 9/5/2006; 8:32:50 PM.