The path leads us through beautiful gardens to the edge of the cliff. Below, the blue waters of the English Channel lap the quiet beach. Above, a sea of white crosses pays poignant homage to the thousands of servicemen who lost their lives on D-Day. We’re at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. This stretch of coastline will be forever known as Omaha Beach.
We’d driven from Saint-Malo earlier that day. We loved going on road trips in France, especially in the southwest. It was our first time this far north. We checked into our hotel in the historic city centre of Bayeux and bought a quiche and baguettes from a boulangerie. A picnic at the beach was a great start to our visit to Normandy.
Things to do in Normandy
Or would have been, had the beach not been engulfed in fog. We sat on a low seawall and ate to the sound of seagulls crying and the rhythmic lapping of waves we couldn’t see. We then went to Gold Beach, the invasion area allotted to the British for Operation Overlord in 1944. There was a little less fog. At least, we could see a bunker, read the explanatory signs and had to fill in the rest with our imagination.
By the time we reached Omaha Beach, the fog had dispersed. A field of white crosses and trees stretched to the horizon. The effect was intensely moving. A sense of loss and sadness seeped through despite the bright sunshine. I thought about the brave men who made the ultimate sacrifice and the families that stayed behind.
The next morning was also foggy and cold. March and September are the foggiest months in Normandy, and this was late March. However, we were committed to seeing the landing beaches.
We set off for Juno Beach in Courseulles-sur-Mer, which the Canadians wrested from the Germans in June 1944. Nowadays, Juno is a vast expanse of empty beach, at least during off-peak season. At the time, it was part of the Atlantic Wall, Hitler’s line of defence in occupied territories along the North Atlantic. I didn’t think much of the town of Courseulles.
It wasn’t until we reached Arromanches-les-Bains that we got a clearer idea of what D-Day might have been like. Bits of the artificial harbour built by the British, like parts of the concrete breakwater or sections of the causeway, still remain.
As I mentioned earlier, we stayed in Bayeux. The town has Gallo-Roman roots and was rebuilt after the Viking attacks of the 10th century and a big fire in the 11th century. Few structures, like the cathedral, date from that time. I loved walking around the Old Town with its half-timbered and stone houses from different centuries.
One of the most recognisable features is the waterwheel on the river Aure, which bisects the city. Bayeux was a centre for tanning and wool dyeing during the Middle Ages, and the waterwheel serves as a reminder. Its prosperity also came from the other industries Bayeux was famous for, like china and bobbin lace. One of the half-timbered houses that date back to that era is known as the Adam and Eve house and is a lace (dentelle) factory nowadays. We found it near the cathedral.
I haven’t met a cathedral I didn’t like, and Bayeux was not the exception. The Romanesque cathedral of Notre-Dame was consecrated in 1077 with William the Conqueror in attendance. What remains from that period are the crypt, with its fascinating paintings alongside World War II memorials, the western towers and part of the soaring nave.
One of the things I was excited about seeing was the Bayeux Tapestry. This 50-centimetre-wide and 70-metre-long tapestry, which is actually an embroidery, was made right after the Norman Conquest of England led by William, Duke of Normandy in 1066. The colourful scenes of the tapestry tell the story of how William became king of England and the whole thing reads like a modern comic strip.
The Bayeux Tapestry was included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World register. It is on display at the Museum of Bayeux. However, it will be loaned to the UK in 2022 while the museum is being refurbished.
Our Normandy itinerary also took us to the fabulous Mont-Saint-Michel. We decided to stay outside the citadel, in the small town of La Caserne, which is what most travel sites recommend.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a medieval Benedictine monastery built on top of a rocky island. Although it is connected to the mainland by a raised causeway, it used to be cut off at high tide. A new bridge connects the island to the mainland now.
Mont-Saint-Michel became a centre of learning and pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. A village gradually developed around the monastery. When we visited, the narrow winding streets were packed to the rafters with tourists. We didn’t buy our tickets in advance and had to wait in line. Lesson learned. After a while, having to fight the crowds gave me a headache. The inside of the abbey is very austere in a grand way; however, the views from the top more than make up for its austerity.
We tried to eat at La Mère Poulard, which is famous for making omelettes that resemble souffles. The maître directly laughed in our faces when we asked if we could have a table without a reservation. It wasn’t very nice or polite of him. His attitude made me not want to make a reservation there ever. Besides, there’s more food in Normandy than omelettes. The region is famous for its cheeses, Camembert and Neufchatel being the best known; as well as pré salé lamb from around Mont-Saint-Michel, cider and calvados, an apple brandy.
Book all your museum tickets online.
Should you decide to drive to Mont-Saint-Michel, leave the car in the car park and take the shuttle to the bottom of the citadel.
Stay outside Mont-Saint-Michel. Inside is very touristy.
There are different transportation options from Paris to Normandy. Flying to Bayeux or Caen is a bit cumbersome since you’ll have at least one stop. The fastest way to get there is by train from St-Lazare station and takes a little over two hours. A more leisurely way to see Normandy, though, is a river cruise from Paris.
Bear in mind that March and September have the most fog, July and August are the hottest and most popular months with tourists; and December, January and February are the coldest months.
Normandy is France’s apple country. Do try local cider, calvados and tarte normande (apple tart).