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A Tale of Two Battles.

Normandy, France

 If you want a beach holiday like no other, fly to Normandy in northern France.  Wait a second before you pack your big towels and the sun-block, though.  Because this isn’t going to be quite what you expect.

You may have seen the gripping opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.  The WWII heroics recreated in that movie took place on Omaha Beach, Normandy.  Back in 1944 that whole stretch of coastline was used by British, U.S., French and Canadian forces for the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.  You may have veterans in your family who were there.

But there’s lots of other stuff to find out about in Normandy too.  It’s one of the regions of France that’s easy to get to: regular flights arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.  From there, it’s a quick road or rail journey north to a centre like Orleans or Caen.

Panorama of Paris

Caen is a great base for exploring Normandy, though it’s not what you’d call a pretty town.  It used to be a pretty town, but it got itself almost completely flattened in ’44. What it lacks in looks it makes up for in hotels and easy transport links.

If you love historical sight-seeing, you need to head north out of Caen.  You can hire a car for this. but the rural bus service is efficient - if you feel like practicing your French! (Relax: most folks speak at least a little English – they learn it in school).

About ten miles out of Caen you’ll come to the beautiful small town of Bayeux.  You’ll know you’ve got there when you see a huge statue of President Eisenhower.  He’s kind of popular around here.  Hang a right at Mr. President and head into town.

Typical French Village

There’s a lot to do in Bayeux. Probably the town’s most famous sight is the Bayeux Tapestry.  This enormous tableaux was woven in the 1070s AD to commemorate the Norman French invasion of England in 1066.  That’s the last time anyone successfully conquered the Brits, and the modern Normans are still pretty pleased about it.  The tapestry is great for kids – you can get your nose right up to it, and there are lots of audio-visual displays in French and English.  The museum is usually full of schoolkids from both sides of the English Channel, so it’s best to go first thing in the morning or in the early evening.

After seeing the tapestry, you might enjoy having a look around the huge, beautiful medieval cathedral that’s just next door.  Frankly, it’s better from the outside – the interior, like a lot of French, Italian and Spanish churches, is a little gloomy.  But it’s real nice, on a warm spring day, to sit outside and gaze up at the glorious gothic architecture. There’s good eating to be had in Bayeux, too – head down the main street past the cathedral and you’ll find a selection of pleasant restaurants.

French Village Similarly great food, and a different dollop of history, is to be had a little further down the road (turn right at Ike!) at Arromanches.  This lovely seaside town has two excellent seafood restaurants right on the promenade.  There’s also a great WWII museum. Arromanches is right at the heart of what was the British sector of the D-Day landings.  A little out to sea you can see the huge concrete blocks that were dragged across the Channel and sunk to build the famous Mulberry Harbor.  Eisenhower knew that he wouldn’t be able to capture a harbor intact, so shipbuilders in the UK came up with a way he could bring one with him!

The American sector and Omaha Beach are a few miles to the west of Arromanches. It’s a somber place, even on a sunny day.  You may be on vacation, but spend an hour having a look around with area and its huge cemeteries and memorials – and remember what you owe the guys who came over here and didn’t make it back.

Some other things to check out in Normandy:

  • The beautiful old harbor town of Honfleur – an eclectic mix of colorful wooden houses and beautiful shops.  Don’t miss the old harbor and the wooden church, constructed by the town’s boatbuilders to resemble the upturned hull of a fishing boat.
  • Food and drink:  France may be famous for wine, but Normandy’s local drinks are brewed from apples.  The local cider is beautifully dry – and don’t leave the area without trying at least a little Calvados.  It’s a rich, strong spirit made from distilled apple juice.  Normandy is also the home of France’s most famous cheese – Brie.

All over Normandy there are a host of relatively undiscovered small towns and villages to explore, many of them containing houses built in the tradition half-timbered style. Further afield you can visit Mont St. Michel, the great Norman island town.  Or even make the short hop by ferry to the Channel Islands. Although just a few miles from the coast of France, they’re actually British.  So if you hanker after speaking your own language a little more, board the ferry on the western coast of the Cotentin peninsula.

If you’re staying in the area for a while, you could also incorporate a few days in the south of England into your schedule.  The crossing, from Ouistreham north of Caen, takes around seven hours.  But with so much to do, you could save England for another vacation altogether!

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