A Tale of Two Battles.
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
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.
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.
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
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!