We visited the Normandy region of France in the summer of 2016. (Yes, I am just finally posting now!) This region in the north of France is perhaps best known, at least to us, for its World War II history, particularly the Allied Invasion on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
I’m no historian and won’t provide many historical facts here. I’ll share what we saw and my reaction to it. For in-depth facts and history, there are plenty of other, more informed sources out there!
This was a quick trip for us, only staying two nights and one full day in the area. We stayed in an awesome home rented through Airbnb. When we visit large cities, we prefer to stay in hotels, but when we visit more rural regions like Normandy, we prefer Airbnbs in order to get a more authentic experience. There is something really special about being in an area like this and getting a realistic living experience.
This particular home was in Brix. It is a 12th Century Priory that has been renovated. It, along with a neighboring chapel, have a lot of history. You know it’s truly historical when its history is detailed in a book on the home’s bookshelf! And when its listing mentions the possible presence of spirits! It did have a feeling about it!
If you’d like more information on this home, send me a message or comment on this post. I’d be happy to share the Airbnb link to the rental. I can also share a discount code for booking with Airbnb if it is your first time.
For this trip, since we only had one full day to tour the whole region, we prioritized seeing the D-Day beaches. We visited, in this order: Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, and the Normandy American Cemetery. Rick Steves’ website provides a wonderful summary of the D-Day beaches here.
I had different reactions at each place, and found that the time of day influenced my ability to reflect and appreciate each site. Since we visited Utah Beach first and in the morning, it was not crowded at all. It was cloudy and calm, which gave the beach a somber feel. This is the mood I would expect at a place of such devastating significance.
Later in the day, at Omaha beach, however, the sun was shining and the sky and ocean were both crystal blue. The beach was crowded with tourists and vacationers. People were swimming and playing on the beach as you would at a resort or any other public beach. This felt disrespectful and distracting to me.
It was hard to wrap my head around what took place here with children building sand castles nearby and people joyfully swimming in the ocean. I did not feel I could truly appreciate the history at Omaha beach with that type of distraction, and I can’t imagine being able to have that sort of recreational fun at a place where the history is so heavy. It felt very odd.
Interestingly, a friend of mine had a similar experience, though in her experience, the beaches were reversed. She visited Omaha Beach early in the morning and had a more somber, quiet visit there, then visited Utah Beach in the middle of the day, and had the “vacationer” experience there.
Depending on the type of experience you want out of your visit, I would keep this in mind. Consider the timing – both the season and the time of day – of your visit and how it might impact the crowds, the types of visitors, and your overall experience. It took a lot of patience and cropping to get the following images without people in them!
Pointe du Hoc was impressive in size and visual impact. German bunkers and craters left from the bombings are still there and enable visitors to sense what it was like over 70 years ago. I will share one piece of historical trivia about this site that was of interest to us since my husband has a degree from Texas A&M University. The Ranger battalions who climbed the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc and fought there were led by Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder, himself a Texas Aggie. (Gig ‘em, Ags! Whoop! and all that.)
The Normandy American Cemetery was beautiful and moving, though also quite crowded in the afternoon when we were there. This site, as well as the Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument and Utah Beach American Memorial, are managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission. They do a wonderful job at all their sites (we have now visited four), honoring our fallen soldiers in a dignified, honorable, and meticulous way. Being there and seeing the rows upon rows of grave markers really conveys the magnitude of the loss of American lives in Normandy.
One day was enough time to see these many important spots in Normandy, but it was not enough time for us to take in each site’s respective museum or visitor center, or to spend a lot of time in any one place. We did make a quick trip through the Musee Memorial Omaha, but I was not that impressed, to be honest, and wonder if the Visitor Center would’ve been better.
After the long day touring the D-Day beaches, we stopped in the town of Bayeux for some quick shopping, particularly a stop at a market to pick up dinner to eat back at the house. This meal of local bread, meats, cheeses, fruit, and madeleines was far superior to the dinner we had the night before.
We arrived late in the evening the night before, were hungry, and the closest thing open when we drove into town was the chain restaurant Buffalo Grill. It was amusing because it is an American themed restaurant, but we Americans don’t need to come to France to eat American food, especially when it didn’t taste very good!
I learned on this trip that Normandy is also known for its Cidre (alcoholic apple cider) production, so we picked up a few bottles at a spirits shop in Bayeux.
On our second morning in Normandy, our plan was to visit Mont Saint-Michel before leaving the region on our way to Paris. We cancelled this plan at the last minute for a few reasons, mostly having to do with time constraints and travelling with kids and teenagers. C’est la vie!
So, Mont Saint-Michel tops our list of things to do if and when we return to Normandy. We would also like to spend more time in the museums and visitor centers at Utah and Omaha Beach, take a guided tour of the D-Day Beaches to learn more of the facts and history, see the Cliffs d’Etretat, visit Arromanches, and visit Giverny. But for this trip, it was time to bid Normandy adieu and head to Paris!