It’s hard to believe that 73 years have passed since the Allies invaded Normandy beaches in France on D-Day, June 6, 1944 (the largest naval invasion ever). Operation Overlord, as it was called, turned the tide in the war to eventually liberate Europe from the fierce grip of the Nazis in September 1945. And that’s why we decided that visiting the Normandy beaches should be next on our itinerary after Chartres.
Beaches of Normandy
I’ve always wanted to walk those D-Day beaches. In fact, my grandfather landed in Normandy, France just a few short months after Operation Overlord. He was a rookie Army private from the Deep South who had never braved an airplane (much less jumped from one).
Shortly after arriving, he found himself sleeping in stately chateaux as well as Belgian barns as a French interpreter attached to General Patton’s regiment during Battle of the Bulge. It was his stories about France that motivated me to study French in high school in the first place.
Later, during my year as a French exchange student in my junior year in college, he wrote me many letters sharing his experiences and travels on the continent during the war in Europe.
Thirty years later, I recently revisited those pages languishing at the bottom of my sock drawer with so much nostalgia and love. And then I finally went to see it for myself on a Normandy beach tour.
Best Way to Get to Normandy from Paris
It’s easy to get to Normandy by train—it takes about 2.5 hours from Paris to Bayeux or you can head directly to Caen as a base for your visit as well. However, I highly recommend renting a car and making it a road trip.
Since Normandy is famous for its cheeses (not to mention cider, an apple brandy called Calvados, butter, cream and so much more), we elected to skip the auto routes in favor of the tiny country roads en route to Bayeux, the base for our Normandy adventure. And that is how we ended up at Fromagerie Durand, a working Camembert farm.
The fromagerie was so small that there were no cheese tastings the day we arrived. It was just two women making cheese and sharing cash register duties for the occasional local popping by to stock up on supplies for that evening’s cheese board. (See “If You Go” below for a link to more reliably scheduled farm tastings.)
Nevertheless, we stockpiled a bottle of strong house cider, a jar of savory duck pâte, and a delectable melty Camembert for future picnics. We also attempted o pat a few fierce-looking cows and read up on the history of the famous cheese while there.
(Marie Harel, a thirty-year-old dairy maid is credited with inventing Camembert in 1791. Apparently, a frightened priest who was fleeing the anti-clerical French Revolution and hiding out at her parents’ Normand farm whispered a few cheese making secrets before leaving.)
With wheels, you can hopscotch the small, quaint villages in rural regions with well-timed stops for fresh and homemade food supplies courtesy of local farms, open air markets, and delicious boulangeries (i.e., bakeries that typically stock a wide selection of local specialty breads, quiches, and pastries).
You’re guaranteed delicious, fresh, and affordable food, frequently products you can’t find elsewhere. They pack nicely in your trunk so it’s easy to stop for a bite whenever the spirit moves you.
Like we did here…
A Stop at a Benedctine Abbey
I’m pretty sure I screamed, “Stop!” at full volume as we rolled past these incredible ruins of the Abbey of Saint-Evroul (also known as Saint-Evroul-sur-Ouche). In 560, this was a Benedictine abbey, although the local choir that performed here in the 11th century was famous across the region.
These abbey ruins were tucked into the leafy and park-like Saint Evroul Notre Dame du Bois—that’s “woods” for English speakers. (Also, fun fact: The sweet souls who inhabit nearby St. Evroult Our Lady of Wood are called Ebrutians.)
In any case, Steve and I had the abbey completely to ourselves, with only the sounds of a light breeze and chirping birds to accompany us…which sometimes astonishes me when I think about the crowds at, say, Stonehenge in England or even Bois du Boulogne in Paris. The countryside is such a sweet and welcome respite from the crowds.
I wish that every traveler could enjoy such an experience. A trip to Europe can and should be so much more than standing in long lines with other hot, sweaty tourists to be herded through turnstiles at famous sites hawking kitschy souvenirs.
Skip a few of those soul-sucking experiences. Allow time instead to kibitz with the farmer who made that cider you’re sipping. Taste-test camemberts that came to you directly from Betsy the cow over yonder.
Where to Stay in Normandy
Since our tour of the D-Day beaches in Normandy departed from Bayeux, we elected to stay at an Airbnb with a view in town. Elisabeth’s place in Bayeux is literally across the street from the famous Bayeux Cathedral, originally consecrated by William, Duke of Normandy and King of England in 1077.
Rooms start at $52 per night! Breakfast for extra is totally worth it. You can check prices and availability here.
Things to Do in Bayeux
1. See the Bayeux Cathedral
The beautiful Bayeux Cathedral is full of incredible history. For starters, it’s where William (the Conqueror), after capturing Harold II from England, forced Harold to take an important oath to marry his daughter. The goal: To cement William’s claim to the crown of England. Once Harold took the oath, William allowed him to head home to England, fortified with fancy arms, horses, and sacred relics. But then guess what? The scoundrel completely reneged on the deal!
And that precipitated the very famous Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William the Conqueror invaded England, ultimately shooting Harold in the eye and being crowned King of England.
2. Check out the Famous Bayeux Tapestry
The famous Bayeux tapestry commemorates this event through an intricately embroidered 70 yard long medieval tapestry. If you can imagine a 100-yard long football field, now think about unrolling a single piece of material two-thirds the way down it. Wow, right?
Originally, William ordered the tapestry to be hung in the cathedral as a lesson to future generations about what happens if one doesn’t honor his word. We saw it where it resides today in a long narrow hallway at the tiny Bayeux museum with a recorded audio guide and I’m so glad we did.
For centuries, this precious wool tapestry was moved from place to place, surviving a fire in the cathedral at one point and used to cover military wagons during the French Revolution at another.
I couldn’t help but think about how transient material goods seem today compared to what that tapestry’s been through. (I was reflecting on a recent t-shirt I tossed a week after I bought it after ruining it with a coffee spill.) What a miracle that the historic Bayeux Tapestry still survives today for us to marvel over. Don’t miss it!
The Best D Day Normandy Tour
I wish that every American could do a tour of the D-Day beaches to understand the enormity of the sacrifices their forebears made and the overwhelming complexity of what they were up against when they arrived on the Normandy coast. And to see the Normandy beaches today in France.
In our zeal to wring every last experience from our paltry amount of vacation time, Americans have a reputation for sort of dashing all over a country when they travel. I have this struggle too so I understand the temptation. Many try to train up to Normandy from Paris, hit a half-day D-Day tour, and catch the late train back to Paris.
And it’s true that can be accomplished in a (very long and exhausting) day, but I hope you’ll resist the impulse. The D-Day experience deserves at least one full day of your time.
In fact, I’d love to spend a whole vacation in Normandy. You could easily spend a week or more in Normandy on WWII sites alone. And that’s not even including a visit to stunning Mont St. Michel or picturesque coastal Normandy cities like Honfleur and Rouen (or the impressive Caen Memorial Museum), which are all still on my list to see.
The Waste of War
While I appreciate the affordability and convenience of independent travel, I also find that supplementing with the occasional in-depth walking tour or other guided day trip can bring a lot of depth and dimension to certain experiences…which is why we did this D-Day beaches tour with Bayeux Shuttle Company.
At 110 Euros for a 10-hour tour of the D-Day highlights, there were just eight of us on an air-conditioned mini bus, which was just right-sized to ask questions and not feel crowded.
During drive time between the 15 stops we made over the day, our passionate guide Mike (a Dutch devotee of World War II reenactments) told stories. He also shared moving video testimonials from vets and played live movie clips that depicted scenes we were about to see next. It brought it all alive for me.
We started at the German Cemetery, the final resting place for 21,000 German soldiers (although we lost more than 100,000 on both sides during this battle). American soldiers were also buried here and then later exhumed and move to the permanent American Cemetery after it was completed.
What a sobering start to the day. Young German men paid a terrible price in this battle for the future of Europe. Many were just 17 years old and were buried two to a grave. It’s a powerful moment to experience as one enters this sacred outdoor space through a single doorway.
In Reverence of the Mythic 101st Airborne
“Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
—Winston Churchill, September 1940
As we headed next into the American Sector of the battlefield, Mike pulled out maps and explained the complex and multi-faceted strategy for the assault phase of Operation Overlord. It was a surprise amphibious beach landing on five beaches supported by a night drop of air paratroopers to block any enemy advances, with a second wave of daytime glider troops.
Unfortunately, nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong during the American, British, and Canadian invasion. First, there was a weather delay. Then the Germans—entrenched in their bunkers high on a hill—easily picked off soldiers trying to storm the beach, resulting in high casualties.
The amphibious naval vehicles were slow and unwieldy. The Allies triumphed only through the true grit and the sheer force of numbers. Thirty-eight thousand men landed on Utah beach, but 4,200 perished there.
Despite their best efforts, the American 82th and 101st Airborne Divisions were scattered far from the drop zone due to a combination of high winds, dense fog, and relentless German antiaircraft fire among other things. But they were fiercely courageous and steadfast in so many instances, all described on our Normandy beaches tour…persevering despite inhumane conditions.
Medics to the Rescue
Two heroic medics—Kenneth Moore and Robert Wright— in the 101st Airborne Division, or “Screaming Eagles” as they were known, requisitioned a small church, Sainte-Mère-Église, in nearby Angoulême, to care for the wounded…both German and American soldiers.
For two days, a Red Cross flag flew from the church marking it as a safe zone as the bullets whizzed by. These two men, with just two months of training between them who had never seen any action, cared for 80 wounded men, and lost only two.
Six months before our visit here, an anonymous visitor placed a jar of hot sauce on the grave of Robert Wright who is still buried at the church today. The quote on it says, “101st Airborne. Will make your eagle scream.”
And there the jar remained.
Time Travel for Lunch
In the heart of the American parachute drop zones is a little café that the passionate folks at Bayeux Shuttle have completely and lovingly restored to its former glory during Operation Overlord in the 1940’s.
No detail has been left neglected…from the vintage cigarette packs stacked on the counter to the old rotary telephone dangling from the wall. Sandwiches, pre-ordered and included in our tour cost, were ready as we arrived.
This café, once occupied by German soldiers, was the site of a famous photo of American GIs taking a cigarette break following the liberation. It appeared to wide acclaim on the cover of Life magazine worldwide.
So, in the spirit of the restoration, there was only one thing that seemed appropriate to do here…
Utah Beach and Omaha Beach Then and Now
The contrast between a Utah Beach visit and an Omaha Beach visit—site of the two major American amphibious assaults—was stark. Utah Beach, which had been carefully selected over many months after consideration of thousands of miles of European coastline, was a moving war memorial.
Just 97 men—or less than one percent of the 28,000 men that landed that day were lost.
Pre-war, Omaha Beach was considered the “Riviera of the north” by Parisian tourists. It was free of memorials and full of sunbathing tourists on the day we visited…despite a casualty rate of 10 percent, or 4200 men, during the D-Day landing.
“I think it’s a desecration,” complained one woman on our tour when she saw the French sunbathers on the shore there.
“It is why we fought,” our guide Mike answered her. “So that life could return to normal for future generations.”
The American Cemetery: A Final Resting Place
A visit to the American Cemetery closed out this day where I welled up with tears so often. It’s a serene and emotionally moving scene nestled up next to the ocean, with white crosses as far as the eye can see marking the graves of so many that we lost.
Beautiful manicured Austrian pines line the perimeter. The pointed top of each pine has been carefully clipped off to symbolize so many lives cut short.
Post-war, every American family who lost a GI was asked by the U.S. government if they preferred for their soldier to be sent home or remain buried there in Normandy and those wishes were honored.
About 40 percent of families requested that Normandy be the last resting place of the soldier they loved. There are 9,385 Americans buried on those 272 acres today, including a few women.
All in all, my short time in Normandy was so much more than I could have ever imagined. The experience reminded me that during my year in France, back in 1985, my grandfather had struck up an unlikely letter correspondence with a French MD of his generation in Paris. And that doctor’s family had been generous with their time and interest in me during my year abroad.
When my grandfather thanked him, he replied that he would never be able to repay all that the Allies had done for his country back in 1943…that it was his honor to make my stay in France memorable in some small way. That French gratitude still shines through when Americans are visiting Normandy beaches today.
If you go:
Eat: Taste Normandy with a visit to a Camembert, Calvados, cider or other farm. Find one that excites your senses here.
L’Assiette Normande: Normandy specialties right next to the cathedral.
Visit: Abbey of Saint-Evroul
D-Day Beaches Tour with Bayeux Shuttle Company
Learn: Before you go, watch the incredible 10 episode mini-series Band of Brothers, the story of one company in the 101st Airborne Division from their role in Overlord through V-J Day.
Rick Steve’s France guidebook (lots of great info on Normandy)
Looking for other rewarding but less traveled destinations in France? Consider the fabulous Dordogne region (and check out this Europe bucket list for other inspiration).