When I asked my husband where he wanted to go for our vacation in Europe, he said he wanted to see Normandy Beach on the northern coast of France. The only words that came scrambling out of my mouth were WHY NORMANDY???
Working in travel most my life, Europe became a frequent destination, and I never had the desire to visit the battlefields of Normandy. When traveling I gravitate towards the exciting, fascinating and fun places, not somber . So when he said Normandy, my hopes of a terrific vacation withered away. Noticing how much this meant to him, I conceded with one request; if we could stay in the Abbey at Mont Saint Michel I would agree to the battlefields of Normandy.
So there it was, the deal was made, so we traded in accumulated miles for airline tickets to France. We arrived early morning into Paris, then caught the rail to historic Caen (pronounced Cah). From there we picked up our rental car and set out for the medieval city of Bayeux (pronounced Bay-you). It was difficult to admit but driving the country roads to our destination was not what I expected. Green, lush, cute little horse ranches and endless apple orchards scattered through small rolling hills.
As we drove into the village of Bayeux it felt quite nostalgic. It reminded me the Southern California coastline in the 60’s and 70’s. Lively beyond measure with tourists poking through boutique style shops, taking pictures of quaint periodic buildings from old French history. Locals and tourists alike were sitting at small tables, sipping coffee or relaxing with a local beer at a sidewalk café. Bayeux, known for housing the largest tapestry in the world, which I will mention later, I found, was charming and inviting.
We checked into our hotel, The Grand Hotel du Luxembourg, deposited our luggage and headed to town to see some of the sights. We walked down the narrow streets lined with small markets. I love the boxes of fresh colorful produce placed outside the doors with vibrant awnings protecting them.
Crowded restaurants along the street with tables filled with joyful patrons, shops selling fun and interesting items, and decorated window sills above filled with summer flowers. There was a busy little Brasserie down the street from our hotel where college students hung out singing, dancing and swilling beer until the early morning hours. It looked like fun but we decided to try out a little café along the picturesque L’Aure River. After a long day of travel and a good meal, we decided to go back to the hotel to rest up for a busy itinerary the next day.
We woke up early, had a nice continental breakfast at the hotel, then hopped in the car for a short drive to Omaha Beach. What struck me most about this very historic attraction is how peaceful, and beautiful it was. The beach looked like it could have been a quarter-mile wide. Red umbrella’s, ice chests and laughter from families filled the air. Children ran through the crumbling of soft foamy waves, built sand castles while parents played frisbee with their dogs. The surrounding hills covered in striking poppy’s melted into the beach in a fusion of color of reds, yellow, purple, and white. But, within this tranquil setting are the remnants of a horrid past, D Day.
The remains of bunkers that Nazi Germany had built filled the hillside. Walking through these buildings you can see how Rommel strategically planned for battle, concrete walls that protected troops from oncoming arsenal, and protective windows for the soldiers to shoot at their targets.
There were over 34,000 U.S. troops storming the beaches that day, along with Canadian and British troops on other nearby beaches. More than 3000 soldiers lost their lives in Normandy that day fighting for freedom. Even though this war was fought long ago in Europe, I have nothing but gratitude for what these young men were willing to give their lives for.
Next we went to the American Cemetery at Omaha, an interesting place indeed. A peaceful park like setting with the deep blue hue of the English Channel as a backdrop. There are 9383 graves, and the cemetery covers 172 acres. Headstones of white marble crosses or Star’s of David in perfect symmetrical lines have the names of soldiers and their ranks etched into the marble.
Filled with tourists of all nationalities, you could tell how deeply moved some of them were. For some, they came to lay flowers on the graves of their father, brother, grandfather, or friend that was lost so long ago. Others were there to remember World War II, and hopes for a better future. Still some came to relive that infamous day. As I watched these people I was filled with quiet reflection and curiosity. I wanted to know these men, who they were and what they were like. To thank them for their courage and tell them they made a difference in the world. It was a very moving experience.
Also on our schedule was Pointe du Hoc famous for the preemptive airstrike by the U.S. 8th Air Force Bombers and the British Air Command. With the German’s well protected in their thick concrete bunkers, the Americans and Brits took to the skies and bombarded the landscape to make way for ground troops to move in and take over the hills of Normandy. On this cliff that looks towards both Omaha and Utah beaches, is now a sprawling park still littered with craters left by the shelling of war.
The park now filled with children happily racing each other to be the first one to explore remains of the nearest bunker while parents take in the history of that day which changed the course of WW II. We had fun poking around the deep craters and discovering how extensive the bunkers were with their network of trenches.
It was time to head back to Bayeux; driving through the winding roads of the French countryside was a highlight for me. The commute back has you wandering through scenic half-timbered villages with flashy geraniums growing in planter boxes outside the open, second story windows, and busy cafe’s filled with locals and tourists getting to know each other. Stopping in some of these small hamlets you will discover they have humble museums with assorted World War II Memorabilia.
Check out different armed force uniforms from the U.S., Germans, and the French Resistance, original artillery, old rusted tanks and letters to loved ones far away. Along the roads you often see equestrians blissfully riding on elegant horses by the road and through the rich green countryside. Then stop at one of the many farms to buy fresh local produce.
The next morning after a quick breakfast we set out to explore Calvados County.
Calvados, a region in Normandy, is also a distilled liquor made from fermented apples that has an exquisite taste of brandy with a hint of fruit. Traveling to the Calvados farms is much like traveling through wine country with taste testing throughout the region. They will usually start you out with a 3-year-old bottle then end with the best quality at 30 years old or more.
The producers of Calvados take great pride in their blends of up to 25 different varieties of apples and spices, and enthusiastically want you to sample all they have to offer. Although my husband was captivated with Calvados they also have apple cider made fresh on the farm, it was sweet, refreshing, and the most flavorful apple juice I have tasted.
Back in Bayeux there is an outstanding historical document woven into the largest tapestry in the world. This amazing piece tells the story of William the Conqueror in detail. From his humble beginnings to the defeat of his cousin Harold of Wessex on October 14, 1066, it is all recorded on this 231 foot cloth. Some say that William’s wife Matilda embroidered the tapestry but more probable would be William’s half brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux. They reasoned he wanted to display the history of his family in the Bayeux Cathedral.
With 58 stories woven into the tapestry you will see how William the illegitimate son of a prestigious Duke became the King of England. This was right after Harold was killed by the sword during the Battle of Hastings. This well-preserved chronicle is one of the best resources of history found in Europe. Be sure to pick up the audio headset for approximately 8 Euro.
After visiting the tapestry we wandered through the narrow streets of Bayeux walking hand in hand, taking in the atmosphere of this medieval village. After stopping for a Cappuccino and Chocolate Croissant we walked down to the L’Aure River. Lined with leafy trees, and antiquated buildings where you can see historic wooden waterwheels still in use today.
Walking over small Roman styled bridges we felt carefree and relaxed while experiencing this wonderful place. Heading back to the hotel we decided to poke through the many shops of Bayeux, we found intricate lace made by local artisans who attended the Conservatoire De L Dentelle De Bayeux. This conservatory has handed down the art of lace work since the 17th century.
Other great finds were one of a kind hand painted porcelain, tapestry, and creative pottery. The town does not lack for touristy souvenirs either. Bayeux also has a Saturday Market filled with fresh picked produce and local crafts at Place Saint Patrice. If you like to shop for regional specialties be sure to stop by.
Bayeux, is easy to navigate on your own, but for those who like to have information and maps in hand you will find current information at the Information Center on rue Saint Jean by the L’Aure River. The staff has good advice as to where to go and what to see. If you are looking for guided excursions to historical sites, Calvados tasting, or even a classic French Cuisine cooking class, they can help. You might notice most of their brochures are printed in French, most speak enough English to convey what you need as far as getting to your destination and what to do once you get there.
A vacation in Normandy was not what I expected. Charming, and beautiful beyond compare coupled with an educational aspect, this region is a treasure that has become a family favorite that we will visit again and again.