NORMANDY, FRANCE February 12, 2014 – The summer of 2014 promises to be a busy time in Normandy, France as travelers from all over the world converge on the historic D-Day landing sites to honor those who fought and died there 70 years ago.
The landing beaches, museums and cemeteries are, of course, a highlight, but there ia also a wealth of other treasures to discover throughout the region. Here is a brief guide.
D-DAY LANDING BEACHES: A must-see highlight of a visit to Normandy is touring the landing beaches and sites where the D-Day invasion took place in June of 1944. Seemingly every village along the route has a museum or memorial of some sort. Visitors can spend as little or as much time as they wish in the region and never see it all. Here are five of the most popular places to see plus the beaches themselves. World War II buffs and veterans will find plenty more to whet their appetite.
Access to the beaches is not difficult, but keep in mind that these places are regarded by locals as hallowed ground. Do not expect to find thousands of bathers sunning themselves or sitting under umbrellas reading a book.
Five beaches were utilized in Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944. From the most easterly of the five moving to the west they are Sword (U.K.), Juno (Canada), Gold (U.K.), Omaha (U.S.) and Utah (U.S.). Between Omaha Beach and Utah Beach is Pointe du Hoc where the impressive cliffs rising 100 feet out of the English Chanel are also a D-Day destination.
Sword Beach stretches 2 ½ miles between Ouistreham and Luc-sur-Mer. The most popular site for British visitors in particular is PegasusBridge which was a remarkable military operation. Several museums are located in the area and the dramatic Pegasus story is well documented.
Ouistreham is a beautiful seaside resort town with a history of fortifications, memorials, museums and military cemeteries situated between beach hotels, fine stretches of sand, breezy cliffs and postcard-picturesque fishing harbors.
Juno Beach is approximately five miles wide and includes the primary villages of St. Aubin-sur-Mer, Bernierses-sur-Mer and Courseulles-sur-Mer. The term sur me in English is “on the beach” which means these town are directly along the shores for easy accessibility. Other than Omaha, the Canadian forces encountered the greatest resistance making Juno the second most difficult beach to capture.
Gold Beach includes Longues-sur-Mer where visitors have the best views of the huge bunkers and German artillery that faces the English Channel. Many visitors choose to walk the beaches of nearby Arromanches where they can explore the only remnants of the two Mulberry Harbors that still remain in ruins on the sand. There is an excellent museum in Arromanches that details the story of the Mulberry Harbors.
Omaha Beach at Colleville-sur-Mer is the most popular site for American visitors because of the magnificent cemetery perched on a bluff overlooking the beach. Two other towns St. Laurent-sur-Mer and Vierville-sur-Mer provide easy access to the wide stretch of beach itself. Seaside cafes, restaurants and houses line the beaches. Be sure to visit the monument honoring the invasion and the achievement of taking the most difficult and most deadly site during the assault.
Pointe du Hoc is sometimes regarded as part of OmahaBeach but it is a site all its own. There are no beaches here to speak of, but looking down from the cliffs to the small strip of sand below always impresses visitors who marvel at how the rangers scaled shear rock beneath a hail of machine gun fire.
Utah Beach is the most westerly of the landing beaches. It was primarily a landing craft beach and, because of a mistake, the assault took place on the southern part of the beach which was less heavily fortified. It is not as accessible as some of the other sites along the route but there are still dozens of museums and monuments to see.
For maps and a detailed account of the Battle of Normandy and the region, the website called Mr. Johnson’s Classes provides a wealth of information.
ARROMANCHES: Today Arromanches is a resort community, but in 1944 it was one of two locations where the allies established prefabricated ports which were code-named the Mulberry Harbors. The port at Omaha Beach was completely destroyed by a storm just two weeks after D-Day, but portions of Port Winston at Arromanches can still be seen. The best view of the harbor is from the hillside at Longues sur Mer east of town. Arromanches has a small but excellent museum which tells the story of the Mulberry Harbors.
LONGUES SUR MER: About 6 kilometers west of Arromanches sit the huge 152mm artillery pieces and concrete emplacements of the German defensive. They were designed to hit targets some 13 miles away including Omaha Beach to the west and Gold Beach to the east. The twin spires of Bayeux Cathedral 5 miles inland can be seen on clear days.
NORMANDY AMERICAN CEMETERY: William Zinsser wrote that “to be here is to be in the presence of something done right.” There are 9,386 white crosses or Stars of David sitting on a hill overlooking Omaha Beach. The cemetery features a memorial, the 22-foot bronze statue which pays tribute to the soldiers who died in battle, a garden memorial honoring the missing, a reflecting pool, a chapel and an overlook at the site where American forces finally broke through the German defense. The memorial is inspirational in its simplicity, and the chimes of the carillon are hauntingly beautiful when its somber tones peel in the distance. The visitor’s center can assist with locating a specific marker.
POINTE DU HOC RANGER MEMORIAL: Located 10 miles east of Utah Beach and 8 miles west of Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc is another site where the Germans had a battery of artillery to ward off an invasion. Here 225 Army Rangers scaled the awesome vertical wall of the 100-foot cliff rising above the English Channel. Their task was to eliminate German opposition to pave the way for the American invading forces at Utah and Omaha Beaches. Over half of the Rangers were killed or wounded in the attack. Craters from the bombs dot the grassy moonscape where visitors can explore the interiors of the German fortifications.
ST. MERE EGLISE: The Germans occupied the tiny village of St. Mere Eglise for four years until the 82nd airborne division filled the night sky with thousands of paratroopers in and around town. By 4:30 a.m. on June 6th the American flag proudly waved over the town that was the first to be liberated during the invasion. A paratrooper named John Steel got his chute caught on the steeple of the small church in the town square. After watching the battle from his perch for two hours, he was cut down, taken prisoner by the Germans and later released by his American comrades. Today an effigy of Steel usually hangs from the church. The two stained glass windows inside the church are well worth a visit.
CAEN MEMORIAL: A MUSEUM FOR PEACE: The city of Caen was virtually leveled during the Battle of Normandy. Today there is little to see except for several excellent museums, two historic abbeys and the 11th century fortress built by William the Conqueror. One museum not to be overlooked is the Memorial of Caen. Opened in 1988, it was built as on-going, working venue that serves as a reminder of the horrors of war while emphasizing the pursuit of peace. There are comprehensive exhibits and displays dealing with the conflicts of the 20th century and the Battle of Normandy, including three films. One gallery honors winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and the International Park for the liberation of Europe pays tribute to the soldiers who died in the pursuit of freedom. In addition, the museum provides educational opportunities for school children, historical resources and archives and even conducts guided mini-van tours to the landing beaches. :
Reservations for tours of the landing beaches are necessary and can be made Monday through Friday — e-mail for reservations [email protected]
MONT ST-MICHEL: This breathtaking abbey was begun in the 8th century when the Archangel Michael appeared to the Bishop of Avranches and told him to build a chapel at the summit of the rock. A hodge-podge of architectural styles, the abbey is especially impressive when it becomes an island at high tide. Especially interesting are the buildings on the north side of the structure known as La Merveille. Among the most popular, as well as the most photographed, is the double row of carved arches with granite pillars that surround the famous cloister. The abbey can be toured without a guide, but a guided tour is included in the price of the ticket.
BAYEUX TAPESTRY: The Centre Guillaume le-Conquerant (William the Conqueror Center) in Bayeux is the location of the extraordinary embroidery known as the Bayeux Tapestry. The 11th century masterpiece is virtually intact and details the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The 58 scenes, which are approximately 3 feet high and over 200 feet long, provide invaluable insights into life as it was lived in medieval times.
MUSEE DES BEAUX-ARTS (MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS — ROUEN): One of the best regional museums in France is located in the town where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. The fine arts museum was renovated in 1994 and features paintings from the 15th to the 20th centuries, including all the major movements in European art.
DEAUVILLE: Though Deauville had nothing to do with the D-Day landings, it is known as “the Queen of Norman Beaches.” This prestigious resort is a favorite hang-out for French and international jet-setters with its famous race course, marinas, casino, international film festival and luxurious hotels. It has long been a favorite spot for French high society and, because of that, it has excellent access by rail from Paris. For celebrity watching, elegant accommodations and dining and the ultimate in sophistication, Deauville is lifestyles of the rich and famous at its best..
GIVERNY (NEAR VERNON): Giverny was Claude Monet’s house, studio and gardens for 40 years. Visit the pond with its now famous lily pond and see what inspired the master painter whose work Impression, Sunrise (painted in 1872) gave the Impressionist art movement its name. Monet was a world class horticulturist and his gardens will astound you. It may be a bit tricky to find Giverny after arriving in Vernon, but persevere because it is well worth the effort.
HONFLEUR: The heyday of this charming seaport was the 17th and 18th centuries. Samuel de Champlain sailed from Honfleur to found Quebec City and Cavalier de la Salle followed 80 years later to reach the mouth of the Mississippi and what is now Louisiana. Impressionist artists were inspired by Honfleur’s frequently changing patterns of light. The picturesque old harbor is a great place to eat, drink and let the world pass by.
ABBAYE DE JUMIEGES: The Abbaye de Jumieges is one of those sites that capture the imagination of even the most hardened travel skeptic. Victor Hugo called this eerie white stone monastery “the most beautiful ruined building in France.” William the Conqueror attended its consecration in 1067. Following a period of decline, it underwent a revival in the middle of the 15th century under Charles VII before being looted for building materials during the French Revolution leaving it the magnificent ruin it is today.
TOUR JEANNE D’ARC (DONJON): The Joan of Arc Tower, or donjon (dungeon), was once part of RouenCastle. It is said to have been the site of one of the sessions during the trial of Joan of Arc. During the reign of Philippe Auguste, Joan was imprisoned on the ground floor of the tower where she was also tortured. The ruins of the site where Joan was burned at the stake are in the center of town beneath the facades of rows of lovely half-timbered houses.
CHATEAU DE BALLEROY: Built in 1631 in the village of Balleroy, the chateau inspired other castles in France, including Versailles. It was purchased in 1970 by Malcom Forbes who completely restored the castle. During the rennovation project, Forbes, who was a world-class hot air balloon pilot, refurbished one of the outbuildings into the first international balloon museum in the world
VILLEDIEU-LES-POELES (VILLAGE OF POTS AND PANS): This quirky little village is frequently overlooked but always popular when visitors discover it. Known as the Village of Pots and Pans, the town is famous for its artisans who create copper bottomed cooking materials. The entire village is filled with shops that only sell the hometown products. Demonstrations are available throughout the day.
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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com).
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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