Normandy: a 3-day road trip through history

I had a few days off at work and asked my dad if he wanted to go on a road trip with me. He gladly took some days off, claiming to be the luckiest father in the world that his daughter still wanted to go on a holiday with him, and we took off. Normandy, it would be.

Normandy is the most Northern tentacle-like landmass at the west coast of France, directly South of England and East of the Channel Islands Guernsey and Jersey. Normandy, of course, is widely known for the allied invasion on June 6th, 1944, a tipping point in World War II. While the Russians liberated Europe from Hitler in the East, the Canadians, Americans and British landed in Normandy, and liberated us in the West. It was a moment of great hope, but also of great loss. Many young lives were taken to offer a chance of freedom for people on another continent. Talking of bravery and selflessness.

Nowadays there are many sites to remember this event. You can visit the landing beaches, there are cemeteries, museums, old bunkers and batteries still standing, and so much more. All framed by beautiful French countryside and picturesque fishing towns.

We drove to Honfleur and from there on we would be town-hopping and memorial-hopping our way to Cherbourg at the tip of Normandy, and back. It took us a total of three days, which is enough time to visit the major attractions, but the emotional history behind it all made it an exhausting trip. There are just so many impressions and sights to see.

Day 0: arrival in Honfleur and sleeping in Caen.

Honfleur

Honfleur is one of the prettiest sea towns I know. The center is located around a picturesque harbor, filled with sail boats, surrounded by stunning old buildings with terraces all over the place. It is a popular touristic destination in France, and if you don’t like big crowds, it should be avoided in the summer months. In April, however, things weren’t too bad. We were there when a wine festival was going on, (We didn’t know in advance, but we embraced our luck and free wine. Yay!) and still it wasn’t too crowded.

Honfleur - Normandy - weeklypostcard
The gorgeous Honfleur harbor

Honfleur is perfect for sitting on a terrace, enjoying a great view and sipping your wine or cider (Normandy is famous for cider). Also, just wandering around, looking at all the pretty stuff, soaking up the atmosphere, makes for a great day. Visit all the little art shops, the churches and the fresh sea food restaurants.

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Picturesque streets in Honfleur

Because of the wine festival all the hotels were fully booked, so we decided to spend the night in Caen in a cheap road side hotel.

Day 1: Courseulles-sur mer with the Canadian cemetery, Arromanches-les-Bains, Bayeux.

Courseulles-sur-Mer

Close to Caen lies Courseulles-sur-Mer. Before you get there, you drive past the Canadian cemetery, a very soothing place. Surrounded by farmland and rolling hills, the birds are the only sounds you here. This is where we were first struck by the immense scale of lives that were lost during D-day and the aftermath. Thousands of young men are buried in this cemetery. Many of them the age of my youngest brother, around 20 years old. You cannot even start to imagine all the pain and torn families, all buried here. Very intense place to visit. Both me and my dad were at loss for words. If this is the start, we were up for some rollercoaster emotional days.

Canadian cemetery - Normandy - weeklypostcard
Canadian cemetery near Courseulles-sur-Mer

Oh, and by the way, what we thought was a bunker behind the cemetery, so we climbed over some fences to get there (sorry!), wasn’t actually a bunker but a manure container made of concrete. So… honest mistake.

Courseulles-sur-Mer itself is small friendly town. There is a good tourist information office with a very friendly lady. She got a map out and circled all the places of interest in Calvados (part of Normandy). That circled map become our guide. We visited all the places, and she was right about all of them.

Arromanches-les-Bains

On top of the cliff near Arromanches is the Circular Cinema 360. It shows a short movie called Normandy’s 100 days, with actual footage from the landing during D-Day and the days after. Regular admission fee is only 6 EUR. To be honest, I expected a bit more of the movie, but it gives a good glimpse of all the events.

At the cliff, you have a beautiful view of the sea and you can see the remains of the so-called Mulberry harbor: concrete remains making up a semi-circle in the sea functioned as an artificial harbor after D-Day.

Arromanches - Normandy - weeklypostcard
Arromanches-les-Bains

Bayeux

Fantastic beautiful Roman city. It suffered very little damage during World War Ii, despite the heavy fighting going on around it. A beautiful Cathedral is based in the center. The river Aure flows through Bayeux and offers panoramic views. Bayeux is probably best known for the Bayeux Tapestry, a Unesco World Heritage site, which has its origins in the 1070’s. It depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex, and can be seen in a museum in the city center.

We slept at a (very affordable) beautiful castle near Bayeux and felt like royals.

Bayeux - Normandy - weeklypostcard
Bayeux. Just bloody beautiful!

Day 2: Longues-sur-Mer and the German battery, Port-en-Bessin-Huppain, La Cambe with the German cemetery, Pointe du Hoc, Sainte-Mère-Église with the paratrooper hanging from the church spire, Cherbourg.

Longues-sur-Mer

At the coast near Longues-sur-Mer stands the German Battery. Looking over Arromanches and Gold Beach, this was a very strategic point during the war. It was part of Hitler’s Atlantikwall. You can walk around and visit all the bunkers and artillery for free.

Longues-sur-Mer - Normandy - weeklypostcard
German battery near Longues-sur-Mer

Port-en-Bessin-Huppain

Recommended by the lady at the tourist information office in Courseulles. A tiny town, with small houses at a harbor. Good for eating sea food. When we arrived, and parked our car at the beach, we were in for a big surprise. As some of you may know, our family has a special connection with the Camino Santiage (Way of St. James), and the St James shells are an important symbol for this. They can be found at Fisterre, the end of the world, West of Santiago. But here, at Port-en-Bessin there were more St. James shells than I’ve ever seen. The whole beach was made up of layers and layers of them. Crazy! Made for a moment of silent daydreaming and remembering.

La Cambe

There are two (or more) sides to war. And after having visited a cemetery of the allies and many of their memorials, it was also time to look at a German memorial. The German cemetery to be precise. Even though they were the “enemy”, they were young boys as well, sent to the frontiers. Mostly terrified and some fighting for a cause they didn’t believe in. But they had to. The German cemetery had a different feel to it than the other cemeteries, still it was beautiful, and well worth the visit when you’re around. The crosses were black, instead of the white gravestones of the other cemeteries. It made me feel small. And it made me feel like history is bigger than all of us.

La Cambe - Normandy - weeklypostcard
German cemetery near La Cambe. History is bigger than all of us.

Pointe du Hoc

Pointe du Hoc is the highest point between Omaha Beach and Utah Beach. The Germans had the area fortified with concrete casemates and gun pits. To capture this location was of the utmost importance during D-Day. Leading up to June 6th 1944, the area was heavily bombed. On D-Day itself a US Ranger battalion landed at the food of the cliff and scaled up using ropes and ladder, while being under enemy fire. It seemed humanly impossible, but they did it. When they captured the top, it turned out many of the defensive guns had already been moved. And due to logistical problems, they were not relieved by other regiments and had to stand their ground an additional two days before being relieved. They suffered many casualties.

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View from a bunker at Pointe du Hoc

Pointe du Hoc can now be visited. It has been left in sort of the original state. The broken casemates, the holes in the ground, it is supposed to give an impression of how it was that day. Unfortunately, I think without the smoke and the gunfire and the fearing for your life, it is hard to imagine what it was actually like.

Sainte-Mère-Église

During the early landings of D-Days, paratroopers landed directly on the town. Paratrooper John Steele’s parachute got caught on the spire of the town church and he could only observe the fighting going on below. He pretended to be dead for two hours before the Germans took him prisoner. The incident was portrayed in the movie The Longest Day. He later escaped. Nowadays it makes for an eerie sight, but well worth it. It won’t be forgotten. Seliant detail: some of the stained windows in the church depict paratroopers and D-day.

Sainte-mere-eglise - Normandy - weeklypostcard
Paratrooper model hanging from the church spire at Sainte-Mère-Église.

Cherbourg

Cherbourg is a city at the tip of Normandy. Its port, apart from being used for fishing and yachting, is also a cross-Channel ferry port. The city is OK. Nothing too exciting. It is pretty far of the route at the landing beaches. I think next time, I would skip it.

Day 3: Way back along the coast with stops at Port-en-Bessin-Huppain for lunch, Arromanches-les-Bains for a movie about D-Day, Courseulles-sur-Mer to watch the low tide, Cabourg and back to Honfleur.

Cabourg

Is a beautiful town along the Channel coast. It has a more resort-like vibe hanging over it, with a big casino and a grand hotel. Good for promenading along the beach. I imagined myself in a pretty white dress and white parasol trotting along.

Cabourg - Normandy - weeklypostcard
Grand hotel and casino at Cabourg

After that it was back to Honfleur, for a last visit to this beautiful town. I’ll miss it.

Normandy, you made for a great road trip. And for a not-so-ordinary holiday. You did give me the feeling of a cold hand gripping my heart. All the suffering that was going on here. All the pain. How evil can people be? Normandy, you made for a holiday to be thought about later on. All the impressions still have to get a place in my head. A big grateful thank you to all the people who participated in liberating Europe. And to people striving for peace and liberty worldwide. It’s not like me, saying that, but Normandy certainly messes with your head.

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My awesome dad at Pointe du Hoc
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One of the bunker with a view of the sea at the German Battery near Longues-sur-Mer
Landing beaches 2 - Normandy - weeklypostcard
There are so many small details and memorials present, if you look closely.

Landing beaches - Normandy - weeklypostcard

Courseulles-sur-Mer - Normandy - weeklypostcard
Due to the huge tide differences, boats can only reach port during certain hours of the high tide. After that the port closes, to be reopened again when the tide is high.

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