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Travel guide to D-day beaches, monuments and museums in Normandy, France
Jul 12, 2012 (Updated Jun 18, 2013)
by Jennifer Kate
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
Pros:Evocative, moving and educational tour of d-day sites in France. A visit I will remember!
Cons:Tours might be expensive, but you may navigate by vehicle if you desire.
The Bottom Line: If you're looking to travel off the beaten path in France, consider visiting the d-day beaches in Normandy. You'll learn so much, and be grateful for the outcome!
In France, D-day is known as "Jour-J". On that fateful day of June 6th, 1944, American, British and Canadian Airborne Divisions launched a collaborative attack of Nazi strongholds on the beaches at Normandy. In history class, I had never absorbed much detail about all the events of d-day, other than the fact that it was the beginning of the end for Nazi domination in the Holocaust (WW II).
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This year, when my husband suggested our family rent a car and visit the d-day beaches during our trip to France, I was puzzled. Why would anyone want to see beaches and towns where a military invasion had occurred? What could be gained or enjoyed from such an experience? After spending a day driving to the d-day beaches, museums and memorials, I am here to say, "Honey, you were right!" Our immersion in the d-day sites was one of the most moving experiences I've enjoyed as a tourist, and I definitely recommend the itinerary we followed for our historic tour.
My husband, our two teens and I spent three days in Paris before renting a car and driving through the countryside to the medieval town of Dinan. We met up with some cousins, then spent the next day touring the charming port St. Malo and the seaside Abbey of Mont St. Michel. I recommend both locations highly for a day trip. The parking situation at the Abbey has recently been greatly improved, and free shuttles are now available to take you from the offsite parking lot and visitor center to the Abbey. Tourists need not worry about planning what time to visit Mont St Michel, because the tides no longer flood the parking lots.
From Mont St. Michel, we drove east to the village of Sainte Mere Eglise, on the Cotentin peninsula. Sainte Mere Eglise was recommended as a good starting point for d-day tours, on the Western edge of the historical sites.
We stayed overnight in the Hotel du 6 Juin which is aptly named after "jour-j". The pension is quaint, comfortable and clean, just a short walk to the Musee Airborne on Rue Eisenhower. The next morning, we spent about an hour touring the museum, learning much from its displays of soldiers in uniform, artifacts, letters, provisions, and explanation of the role of paratroopers in the liberation of this town who landed on d-day. One famous paratrooper, John Steele, landed on the cathedral and was attached to the bell-tower for several hours until his rescue. At this museum, we saw the first of several short movies, which explained the planning and execution of d-day war strategy. I found the courage and heroism of the soldiers, many of whom sacrificed their lives for the cause of liberation to be very moving!
After touring the museum, we got back into our GPS-enabled vehicle (I recommend springing for GPS in France) and drove eastward to Utah Beach, near the hamlet of St. Marie du Mont. We walked on the sandy beach and payed respects to several memorials. Then, we spent another hour touring the Musee de la liberation on Place de l'Eglise. This museum is chock full of more relics and historical perspective on the liberation, with a focus on the assault by British, American and Canadian forces on the five principal coastal sites:
Utah Beach (American landing)
Omaha Beach (American landing)
Gold Beach (British landing)
Juno Beach (Canadian landing)
Sword Beach (British landing)
Another excellent film enlightened me on the intense planning required by General Eisenhower and other military commanders. The Normandy terrain had been walled off ("The Atlantic Wall") and protected by German bunkers, and posed a hazardous and uncertain territory to be liberated in a surprise attack. I was moved to tears by the film, and it made me truly proud of my country's role in saving the French people from occupation.
Our next stop was Pointe du Hoc, which I found the most impressive stop of our tour. The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission, is the final resting place for thousands of fallen soldiers. We began by touring the museum and seeing a third historical film, equally as moving and which brought me to tears.
The Cemetery & Memorial itself is beautifully landscaped with trees, flowers, a statue and inscribed walls, and a reflecting pool filled with waterlilies. Its rows of white marble headstones, consisting of 9,238 Latin Crosses and 149 Stars of David commemorate the fallen, with graves neatly arranged in 10 sections. As my family walked through the cemetery on a misty, rainy day, we felt much emotion and thankfulness for the service and bravery of our military forces. It was a very high price for these soldiers to pay, but their goal was admirable; the French citizens we encountered on our travels were friendly; and I imagine many are still grateful for our sacrifice to this day.
We ventured out to Omaha Beach, and found a completely different landscape from Utah Beach. The coast is rocky and cliffs are visible in the distance. On the beach, we walked on a path around craters and German bunkers. Giant craters, presumably from bombs, scar the landscape. Decades later, the pits are covered in grass and wildflowers, which helps to soften their appearance. The terrain is very evocative, and many tourists were there with us, reliving the memory of a distant invasion. From the film, I learned that many paratroopers drowned in the sea, or were totally lost upon landing.
Definitely, the experience of visiting these d-day sites was unforgettable for me and my family, and I highly recommend touring them if you visit France. It may sound cliche, but it really brought history alive for me and my children, who might never have absorbed these facts from a textbook.
I'm glad we drove ourselves, but many tour outfits are available if you don't care to navigate the French highway system. I'm glad we had our GPS with us, because it can be tricky navigating all the "round-abouts" which criss-cross the highway system. The roads, themselves, are in very good shape and appear to be well maintained. Towns near the beaches are charming and feature cafes, brasseries and small convenience stores for purchasing snacks or souvenirs.
** Note: My itinerary comprises several of the American d-day sites, but does not cover even half of the potential d-day sites to visit. If you have more time, you could spend a full day, or even two or three days making this pilgrimage. British d-day beaches are further east, and there are a plethora of villages and memorials throughout the region to visit, should you wish to make a more comprehensive tour. I recommend visiting the website:
Association Normandie Memoire: www.normandiememoire.com
to request a brochure listing over two dozen museums, beaches, memorials and battle sites. You can also investigate the Normandie Pass, which offers discounts to the museums.
Request brochures and maps from:
www.abmc.gov for the American Battle Monuments Commission
I enjoyed listening to Rick Steve's free travel podcasts for France and D-day sites, in which he interviews a d-day tour operator.
* I dedicate my review to the memory of Barbara Fields, who encouraged many to travel to France with her delightful travel reviews. It's part of Barbara's France Write-Off hosted by popsrocks.
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