5 highlights of Normandy
Perhaps best known as the site of a pivotal World War II mission, Normandy is a region of France with soaring beachside cliffs, charming medieval towns, the most famous walled city in the world and fabulous cuisine. Here’s what you need to see during your trip to Normandy.
1. Beaches of the D-Day Invasion
On June 6, 1944, Allied Forces landed on a 50-mile-long stretch of Normandy’s oceanfront during the largest seaborne invasion on record. An aerial assault began overnight before troops came ashore. Pounded by rough seas, cold temperatures and heavy winds, 156,000 soldiers waded onto the beaches under heavy enemy fire. An estimated 4,000 troops died that day.
The heroic operation resulted in the securing of the Normandy beaches, and soon the Allies headed south toward Paris and Germany. World War II ended less than a year later, thanks in no small part to D-Day.
The best way to truly understand what was at stake during this risky operation is with a tour. Your guide will paint a picture of the battlefield by showing black and white photos of the battle and recounting stories from survivors.
2. Normandy American Cemetery
Pay your respects to American servicemembers who gave their lives during World War II at the memorial cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. A half-circle-shaped columned structure contains the names of more than 1,500 soldiers whose remains were never found. Among those buried on the grounds are two of President Theodore Roosevelt’s sons, Medal of Honor recipients and Army Ground Forces commander Lesley J. McNair. In addition to gravesites, the cemetery has a small WWII museum.
In the hours before the beach invasion, paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne deployed to Sainte-Mère-Église. Private John M. Steele’s parachute became tangled on the steeple of the town’s church during his descent in the dark. Steele hung from the church for several hours before being captured by German forces. He escaped and rejoined American paratrooper forces to liberate Sainte-Mère-Église.
If you visit the church, you will see a mannequin hanging from the church, its parachute flapping in the breeze. Inside the church is a stained-glass window commemorating the arrival of the paratroopers. The nearby Airborne Museum offers a fascinating, interactive look at the airborne divisions engaged in WWII.
4. Bayeux Tapestry
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Located in the beautiful town of Bayeux, the Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of a very different invasion: William the Conqueror’s quest to take the throne as king of England in the 11th century. First mentioned in the 1400s, the hand-stitched tapestry provides a chronicle of the two years leading up to the Battle of Hastings. Standing 19 inches tall and stretching 220 feet in length, it is astounding to consider the amount of time that went into hand stitching the fine details of Viking-style ships, weaponry and facial expressions. An audio guide fills in the historical gaps and explain the symbolism hidden throughout the masterpiece.
5. Mont St. Michel
A Christian pilgrimage site for a few hundred years, Mont St. Michel began as a refuge for monks seeking a place for quiet reflection. A grand abbey was built atop the hilly island in 966 and was upgraded over the centuries, isolated from the mainland during high tide by water and low tide by dangerous sandy bogs.
Today, Mont St. Michel is anything but peaceful and far more accessible. Arrive early morning to avoid tourists and watch the sunrise above the commune’s spires. Walk the maze of cobblestone streets and hike up the abbey steps for panoramic views.
After sightseeing, make sure to enjoy some local food. Buy a warm baguette and smear it with rich Normandy butter or Camembert cheese. Order a pot of mussels in brie-infused cream — you’ll want to drink the sauce, even if it embarrasses your dining companions. Finish with an apple tart and snifter of Calvados, a local apple brandy.