Our visits to France always seem to include Normandy. Roger’s dad was in France during WWII and we have relatives and friends buried in the cemetery at Omaha Beach. For us, I think it’s really part of the remembering process, remembering things about the USA that make it unique and special, a time when many of our men and women gave their lives on foreign lands for freedom.
This spring was no different. Our two weeks in France had to include Normandy. We decided to revisit some of the moving museums we had visited in the past, as well as add some that we had previously skipped.
3 Places to Visit
Utah Beach – Utah Beach Landing Museum
Utah Beach was new for us, but was and is totally worth the extra 21 km each way from Bayeux. As you approach Utah Beach, notice the recently added statue of Major Richard Winters, leader of Easy Company, featured in Band of Brothers. The museum there is very focused, D-Day, June 6, 1944, that’s it. You get a clear understanding of what the Allies were trying to accomplish and just how difficult it was. The museum was built on top of a German bunker on the beach. When you first walk in you see various German memorabilia found on the beach after D-Day. Then you watch the short award winning documentary, “Victory in the Sand,” that sets the stage for the D-Day invasion. There were 4 causeways connecting the sandbar to the beach. Each group was to make it from the water to the beach and control it. Utah Beach wasn’t part of the original plan of attack, but was added by Eisenhower at the last. It proved to be critical to the success of the invasion.
The museum shows photos, letters, uniforms, videotaped testimonies by grateful French people who witnessed the invasion, a wire-guided US mini Goliath tank, a Higgins boat, a rare B-26 Marauder plane, an interactive flight simulator, maps showing motion of the attack by the hour, jeeps, trenches and a manhole to the bunker showing detailed degree target markings made by the Germans. After you look around the inside, you go out to the beach and imagine just how difficult it would have been for our guys to make it. There is a statue/memorial part of the museum that flies the USA and French flags. It’s all very informative and very moving. I really appreciated getting to go there. Open daily 9:30-7:00, www.utah-beach.com
If you have time, also visit the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere-Eglise which highlights the 82nd and 101st paratroopers that were dropped behind enemy lines the night before the invasion. If you’ve watched Band of Brothers, you understand the confusion of the off course drop. You’ll get to see a Waco glider and a Douglas C-47, one of the planes that dropped the parachutists. Open daily 9:00-19:00, www.airborne-museum.org
American Cemetery at Omaha Beach
This is the beach that is probably the most recognized as the beach where our guys were sitting ducks for the Germans to pick off as they tried desperately to get to the beach head and take out the German bunkers. There are loads of white crosses here, a stellar statue depicting the spirit of youth and a monument to the American soldiers who gave their lives. On the bottom floor of the museum part of the cemetery, you’ll find photos of the brothers on which the WWII movie classic, Saving Private Ryan was based. Several detailed accounts of the lives of several everyday men are highlighted, men who became soldiers and traveled almost 4,000 miles to relieve the 4 year occupation of France by the Germans. Several who ultimately gave their lives.
There are video clips and a short movie that set up the experience of D-Day, the planning and individual stories of several men and women. There are memorabilia, photos and maps. Once you experience this part of the memorial, you walk through a tunnel-like walkway to the cemetery. During that short walk, names and ranks of those buried at Omaha Beach are being read over a speaker. This was particularly moving to me. Then you walk out to see the Atlantic Ocean and pause at the overlook of Omaha Beach itself. The first time I went there, the tide was out. I found myself shocked at the distance our guys would have had to go to make it. They came during low tide on D-Day. It sort of took my breath away for a moment just imagining.
Then you round the corner to the statute and memorial and the sea of white crosses. It is an experience that is sobering, yet you find yourself feeling a huge sense of pride and overwhelming patriotism and it hits you what a gift freedom is, how it’s something worth dying for. Very moving! Open 9:00-6:00 http://www.abmc.gov/
Pointe du Hoc
This section of the Normandy beach WWII sites is important because American Second Ranger Battalion scaled steep 100 foot cliffs to try to take out several German bunkers. This area had been heavily bombed by the Allies, but only five percent had been successfully taken out. Thus, the Rangers. The cool thing about visiting this historic site is that unlike several others, the bunkers and holes left from bombing by the Allies have not been removed. There is a clear view of the monument honoring the Rangers, a view of the sites that the Germans would have seen looking out into the Atlantic and a sense of the shear steepness of the cliffs that the Rangers climbed using grappling hooks and single pole ladders. These American heroes are honored here. It is well worth the visit. Open 9:00-6:00 https://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials/europe/pointe-du-hoc-ranger-monument
WWII Memorial Museum, Caen
This is a truly all encompassing WWII museum. It focuses on 1945 & before and 1945 & after so the build up to WWII in both Europe and the Pacific, as well as the Cold War that followed 1945. I would begin with the 15 minute movie that explains more about the build up to the war and all its devastation during. You wind around and down looking at propaganda, mementos, photos, letters, cards, planes, etc. Overall this is a very complete WWII look. This is a fairly expensive museum, 19 Euros, but contains a ton of information. Open 9:00-7:00, closed on Monday www.memorial-caen.fr
Bayeux Tapestry last invading force to invade England
This tapestry from 1066 is a 75′ long peace of linen cloth with wool embroidery that explains that last invading force to invade England before WWII. It tells the story of William the Conqueror and his plan to claim England from King Harold at the Battle of Hastings 1066. The tapestry itself is very fragile and enclosed in a long glass case. Each scene of the tapestry is narrated for you through an audio headset. Upstairs is a museum that includes a replica of a Viking ship. Its worth a stop, especially if you choose to stay in Bayeux when you visit Normandy. Open 9:00-7:00, www.bayeuxmuseum.com
3 Places to Eat
Les Quatre Saisons
This local brick oven pizza place has a nice ambience and a menu with something for everyone. The Italian cuisine hits that comfort food urge. It also serves up local brews and wines. We ended our meal with a yummy lava cake a la mode. Open at 7:00, 1 Rue Rene Huet, Villers-Bocage.
Bar de l’Hotel de Ville – Brasserie
I really love crepes and some of the best on our trip to France were in Villers-Bocage. Many lunch restaurants serve savory crepes. This restaurant had many unusual ones on the menu including a fresh beef crepe with cheese. We usually follow our savories with one sweet crepe to split. Yummy! 39 Rue Pasteur
Le Four a’ Bois
This pizza place has brick oven pizza, but also serves sausages and a few other things. The desserts were tasty! Look for it on the main street of Villers-Bocage, 26, rue Georges Clemenceau
Aux Delices de Villers – B Moulinet Artisan Chocolate
This chocolate shop was perfect for bringing back a little something for the family. It was Easter time during our stay so the shop was covered with eggs and bunnies. A very friendly French local waited on us and enjoyed trying to communicate chocolate candy favorites with very poor French speakers. She never lost her smile. www.patisseriemoulinet.com
1 Place to Stay
Le Ferme sur Pressoir
This sprawling farm was built in 1789. The main house offers several large rooms with an onsite cottage for larger groups. The idyllic countryside is the calm away from all the tourists. Its delightful hostess, Odile, makes sure you have everything you need and then some. She often sent us out for the day with a bag of goodies. The huge breakfast is complete with eggs, sausage, a variety of local cheeses, strudel, cookies, bars, yogurt, juices, coffee, tea and fruit. It was wonderful!
Most of the time we stay close to the attractions we want to see, but in Normandy there are many small villages with charm and character that add to the experience. The beaches are spread out so you’ll end up driving a few miles anyway. We found it a perfect place to stay in a local b&b.This working farm near Villers-Bocage was a perfect diversion from the large hotels in Nice and the busy streets of Paris.
Part of a great trip is getting to experience the locals, their shops, restaurants, culture, even down to their laundromats. So what if they don’t speak much English in small villages, they work with you to help you have a fabulous experience. We found the villagers charming.
When you travel to France, consider including the historical Normandy region. You’ll find it beautiful and moving.