Normandy is a must-see. Touring the battlefields where young men gave their lives for our freedom is an unforgettable experience at any time of year, with the biggest crowds around the D-Day anniversary on June 6. Visiting Normandy in April allowed our family of three to enjoy the attractions without the crowds. Here’s our three-day itinerary to help you plan your trip.
Getting to Normandy: Amiens Cathedral
As a backpacking college student I once traveled through this area on public transportation. And while it can be done, it’s not easy. You’ll be much better off with a car. I found the best deal through Auto Europe, booked in advance. Most people will drive from Paris, but our trip originated in Amsterdam. After an overnight in Antwerp, we had an enjoyable day’s drive, with a midway stop to admire the UNESCO World Heritage cathedral at Amiens. Its iconic weeping angel, grieving for those lost in World War I, is pictured at the top of this post.
Where to Stay: Isigny, the Home of Disney
Our dreams of country French living in Normandy came true at Les Oiseaux de Passage, a B & B outside the town of Isigny. It’s away from the more crowded resort areas near Deauville, a frequent getaway for Parisians. It offers easy access to the main highway and all the historic sites, but just isolated enough to feel like a countryside retreat.
The hosts, Gerard and Helene, are retired designers from Paris who have refitted an historic barn with delightful attention to detail. They scour the local flea markets for treasures such as boat paddles used only once — in the D-Day invasion — and retrieved decades later. Breakfast is a hearty mix of local cheeses, breads and pastries, with eggs if you want them.
We followed their helpful recommendations for restaurants and sightseeing, including a secret spot where a ruined castle is populated by storks. There are only three rooms, including a disability accessible room on the ground floor. The Curlew room on the first floor was perfect for our family, with two large, comfy beds and a modern, functional bath and WC. We borrowed the classic D-Day movie The Longest Day and other DVD’s from their in-house library to watch at night on the DVD player in our room.
Fun Facts about Isigny: Disney’s Ancestral Village
We arrived hungry and were directed to Le Central, the kind of local eatery that seems to know the regular customers’ names and also welcomes visitors. We strolled around town waiting for it to open at 6pm. As you plan your sightseeing, be aware that the French lunch hour is over at about 3pm and most dinner places don’t open until 7 pm or later. In between, your choices are limited.
Isigny, by the way, is the ancestral home of the name Disney: over time, “D’Isigny” became “Disney.” It was one of the first towns to be liberated in World War II, as memorial plaques explain. There are a couple of markets where you can pick up snack provisions, as well as an outlet store for the famed Isigny carmel factory, great for souvenir gifts. You can’t miss the huge dairy factory, a Chinese investment turning out baby formula for export and providing hundreds of local jobs.
Day One: Sainte Mere Eglise
We are early risers who believe in beating the tour bus crowds to the main attractions. First stop, the Airborne Museum in the town of Sainte Mere Eglise. You’ll recognize the church where paratrooper John Steele’s parachute became stuck as the battle unfolded in the square below. Stained glass in the church shows paratroopers protecting the Virgin Mary.
The museum contains restored aircraft and tributes, not only to the brave sacrifice of Americans who fought and died here, but also to the ongoing friendship between people of the US and France. Stop and listen to the moving words of Ronald Reagan about the boys of the Greatest Generation.
The films on offer are worth your time, including the very interesting contrast of newsreel reports that described the invasion as a smashing success or a total failure, depending on which side was talking. Most restaurants in the nearby town were closed on Sunday at lunchtime, but we enjoyed quiche and lasagna with salad from a limited menu at E. Castel on the town square.
Utah Beach and Pointe du Hoc
From here, we drove on to Utah Beach and explored a number of crumbling Nazi pillboxes in the dunes. Moving back toward Isigny, we ended our day at Pointe du Hoc, where US Rangers made their seemingly impossible assault on Nazi gun emplacements.
Day Two: Mont St. Michel and St. Malo
Taking a break from World War II sites, we headed for Mont St. Michel, an easy drive of under two hours. Be aware that this UNESCO world heritage site is the second biggest tourist attraction in France, after the Eiffel Tower. We heard some grousing about the new “visitor scheme” that requires you to take a shuttle bus from the carpark. Actually, I thought it was quite efficient and an improvement over the long walk on the causeway that I remember from my student days. The disappointment was the rather busy construction site at the foot of the Mont that marred what otherwise would have been a classic scenic view.
We sprinted through the touristy shops and restaurants at the bottom of the Mont to reach the entrance to the historic chapels at the top, stacked on top of each other in an astonishing feat of architecture. Realizing the lunch hour was almost over, we decided to eat in one of the places offering the famous Mont St. Michel puffy omelet.
The restaurant was staffed by only two weary servers, scrambling to meet the demands of a large Asian tour group in the dining room. Later, we heard that many of these eateries are now owned by foreign interests and, in the opinion of the locals, skimp on both service and food quality. In hindsight, we might have been better off with a snack and waiting until the next stop to dine, except that put us in the middle of the hours when actual restaurants are closed. If you’d like to book a hotel on Mont St. Michel, check out the hotel options on Trip Advisor.
A short drive onward brought us to St. Malo, a walled city I was eager to visit after reading the award-winning novel “All the Light We Cannot See.” Beaches and walkaway food stands were busy with French families enjoying their spring break. Hard to imagine that the beautiful church had been reduced to rubble before the town was liberated from the Nazis. Here are some options for staying in St. Malo.
Day Three: Omaha Beach, American Cemetery, Arromanches, Bayeux and Longues Sur Mer
Returning to the D-Day sites, we visited Omaha Beach and the nearby American Cemetery. The real estate has been donated to a US Commission that manages the war museums with thoughtful and interpretive films and displays, and admission is free. A short drive away, the remains of the artificial port at Arromanches convey just how massive the invasion effort was.
As the lunch hour approached once again, we headed for the imposing cathedral in the town of Bayeux, admiring the unique Norman carvings in the stonework. Across the street is L’Assiette Normande, a restaurant recommended by our B & B hosts. First time visitors may also wish to visit the historic Bayeux tapestry, which I had seen on an earlier trip. It is a UNESCO site representing the Memory of the World. Bayeux offers a wide choice of hotels.
After visiting so many war museums and watching their documentary films, we found we were seeing a lot of repeat footage, so we spent more time just soaking up the atmosphere of history.
As the sun set on our final day in Normandy, we stopped at Longues Sur Mer, where the guns remain in the Nazi bunkers, much to the delight of French school groups.
Finally, we made our way to what my son called “The Middle of Nowhere, France,” to find the secret ruined castle, populated only by storks and a friendly farm horse.
Normandy has been the scene of centuries of war. But it rewards the visitor with remarkable history, delicious food and a peaceful atmosphere today. We didn’t want to leave.
Terry’s Travel Tips
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