Normandy!

Normandy

Photo: normandysites.com

The region of Normandy in France is in the northwestern coastal section of the country cocooned between Isle de France (Paris), Bretagne, Champagne, and the Chateau regions. Normandy includes the major cities of Rouen, Le Havre, Caen, the D-Day Beaches and the infamous Mont Saint Michele. Other hidden gems in the area include Étretat, Honfleur, Saint-Lô, Bayeux and Giverny. Most recently we toured Normandy with my parents, did D-Day Battle Tours, spent a day in Brittany (Bretagne) traveled up through Chartres, and ended in Paris. It was splendid! Two years ago I made a similar trip through Normandy with my mom and sister (blog here). Here is everything I learned on those two trips, with info on other must-see places in Normandy and bonus details on Saint Malo and Dinan in Brittany – wrapped up into one guide!

Tips

Colorful streets of Rouen
  • No trip to Normandy is complete without trying the famous foods: Camembert (cheese), Calvados (liqueur made from apple), and salted caramels.
  • I recommend driving through this region of France because the roads are decent and it allows you the freedom to make quick stops or change things up due to weather (weather can change quickly in Normandy). Just keep an eye on gas as stations aren’t plentiful.
  • If you are interested in a proper tour of the D-Day sites in Normandy, definitely book with a professional in advance. My recommendations are below. You will certainly get a lot out of viewing the museums, memorials, cemeteries and sites on your own, but nothing beats the enriching experience of a tour.
  • Much of this region is quite rural, and of course the local language is French. However, we found most people also spoke some English.
  • Depending on what your priorities are, I recommend 3-5 days in the region to allow for proper touring, exploring, and travel between sites. If you are just visiting Normandy for D-Day tours, schedule 1-3 days depending on how many beaches and museums you intend to visit.
  • Like many places in Europe, restaurants in Normandy often don’t open until 7PM. That is tricky for us with kids, so we sometimes had to get creative about meals. Plan accordingly, and don’t be surprised if you can’t dine without a reservation.
  • As with most places in Europe, be sure to have euro coins with you if you need to use a public restroom. Usually there is a fee!

Rouen

Rouen Palais de Justice

Rouen was our first stop on this trip and was a very pleasant surprise for us. We arrived on a rainy evening with the intention of seeing a few of the famed “Joan of Arc” sites and the gorgeous Cathedral Notre Dame de Rouen, but the city positively charmed us and we want to go back! The Gros Horloge (big clock) was also a highlight, framing the charming streets beneath the moody skies. Shops were so sweet here – and markets were buzzing! One thing we will be sure to do on our next visit to Rouen is the Historial Jeanne d’Arc, or Joan of Arc Museum. We peeked inside and it looks beautiful – but we were too late to tour the day we visited. This would be an awesome place to stay and explore in the Normandy region. If you’re just stopping in for a quick visit, a great place to park is Q-Park Palais de Justice.

Le Gros Horloge

Rouen is known for its churches. Cathedral Notre Dame de Rouen was built in the 1100’s and is the centerpiece of the city. This amazing cathedral was painted by Monet and is one of the most detailed facades in France. At one time (1870’s) it was even the tallest building in the world! During the summer there is often a light show on the front of the church after sunset.

Also, don’t miss the unique St Joan of Arc’s Church with its distinct shape resembling a pyre. It has an artistic, medieval vibe. We appreciated the statues we found of Jeanne d’Arc around France (including in Paris!) but this one in Rouen had special meaning knowing this is where she was put to death as a martyr in the place du Vieux-Marché (below). The life of Joan of Arc is absolutely fascinating…we want to learn more!

We stayed nearby at a very rustic Air BnB in Hugleville called Chateau de Grosfy. Our hosts were super nice and breakfast was lovely, but the accommodations were…sketchy. I don’t recommend this lodging but definitely recommend Air BnB’s in general in this region as they are plentiful. Just be sure to check reviews! Rouen had great places to stay, and if we weren’t trying to get a head start on Étretat in the morning, we would have stayed right in Rouen.

Étretat

The picturesque little coastal town of Étretat is a must-see for cliff-loving tourists. These “white cliffs” boast several archways and have long paths to hike on both ends of the pebble beach. The beach and cliffs are very popular – they’re also portrayed in Monet’s paintings. Both times we visited in November and it called for rain – but we got lucky! Be prepared for unpredictable skies in this whole region. It can open up and downpour without notice. If you’re like my adrenaline junkie sister, you can jump in the ocean in your swimsuit for a polar dip! We saw someone doing this the second time we went too – I guess it’s a thing? Something to note in Étretat: parking is a nightmare. We got very lucky the second time we visited and drove right up to a spot in the main lot near the beach at around 10AM, but it was already packed. The first time we visited, we drove around for an hour looking for parking – but it was 3PM. The best bet is to arrive super early (or even stay in the village) to avoid the crowds. Plan to walk A LOT here and dress for wind or rain. Definitely don’t miss hiking all along the cliffs!

Nothing like a polar dip at Étretat in November! (2019)

The views change with each new elevation and cliff – see them all! We love to grab bakery items (hand pies, sandwiches, pizzas, pastries) for lunches as they’re portable and it saves money. Étretat has nice restaurants as well (many seafood places), but they can be quite busy and expensive!

Both times we visited in November and the temperatures were in the low 40º’s.

The more popular side of the beach is to the left if you’re looking at the water. However, on the other side of the beach, the cliffs are beautiful to climb, and the “Jardins d’Étretat” are a worthwhile attraction as well.

Les Jardins d’Étretat from Rouentourism.com
Étretat beach at low tide is a fascinating place!
The third cliff overlook, facing southwest.

Étretat would be a very charming, romantic place to stay – but remember it is extremely popular for tourists, is more expensive than surrounding areas, and can get quite busy. If you want to avoid the crowds, plan to visit early – sunrise would be beautiful here.

HONFLEUR

On our first visit to Étretat we decided to stay in nearby Honfleur. This sweet little town is reminiscent of a tiny French version of Amsterdam with its colorful buildings. Honfleur is one of many estuary towns on the coast of France, boasting a townhouse-lined harbor, numerous restaurants and shops and a warm, welcoming feel. If you’re staying here, wander the canals and streets and enjoy the bakeries, restaurants, galleries and shops. The beach is nice, and they have great seafood here as well! For more information on Honfleur, check out their tourism website here.

D-Day Battle Sites

This is a HUGE category, considering three countries made a coordinated attack across a span of almost 100 km of beaches in Normandy and moved inland, racking up countless battles and points of interest. There are many excellent museums packed full of memorabilia, stories and info that are fascinating to visit and learn about, but I highly recommend hiring a professional tour guide for at least one day to help paint the most detailed picture and take you to the most important spots along the way. I will highlight some of those spots here and list the best museums to help you plan, but I have to recommend Mr. Rene van Oirschot who lives in an historic home right next to the must-see Airborne Museum in Sainte Mère Église. We were privileged to do two full day tours with him, two years apart, and I learned completely new things each time. He’s wonderful, has tons of impressive connections, and well worth the price! A full day tour is about $650 for 8 people not including museum fees and lunch, so it is very expensive if you go as a family, but quite affordable if you join a group and share the cost.

Airborne Museum

For $7.50 per adult and with a covid-safe pass you can enter the Airborne Museum at Sainte Mère Église – and in my humble opinion, it is THE must-see museum in Normandy. If you haven’t done this on your own (which I recommend doing the day before or after your pro tour as you do not need a guide in the museum) then your tour guide may take you through this museum. It has 5 buildings, several of which have been recently renovated during pandemic times with amazing, interactive new exhibits and an even bigger gift shop. It takes anywhere from 1.5-4 hours to go through this museum depending on how thoroughly you read and linger. The town of Sainte Mère Èglise is historic as well – there are are many amazing stories about the paratroopers from this siege that defeated this German-held village – all told virtually with the interactive tablet from the Airborne Museum. The movie “The Longest Day” depicts this event and so much more!

The tour through the museum taught us about “fly girls,” female pilots who got no credit or military benefits for their work. They flew newly constructed planes to the front lines where they would then be flown into battle. Apparently, if they wanted a uniform, these “fly girls” had to purchase one themselves! Also, after the war, in spite of their flight experience, they weren’t permitted to be employed as pilots. It seems to me this would make a great Hollywood movie!

We also learned about the brave bomber pilots and how their payload was remarkably small, resulting in fairly minimal damage to the enemy for how grueling their missions were. These pilots also had an extremely high mortality rate, and the newest installment of the epic WWII drama series produced by Spielberg and Hanks will be all about them – “Masters of the Air.” We can’t wait to see it!

Interesting tag line…

We learned all about the various missions of Operation Neptune (the initial invasion of allied forces of Operation Overlord in World War II), including the paratroopers and the glider pilots. It was interesting to learn that almost none of the paratroopers landed on their marks thanks to unfavorable weather conditions on drop day, and glider pilots had the highest mortality rate of any combat specialty in WWII. This was because the planes themselves were made of such flimsy material (linen) and they were nearly impossible to maneuver, so the landing was a huge risk. This recruitment poster [left] came out when they ran out of pilots for the job and had to then only take volunteers – I can’t say the ad made the job appealing! “Join the Glider Troops! No flight pay, no jump pay, but never a dull moment!” Finally, we learned about the clever “ghost army” that the allied forces mustered to throw Hitler and the Germans off. They enlisted the help of artists, architects, actors, set designers and engineers to use creative tactics to deceive the Germans into thinking they had a larger army and were mustering in a different location than was true. Ben Affleck is producing a movie about this as well, called “Ghost Army,” that is still in pre-production but will be another must-see!

NORMANDY MUSEUMS We have only visited the Airborne Museum but there are SO many wonderful museums to visit in the area and it would take many days to tour them all. A few I would really love to see someday are the D-Day Experience Museum, Caen Memorial Museum, and the Overlord Museum, but I this article does a fabulous job detailing ALL of the museums in the area…check it out!

A few good places to grab lunch in Sainte-Mère-Église are: Bistrot 44 (my favorite), Boulangerie Patisserie Marguerie, The Field Kitchen (which was operated by Rene at his home during the pandemic), and C-47 Café Glacier. Below are images of Rene near his home and various places we toured with him.

2021 Tour: Rene was wonderful, bringing out materials to help tell stories as we stood on the land where the stories took place. He brought us to SO many sites – everything is free except the museums – including: La Fiere bridge, Iron Mike Monument, Cauqaigny Church and Glider Infantry Monument, Charles deGlopper Monument (MOH recipient), General Falley’s ambush side, Dead man’s corner and Purple heart lane, Col Cole Bayonet charge Monument, E co 506th PIR route into Carentan, La Cambe, Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, Omaha Beach, Omaha beach “Big Red One” Monument, Normandy American Cemetery, and more.

Beaches of Normandy

We visited Utah and Omaha beaches as they were the main landing points for the Americans. Omaha was by far the most deadly, and it was a somber place to walk.

Omaha Beach

Pointe du Hoc

One of the main gun bunkers at Pointe du Hoc

We also visited Pointe du Hoc, the site that fascinated me the most. Pointe du Hoc was an important strategic vantage point between Utah and Omaha beaches. The Germans occupied this area and had massive guns that could reach for miles, peppering both nearby beaches with shells. The area of Point du Hoc is crowned by 100 foot cliffs and the surrounding beaches stretch for miles in each direction. This was another landing point for the allies, who were able to scale the cliffs and hold the area in spite of a small number of troops and many, many casualties (a 70% casualty rate). Sadly, this location has been abused by tourists and between our two visits in 2019 and 2021, the area has now been fenced off so it is more difficult to see the massive craters created by shell explosions. Keep this in mind – the visit to Pointe du Hoc will be much quicker now than it was in the past without the ability to tour the bunkers or grassy craters.

Craters at Pointe du Hoc

Normandy American Cemetery

Of course there are cemeteries all over Normandy, including each nation participating in the D-Day operation. Visit the cemetery that means the most to you of course! For us, that was the American Cemetery. My grandfather fought in World War II, landing on the beaches after they had been captured and making his way all the way to Bastogne, where he was wounded but survived. These places mean so much more knowing that these brave soldiers paved the way for victory. This cemetery is located along an untouched cliff-side stretch of Omaha Beach – where a heroic 9,388 American soldiers are laid to rest. The monuments and memorials here are simply beautiful, and it’s impossible to walk along the acres of graves without feeling a sense of deep gratitude and sorrow. 60 million people lost their lives worldwide in World War II, making it the bloodiest war in our history. Over 400,000 were American soldiers who died in the fighting, with the Battle of the Bulge amounting to the operation with the highest death toll. We walked through the cemetery with Rene as all the stories from the day sank in and we were able to pay homage to our fallen heroes.

These maps depict the landing strategy of the Allied Forces

OTHER NOTABLE Towns

Caen: According to Wiki, “Caen is known for its historical buildings built during the reign of William the Conqueror, who was buried there, and for the Battle for Caen, heavy fighting that took place in and around Caen during the Battle of Normandy in 1944, destroying much of the city.”

Bayeux: According to Wiki, “Bayeux boasts a stunning historic centre as well as its world-famous, UNESCO-listed tapestry depicting the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The city had the good fortune to be swiftly liberated by the Allies in June 1944, but its war museum and British cemetery recall the sacrifices made in these parts.”

1000 year old Bayeux Tapestry, courtesy of fineartconnoiseur.com

Giverny: Closer to Paris, this would better serve as a day trip from the city. This is where the house of Claud Monet is located, including his famous, gorgeous, meticulous and well painted gardens!

Monet’s Home and Gardens, photo: kkday.com

FINAL THOUGHTS If touring Normandy with purely WWII historical motivations, stay in Carentan, Bayeux, Caen, or Saint-Lô. You will have easier access to all of the museums, beaches, memorial sites and cities you wish to visit. We stayed in Carentan, and although I’d love to recommend our Air BnB to you because it was a great apartment, it really didn’t measure up host-wise. It was missing towels and toilet paper (essential items!) and the issue was never resolved – so you might want to avoid Le Scenario unless you BYOBath items. Oh, and someone ripped off our rear windshield wiper right down to nothing in the “safe, private parking,” so steer clear of that place! Finally, watch Band of Brothers and The Longest Day before your visit, plus The War – Ken Burns’ seven-part WWII documentary.

Mont Saint Michel

Who doesn’t dream of this magical island city? This was my second time visiting Le Mont Saint Michel and it was notably much busier this time than last. What we learned was this time we went during France’s fall break from schools. Ah well! We still loved it – empty or packed full. It is such a beautiful destination, even in crazy weather conditions. We used the (free) bus and also walked along the mile-long boardwalk to the island. Both are great, but when it’s busy, if the weather cooperates, it is definitely worth walking at least one way! It is free to visit the island city but there is a fee for parking and for touring the abbey, which I highly recommend. Keep an eye out for sheep – they’re famous in the area – and do take note of the tides. Although it is rare to see, the incoming tide is extremely fast and has trapped numerous people on the sand flats who weren’t paying attention! That said, definitely enjoy different vantage points of Le Mont from the bridge, the sand flats, and various places inside and ON the walls!

The fanciest way to get to Mont Saint Michel is via horse and carriage (for a fee).
The same streets, the week after the French Fall Break

After walking through the streets of the bustling village, you can walk allllll the way up the steps to tour the abbey. Expect to do a lot of walking here…it is a “mont,” so it’s steep! My mom had already visited a few times, so she and my dad took a leisurely morning stroll to shop and duck into a cafe for lunch. We won’t talk about how we got our signals crossed, messed up the time we were supposed to meet and thought we lost them; instead we’ll just say we all made it out together and had a great time!

When we toured the abbey most recently, we saw a little bat on the wall that had gotten lost. It was so cute! The kids loved listening to the audio guides during the tour and it kept them very interested. There are also nice souvenir shops inside the abbey that have different items than downtown, so don’t expect to find that beautiful mug in any other store – grab it when you see it! (I love mine!) This Abbey was built over 1,000 years ago. It is remarkable to walk in the footsteps of people from centuries past.

We grabbed the obligatory treats here, including baguette sandwiches, croque monsieurs, waffles and crêpes! Mont Saint Michel is actually known for a soufflé type omelette, made famous at La Mère Poulard, a little hotel and eatery at the entrance of the mont. Also not to be missed here are the salted caramels. You can buy them inside the walls (they’re more expensive) or you can go hog wild at the outlet store on your way out of town, Maison Pèlerin (they even ship). Don’t forget to try Calvados! I can recommend the Air BnB we stayed in near Mont Saint Michel in 2019: La Bastide du Moulin. It was just darling.

BONUS!

This post may be about Normandy, but just outside the borders of this French region is Brittany, and two beautiful and historic cities are totally worth visiting, too! We have visited both, and I’d love to highlight them here, too.

Saint Malo

Two years ago we stopped at another estuary port-city that is just over the border of Normandy into Brittany. We heard that the crepes in Brittany are “not to be missed!” so our mission was a spot of shopping and more crêpes. We made our way into this walled town, reminiscing fondly of a novel we all read that took place in Saint Malo, “All the Light We Cannot See.” This city took a beating during WWII and much of it needed to be rebuilt after the war. The parking here was a snap – there is loads of underground parking just outside the city walls. It sprinkled on and off, and we went in and out of shops, but the town was quite sleepy and not many restaurants were open. My mom mentioned that when she has been here in the past it was lively and bustling – I guess it depends on when you go! There is much to do and see in Saint Malo but with the rainy weather and sleepy conditions, we opted instead to hunt crêpes nearby in Dinan! For future reference, here are a few points of interest in Saint Malo:

  • Walk the walls that were built in the 1100’s
  • Château de Saint Malo
  • Beaches: Plage du Sillon, Plage du Mole,
  • Saint Malo Aquarium (on a rainy day)
  • Fort National
  • Grand Bé, a small islet you can only reach at low tide
  • Hike the Emerald Coast on either side of Saint Malo

Dinan

Although we only stopped in Dinan for crêpes (and apparently ice cream sundaes we didn’t realize we’d ordered) the first time, we fell in love with it so much that we decided to stay here on our road trip in the fall of 2021. Dinan is one of those cities that sticks with you. The architecture is reminiscent of the Alsace region of France only with a bit more British flair – these streets could easily be a movie set! We were excited, of course, to have more galettes (savory crêpes) and found a great place to dine: Créperie Le Connétable.

Whether you’re staying overnight here (we loved our Air BnB, Hotel La Quebecoise) or just passing through, parking is super easy at the Place du Marché. You can also walk everywhere, and I highly recommend walking through Place des Merciers, Rue de l’Apport, down Place Saint Sauveur, past Basilique Saint Sauveur, through Jardin Anglais to La Tour Sainte-Catherine. The Chateau de Dinan is also noteworthy, as are all the little streets, including Rue de l’Horloge and Rue de la Cordonnerie (“thirsty street”) to shop and wander in the old town. It is also possible to walk the walls of the city – and the view overlooking the Rance River that leads all the way to Saint Malo is not to be missed. From the Old Bridge (Vieux Pont), walk all the way up the steep Rue du Petit Fort and keep an eye out for the art and craft shops here that are popular in the region. We didn’t do this, but you can also climb to the top of the Tour de l’Horloge and get a nice view over the city. 158 steps! This may very well be the prettiest town in the Brittany region of France. Here are some views of Dinan by night and by day – it is truly is a charming place.

Delicious dinner of savory (salt batter gallettes) crêpes at Crêperie Le Connetable. Also try the local beer and ciders the region is known for. Don’t forget dessert crêpes!

Look at these gorgeous streets!

Beautiful views from La Tour Sainte-Catherine

Beautiful overlook from the Jardin Anglais

We loved visiting the Normandy region so much that it is a place we will return to again and again. There is always more to do and see – especially near the beaches – and the history of the place leaves a truly lasting impression!

OTHER WORTHY STOPS IN BRITTANY

Also noteworthy in Brittany are the cities of Rennes, Brest, Quimper and Vannes, Vitré, Côte de Granit Rose. So many walled cities! This region clearly needed to be fortified in French history.

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