As 2014 marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day, visiting Normandy and especially Omaha Beach was very high on our travel bucket list that year.
We made the city of Caen our base as we traveled around Normandy. Our accommodation was super affordable, and Caen was right in the middle of all the sights we wanted to see.
Day One: We explored Caen. Our first stop was the Saint-Jean Church. Inside you will find images of this church before WWII and after WWII. This church was almost completely destroyed. They did manage to save part of the crucifix which is still displayed (pictured on the right). We then wandered around the Chateau de Caen, which is stunning. We were most interested in going to the Caen Memorial WWII Museum. It is quite a distance to walk, but we were blessed with wonderful weather and enjoyed a nice walk through a park, where the leaves were turning beautiful colors. I believe that Caen has one of the best WWII museums I have ever visited. While this museum does focus on the events that led up to D-Day and beyond, such as military strategies and wartime atrocities, it also has a huge section that focuses on the importance of diplomacy and peace to avoid such horrible wars. It is moving and inspirational.
“The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.” ~General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Order to his troops for D-Day, June 6, 1944 (Featured on a stone outside of the Caen Memorial WWII Museum)
We took a long walk back to our hotel, passing the grand Abbaye aux Hommes (pictured above) during sunset. Caen is a pretty big city, so you will have no problem finding plenty of restaurants and bars at which to spend your evenings.
Day Two: We took a train to the town of Bayeux. I really loved this town It is smaller and more walkable than Caen. Plus, the people there were friendly and very helpful. The woman that we spoke to at the Tourist Information center helped us figure out exactly what public transit we needed to take to get to Omaha Beach. She also called and reserved us a private tour to Mont Saint Michel (leaving from Caen, since that is where we were stationed) for our final day. While wandering the streets of Bayeux, we noticed a lot of pro-USA, Britain, and Canada propaganda, as the French people of that town view them as the ones that liberated France from the Nazis during WWII. Before catching the bus to the beach, we had enough time to check out the Bayeux Tapestry of William the Conqueror (pictured on the right). My husband was the one that wanted to see it, but I will admit that it was shockingly impressive. It is worth taking your time to look at every deal.
The bus from Bayeux drops you off a good distance from the Omaha Beach, but we were able to navigate our way without a problem. We climbed uphill to take a look at a monument and found this amazing view of the beach (pictured above). We descended the hill toward the beach, passing bunkers that have remained since WWII. As we walked along the beach, I felt that everything was calm and peaceful. It is hard to believe that so many lives were taken on that beautiful beach. For a final stop, we headed up to the American Cemetery (pictured on the right). When we got to the top of the hill, before entering the cemetery, we noticed that they offer guided tours. We decided to wait for a guided tour and were fortunate enough to end up having a private tour. The American Cemetery overlooks the beach. The grounds are well-maintained. You will find that the eldest son of President Teddy Roosevelt is buried there. There is also a small number of American women buried there as well. Our guide told us a story about one of the women, named Elizabeth Richardson. She worked for the Red Cross as a “donut dolly,” where she served donuts to the servicemen. She survived being in the midst of combat in France to see the end of the war. As she was flying to head home, her plane crashed into a mountain. I can’t help but feel sad that someone so caring and generous had to die when she was so close to seeing her family again. The American Cemetery is such a special place – full of so many emotions.
Day Three: We took the train from Caen to Rouen. Rouen is famously known as the town where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. We decided to do our own self-guided Joan of Arc tour of Rouen, which began with the Joan of Arc Tower, where she was imprisoned before she was put to death. We then visited St. Ouen Cathedral. It was here that we started to just wander down the streets looking at all the remarkable buildings (pictured above). There were so many wonderful shops. We stopped at the Creperie Restaurant for one of the most amazing crepes I have ever had. From there we walked by the Cathedrale Notre-Dame and the Tour du Gros-horloge. The Gros-horloge (pictured on the right) is an astronomical clock that was first constructed in the 1300s. We continued our Joan of Arc tour by visiting the Church of St. Joan of Arc. In the courtyard of this church is a cross, which stands as a memorial to Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake in that spot. From this location, they deposited her remains in the Seine River, where a plaque now stands with a description of this action.
Mont Saint Michel
Day Four: On our final day, a private car and guide came to pick us up in Caen and take us to Mont Saint Michel (pictured above). While the weather was not ideal when we arrived, it did eventually clear up for some amazing photos. Since we were visiting on a Sunday, we got to visit the abbey free-of-charge and attend a church service. Mont Saint Michel is an island that is only accessible during low-tide, so our time there was limited. Many people actually make a pilgrimage to the island by foot during low-tide. A guide has to be with you on this pilgrimage as timing and footing is very important and can be dangerous. We got to witness a group making the pilgrimage (pictured on the right). Almost made me wish I had done it myself.
Things I would do differently if I could do it all again
If I were to take another trip to Normandy to explore a little bit more, I would do a few things differently. First of all, I would stay in Bayeux. It is such an adorable little town, and it is much easier to access the beaches from there. Second, I would rent a car instead of relying on public transit. We almost got stuck at Omaha beach overnight. We were waiting for the bus to take us back to Bayeux. We were trying hard not to panic when it did not come. Luckily, someone must have been watching out for us, because a nice French couple stopped their car and offered us a ride back to Bayeux. We were very fortunate. The other benefit to having a car is being able to access Mont Saint Michele. It is quite a distance away from Caen and Bayeux. If we had had our own car, we could have saved money on the tour and guide and left earlier to have more time there. Maybe we would have seen Mont Saint Michele at high-tide. Last, we learned that while we have grown accustomed to being able to purchase train tickets at the last minute, sometimes trains fill up. We did not plan ahead and almost didn’t get on a train one night, because all the trains were full. I try to say that going with the flow can be fun, but there is something to be said for planning in advance as well.
Once again Normandy is another example of a destination that, even though we saw all the sights on our list, we would return to see other places that we learned about while we were there. The travel bucket list never gets smaller. It just changes.