Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Part 1: Normandy

From half-timbered towns and camembert to sweeping coastlines and oysters, a road trip through Normandy and Brittany is a great way to explore the Northern part of France while paying tribute to those that fought and lost their lives in WWII. 

The best way to do this trip is to rent a car in Paris (unless you can drive a stick, and if so... see previous post).  A car is necessary because it is really the only way to get to the D-day beaches (and driving through dozens of tiny French villages is half the fun).  If you just want to do the D-day stuff, this can easily be done as a day trip.  But, if you want to see more of this region, I would consider staying over night in Honfleur; and, if you want to add Brittany, give it two nights minimum. 

Driving from Paris, we stopped for lunch in the the small village of Lyon le Foret.  

After countless fields of rapeseed (one of the biggest crops in France, harvested for the seed oil)

chateaux sightings

and close encounter or two with a biker...


we reached our first destination:  the jagged coastal town of Étretat (although technically, our first stop was Rouen... but that ended up being an entirely different trip... again, see previous post).  Dramatic views and little village novelties are the only real reason for a stop in Étretat (if you just have one day, I would skip it and go straight to Honfleur).  However, if you're in the market for a Christmas card pic, this is your spot. 

Who knew the English Channel had such pretty blue-green water?

After a few hours in Étretat we hit the road to Honfleur, a small harbor town near the D-day beaches where the Seine meets the English Channel.  With it's fresh Normandy seafood and charming B&B's, Honfleur is a great place to rest up for a long day at the D-day beaches.

We loved our dinner Au Bouillon Normand (try the Kir Normand - a Norman twist on traditional Kir Sauvignon with cider + cassis).

The next morning we hit the road for Bayeux, the closest city to the D-day beaches that was not destroyed in the Allied bombings.  The famous Bayeux tapestry is a worthwhile visit for anyone interested in history - a thousand year old tapestry telling the story of Norman born William the Conqueror defeating Englishman Harold to take the throne of England.  The exhibit is very well done and definitely worth the hour detour for a visit.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the powerful and moving D-day beach sites and memorials.  This experience would make anyone proud to be an American.  The Norman people continue to shower their balconies with American flags.  We began at Arromanches, the site of the remains of the Port Winston Artificial Harbor and a powerful memorial film with real footage from 1944 invasion.

Next stop Omaha Beach, where the highest casualty rates occurred (2,500-4,800 soldiers killed just on the first day).

Just down the road is the WWII American Cemetery and Memorial.  The museum was one of the best I've seen with a wide array of information.  From veteran videos to computer animation graphics and moving remembrances, it is very well done.

Our final stop - Point du Hoc Ranger Monument, where 300 hand picked US Army Rangers climbed up the jagged Norman cliffs in a short 30 minutes time frame to beat the rising tide to take the Germans' most heavily fortified position.  Only about 1/3 of the Rangers survived.

Hurrying to beat the sunset, our last stop in Normandy was the thousand year old island abbey, Mont St. Michel.  On a clear day, you can spot it from miles away. 

Once one of the top four pilgrimage sites in Christendom, the island floats serenely into the horizon with St. Michel's gilded statue decorating the top of the spire.  The abbey is built on the remains of a Romanesque church, which stands on the remains of a Carolingian church.  Apparently the island and abbey are completely overrun with tourists, so we chose to admire the abbey from afar rather than trek inside.  

And that is Normandy in a nutshell.  It's a full two days to see everything, but easily doable if you stick to a schedule and move quickly.  You could always cut out the detour to Étretat and do the D-day beaches as a day trip from Paris, but I think staying over a night makes for a fuller experience.  (Dinners are half the point of any trip, if you ask me!)

Stay tuned for the rest of the trip to neighboring, Brittany. A revoir!

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