What I remember most about visiting Gettysburg is the mint chocolate chip ice cream I ate after we’d finished walking aimlessly through the grassy, Civil War battlefields dotted with information plaques.
I imagined similarly dull days when my husband last month outlined his grand idea for us to visit the World War II D-Day beaches in Normandy. In general, I love history. But I’ve read and watched so much on World War II at this point in my life that I didn’t understand what we’d gain by physically seeing the beaches where these battles took place. Normandy didn’t sound like a vacation to me, it sounded like a school field trip.
Here’s where I speak to my spouse directly: I was wrong, you were right.
We left Paris on a Friday morning. After an hour’s drive we stopped at our first destination: Claude Monet’s home Giverny. The property is open March through November, so you can best take in the garden Monet painted tirelessly during the 43 years he lived there. Many of his paintings remain at Giverny, as well as the water lily pond that is the subject of his most famous work. With space to run around and a number of lunch options, child-friendly Giverny was a welcome stop on our trek.
Should you go, buy tickets in advance.
That evening we arrived at our home for the next week: Arromanches-les-Bains, so we’d be “as close to the D-Day beaches as possible” as my husband put it. Although we adored our tranquil hotel and proximity to the ocean, we would probably stay in the towns of Bayeux or Honfleur on our next visit. (We exhausted all of Arromanches’ dining options in 48 hours!).
That said, Arromanches’ Sword Beach is worth a visit if you’d like to see the enormous British military boats still docked and protecting the town 75 years after the Allied Forces arrived. At low tide, you can walk out to one boat and inspect it yourself.
On our first full day in Normandy, we visited the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. Omaha is one of those golden, powdery sand beaches rimmed in turquoise water; the kind of place that invites picnics and cartwheels. It was difficult to imagine that so many of the nearly 10,000 American military men and women buried at the cemetery died within meters of where they now lie.
As we walked the seemingly endless rows of white crosses and stars of David, I was able to stave off tears until I found out that 45 pairs of brothers are buried here. (If you really want a good cry, read this story of how a pair of twins killed in Normandy were finally laid to rest side-by-side at the cemetery just this year.)
In stark contrast to the manicured and bright American cemetery, the La Cambe German Military Cemetery is shaded by large oak trees and marked with dark stones. The site is not at the top of the list for many travelers, but I’d recommend visiting it as well to fully understand the breadth of lives lost in Normandy. More than 21,000 Germans are buried at La Cambe under a plaque reading: It is a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.
La Cambe is a 20-minute drive from the American Cemetery.
My two favorite battle sites (yes, favorites) were Utah Beach and Pointe Du Hoc. Utah Beach, like Omaha, is one of those names made famous to my generation by Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers.
The Utah Beach Museum was the most comprehensive and captivating one we visited. Their collection of Nazi technology and intelligence better informed me how one country managed to successfully start war with the world. The museum also has a B26 bomber, as well as a number of tanks and weaponry that all ages will find fascinating.
If you prefer sitting inside a preserved Nazi bunker and imagining the Allied Forces attacking on D-Day to a museum, Pointe Du Hoc is your spot. Informative and somber, Pointe Du Hoc is the site of a number of military missteps and misunderstandings that cost a startling number of lives.
In between battle sites and museums, we took a day to visit Honfleur for seafood overlooking the medieval harbor, a wooden church constructed like an upside-down ship and Honfleur’s butterfly garden at the NaturoSpace.
The town of Bayeux was another highlight with it’s world-renowned tapestry and 13th-century cathedral. Likewise, Rouen is worth a visit for its preserved half-timbered buildings and site of Joan of Arc’s execution.
Taking time to visit sites outside of what happened during Normandy’s darkest period was a good reminder that the hearty Norman spirit has persevered spectacularly. Normandy is so much more than a place where the tide of World War II shifted 75 years ago. Normandy has given us camembert and hard apple cider. Gustave Flaubert and Érik Satie. The Bayeux tapestry and timber frame architecture. The windy, red poppy-dotted countryside alone, is worth the drive from Paris.
As my dad put it, “it’s one of those places that an hour after arriving you’re already planning your trip back.” Here’s hoping that it will not be too long until I am there again.
Meanwhile, I hope you are finding some way today to honor those lives lost on June 6, 1944. We owe them more than we will ever know.