One thing you have to do when in France is to try a French breakfast and make it local. We headed to the tiny bakery in Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer and were like kids in a sweet shop. The range was quite astonishing considering its size and also at home we’re just used to 2 options when it comes to a continental breakfast pastry (croissants or pain au chocolat). We picked an apple based pastry and a custard filled one and took these away to consume in our car. One of the tastiest breakfasts…..if only they were healthy and I’d be eating them every day!
Before Arromanches, we headed a little further on to Longues Sur Mer to see the German battery flanked by the landing beaches and the only artillery battery to have Listed Building status. You will find four quite in tact gun casemates. Allow about half an hour for this stop.
Arromanches has a few memorials to explore but its real draw is the film shown there in its 360 cinema. By far the most emotional of all and possibly the best of all films seen on our trip to Normandy. People left the cinema with tears in their eyes and even writing about it now, stirs my emotions. This 19 minute film showing previously unseen footage projects onto 9 screens in HD and tells the story of the 100 day Battle of Normandy.
We then headed to Bayeux. We made our way first of all to the Commonwealth Cemetery which was quite a contrast to the American Cemetery. All the headstones were very similar and lined up to precision but many contained personal messages from home and they all had flowers planted. It was not as grand but it felt a little more grounded and peaceful. This cemetery is home mainly to British servicemen but also has people buried here from New Zealand, Canada and South Africa to name but a few nations; there were also German graves which I found quite touching and which provides such a powerful message. Again, very different to the American Cemetery and possibly one of my favourite spots on our trip to Normandy.
We found Le Moulin de la Galette for lunch. Situated overlooking a river with its own water wheel, this place used to be a mill. Now it dishes up the friendliest of welcomes, a huge selection of galattes (including a choice for me with several without ham!!), one of the prettiest locations and great home cooked food.
Feeling very full and having had my fill of cheese, we walked slowly across the road to see the Bayeux Tapestry. Being entirely honest, I was not too excited about this. Yes, it’s old and big but would I enjoy it?! Absolutely! The museum is well thought out. You take an audio guide which starts when you reach a certain point and this then guides you through the story being told on the tapestry making it fun and it also set you on a good pace. After seeing the tapestry there is a small museum followed by a 16 minute film. You learn how it was a miracle the tapestry was still in existence. It was used as a covering and once almost torn up for a parade. The tapestry itself is amusing, clever and so well preserved that it’s hard to believe the 70 metre long embroidered cloth is more than 900 years old. Allow around 1.5 hours here and the cost of entry at the time of writing including audio guide was 9 Euros per person.
Afterwards, we spent some time in Bayeaux and with an ice-cream in hand wandered to the cathedral although the outside is far more impressive than the inside. We had also heard about an organic cider and calvados producer with a shop in Bayeaux run by husband and wife team, Christele and Francois, which we managed to track down. Lecornu is situated west of the cathedral near to a green (Place de Gaulle) and sells calvados, cider, apple juice, calvados jelly and many more wonderful products.
We were lucky that the weather was so beautiful for exploring Bayeux and then for sitting out in the evening with a glass of wine and nibbles listening to the birds sing and reflecting on what a terrific day we’d had.
When we visited Normandy, we visited every beach and related museum and tried to experience as much as possible. I believe that Utah beach has the best museum. We only had about 2 hours here to explore and actually could have spent at least another hour here. The museum like all others has a film, accounts from those who fought, objects from the war and it was the only place I recall seeing the German story being told, although this was very brief. One thing that struck me when listening to the stories of the French who were occupied was in relation to a German solider. He used to visit them and loved playing with the children. He had white hair, that’s all the family remember, and he said he had children and missed them. He went missing, presumably died in the war. Many people didn’t want to be there fighting but felt obliged to and were terrified of the consequences. Utah was an American beach landing and was largely successful although not without its terrible losses. We didn’t actually see much of the beach, mainly because the weather was poor on the morning we visited. However, the museum here is wonderful, set on the beach which brings you closer to the history you’re learning about, brimming with accounts I could have listened to all day, with terrific exhibits and there is a walk right at the end above the trenches giving you a silent insight into life at Utah.
When you are at Utah beach, you’re not far from Sainte-Mere-Eglise which is worth a visit for its museum but probably more famously, the statue of the airman hanging from the church spire by his parachute. When the paratroopers were dropped by the gliders and were dispersed throughout the area, one soldier found himself dangling from the church spire. A comrade fought off German forces to save his life and was himself killed in action but John Steele played dead and lived to tell the tale.
The museum, situated just across the road from the church, contains 3 areas all worth a visit. Allow about an hour and a half to see it all with an entry fee of €9.90 per person (at the time of writing). The best part of the museum for me provides you with a tiny insight into what it must have been like in Normandy in 1944, thanks to a hyper-realistic museography. There is a plane you walk into which is noisy to the point of being quite scary and it’s full of paratroopers ready to parachute into the night. When you exit, you’re looking down onto the local area from above, you can see the church on fire and lots of parachutes descending. Then you’re on the beaches and gun shots are being fired. Making your way forward you’re in the middle of hedgerows avoiding sniper shots. Even though you know it isn’t real, your heart can help but beat a little quicker and your reflexes make you a little lighter on your feet.
Now home and having reflected on the trip, I realise how quickly pain can be forgotten. How we move on with our lives at great speed giving little time to let the past help our future. With the anniversary of D-Day approaching, I hope everyone reading this will take a moment to remember those who gave their lives so we can enjoy the freedoms we have today.