Normandy (France)

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The World War II sites in Normandy are on many Americans’ bucket lists and rightly so.  Seeing the D-Day beaches and the sites of some of the fiercest World War II battles made famous by books and movies is definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity.  

We made this experience a day trip from Paris and it is very doable as long as you know that you won’t get to see everything that there is to see.  We took a 7 am train from Paris’ Gare Saint-Lazare station and made it to Bayeux by 9:15 am.  Bayeux is the best place to begin your D-Day journey, at least if you are taking the train.  If you have more time, you can make Caen your base of operations and spend longer at each site.

I also recommend hiring a driver or taking a guided tour of the sites.  This way you will get to see more of the sites and will spend less time getting lost on the French roads.  Other than the sites in Bayeux, these sites are not accessible by public transportation. Check on Rick Steves’ site or Ciao Bambino for guided tour options.

We got a guided tour through Ciao Bambino with Overlord Tours to assure us of a kid-friendly tour.  We met our guide after lunch so that gave us a little time to spend in Bayeux.  You don’t want to miss this important little town.

 

Bayeux Tapestry Museum

https://www.bayeuxmuseum.com/en/the-bayeux-tapestry/

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A short 10 minute walk from the train station is the museum for the Bayeux Tapestry, one of the most important pieces of history from the time of William the Conqueror.  You may be thinking to yourself, how is a museum about a tapestry going to keep my kids engaged?  But I promise you, it will.  As is the case in many European museums, the handheld listening device really makes this almost 1000 year old tapestry come alive.  My kids loved seeing the gory scenes of headless soldiers depicted through thread and fabric.  The handheld guide does a good job of telling the story of the tapestry, which is a retelling of the story of William the Conqueror leaving France to claim the throne of England.  The tapestry is unfurled in a dark and quiet room and you make a continuous loop.  It is stroller friendly and moves pretty quickly.

After you are done with the tapestry, you can see the rest of the museum, which is actually quite good.  You take a short elevator to the top floor and work your way down through the museum.  My kids loved the dioramas and mannequins with grail armor, along with maps and boats.  It really helps bring to life the day to day existence in the 11th century.  There is also a short movie to watch that explains a difficult to understand history (how does a Frenchman become the king of England?).  Don’t miss the gift shop near the exit.

 

Helpful hints:

  • Cost: 9.5EUR/children under 10 free; if you plan to visit any of the other Bayeux sites (see below), you can buy a combo ticket here.
  • Recommended for: all ages
  • Tour times: 20 minutes for tapestry; 45 minutes for rest of museum
  • Public transportation: Walking distance from Bayeux train station (SNCF line).
  • Parking is available nearby.
  • Dining options: The town of Bayeux has several quaint little restaurants.  We ate at the Rick Steves’ recommended Le Moulin de la Galette.  There are several pizza shops and creperies nearby.  Be forewarned that the “galette” is this area’s most popular dish.  While it is similar to a pancake or crepe, it is made of buckwheat flour so it is very different.  Our children were not fans, especially when used as a hamburger bun!
  • Nearby attractions: In Bayeux, there are several great museums, including the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy.  Time did not allow us to visit this museum (it is a little outside of town so about a 30-45 minute walk from the tapestry museum).  In Bayeux, there is also the Museum of Art and History Baron Gerard, the Bayeux Notre-Dame cathedral, and the British Military Cemetery.

 

Books to read:

14 and up:

10 and up:

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D-Day sites

http://en.normandie-tourisme.fr/normandy-tourism-1-2.html

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This year, 2019, is the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.  It is a truly historic and must-see site for any American traveling to Normandy.  Seeing the actual place where so many of the Allied soldiers fought and died for the whole world’s freedom is truly inspiring.  The sites are not all somber so children are welcome, particularly on the beaches.

Most tour companies, including the one we used, Overlord, have half and full day tours.  For a day trip from Paris, the half day tour is very doable.  We had a private tour but many of the companies also run group tours that are very reasonable.  Be sure to alert the company to the ages of your children so they can tailor the tour to their likes, dislikes, and attention spans.  

Our tour guide, a local from Bayeux who spoke impeccable English, picked us up after lunch at the Bayeux train station.  He took us by car to our first stop, the German batteries of Longues-Sur-Mer, about a 15 minute drive from the train station.  These German fortifications survived the initial Allied air assault but eventually fell to a British regiment.  The concrete bunkers are still there and mostly intact.  Our kids loved scrambling over the bunkers and pretending to take part in an imaginary battle with the non-operational guns.  

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From the top of the batteries, you can see where the bombs dropped by the Allies took out parts of the bunkers and hillside.  The top of the bunkers are flat and grassy so children can run around.  Be careful to watch little ones who may fall off the edge or trip on the chunks of ripped up concrete.

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Seeing the bunkers, including some of the living spaces, was really educational and drove home the fact that the Germans were there for the long haul.  These fortifications had lasted for years and it took something as dramatic as the D-Day invasion to rid the area of the foe.

It is also amazing to stand on the top of the bunkers and look away from the sea to the peaceful French countryside.  The fortifications are ugly reminders of a horrible war, in a place of so much beauty and peace.

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After we had our fill of running up and down the batteries, our guide took us to Omaha Beach, about a 25 minute drive away.  This was the star of the trip, or so I thought.  We all had visions of a wind-swept beach, filled with meaning.  This is the beach were so many Americans had lost their lives on D-Day and was immortalized in the movie, “Saving Private Ryan” (not suitable for kids but we did let our almost 14 year old watch the first 15 minutes).  We all were surprised that this is still a working beach.  People are sunbathing, taking swims in the ocean, lounging around on beach towels – definitely not what I was expecting!  However our guide, who had given tours to numerous D-Day veterans over the years, had a wonderful story.  A D-Day veteran had told him that he was glad to still see it being used as a working beach since that is what they had fought for – freedom.

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Our guide did a great job explaining the beach assault to our kids.  You can still see visible reminders of the war, with concrete blocks and metal pieces of large equipment still anchored on the beach, which made it easier for the kids (and us!) to visualize the battle.  As you turn your back to the sea, you see the formidable, grassy cliffs, which really puts the Allied assault into perspective. Just knowing what was facing those soldiers, running for cover on the beach through the surf, trying to charge up an impregnable hill with bullets raining down on your head, it is unimaginable.  Even the weight of the moment was not lost on our kids, especially our almost 14 year old. He was surprised to hear that many of the young soldiers were just a few years older than him.

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Since it is a working beach, if you have little ones with you, bring a bucket and shovel and let them play while you learn about history!

After spending about 20-30 minutes at Omaha Beach, we returned to the van to go to what ended up being my favorite place in Normandy – the American cemetery, only a 10 minute drive away from the beach.  This was the moving and inspiring place that I had thought of when dreaming about traveling to Normandy.  The cemetery is the final resting place for over 9,000 American soldiers from World War II, mostly from fighting during the D-Day invasion and ensuing battles.  In fact, the French revere America and its soldiers so much that the land was actually given to America and is considered American soil.

The first thing you see when entering the site is an inspiring bronze statue, entitled, “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves.”  It is surrounded by a colonnade that has maps of the Normandy operations to help explain the narrative of the assault.  My boys especially loved looking at the maps and seeing where we had been and how it played into the war story.

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We gazed upon the long reflecting pool and walked on the path beside the graves.  

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No one is allowed on the grave sites unless you are family.  My younger son saw an older woman and her daughter standing with a cemetery worker at one of the graves.  They were crying and it truly moved my son, and all of us, to tears.

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After walking straight on the path to the right of the reflecting pool, we came upon the chapel, which is a small but lovely place.  The mosaic inside is beautiful.

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We then continued on the path towards the ocean and walked back to the front of the cemetery.  The rows and rows of gravestones were very moving and put the numbers of death in a tangible perspective.  

Our boys, who are mostly rambunctious and loud, seemed to understand that this was a place of reverence and quiet.  If you have small children, this is not a place where they can run around so it may be best to keep them in the stroller.  It is a nice, peaceful place to walk and to reflect upon our many freedoms and how those came to be.  The views of Omaha and other Normandy beaches from the cemetery are beautiful and give you the perspective of what it was like to be on top of the hills, firing down at the soldiers.

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We briefly visited the Visitors Center, where there are restrooms and staff to answer any questions.  Be sure to use the facilities here as they are the only restrooms we found on this tour.

Our guide then drove us 10 minutes to Vierville-sur-Mer, where the Charlie sector statue and memorial is located.  This beachside statue was especially poignant to our family since we live in Virginia and the “Bedford boys” from Virginia were part of this battle.  There is not much to do there other than gaze at the memorial and the ocean, with large pieces of the WWII dock still floating in it. 

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However kids will like this stop since there is an ice cream cafe right near the memorial.  It makes a great treat during a long day of touring, especially in the heat! 

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Our guide then drove us to our final destination, Pointe du Hoc, about 15 minutes from Vierville-sur-Mer.  This is an amazing site of bombed out craters, bunkers, and sweeping views of the coast.

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This site is not small child-friendly so please be sure to hold on to your little ones tightly.  Our kids loved scrambling over the bunkers and fortifications again but had to be very careful of the barbed wire and chunks of concrete everywhere.  Not to mention that the cliffs are very high!  There are dirt paths and fences but this is not a site I recommend for those with younger children.

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Our guide really made the war come to life by showing the kids the cliffs in the distance where the Army Rangers actually climbed up the sheer rock face to defeat the Germans stationed above.  What an amazing story.

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We headed back to Bayeux after this tour, barely scratching the surface of the WWII sites in the area.  On the drive back, our guide showed us some of the smaller towns that had hosted the soldiers. Many of the towns have large black and white photographs superimposed on the buildings to give you a sense of what life looked like in that town in 1944.  It was very moving and the kids loved seeing the old pictures of the place they were now standing.

We had planned to have dinner in Bayeux and catch the late train but after such a full day, we changed our tickets and took the 6:15 pm train back.  Unlike the train from Paris, you really have to be careful that you are getting on the correct train for the ride home! We ended up on the wrong train, thankfully going in the right direction.  We hopped off in Caen and ran to the other track to catch our original train!

You could easily spend 2 weeks in Normandy and still not see all of the WWII sites.  However with children in tow, a half day trip is definitely doable and allows you to see the big sites to pay tribute to the American spirit of freedom.

 

Helpful hints:

  • Cost: All of the sites listed above are free.  There are some museums and paid sites in the area so be sure to check the links (below).  A guided tour is recommended and costs vary.
  • Recommended for: children ages 8 and up.
  • Tour times vary at each site.  Allow for 1 hour at the American cemetery, less at the bunkers or beach-side memorials.
  • No gift shops at any of the sites mentioned above.
  • If visiting in the summer, be aware of the sun and heat.  Take sunscreen and lots of water.
  • Dining options: No dining options at most sites.  Only site with a nearby cafe was at Vierville-sur-Mer.  Be sure to bring water and any snacks needed.
  • Nearby attractions: Too numerous to list.  Please see this site for a listing of all area museums, sites, and memorials.  Other nearby non-WWII related attractions include Mont Saint-Michel and Giverny.

Books to read:

14 and up:

10 and up:

6 and up:

 

Have you been to Normandy?  Would you brave a visit this year during the 75th anniversary celebrations?  

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