by Walt Ballenberger
To fully understand Normandy, one has to visit more than WWII sites and museums. To
experience this region and understand its history and culture, one should visit these eight
1. Honfleur- This picturesque little port village has been a magnet for artists for years,
including the French impressionists. The cobblestone streets of the town and the old basin full
of sailboats are especially gorgeous. One can visit the many shops and galleries, and there
are excellent restaurants nearly everywhere. There are several museums and unique old
wooden churches to see as well.
A drive of about a half-hour to Deauville and Trouville is also worth the effort. Walk the
famous boardwalk in Deauville, which has hosted the annual American Film Festival for years,
and observe the interesting architecture of the huge beach houses, unique in Europe. On the
way to or from Deauville, stop at a cider/calvados tasting location. Several are marked along
the road. Grapes are not grown in Normandy to make wine, as the local beverages are made
mostly from apples or sometimes pears. The cider is fizzy and has only about one-third the
alcohol of wine. It goes well with a local favorite, moules-frites (mussels and fries). Calvados
is brandy made from apples. Speaking of food, Normandy is famous for its dairy products, and
you’ll no doubt sample the butter (this is one of the few places in France where one is
encouraged to butter bread) and cheeses, especially the three Normands (“les trois
Normands”) camembert, pont l‘eveque, and livarot.
2. Caen- This city was rubble after the bombings of WWII. The Caen Memorial is easily the
best of the WWII museums. There are many WWII museums throughout Normandy, and some
are almost tacky, with only a handful of old pictures and a few old uniforms and medals. This
one is first class and tells the story of the events leading up to WWII and the Battle of
Normandy. The film is also first rate and shows the American and German sides preparing for
the invasion and then after the battles began. There is also a display honoring Nobel Peace
Prize winners. One can easily spend half a day at this museum. Downtown Caen is also very
pleasant, especially the pedestrian street with its many shops and cafes. One can also visit
the chateau, constructed by William the Conqueror, and several impressive abbeys and
3. Bayeux- This city was not badly damaged in WWII as the Germans retreated to defend
Caen. The cathedral is imposing and is among the top gothic cathedrals in France. The main
attraction in the town, however, is the famous Bayeux Tapestry. This remarkable work,
commissioned shortly after the conquests of England in 1066, tells the story of William the
Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings. It was originally meant to hang in the cathedral. It is
only 19 inches high, but it’s length is 203 ft. It is remarkably well preserved. Be sure to see
the film, and rent an audio player to use while viewing the tapestry to get the most out of your
4. Omaha Beach/American Cemetery- For Americans, this is hallowed ground. People from
other countries, Canada and Britain, for example, might prefer to visit the sectors of their
soldiers, such as Sword, Gold and Juno beaches which are several miles to the east. There
are numerous British, Canadian, German, and other cemeteries throughout Normandy as
well. I was originally not excited to visit the American cemetery, thinking it would be a deflating
experience. However, when one sees the fabulous white marble headstones and the
meticulously kept grounds (the grounds are owned and maintained by the U.S. government) it
is clear that there is huge respect for our fallen countrymen. To understand what these men
did and the ultimate sacrifice they made in France makes one proud. The largest of the two
American cemeteries at Colleville-sur-Mer looks directly over Omaha Beach. (The other is at
St. James, farther to the west, and is also worth a visit, although not many people go there. It‘s
about half the size of Colleville and unique in its own way). Leaving the parking lot at
Colleville, one can see a small monument to the American 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red 1,
which was responsible for that sector on D-Day. This is also worth a quick visit.
The best way to truly understand what happened at Omaha is to take a tour with an expert.
We have used the services of <a href=“http://www.normandybattlefields.com/personalized.html/
“>Col. Oliver Warman</a>, British Army Retired. Col. Warman will take you to places must
tours don’t visit, and he has intimate stories about what took place there on D-Day, when
several thousand American soldiers lost their lives (the official figure is in the hundreds). He’ll
take you from the hills overlooking the beaches down to the beaches themselves and explain
how effective the German defenses were, especially the 12 machine gun nests that spanned
5. Arromanches- It was here that a huge artificial floating port was erected. The Germans
knew the Allies would need a large port, and all of those in France were heavily defended.
The sections of the port were constructed in England and were floated across the English
channel just after D-Day. The museum has an excellent model of the port and a good film.
There is also a 360 degree theater on the hill overlooking the town. This film is one of my
favorites, and it show scenes of the area, both during the Battle of Normandy and then
contrasted with how they look today.
6. Pointe du Hoc- At this strategic location American Rangers scaled the cliff walls on D-Day.
There are bomb craters everywhere, destroyed German bunkers, and one gets a feeling of
how difficult the fighting must have been. There were many casualties, and the Americans
were almost driven back over the cliffs, but for some still unknown reason the Germans pulled
the big guns back from the point to the rear. These were found unguarded by an American
patrol, and they were quickly destroyed. If you take a tour with Col. Warman, as described
above, he can take you here as well, and his perspective and stories about this location are
more than worth the price.
7. Utah Beach- I was surprised to learn that the fighting here was much less intense than at
Omaha, and the number of casualties here on D-Day was low, only about 15 KIA before noon.
It is, however, a big part of the American D-Day story and therefore worth some time. The
museum is reasonably good as well, and the grounds, again owned and maintained by the
U.S. government, are well kept.
8. Mont St. Michel- This spectacular setting on the border between Normandy and Brittany is
one of the most popular tourist locations in Europe. The island village is dominated by the
cathedral at the top. At certain times of the year the tides are high enough to surround the
island by the sea. If possible, spend a night on the island itself, and you’ll have a chance to
wander around without the normal crowds. The shops are mostly tourist traps, but Mont St.
Michel is worth a day. There are hikes and horse-back excursions one can take as well.
The above general itinerary goes from east to west and will take nearly a week. There are of
course other venues in Normandy to visit. The eight listed above, however, will give you a
fulfilling experience, and upon completion you’ll be able to say that you have truly experienced
and understand the culture and significance of this outstanding region.