Paris is one of the best cities in the world, but you’re shortchanging yourself if you only stay within its borders on a trip to France. To experience the full flavour of the country, look beyond the capital city. In particular, head north to the shores of Normandy, where world history comes alive with every step. If you venture to Normandy on a French vacation, you’ll experience a fascinating journey through time.
The Beaches of D-Day
Within western culture, Normandy is synonymous with D-Day, when Allied forces stormed the beaches of France on June 6, 1944 in their first major advance to retake the European continent from the Nazis. Allied soldiers landed on five Nazi-held beaches and overcame significant coastal defenses through sheer forces of numbers. It was a decisive battle and one of the first major victories to precipitate the end of World War II. The five beaches, Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword, were spread between Cherbourg and Le Havre. Omaha Beach looms largest in the popular imagination; Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan set its harrowing opening minutes on Omaha Beach, and it has served as the main image of D-Day in the popular imagination ever since.
You can visit all five of the beaches and stroll along the stark and windy sands of Normandy. The only major defensive battery to remain on Normandy is the Longues-sur-Mer Battery, located near the city of the same name. If you visit, you can see a massive German coastal gun as well as concrete fortifications that give you a sense of what soldiers were up against while landing on the beaches. To learn more about the invasion itself, head to Omaha Beach, where you’ll find the Overlord Museum, which details the D-Day invasions (also known as Operation Overlord). If you’re Canadian, consider heading to Juno Beach, where you’ll find the Juno Beach Centre, which recounts Canada’s involvement in the invasion. It’s also worth paying your respects at the Normandy American Cemetery & Memorial, which honours the nearly 37,000 Allied troops who were killed during D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. 2019 marks the 75th Anniversary of D-Day and will feature several high-profile ceremonies that honour the few remaining veterans of the battle. If you’ve been considering a trip to France and visiting the D-Day beaches for a while now, there’s no better time to visit than June of 2019.
Monuments of the Conqueror
Perhaps no city was affected by D-Day more than Caen, a picturesque port city to the south of the landing beaches. Caen was almost entirely destroyed during the Battle of Normandy, and most of its medieval churches and buildings were meticulously reconstructed after war’s end. If you head to the Memorial de Caen, you’ll have the opportunity to deep-dive into the history of World War II and particularly the Battle of Normandy. However, there’s more to Caen than the tragedies it suffered during World War II.
The city dates back over a thousand years and was once home to another warrior famous for accomplishing a major amphibious invasion: William the Conqueror. The Duke of Normandy and illegitimate son of Robert I, William consolidated control over the unstable lands of Normandy and mounted a successful invasion of England in 1066 to claim the English throne and kill his cousin, Harold Godwinson, who claimed English royal succession. While William is best known for his conquest of England, he spent most of his time in his native Normandy, including a significant portion of time in Caen.
William built the massive castle of Chateau de Caen in 1060 and used it as his primary residence while in the city. You can still visit the castle today on a trip to France and see its stone foundations and impressive castle walls. While significant portions of the castle were destroyed in World War II, important segments of the castle remain, including the massive gatehouse that connects the castle to the city. It’s worth spending some time in Caen exploring the castle as well as its other medieval landmarks, including the Abbey of Sant-Etienne, which was built by William and is a gorgeous example of Romanesque architecture, and the Gothic Church of Saint-Pierre.
History as Art and the Bayeux Tapestry
While William spent time in Caen and other Norman cities, the most prized treasure relating to him remains in the town of Bayeux, to the northwest of Caen. This small medieval town is home to the Bayeux Tapestry, a breathtaking work of art that depicts William the Conqueror’s invasion of England. The tapestry dates back to the late 11th century and runs 69m long. When you visit the Bayeux Tapestry Museum, located in an 18th-century seminary, you can see the entire tapestry on display in a massive hall. You weave you way throughout the room and follow the tapestry’s animations that depict William’s amphibious invasion and eventual defeat of his cousin, Harold. Parts of the tapestry have worn down with time, but it remains one of the most breathtaking medieval artworks in all of Europe.
Aside from the tapestry, Bayeux is a gorgeous little town that’s easily walkable. Most of its buildings managed to survive World War II, making it a good place to admire medieval architecture in its original form. In particular, visit the Bayeux Cathedral, which is as gorgeous a Gothic church as you’ll see anywhere on a trip to France.
The Island of Mont Saint-Michel
Although technically located on the border between Normandy and Brittany, the island abbey of Mont Saint-Michel is one of Normandy’s, and France’s, greatest landmarks. Set on a hill on the coastline, the picturesque abbey rises over the flat landscape and captures the attention of anyone who happens to pass by. During high tide, the floodplain is submerged in water and the hill transforms into an island. Seeing the abbey surrounded by water is a glorious sight.
The first remnants of the abbey were built in the 10th century and additions have been made over the intervening millennium. The abbey is ringed by stone walls and small buildings and crowned with a church and steeple piercing the sky. The combination of the hillside fortifications and the floodplain has made Mont Saint-Michel a formidable defensive base throughout history. For instance, English troops were incapable of conquering it during the Hundred Years’ War. Even if you don’t care much for the abbey’s history, it’s worth visiting Mont Saint-Michel. It’s an utterly breathtaking building.
Rouen and the Maid of Orleans
Along the eastern fringe of Normandy lies Rouen, the regional capital and one-time medieval powerhouse. The fascinating medieval old town has been home to several major events throughout French history. For instance, it was the capital of the Anglo-Norman dynasty that ruled both England and France in the late Middle Ages. Perhaps more importantly, it was also the city where Joan of Arc was tried and burned at the stake in the 15th century.
While the actual castle where Joan of Arc was imprisoned no longer survives, you can see the Tour Jeanne d’Arc, which is the only remaining tower of that castle. More significant is the Church of St. Joan of Arc, located on the spot where she was burnt at the stake. The boat-shaped monument and church was built in 1979 to honour the patron saint of France and remind visitors of the tragedy of her unjust execution. To learn more about Joan’s life, visit the museum Historial Jeanne d’Arc, which recounts her life and times and showcases several medieval artefacts.
Rouen has a lot to explore beyond sites linked to the life and death of Joan of Arc. Rouen Castle remains an impressive fortification, first built in the early 13th century. The 12th century Rouen Cathedral is one of Normandy’s most popular churches. Its gorgeous façade beguiled master impressionist painter, Claude Monet, who painted several pieces depicting the cathedral. To see these famous paintings on your trip to France, visit the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Rouen, which houses some of Monet’s masterpieces as well as other important French art.
There’s a lot more to Normandy than D-Day, Caen, the Bayeux Tapestry, and Rouen. If you’re enchanted by the works of Monet, head to the village of Giverny, where he spent the final 43 years of his life. You can visit his former residence and Monet’s Garden, which has a picturesque garden and pond that inspired many of his most famous artworks, including the water lily series. There’s also a museum on site displaying many of his works.
If you want to experience a working class port city, head to Le Havre in Normandy’s northeast. The city centre was largely destroyed in World War II and Belgian architect, August Perret, redesigned many of its major building. The resulting concrete buildings are some of the most famous modernist works in France.
You’ll find a lot to like within Normandy’s borders. From key sites of World War II to major medieval castles and churches, Normandy is packed to the brim with historical landmarks and engaging stories to learn about. If you love history, art, and following in the footsteps of some of Europe’s most famous figures, visit Normandy on your next French vacation.