The most famous of the D-Day Beaches: Omaha Beach
As you may have heard me reference in previous posts, Neal and I took a trip to Normandy for the night during our stay in Paris. It was #1 on his list to see the D-Day beaches, where the Americans landed during WWII, and I’m really glad we went.
Personally, I have to admit, it was hard to tear me away from the romantic sidewalk cafes to jump on a three hour train–but it was well worth it.
Never have I been to another country where locals are so welcoming to Americans. In Normandy, they are eternally grateful to Americans, who liberated their towns, saved their lives, and gave them their freedom back. This is something that really touched me to the core. Growing up in America, the history books don’t really touch on how much D-Day affected the French people–here, you really get to see a different side to the Normandy Invasion and realize how important this event truly was in world history.
If you find yourself in Paris, and you happen to be American, a trip to Normandy is absolutely something you need to check off your bucket list. (I mean, obviously even if you aren’t American, it’s worth the trip!)
The adorable town of Bayeux
Getting & Staying There:
First, logically, let’s start with how to get there.
As you may have heard, Europe’s rail systems are far more advanced and convenient than ours here in the U.S. We’d definitely recommend going this route, hopping on a train from Paris is extremely easy–however, keep in mind–this method is not without its hiccups.
First, you can book your tickets online. I definitely suggest you do this simply because it’s virtually impossible to lose your ticket if it’s on your phone. (Clearly if you’ve got ADD spazz brain like me, you need to take the route that is least likely to result in a lost ticket.)
We took the train from Paris to Bayeux, which is an adorable town in the French countryside. There are several towns you can stay in in Normandy, but we’d recommend Bayeux as it’s very easy to get to (there’s a direct train) and it happens to be the main pickup/drop-off point for most guided tours. (Side note: remember, Normandy is a region–not a town–so there are several towns within Normandy. Kind of similar to how Tuscany or Champagne are regions. Make sense?)
So, in getting to Bayeux, there are a few “watch outs” you should be aware of:
Keep in mind…
Watch out #1: Know that once you get to the train station and look for your train on the monitors–there is no train on the board that is labeled “Normandy” or even “Bayeux” for that matter.
The reason for this is because the train route does likely not end in Normandy, therefore, you must know what the final destination of your train is. (If you don’t know, just pop into the tourist office. They will roll likely their eyes at you for asking, but still point you in the right direction.)
Another trick: if all else fails, know that no two trains leave from the station at the exact same time, therefore, whichever train matches your train time, is the one you should get on. (For example–no two trains will be leaving at 3:18. One might leave at 3:18, while another at 3:20, but not two at 3:18.)
Watch out #2: You don’t need to reserve seats on the train. Reserving a seat is optional, and even if you reserve one, someone will likely be sitting in it. There is no “reserved seats” section, so this is literally pointless. (???)
Watch out #3: Don’t book a round trip ticket if you plan on changing your train time for any reason. We learned this the hard way, misreading what time our tour was ending, and booking the wrong train time. We figured we could just talk to an agent and get our tickets switched and get on the next train–but, alas. Not the case.
When you book train tickets with specific times, they are in fact, non-refundable or transferrable. If you happen to miss your train (**cough**like we did going home to Paris) they will not let you on the next train, and they will demand that you buy new tickets.
If this happens to you, do not fall for this BS. Get on the train, give them your ticket anyway, and pretend like you don’t know what’s going on. (Seriously. Works like a charm.)
This all can be avoided, however, by purchasing a “flexible” and “semi-flexible” ticket option ahead of time. These are often a few bucks more, but totally worth it just to make sure you’re covered. (Because, you know, being a stowaway on a French train is stressful.)
Okay–other than these watch-outs, you should have a smooth sailing trip to Normandy. The train takes about 3 hours, and it’s a relatively pretty and relaxing ride. We would recommend bringing a bottle of wine and some snacks, obviously.
The town of Bayeux is very small, but has plenty of options for lodging–I would recommend staying somewhere in the center of the town (not by the train station, as that’s a bit of a hike into town where the action is–although, it’s definitely walkable if the weather is nice. No need for a cab.)
We stayed at this place which was nothing fancy to write home about, but was clean, the staff was very friendly, and it was really cheap! (Hey, what more could you want?)
We also had dinner that at this little bistro, which was adorable–there are a couple streets in the town which are lined with restaurants–feel free to wander and see what looks good. Every bistro we passed looked charming and delicious, and none were too crowded, so unless you’re there during an extremely busy time, I wouldn’t anticipate needing to make reservations.
Exploring the area & the beaches:
The best way to get the full Normandy experience is with a guided tour. We booked a full day tour with this sightseeing tour company–it started very early, at 8am–so if you go with this option, you’ll need to arrive in Bayeux the night before, because the earliest train from Paris to Bayeux doesn’t arrive until later that morning.
The tour lasts for several hours–until 6pm (it was a LONG day) and includes lunch, which is nice! I always think you get a more authentic experience with a guided tour vs. navigating on your own because the tour guides always pepper in their own unique experiences and personal history.
This one was no different, our tour guide was an adorable girl named Kate (totally request her if you go) whose family has lived in the area for 200 years. She told us a story about her grandmother, who was forced to put up several German soldiers for several years during Nazi occupation. They ate all of her family’s food, inhabited their bedrooms (forcing their entire family to live in one room), and essentially forced them into starvation.
Her grandmother remembers D-Day well–when American soldiers landed, drove out the Germans, and also gave her her first taste of Coca Cola.
As a thank-you for allowing them to stay with her, the Americans presented her with their Army Jeep as a parting gift, which is the same vehicle she used to teach her granddaughter (our tour guide) how to drive.
How incredible is that story? You definitely wouldn’t get that kind of commentary navigating the beaches by yourself, is all I’m sayin.’
Anyway, this company offers both the full day tour (which we did) and a half day tour. Here’s an overview of the difference:
Tour option #1: Full day itinerary–100 Euro per adult
Sainte-Mère-Eglise: This was the first town liberated on the night of June 5th/6th 1944 and one of my favorite experiences was hearing about the American Paratroopers who ended up landing on the steeple of the church (as in, their parachutes got snagged, and they were just hanging there!) They ended up getting free, and the story of what happened there that night is incredible. The town is also adorable, I wish we could’ve spent more time here.
Airborne Museum Sainte Mere Eglise: An American museum in the town of Sainte Mere Eglise. The highlight here is getting to see a real-life glider–it’s astonishing to see how rickety they were–essentially made out of cardboard! Can you imagine? (You get to go inside, which is really awesome.)
There are a ton (and I mean a ton) of real artifacts here from the D-Day landings–from uniforms to French-English dictionaries the soldiers were given, weaponry, pretty much everything you can think of. (This museum would be especially great for kids.)
One thing to keep in mind–the museum is funded by Ronald Reagan Foundation–which is extremely evident in the Ronald Reagan messaging and paraphernalia being constantly pushed at you. It was just…very random?
Utah beach: One of the American landing beaches. (Although, Omaha Beach was my favorite.)
Pointe du Hoc
Pointe du Hoc: A bluff where the Americans first landed and had to scale a cliff with German soldiers shooting at them from above. This site holds one of the largest German coastal batteries (which is essentially a really intense concrete bunker). You can actually go inside a lot of the batteries–which is a completely mind-blowing experience.
Despite the fact that no reinforcements got their signal for help–the Americans managed to climb the 100 foot cliff and overtake the bunker at the top anyway. Probably one of the most terrifying scenarios I can imagine, and a very surreal place to stand, imagining what happened there years ago.
The view from Omaha Beach
Omaha Beach: The most famous (and most heavily defended) of the American landing beaches. Surrounded by cliffs as well as a small boardwalk and beach town, it’s crazy visualize exactly what happened here. Many of the German bunkers built here are also still visible and untouched. Not to mention, it’s absolutely beautiful, almost eerie to imagine such horrific things happening in such a serene place.
The American Cemetery
Tour Option #2: Half-day itinerary–70 Euro per adult
You can think of the half-day itinerary as more of the “express” version for people who A. are short on time, B. Aren’t as into History as others or C. Have severe sightseeing ADD (or all of the above.)
Which tour option is better?
Honestly–this is up to you! If you’re a history buff and are up for a marathon, definitely go for the full day tour. You will never regret it. I’m really glad we got the opportunity to experience all of these sites.
Personally though, if I were to do it all over again, I’m more of a “live in the city and experience the culture” kind of person. I get car sick very easily and tend to need to move at a rapid pace to keep my attention. Doing a tour from 8am-6pm and then getting on a train to Paris, and not arriving until 10pm just was not my idea of a relaxing vacation day.
If it were up to me, I probably would’ve gone with the half-day tour. Granted, I am kind of a baby when I’m tired and have the attention span of a 5 year old. Just being honest.
Another great alternative: Stay in Normandy for a couple days. Do two half-day tours instead of one full marathon day. Say, morning tours two days in a row, and spend the afternoons exploring the towns and the countryside. I prefer to not be on someone else’s time and take in a few glasses of wine with my sightseeing 😉
What to wear to Normandy?
LAYERS! All of the layers! We went on July 4th, and I was absolutely freezing. (This is astonishing as I’m not one that typically gets cold.)
I was so cold that I had to wear Neal’s coat on top of my leather jacket at certain points during the day. I definitely don’t think this was typical weather for this time of year, but in hindsight, I would’ve brought a heavier scarf, closed-toed shoes, and layered a tank under my t-shirt.
It was also damp in the morning, so it wouldn’t hurt to bring an umbrella!
Also, if you get car sick, know that the tours involve some windy-roads, and a heavy amount of time spent in a van. I would be prepared with Dramamine and my long-standby–SeaBands.
All in all–cold weather and car-sickness though, it was totally worth it, and an experience I will truly never forget.