Visiting the D-Day Sites in Normandy, France
By Max Hartshorne
On the eve of the 75th anniversary, any visit to the north of France’s Normandy region must include visits to the various locations of the Allied D-Day invasion in June 1944.
Americans and others who want to get a first-hand view of where it all happened can find many fascinating opportunities to learn about history in this part of France.
We visited the D-Day beaches, the Caen Memorial Museum, the villages of Arromanches, and St. Mere D’ Eglise, the nearly destroyed city of Le Havre and pillboxes embedded over the beaches at Longue-sur-Mer.
It left us in awe of the size and scope of the battles and impressed with how much of an impact the war still has on this region.
Hitting the Beach
Our excursion to Arromanches led us to the windy top of a cliff. Out at sea, the weather-battered remains of the impression cement caissons which were dragged over from England mark out the harbor that was created for the massive invasion fleet.
Most of the structures sank en route to France, and in addition, dozens of Liberty ships were sunk to create an artificial reef. Today, fishermen say that’s where the best sport-fishing can be found.
But look beyond the crowds and past the pasty Brits and there still is a power to being here, and you can just conjure up the memory of the great battle.
Another bonus is that the countryside around here is still as bucolic as it can get, with tilled fields peeking out behind every tall hedgerow. At first, it was a bit of a disappointment to see the army of RVs, the logjam of tourist buses, and the sheer fact that this is now France’s third most popular tourist destination.
Minivan to the Beaches
The excursion in the minivan ran us past miles and miles of high, tough green hedges.
During the war when Normandy was occupied by Nazis between 1940-44, no men were around to trim the big green fences, so they grew very high, making it hard for tanks and men to figure out who was where. Today behind each hedge is a cultivated field; it seemed that everything was covered with crops here in Normandy.
Our guide told us that just last year, someone was digging a foundation and they found three German soldiers, still in their uniforms, buried in the ground. You can clamber about above and on top of the cement bunker in Longues-sur-Mer. Upon the hill on the field, there are three more, two with the old 155-millimeter guns still in place.
Lodging in Caen
In Caen, we had the experience you might have if your aunt owned a beautiful old townhouse in the city with three stories and had great taste in decorating. Our accommodations were more than elegant: Le Clos Saint-Martin, Chambres d’Hotes de Charme more than fit the bill.
The very beautiful and elegant Sylvie Vandevivere greeted us out on the street when we got lost (no, we didn’t bring a GPS, dumb!) and helped find us a parking spot.
The walls are as thick as a castle and the rooms are huge; mine had a lovely top hat sitting on the mantlepiece. The busy Rue St. Martin has a big market on Fridays, so parking would remain a bit of a challenge at this place. She helped us secure our rental car within the castle-like courtyard and said good night.
Outside, my window looked onto the courtyard, well locked up for the night. The next day our breakfast setting looked like a masterpiece… just a little bit fancier than most places. It was lovely.
On a busy intersection, set back just next to the trolley tracks, stands the Boeuf and Cow. This friendly place on the Boulevard des Allies is a carnivore’s paradise; thick juicy steaks, prime ribs, and of course, cider and Calvados!
We got to love that cider. With the low alcohol, you can drink it down without getting sleepy later.
They cut their own beef right in the back. Here we began our immersion into Normandy’s creamy, buttery experience. WOW!
Here is a plate with a beef filet covered by a slab of broiled Fois Gras. Down below are crisp potatoes. Later we learned that even seafood isn’t avoiding cream. Norman mussels are cooked in cream and butter; some oysters come topped with stinky Roquefort cheese.
Rebuilt Le Havre
A major target of allied bombs in the 1940s, Le Havre has gained a lot of respect for the way it rebuilt itself based on the principals of August Perret.
The city is laid out in a sensible arc, a grid that shows a lot of careful planning. One of the boulevards buildings were built using a plan made for the Champs Elysee in Paris, but it was built here instead, with U-shaped buildings that face the water with a bisecting road.
Among his trademarks in the vast collection of buildings built in a hurry right after the second world war are visible bones, or structure, and generous vertical windows to increase airiness for light.
There is also a lot of public open space built to ‘provide a sense of having room to breathe.’ In 2005 the town center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, crediting this great architect’s vision and innovation that earned him the nickname ‘poet in concrete.’
One hard to miss city landmark is a building built as art. It’s shaped like a yogurt container, and beside it sits what looks like its top. Inside is the Volcan Arts Center, with a theater and performance space. Kids like to skateboard up its round sides and try to run up it. It sits right next to an inner harbor that leads out to the ocean.
Life in 1951
Le Havre has an interesting attraction for anyone interested in the culture and life at the mid-century. It’s an apartment that is decorated and equipped exactly as it would have been in 1951.
The beach at Le Havre is all pebbles, but plenty of people like to enjoy their time there. Many city residents rent beach cabanas that sit next to restaurants that are temporarily installed on the beach during the summer months.
This Show Apartment, typical of the reconstruction period is open on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday for visits.
Fresh seafood like mussels and local dorade are wonderful to enjoy beside the sea here.
In the winter, these shanties as well as the entire strip of restaurants, ice cream joints and bars are all removed until the next season.
Le Havre, to most Parisians, would be a town they’d sniff at, far less glamorous and ‘on the radar’ than its southern cousins Nice and Cannes. One young woman described it as ‘boring’ but we both found the city full of life, and the enthusiasm about the architecture infectious.
Nukes in the North
Further to the north on the very tip of Normandy, the port city of Cherbourg awaits, just north of a famous nuclear waste repository where there is a museum dedicated to the legendary French safety record over the years.
You can tour the areas where they store the waste and learn about how the energy is produced in the country’s 70 plus nuclear power plants. Many ferries offer service between Cherbourg and England, offering a chance for visitors to drive off and tour the country in their own cars.
However you get to this innovative, delicious and historic part of the world, these D-Day sites and these compact Norman cities offer much to see and enjoy.
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