Preparing for a visit to Normandy involves a lot of prep work. Because many visitors typically come to Normandy around the DDay invasion date (June 6) securing lodging has to be done as far in advance as possible. Most guide books suggest staying in the quaint town of Bayeux because of it’s central location and convenient train station but we decided to stay in St Mere Eglise, forever linked with the 82nd Airborne’s role in the invasion. In reading about the town I happened to find a Bed and Breakfast that is located on a battlefield. La Fiere Bed and Breakfast, graciously run by Vivian and Rudolf Roger, is one of those rare places where history seems to be suspended in time. We were able to reserve the 505th PIR room, which Vivian enthusiastically shared had been “home” to several generals visiting Normandy in the past years. For travelers, staying at a B&B can be a bit of a gamble. Sometimes you’re forced to talk with other guests and you realize you have nothing in common. However, this visit we were delighted to meet other WWII enthusiasts who were exploring the landing sites for the very first time. Tim had the opportunity to fill in some back stories for the visitors and everyone seemed to be eager to share what they’d learned on their day’s excursions. Vivian’s breakfasts are a veritable French feast featuring crepes, fresh tomatoes, golden potatoes, applesauce and these sweet little French pastries that seemed to melt in our mouths. Staying here was a true delight.
When coming to Normandy, I’d recommend hiring a tour guide to get the most of your visit. The costs will range from $90 per person for a small group tour on a private bus to $180 per person for private guides who tailor the visit to your interests. In February, when I started planning our trip, most of the tour guides were already booked so Tim and I did our own extensive research and found that we did a fairly good job. What we missed out on was personal interest stories–something that we would have enjoyed. For our first day in the region we decided to begin our tour in St Mere and then move west. The 82nd Airborne Museum in St Mere is directly across the street from the church where a parachutist hung from the steeple after dropping in on DDay. This scene is comically presented in the movie “The Longest Day” and the church still features a parachute on its roof, though the location was moved to make for a better photo opportunity for visitors. The museum is a good one, and it’s not just because we are partial to the 82nd’s efforts in the war. The static displays of aircraft and the selection of personal items from paratroopers, including a piano and items belonging to CH James (Chappy) Wood, was presented in easy to appreciate displays. And, knowing we were going to see many museums during our visit, we found sections that interested us and moved on.
Our next stop was the American Cemetery. What a beautiful setting to celebrate the lives of 9,387 military dead, most who fought in the invasion campaign. Set on the cliffs with a view of the Channel, a light rain fell on us as we walked from the visitor’s center to the far end of the grounds. Many of the grave markers had fresh flowers and tour groups stopped in small clusters throughout the rows to learn more about those buried here. Teddy Roosevelt Jr (son of the president) and his brother Quintin (who died in WWI) are buried in the cemetery as well as two of the Niland brothers–their story is the basis for the film “Saving Private Ryan.”
After gazing out at the English Channel from the cemetery, we took the opportunity to take a short drive along the coast and visit the beaches. Both Utah Beach and Omaha Beach have easy access points where you can park your car and take a short walk to the water. Seeing the cliffs the soldiers had to climb and imagining the weight of gear they had to carry as well as realizing that they were soaking wet and under attack made me realize just how difficult the mission was. We continued to move west and our next stop was Point du Hoc, the Ranger Memorial and arguably the best place to get a feel for the tremendous challenges that the Allies faced once they came on shore. All around this site are huge craters in the ground left from the bombing and many bunkers are still open to visitors to explore. I found it exciting to look out from the vantage point where the guns would have been and scout the coast. To wonder what the German soldiers were thinking as the first Allies made their landings on the coast. The protection the Germans had in these secure bunkers must have given them great hope.
Our final stops of the day included Bayeux and Caen. Bayeux isn’t notable for the Normandy invasion but does have the fabulously old (more than 1000 years old) and entertaining Bayeux Tapestry which depicts the battle of Hastings in cartoon form. We got there in late afternoon and missed all the tour groups so we were able to pick up our audio guide and make it through the exhibit in less than an hour. In Caen, we bought a 2 day ticket to the Memorial to Peace, a large museum broken into two parts: Before WWII and after WWII. This is a very well-produced museum with great care given to presenting the rise of the 3rd Reich and the movement of Germany across the continent. There are 2 films included in the admission price but I have to say I was disappointed in both of them. As much as Rick Steves touts the high quality presentations, neither film offered enough new content to better understand the war. And, the message for the future of peace did not present practical ways each of us can be the change we want to see. If I was short on time, I would skip this museum entirely and spend additional time in Arromanches with its 360 degree film presentation.