Sunday, May 27, 2007

Visiting Normandy – Post 1

Readers’ Note: Many of you have asked questions concerning the Normandy invasion beaches as well as inland battlefields, monuments, museums and military cemeteries.

In this “Visiting Normandy” series, I’ll offer some responses with the usual “no guarantees.”


Since most of you reading the series will be Americans, I’ll write from an American perspective. But I welcome queries and comments from citizens of every country.


I’ll start with a few “important notes” and in subsequent posts get into more detail about them.

If you’re going on a tour, there isn’t much point in asking me “when and where” questions. Your tour people will take care of most of that.

If you have a particular question or some special place you want to visit, talk to the tour people ASAP before you leave or first thing on your trip. Then follow-up with them, especially if some days pass before your tour gets to Normandy.

If you’re going on your own, a few thoughts:

Almost all people in the areas of Normandy tourists typically visit speak some English; many speak excellent English.

If it’s your first trip to Normandy, you may be surprised when you do encounter a Norman who doesn’t speak much English how quickly you’ll find a Brit, a German or someone from another country standing beside you and offering to translate.

For normal tourist needs, language shouldn’t be a problem.

Some people think the only way to travel overseas is a different city or town every night.

Not me. I like to drop anchor for at least a few nights in one place. If you have the time, that’s what I recommend you do in Normandy.

And as a base city in which to stay and from which to visit the parts of Normandy we’re talking about, I recommend Bayeux.

I’ll be saying more about Bayeux in the next post.

As for visiting the invasion beaches or an inland battlefield, there may be one that has particular meaning for you because of a family connection or for some other deeply personal reason.

Something like that, of course, will take precedent over what I’m about to say which is this: if you don’t have a strong personal reason for visiting a particular place in Normandy associated with the battle, and your schedule permits at least two full days of touring, visit the following places in the order given:

1) The Peace Museum in Cean

2) Pointe du Hoc

3) The western end of Omaha Beach at Vierville-sur-Mer

4) The American Military Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer

5) The guns at Longue, if possible at low tide, so you can also see the caissons at Arromanches (scroll down to Longue)

6) Port-en-Bessin (scroll down to Port-en-Bessin)

7) The British Military Cemetery in Bayeau

Tomorrow, Memorial Day, I’ll say a little more about the sights I’ve suggested and the order for visiting.

Final suggestion for tonight: If you can read only one book about D-Day, I recommend Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day.

See you tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

i like to "drop anchor" also . Make day trips to other areas if fairly close. The first half hour of "Saving Pvt Ryan" was so sad and horrifying to visualize. May they Rest in Honoured Peace.

Anonymous said...

I would add that you should bring your kleenix and drop your predispositions towards the French.


Mike Billmeier said...

A dear friend's father told me he was with Army Quartermasters in France. I read 'Longest Day' and was relating to Mr Barber that one Quartermaster Company had 6 guys survive of 250 on Omaha Beach. Mr Barber said quietly, Mike that was my company. I gave him the book and think it was first thing he had ever read about Normandy. In my peace time Army Quartermasters were Supply guys. On the D Day they were in the first wave. I recommend 'Longest Day' book and movie.

Anonymous said...

If you are over there,a trip to Luxenburg is most gratifying. Every where are Tribules to General Patton and the Third Army for liberating them. Good to see that some folk are appreciative of our efforts.

AMac said...

By coincidence, I am back from visiting France last week. I made it to many of the spots that John recommends, and can concur with his advice.

A few things that struck me during my three days in Normandy (before heading to central France):

-- I went unsure about anti-American sentiments. I found none. Politically, the papers were full of the aftermath of Pres. Sarkozy's election and choice of P.M.--French politics. I invited conversation among acquaintances and family (I speak some French), but none led to the broad-brush caricatures that I half-expected. It was a reminder that people (and peoples) can disagree at times, without becoming adversarial.

-- The invasion sites are a paradox: it was illuminating to see the actual sites I'd read about, especially the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc and the Mulberry remnants at Arromanches. At the same time, the landscape is enormously changed from 60 years ago. The demands of agriculture have eliminated bocages from the fields. A modern road network girds the area. Time and human endeavor have masked the destruction of June 1944, so that a visit to that past requires an overlay from the mind's eye, derived from reading accounts of that time.

-- The Peace Museum at Caen offers a great account of the circumstances of origin of the war, the war itself, and the invasion. That said, I found the overall point of view to be a case-study of cognitive dissonance. "The suffering that the Liberation caused was worth it" superseded by "All war is the same, and it's all bad". One can't hold both views at once... but that seems to be the stance of the museums' curators. Be that as it may, the museum is excellent, and well worth a half-day's or day's visit.

-- Along with "The Longest Day", I profited from reading "Overlord" by Max Hastings (1984) and "Decision in Normandy" by Carlo d'Este (1994).

-- If you go by car: Europcar threw in a GPS system, unasked. It was immensely helpful. Still, it was near-essential to have Michelin regional map #513, Normandie (or a competitor's equivalent).

-- It is well worth the effort to strike up conversations with the older men one is likely to encounter as fellow hotel guests. Many are returning veterans (I met Americans and Brits) with first-hand stories they are willing to share.

Anonymous said...

A little off topic - I was talking to a brit in Bath, England in 1982. He was a boy when the troops came back from Dunkirk - what an experience listening to him talk about the sights, sounds and smells of the rescue.