Things to Do in Normandy
The Mémorial de Caen, a museum and war memorial, is one of the city’s most popular attractions and a must-see for anyone visiting Normandy to pay respects to the heroes of World War II. While the site specifically commemorates D-Day and the Battle for Caen, it is the overall sentiment that provides the perfect primer for those planning to see multiple memorials in the area.
The museum's exhibits take visitors through life in the 1940s during the war while specifically noting the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy before continuing with coverage through the fall of the Berlin Wall. The many personal accounts, artifacts and multimedia segments work to bring the war out of the past and into sharp focus. In addition, there are British, Canadian and American gardens on the grounds for strolling and picnicking.
If you're traveling from Caen to Bayeux on your way to WWII sites, you may pass by a fairly new-looking church in the small village of Saint-Germain-la-Blanche-Herbe. Its aesthetic might seem old, sure, but its overall look is too new to be the original architecture. And after seeing so many beautiful old churches in France, it would be easy to pass by without giving it a second thought.
But to WWII historians as well as those who are on the search for WWII sites of interest in Normandy, this church – the Ardenne Abbey – is high on the list of places to pay one's respects to the fallen heroes of WWII. It was here that the Germans made their headquarters during the Normandy battles of June 1944, and it's the site of one of the most egregious violations of the Geneva Convention from the war.
There are few 11th century artworks as famous as the legendary Bayeux Tapestry, which is so well known that it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage ‘Memory of the World.’ Measuring almost 70 meters long, the elaborate tapestry features an epic 58 scenes, each carefully embroidered with colored wool yarns onto a linen backdrop. Originally made in England back in the 1070s, the artwork depicts historic scenes from the Norman conquest of England, ending in the infamous Battle of Hastings in 1066. Viking ships, Norman and Saxon cavalries, bloody battle scenes and images of King Edward and William the Conqueror are all brought to life on the tapestry, with each scene captioned in Latin.
The tapestry, remarkably preserved despite being almost 1000 years old, has been on public display in the French Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux since 1983, becoming a hugely popular attraction for visitors from Normandy.
The peaceful Bayeux War Cemetery is the largest of the 18 Commonwealth military cemeteries in Normandy. It contains 4,868 graves of soldiers from the UK and 10 other countries (including Germany, in contrast to the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer). Many of the soldiers buried here were never identified, and the headstones are simply marked 'A Soldier Known Unto God'. The bodies of 1,807 other Commonwealth soldiers were never found, and are commemorated on the memorial across the main road.
Bayeux was liberated by the Allies in June 1944 and became the seat of government for France until Paris was liberated. In this time the British built the ring road to enable military vehicles to move around the city and established many military hospitals. Many of those buried in the cemetery are from those hospitals.
The Abbaye de Saint Étienne (Saint Stephen's Abbey) in Caen is also known as the Abbaye aux Hommes (Men's Abbey), to distinguish it from the Women's Abbey close by. If it looks a bit like an English cathedral, you're on the right track – this stunning example of Norman Romanesque architecture indeed served as the inspiration for so many churches on the other side of the Channel. (Although keen-eyed visitors will notice the Gothic apse, a sign of the church's architectural evolution.)
There are two highlights of the Men's Abbey; the first is the tomb of William the Conqueror, whose mark on Normandy has never been forgotten. The second is a bit of a hidden gem – the cloistered gardens, accessible by going through the town hall. It's another world inside there, and a favorite with photographers.
The Abbaye aux Dames in Caen is also known as the Abbey of Sainte-Trinité, or the Holy Trinity Abbey. As one could guess, “Abbaye aux Dames” translates to Women's Abbey, and that's just what it was – a Benedictine convent. It's almost a thousand years old, and one of the must-see sites for any visitor to Caen.
If the facade of the abbey looks a little worse for wear, it's because of its history; it was the site of a battle during the Hundred Years War, during which it lost its original spires. The larger convent today is home to the Regional offices for Lower Normandy, but the abbey, restored in 1983, is open to visitors. William the Conqueror's wife Matilda is buried there, and its interior is a treasure trove of architectural details.
A National Monument of France and one of Bayeaux’s most eye-catching monuments, the Bayeux Cathedral (Cathedrale Notre Dame de Bayeux) is best known as the original home of the Bayeux Tapestry (now a UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ and displayed at the nearby Bayeux Tapestry Museum). Originally built in the 11th-century, the cathedral’s Gothic façade was reconstructed in the 12th century, but much of the Romanesque-style interiors remain intact, shown off by atmospheric lighting during the evening hours.
Consecrated in 1077 by Bishop Odo of Conteville in the presence of his brother and King of England, William the Conqueror, the cathedral’s strong English ties are portrayed in its vibrant frescos, which depict the life of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and of course, the iconic Bayeux Tapestry, said to have been commissioned by the Bishop to decorate its nave.
Caen Castle, or Château de Caen, is worth a full day of any visitor's time to this historic city in Normandy. Not only does it house the history-filled Museum of Normandy and the Museum of Fine Arts; its grounds are beautiful, its buildings are a favorite of shutterbugs, and climbing the ramparts gives you a bit of history as well as a fantastic view.
Originally conceived in 1025, construction on the Caen Castle was started in 1060 and ended in 1210 with the full enclosure of the walls, which proved to be a godsend in the mid-13th century when a siege on the town by King Edward III of England proved to be no match for its walls. Today, through ongoing renovations, there is still so much to see of this fortress – and that's not including the two museums.
More Things to Do in Normandy
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial may very well be the most visited American military cemetery in the world after Arlington, and with good reason: It is an emotional experience that stays with visitors long after they've returned home from their travels, even if they've never given much thought to World War II battle history. There are four distinct features to the memorial, located in Colleville-sur-Mer, about half an hour from Bayeux and three hours from Paris. There is the cemetery itself, the final resting place of more than 9,000 soldiers. The vast majority of them lost their lives fighting the D-Day battles of Normandy, but there are other World War II heroes buried here as well. The rigid lines of so many thousands of graves are an astonishing sight, and the sense of loss is overwhelming. You'll see small stones placed upon the headstones in the shape of the Star of David for Jewish soldiers; this is a common Jewish custom and they should not be removed.
Omaha Beach was the location of one of the most significant moments of fighting in World War II. On June 6th 1944, American troops were given the task of securing the beach as part of a strategy to land Allied troops along five points on the coast of Normandy, France. Due to unforeseen tidal forces and stronger than expected German defenses, the American soldiers suffered massive losses, 2,400 casualties, in a day of bloody fighting. Eventually however the landing was successful with 34,000 troops securing the area for the Allies, and thus beginning the end of the war.
The landings on Omaha Beach are perhaps best known these days from the film Saving Private Ryan which opens with this battle and shows the impact of the fighting and loss of life on families back home in the USA. The American Cemetery sits above Omaha Beach and is a well-kept memorial to the events.
Being the highest point between Omaha and Utah Beaches, the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc was an important location in the Atlantic Wall strategy of defense against the Allies. So on D-Day, it was an equally important target to overtake so that the liberation of France could proceed.
In what can only be described as old-school warfare, the the American Second Ranger Battalion climbed the 100-foot-high cliff to seize the weapons that could take out approaching Allied boats. It was an epic battle, but the Americans ultimately emerged victorious – albeit with significant loss of life.
Today, the cliffside of Pointe du Hoc is the location of a monument to this battle, which was built by the French directly on top of the German bunker that was seized by the Americans. Unlike many of the WWII battle sites that have memorials or museums, this location has remained largely untouched since the battle that occurred here; visitors can still see the scars on the ground.
For the historian as well as the curious traveler, the WWII battle sites along the coast of Normandy can be a powerful draw. However, in the interest of time, many choose to stick to the more popular memorials and museums of Omaha and Utah Beaches. But by heading east from Bayeux instead of west, one hits a veritable jackpot of sites, memorials and museums dedicated to D-Day, but are blessedly under-visited.
It can be easy to pass through the sleepy coastal towns of Ouistreham and Lion-sur-Mer and forget that anything as monumental as the D-Day landings happened here. But the pristine beaches you see were filled with British soldiers on that fateful day, sent in to shore up this flank and take care of some German bunkers as well. And in just these few miles, there are roughly ten points of interest to discover. Here are the highlights of what not to miss when visiting the area from Bayeux.
Omaha Beach, with its Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, receives the most visitors looking to learn more about WWII history and pay their respects. But what many don't know is that Utah Beach, the westernmost landing point of the D-Day battle, has its own fantastic museum. If you're planning an overnight stay in Bayeux in order to explore the various WWII sites in Normandy, the Utah Beach D-Day Museum should be right near the top of your list.
Unlike the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, which technically lies on U.S. soil, the Utah Beach D-Day Museum is a French endeavor, and as such it carries the official name of Musée du Débarquement Utah Beach – and its motto translates to, “Their Sacrifice, Our Freedom.” However, you can be sure that everything in the museum is titled in English, so no need to worry.
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