Things to Do in Normandy - page 2
Often regarded as one of the greatest engineering feats of World War Two, the Mulberry Harbour was a portable and temporary structure developed by the British to facilitate speedy discharging of cargo onto the beaches on D-Day. It was, in fact, two different artificial harbors, which were towed across the English Channel and assembled just off the coast of Normandy on that infamous morning. Once fully operational, Mulberry Harbour was capable of moving 7,000 tons of vehicles and goods each day. The harbors provided the Allies with landing ramps, necessary for the invasion of an otherwise unprotected coast. Violent storms shook the English Channel between June 19 and 22, 1944, effectively wrecking the better part of both harbors. Remains are, however, still visible a few hundred yards from Arromanches’ shoreline, continuing to remind visitors of the sheer engineering genius that emanated from the D-Day landings. The remains are best visible during low tide.
As even those with a passing knowledge of WWII knows, there were several countries involved in the events of D-Day along the coast of Normandy. And as such, the WWII battle sites, memorials, and cemeteries honor each of the Allies' efforts, struggles, and successes in their own way.
The Juno Beach Center is Normandy's only Canadian museum, and as such is focused on the heroism displayed by the Canadian military and civilians alike. It's located in Courseulles-sur-Mer, roughly a half-hour from the popular tourist base of Bayeux. Note that it is closed for the month of January.
Its maple leaf-inspired architecture is entered after passing by a stirring memorial positioned at the location of an original German bunker. Inside, the permanent exhibit takes visitors through the events of D-Day, the Canadian role, how Canada came into the war to begin with, and great information about the Canada of yesterday and today.
Before June 6, 1944 the Bénouville Bridge was simply a way for locals to cross the Canal de Caen quickly and easily. But the Allied troops knew that the Germans also used this bridge to send supplies and reinforcements to their troops along the beaches of Normandy – and so it was a priority to seize control of it as soon as possible to help the D-Day operation.
And so on that day, the British 6th Airborne Division arrived silently in gliders and after only 10 minutes, had secured the bridge. From then on it was known as the Pegasus Bridge, in honor of the insignia on the brave soldiers' uniforms. Although the original bridge has been replaced thanks to modern engineering, there is still a memorial at the site, as well as a museum that focuses on the role of the Airborne Division in Operation Overlord. A fairly new museum, inaugurated only in 2000, its collection continues to grow and so is a wonderful experience even for repeat visitors.
The Juno Beach Center is Normandy's only Canadian museum, but there are two locations where Canada's heroes from the Battle of Normandy have been laid to rest: The Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, and the Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery. The former honors soldiers from earlier in the battle – on and just after D-Day - while the former is for soldiers who gave their lives later on.
Like many of Normandy's WWII battle sites and memorials, Bény-sur-Mer is about a half-hour from Bayeux, which many visitors make as their base from which to explore the region. Bretteville-sur-Laize is about 40 minutes away, just behind Caen. Both of them are considered in the “opposite” direction from most of the most important sites, and so can be ignored by those on a fast-track tour of Normandy. But both sites deserve to be given their due.
While walking along the Seine in Paris, very few visitors wonder where the river comes from; but those who have visited Honfleur, on the Normandy coast, soon discover the answer. This sleepy harbor town, largely unchanged in the last 400 years, is where the Seine begins. And much like in Paris, it is lined with a beautiful sea wall and well-kept parks that are popular with families and those just out for a stroll.
Honfleur's main church, Sainte-Catherine, is unique in that it doesn't quite look like any other in France – for one, its wooden, and could be mistaken for a town hall if not for its equally wooden bell tower. And the harbor is a must-see for every visitor; artists in particular flock there to sketch or paint the picturesque buildings that line the quais, with colorful fishing boats moored just steps away from outdoor cafes and shops. And on Wednesdays and Saturdays there are open markets enjoyed by locals as well as those from neighboring towns.
Arromanches-les-Bains, with a population of just under 600, is a village on the Normandy coast. But this tiny dot on the map has a huge legacy dating back to WWII, commemorated in the D-Day Museum on the site of the artificial Mulberry Harbor. It was here that hundreds of thousands of tons of equipment were brought to the shores of France by the Allies, and it served as one of the most important military bases of the time.
The museum itself is a must-visit for anyone honoring the heroes of WWII; from working models of vehicles to a panorama of what the its shores looked like at the time to remains of the war strewn about the harbor, it's an unforgettable look into just what an enormous undertaking D-Day was.
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.
With its grand Gothic façade overlooking the central Place François Mitterrand, it’s impossible to miss the Lisieux Cathedral, or Cathedral Saint-Pierre. Built on the site of a former Roman church, the cathedral dates back to the 12th century and is one of the earliest examples of Gothic design in France, now preserved as a National Monument. Along with its notable architecture, Lisieux Cathedral is also famous as the resting place of Bishop Cauchon, who famously oversaw the prosecution of Joan of Arc.
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Merville Battery was a coastal fortification built by the Nazis in Merville-Franceville as part of the Atlantic Wall during World War II. Because this particular battery was much more better fortified than other similar installations, it was one of the first to be attacked by the Allies on D-Day.
Indeed, it was successfully captured by British paratroopers on June 6, 1944, because they mistakenly believed the battery contained heavy-caliber weapons that could threaten the nearby beach landings. They discovered, however, that what it contained, essentially, was inoffensive World War I vintage guns. The battery also comprised four six-foot-thick, steel-reinforced concrete gun casemates, designed to protect mountain guns, as well as a command bunker, dorms and ammunition magazines. After the British left the battery to liberate a nearby village, Merville was once again taken over by the Germans until they withdrew France in the following month of August.
With an impressive 18 underground bunkers linked by trenches and reinforced by barbed wire fences and minefields, the Hillman Fortress was once an important German WWII command post and the headquarters of the German 736th Regiment. Known as Hill 61 by the Germans and codenamed ‘Hillman’ by the British, the strategic bunker complex was attacked on 6 June 1944 as part of the D-Day Allied invasion and finally liberated by the Suffolk Regiment the following day.
Today, the hilltop bunkers have been preserved as an open-air museum, run by volunteers, and visitors are free to explore the 24-hectare site, including the kitchen, bunkers, command posts and well. A memorial museum is also located on-site, where visitors can learn more about the Hillman Bunkers and the Suffolk Regiment.
Le Havre is the original transatlantic port between Europe and North America, with luxury cruises and immigrants departing for New York from this historic port for over 200 years. Le Havre Port is also known as the “Gateway to Paris” with a three-hour trip by bus or train to the French capital or transfer to Charles de Gaulle International Airport.
The industrialization of Le Havre in the 20s made it famous throughout the world with the trade of coffee and cotton. The town was largely destroyed during the Second World War and rebuilt by the “poet of concrete,” architect Auguste Perret in a dazzling array of modernist post-war architecture.
The beaches of Normandy offer a trip into the wartime past; the Albâtre coast is known for its dramatic cliffs and the Benedictine liquor made at Fécamp’s distillery; while the Impressionist movement was born in Le Havre, as artists became mesmerised by the special light of the estuary.
Like many popular destinations in France – the Loire Valley and Provence to name just two - the Pays d'Auge is not a place with specific geographic or political borders within France. There's no mayor or governor of Pays d'Auge, and locals from the region of Normandy, where it's generally agreed to be located, will most likely have differing opinions as to exactly what's in and out of the Pays d'Auge.
That being said, here's a general idea: its northern border runs from just east of Caen to where the coast makes a dramatic turn towards Le Havre, and runs inland about halfway to Alençon. So, why is the Pays d'Auge even a thing if no one can point to it on a map, exactly? It all has to do with AOC, or the appellation d'origine contrôlée. The Pays d'Auge appellation is given to specific agricultural products that come from the farms within its “borders” - cheeses, ciders, and calvados included.
Brittany is the western-most region in France, a peninsula on the coast that stretches out into the Atlantic and well past the Greenwich Mean Time line of its neighbor across the English Channel. Although Brittany is rich in history and its natural beauty is nothing short of breathtaking, it remains a hidden gem away from many foreign tourists because of its distance from Paris, everyone's favorite base for France vacations.
In French, Brittany is known as Bretagne and its inhabitants are called Bretons. The region's history goes back hundreds of thousands of years, as evidenced by BC-era stone arrangements and an ancient hearth discovery, as well as the stories of the Celtic tribes that inhabited the region at the turn of the millennium and eventually lost to the Romans, as so many did. Because of its location, Brittany has been attacked several times throughout the centuries, and both battle remnants and cultural influences of invaders can still be found today.
The Normandy town of Honfleur is home to St Catherine’s Church, the largest surviving wooden chapel in France. Built after the Hundred Years’ War by local 15th-century shipbuilders, the “Axe Masters” managed to create the impressive nave without using one saw. A century later, the chapel’s patronage had grown so much that it was decided St Catherine’s Church should be doubled in size. A second identical nave was built to match the first, giving the chapel an interesting “twin” architecture, so when you head inside the church look up at the ceiling—you’ll see it looks just like two upturned boats, which makes sense considering the naval background of its builders.
Dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the church is partially covered in chestnut shingles, while the interior pillars are decorated in colorful flags from around the world. You’ll see light streaming in through the 19th-century stained glass windows.
Home to one of France’s most significant collections of impressionist paintings (the second-largest, after the Orsay Museum in Paris), the Musee des Beaux Arts Andre Malraux, or the MuMa, has long been an important destination for art lovers. Inaugurated in 1961, the museum takes its name from André Malraux, the Minister of Culture at the time, and features a slick modernist façade looking out over the coast of Le Havre.
Highlights of the MuMa’s extensive permanent collection include the world’s largest collection of works by Boudin; an old masters area including works by Luca Giordano and José de Ribera; and modern works by Henri Matisse, Albert Marquet, Raoul Dufy and more. Of course, it’s the impressionists that draw the most attention, and it’s a vast and varied collection, featuring works by Monet, Delacroix, Degas, Renoir, Manet, Gauguin and Vuillard.
A worthy rival to England’s famous White Cliffs of Dover, France’s Côte d'Albâtre (Alabaster Coast) is an equally dramatic sight – a spectacular stretch of white chalk cliffs overlooking the English Channel. Running for around 80 miles (130km) along the north coast of Normandy, the striking cliffs and pebbly coves have long inspired artists, composers and photographers, appearing in the works of impressionist artists like Monet, Pissarro and Renoir. Classified as a Natura 2000 site in 2009, the protected coastline is also a popular recreational area with winds perfect for sailing, windsurfing and kite surfing. A network of hiking and cycling trails also follow the cliff top, including the long-distance GR21 hiking route, which runs all the way from Le Havre to Le Tréport.
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