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In the early morning fog on June 6, 1944, hell came to Northwest France. Before long, the deafening sound of guns drowned out all other sounds except the screams of the wounded. This was the landing on the D-Day beaches of Normandy, but it was really the concerted effort to save what was left of Europe. Now, nearly 70 years later, the Normandy beaches have an eerie quiet as travelers come to pay their respects.
The broad D-Day beaches in Normandy, France lie just across the English Channel from Southampton, England. It would not be the logical location to mount a counter-offensive against Nazi Germany, but that was the plan. These days, the long coastal stretch contains seaside vacation resorts and small farming communities. The events that played out here can only be seen in a few places.
As we drove through Normandy, France, we opted for the more scenic coastal road instead of the fast highway. This allowed us to see some of the Canadian D-Day beaches that were part of Operation Overlord. Being American, we’re used to the images of D-day of Americans storming beaches with steep cliffs. The Canadian Beaches challenged that notion. They were flat with no cliffs and, today, are mostly holiday resorts.
We stopped in the little sea-side resort of Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer. There’s a little parking lot right along the boardwalk and an old World War II gun (don’t know if it was Ally or German, probably German) on the sidewalk.
Walking down the boardwalk in the strong wind, we could almost envision the storming of the beach. During World War 2, this was town was part of Juno Beach, where the Canadians came ashore.
In the center of Normandy lies the regional capital of Caen. Here, the French government has erected a massive WW2 Museum and Memorial in a corporate office park, adjacent to a park. The Memorial de Caen offers a first-rate exhibit, but being so far inland and removed from Omaha Beach and the other Normandy invasion sites, it feels emotionless and detached from the D-Day experience.
The Museum was well done, articulate, thought-provoking and more politically neutral than you might expect (for all the German tourists). But it just lacked the emotive experience of the Omaha Beach memorial that we were looking for.
North of Caen, on the coast at the bottom of a steep hill is the village of Arromanches. This was ground zero for much of D-Day and played the role of regional field headquarters in the days that followed. Here is the Port Winston and the D-Day Landing Museum. This is everything that the museum in Caen is not: in the heart of the Normandy and right at the one of the landing beaches. This feels more real and much more authentic.
On a hill above the museum is the Arromanches 360 Degree Theater, which shows an excellent film that sets the mood to experience the beaches of Normandy. Both the film and the Port Winston museum are worth seeing.
As we worked our way to the west, we encountered steep cliffs, which host the Longues-sur-Mer Gun Battery. There are four big German guns here that you can walk around and go into. From this perch, you could imagine the Nazi’s raining artillery shells down on the Allied ships in the harbor.
Most visitors to the region rush to the American Cemetery (officially called the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial), but we wanted to experience Normandy as the troops would have – at sea level on the D-Day beach.
We went down to the beach at Vierville-sur-Mer and LeRuquet where we had direct access to Omaha Beach, directly under the American Cemetery. It was very moving to walk along the beach and look up the cemetery, knowing what we would find up there.
The World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is what most visitors come to Normandy to see. This site is stunningly beautiful and deeply moving. Thousands of white tombstones line the bluffs over the beach – nearly every American has seen it in the movies.
We were here just a few short weeks after the D-day Battle Anniversary so there were a number of commemorations taking place. We observed one flower placement ceremony taking place, which was very moving. It was interesting to see how they placed sand into the inscription on the tombstones so that the names were visible when photographed.
The staff observed a moment of silence and then took several digital photos for family members back home (we observed the ceremony for PFC Roger H. Welch from Minnesota, who passed away on July 7, 1944). Only one row away from this ceremony, we happened on the twin graves of the Niland Brothers – the inspiration for film Saving Private Ryan.
It’s tough not to come to the American Cemetery and be moved. It’s also impossible to come here and not struggle to understand the senselessness of war, even when that war was a necessary evil.
However, in Normandy, there’s one stop visitors also need to make: the German Military Cemetery near La Cambe. The Allies were not the only ones to lose young men in the war. The La Cambe German War Cemetery stands in stark contrast to the Normandy American Cemetery.
There are no grand white marble tombstones here. Instead, this is a bleak and somber experience, but gives you an appreciation for the human element experienced by German soldiers. The dead German soldiers are buried two to a headstone. In the middle of the cemetery, there is a large mound with three stone crosses on top of it.
Visiting the beaches of Normandy is a powerful experience in understanding the human cost of war. However just, we all paid a terrible price for it.
Suggested Normandy D-Day Beaches Itinerary
We recommend spending two full days exploring the Normandy D-Day Beaches. Your Normandy itinerary should be:
Day 1 in Normandy
Start the morning at the broad sandy beaches of Cabourg before heading inland to Caen and visiting the Caen Memorial. Head to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer for lunch along the Juno Beach and then head west along the coast to Arromanches and the museum at Port Winston. From there, head up to the gun batteries before heading in to Bayeaux for the night.
Day 2 in Normandy
Leave Bayeux in the morning and visit the American Cemetery in Normandy. Spend as much time here as possible, before heading inland to the German Cemetery at La Cambe.
Visiting the Beaches of Normandy
Visiting the Caen Memorial (Le Mémorial de Caen)
Located on the Esplanade Général Eisenhower (GPS: N 49° 20′ 24″ – O 00° 37′ 16″). To reach the Memorial Museum by car, take the Northbound ringroad to exit number 7. The museum is generally open 9:30am-5:00pm throughout the year. During peak times (summer), the museum has slightly longer hours: 9:00am-6:00pm. Admission is €19.80. Website: https://normandy.memorial-caen.com/
Visiting the American Cemetery in Normandy
Located on D514 between Colleville-sur-Mer and St. Laurent-sur-Mer (GPS: N49 20.910 W0 51.285). To reach the Normandy American Cemetery by car, take the N-13 from Bayeux to Formigny. Take the D-517 in the direction of St. Laurent-sur-Mer. Then take the D-514 towards Colleville-sur-Mer. The cemetery entrance is well marked. The cemetery is open every day of the year except December 25 and January 1. Hours are generally 9:00am-5:00pm, and until 6:00pm in the summer. Website: https://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries-memorials/europe/normandy-american-cemetery
Getting to the D-Day Beaches in Normandy
Yes, you can go on a Paris to Normandy Beaches tour. They are available here. However, we strongly recommend renting a car and driving yourself. The drive Paris to Normandy along the coast is absolutely beautiful and is an easy drive. We’ve used this rental car comparison site in Europe for the best deals.
Where to Stay in Normandy
There’s really only one answer here: Bayeux. This beautiful town is home to the famous Bayeux Tapestry and also has the seriously impressive Bayeux Cathedral. There are a number of great hotels and B&Bs here. We recommend checking current prices of Bayeux accommodations here.