Nomad by Trade

A travel blog for the kid at heart.

Tag: Normandy

Highlights of American Normandy

Visiting Omaha Beach had long been on my travel bucket list. As a major history buff, especially about WWII, as soon as I booked a flight to Paris, I knew I’d have to make a road trip up to Normandy. We only ended up with about a day and a half to explore, but you could easily spend three or four days seeing all of the sights, especially if you were to throw in a trip to Mont Saint-Michel while you’re in the area.

Renting a car is by far the best way to visit the D-Day historical sites on the Normandy coast. Unlike other parts of Europe that I’ve visited, there isn’t any great public transportation around there, so a car is essential unless you plan on doing one of the big bus tours that we crossed paths with. I’m not typically a huge organized tour fan because I like having the freedom to explore at my own pace and spend more or less time at a certain location depending on how much it interests me. This was my third Europe trip in the last three years, all of which have involved driving, so renting cars over there doesn’t really phase me.

American Cemetery at Omaha Beach

Our next stop was the American cemetery near Omaha Beach. We were somewhat surprised to find metal detectors and baggage screening at the entrance to the main building, but we got through quickly since it wasn’t crowded when we were there.

We didn’t spend much time in the museum area because it was our third D-Day-focused museum in the last 18 hours. We did take the time to watch a fantastic short movie in a theater on the lower level that followed the stories of a few of the people who were killed in the Normandy campaign. I’m not usually much of a softie, but I was a little choked up at the end.

American Cemetery at Omaha Beach Memorial

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Sunrise over Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains

Why Any History Buff Needs to Visit Arromanches-les-Bains

I absolutely fell in love with the little town called Arromanches-les-Bains, near what was code named Gold Beach. It’s an incredible combination of natural beauty and history. You can walk on the same beach that Allied troops stormed on D-Day and marvel at the remnants of the war that still line the shore more than 70 years later.

Dawn on the beach

The next morning was when the excitement really kicked in. I got to watch the sky light up over the beach with the remnants of the mulberry harbor while the rest of the family got ready. It was fascinating thinking about the fact that men were storming the beaches at dawn in almost this exact spot on the morning of D-Day. Our room was located directly in front of one of the largest remaining pieces and it was very cool to get to see the breakwaters further out appear along the horizon as day broke.

Sunrise over Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains

Daybreak from our hotel room

We wanted to hit the ruins at low tide so we could really explore them, so we headed straight out to the beach without eating breakfast. I was very glad we did because within a few hours, a lot of the ruins were submerged and the rest had enough water around them that we wouldn’t have been able to see them up close had we waited.

Even though I was in AP History and have read extensively about WWII, I had somehow never heard of the Mulberries until I began planning this trip. Now I’m thoroughly fascinated with the ingenuity that sparked them. The D-Day landing sites were chosen for surprise – the Allies wanted locations that the Germans wouldn’t expect them. Since ports and harbors were the most valuable, the Germans had those heavily fortified with mines and men.

The Allied leaders knew that they would have to find a way to supply the troops that landed on the beaches until they could capture one of the harbors on the French coast. In order to do this, they devised the ingenious mulberry harbors – artificial ports that could be used to offload reinforcements and supplies. Giant concrete breakwaters were towed across the English Channel and sunk along with some decommissioned ships to protect the harbor, and floating docks and bridges that were designed to rise and fall with the tide were installed and used to offload thousands of men and supplies for the growing Allied landing force. They were supposed to be built at Omaha and Gold beaches, but a bad storm blew through before they could be finished, and the one at Omaha was so thoroughly destroyed that the Allies abandoned it only the Gold Beach mulberry was used. The idea of “hey, we need a harbor here, so let’s just build one and tow it across the Channel” is mind-blowing to me.

Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains, France

Looking east toward Gold Beach

We think these were pieces of one of the floating bridges that were used to offload cargo and people. They’ve been sort of stacked on top of each other like fallen dominoes over the last 72 years. As we wandered around them, some half-buried in sand, I was struck by the idea that visitors another 72 years from now might not even see any traces left behind.
Mulberry harbor pieces on Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains
A little further west on the beach was the enormous piece that we had seen from our hotel window. We think this was a piece of one of the floating docks. The sand nearby was dotted with seashells and I am in love with this picture of nature’s beauty contrasted with the hulking remains of a war that destroyed so much. 72 years earlier, artillery shells were exploding over this beach and here we were picking up seashells on a cold, wintery morning.
 
Mulberry harbor pieces on Gold Beach in Arromanches-les-Bains

From artillery shells to sea shells

We strolled back along the sea wall, enjoying the view and posing for pictures. We were pretty cold by that point thanks to the wind and were in need of some hot beverages and a breakfast that ideally involved a lot of pastries.

Seawall in Arromanches-les-Bains, France
After grabbing breakfast at a nearby hotel’s restaurant, we checked out and visited the Musee du Debarquement, which is almost entirely devoted to the mulberry harbor here. Looking at dioramas really gave a sense of the scale of the operation. My favorite part was the moving model that showed how the bridges and piers were designed to move up and down with the waves and tide. The museum was fairly small, but very crowded even though it was early morning in the off-season. Several busloads of people arrived close together and swarmed the whole place making it hard to walk through the exhibits.

Musee du Debarquement

Around the back of the museum, we found a piece of one of the mulberry bridges that had been moved to replace a damaged bridge over a nearby river for over 50 years. After that bridge was decommissioned in 2004, the span was returned to Arromanches-les-Bains to be displayed.

Mulberry harbor bridge segment in Arromanches-les-Bains, France

After a few minutes of souvenir shopping and some more sea wall pictures, we hit the road to continue our tour of Normandy.

Mulberry harbor pieces at Gold Beach

By the time we left, the ruins were almost submerged.

Where to stay

We had some trouble finding our hotel – Hotel de la Marine – because it turned out to be off of a pedestrian only zone which greatly confused our GPS. We ended up dropping my brother off nearby and he went in search of the hotel. Their website says they don’t offer parking, but they actually have a few hidden spots that you have to drive through the pedestrian zone and along the sea wall to get to. We were lucky that it was an off-season, and I wouldn’t count on getting one during the busier summers. The parking area was tiny and pulling in and out of the spaces required quite a few back and forth passes. Getting to drive along the sea wall was kind of neat though, even if it was only for a couple hundred feet.

We were absolutely thrilled with the location of the hotel. It would be the perfect spot for a summer visit with its location right along the sea wall. We almost didn’t find it because we were doing all of our bookings through Expedia and it’s not listed on there. It wasn’t until I tried a search on Booking.com that I located it. I would strongly recommend doing searches on multiple websites to make sure you find everything available because no search engine is comprehensive. We had to have two separate rooms because they could only accommodate two people in each room, but the staff made sure we were right next to each other. We even lucked out with a killer view of the beach.

The hotel had a nice restaurant that we chose for dinner, largely because there didn’t appear to be much else open in town. It seemed expensive, but that was because we hadn’t had any other meals in France yet. (I’m not counting lunch at McDonald’s.) In hindsight, it was pretty much on par with the prices we paid elsewhere in France, and I’ve come to the conclusion that food just costs a fortune there. I ordered a creamy pasta dish that I didn’t particularly care for, but everyone else seemed quite pleased with their food. We split a bottle of wine and toasted to the start of another grand adventure.

Hotel de la Marine in Arromanches-les-Bains

Cheers!

The rooms themselves were decent – tiny by American standards, but on par with most places I’ve stayed at in Europe. There was some trouble with the glass around the shower in the room I stayed in that resulted in water leaking all over the bathroom floor, but my brother and sister in the room next door reported no issues with theirs. My only real complaint was the fact that the long curtains covered the radiator so we had to choose between having the room warm, having it dark, or having it both warm and dark until the curtains caught fire. We chose warmth sans fire.

Read more about Normandy:

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One Afternoon in Caen and Bayeux, France

We landed in Paris early in the morning – I am a huge fan of overnight flights when heading east – and grabbed a rental car and hit the road to drive up to Normandy. I’m a big history buff and I’m particularly interested in World War II because my grandpa fought in the European Theater. We sort of inadvertently ended up following in some of his footsteps on this trip, which made it even more interesting than it would’ve been otherwise.

Our first stop was, embarrassingly, a McDonald’s we found along the highway. I’m normally very opposed to eating at places like that when overseas, but we were starving and needed something fast if we were going to get to do anything in Normandy that afternoon. We did enjoy the novelty of getting to order a “McBeer” with our combo meals though. American readers will be happy to know that Mickey D’s chicken nuggets taste the same in France as they do back home.

Caen

We once again hit the road and made it to Caen, a city whose pronunciation we debated until finally looking it up on Youtube. None of us had been right. Though our stated purpose for visiting Normandy was to see WWII attractions, our first stop on vacation was a step much, much further back in history. We were going to see the Abbey where William the Conqueror’s tomb is located.

Admission to the abbey was free, and there was also a small art exhibition going on in one of the wings. We wandered through the cloister for a few minutes before setting out to actually enter the main building. In order to get inside, we had to walk back out the front entrance we had come in through and go all the way around the outside of the church until we found a tiny, unmarked door. We would’ve missed it if another group of people hadn’t exited as we were walking by.

The cloister at l'Abbaye des Hommes in Caen, France

The cloister

The abbey was founded in 1063 and was luckily spared from the heavy fighting around Caen during WWII. I found it to be appropriately gloomy inside, but the scale of the architecture was truly astounding. I’m consistently blown away when I see such old buildings that were constructed without modern machinery with such high vaulted ceilings and intricate details.
William the Conqueror's Tomb in Caen, France

William the Conqueror’s Tomb

William the Conqueror’s tomb was right in the center of the altar, though I found out later that his body isn’t actually there anymore. It was evidently removed during religious wars in the 1500s and all but one thigh bone was lost.

After we finished wandering inside the abbey, we walked over to another church we had spotted on the way in. It was called Eglise Saint Etienne-le-vieux and had been heavily damaged by bombs during WWII and you could see the striking remains from quite a distance away. The main tower still stands, but much of the rest of the building lies in ruins. The proximity to the main abbey that survived the war really drove home the randomness of the destruction that the war brought as the opposing armies battled across the continent.

Saint Etienne-le-Vieux in Caen, France

Saint Etienne-le-Vieux

Bayeux

A little further down the road, we stopped at the Musee Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie in Bayeux. It was starting to get late, so we only had about an hour and a half to see everything. The museum had a lot of army vehicles and uniforms that were used in the battle, but I wouldn’t consider it a must-do. One of the cooler things was an old mobile radio truck that could be used to monitor communications from anywhere on the battlefield. I also liked seeing a tank crew uniform because my grandpa was part of a tank crew and I’ve seen pictures of him dressed the same way.

American tank crew uniform at the Musee Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie

An American tank crew uniform

We stayed until close and then once again hopped in the rental car to continue our journey to our hotel for the night.

Read more about our trip to France, Belgium, and Luxembourg:

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