Traveling has been the most beneficial way for me to learn about Europe, about history, and about geography. Case in point: all this time, I thought Normandie (or Normandy for us English speakers) was the name of a town in France. The town where historical events took place during WWII. Come to find out, Normandie is actually a state made up of many towns.
I don’t claim to be geographically inclined.
When booking our trip to Paris, Marybeth (my roommate) and I decided we also wanted to visit Normandie to see the beaches where the D-Day landings took place. Have I mentioned I love WWII history? We booked a bed and breakfast close to the beaches, and I am still daydreaming about the carb coma I endured the morning before our beach adventures.
Imagine a basket of breads including (homemade) croissants, rolls, and baguettes, next to a back up basket of more croissants, rolls, and baguettes.
The woman that ran this bed and breakfast spoke very little English, but she was as sweet as can be. She also made a damn good cup of coffee. Best coffee I’ve had since moving to Europe, and I don’t say that lightly. To accompany all these gluten filled bites of heaven, she also had fresh cheese with the most unique flavors.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, she asked if we would like some yogurt.
Now, I’m not typically a yogurt fan. Yogurt makes my belly do flips, is loaded with sugar (if it tastes any good) and sits on shelves for who knows how long. Despite my typical aversion to yogurt something in my soul told me to say “yes” when she asked if we would like some. She brought out two clear jars (strawberry for me, peach for Marybeth) with a date written on the lid.
OH my stars does that date signify what I think it signifies?!
I saw this and asked her: “did you make this yogurt?” With a bright smile she replied: “Yes!” Homemade yogurt, homemade croissants, homemade cheese (this bed and breakfast was on a small farm) and damn good coffee had me feeling a type of elation that I haven’t felt in a while. I made sure to eat an apple too, because balance.
There are few things in this world that bring me more joy than quality made food.
I’m not even ashamed to admit that I felt a genuine sadness when we had to leave too early to enjoy breakfast a second time. We stayed here two nights, but the second morning we had to leave at 0700 (too early for her to make this spread) to drive the four hours back to Paris to catch an afternoon flight. I am still thinking about this travesty.
Anyway, moving on to the beaches of Normandie.
On 6 June 1944, an amazing armada of Allied troops (British, American, Canadian and more) landed on Normandie beaches to begin the liberation of Europe from years of Nazi occupation. The planners of this crucial event for European freedom codenamed it D-Day. The Allies divided the 60-mile coastal stretch chosen for the invasion into five sectors, codenamed Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah.
Marybeth and I visited all five of these beaches and I will share them in the order we saw them.
#1: Juno Beach – Canadian invasion
This beach was about ten minutes from our bed and breakfast, making it stop number one. We arrived in the small town leading towards Juno Beach listening to Bonjour from Beauty and the Beast (it felt appropriate for the country.) The beach was quiet, and not a soul was walking on the sand.
We walked out on a small boardwalk and I felt a wave of peace wash over my soul as the wind blew through my hair.
We spent maybe ten minutes at this area of the beach, and as we were driving to our next destination we stopped at the Canada House – the first house to be liberated during Operation Overlord. This house looks the same now (on the outside) as it did back in 1944. Juno Beach was a great first stop for our beach day.
#2: Sword Beach – British invasion
Stop two was at Sword Beach, where we parked the car at a small back alley parking lot. We couldn’t see any memorials, so we decided to just walk along the beach path for a bit. The weather was bouncing between rain and clear skies, and we had a brief reprieve from the wet skies when we made it to Sword Beach.
The houses facing the water were peculiar. They felt very Mrs. Peregrine or Lemony Snicket. They houses were beautiful in a creepy kind of way. No two house looked the same. We admired the houses as we walked the flat path, and found our way to a strip of land that was the exact location of where the British soldiers invaded France.
The coolest part about this memorial area was seeing a photo of a specific house from 1944 in a photograph with soldiers walking the pathway, and the exact house still standing in front of us in 2020. The windows were updated, but the house itself was the same. It was as if time stood still, even if just for a moment.
# 3: Gold Beach – British invasion
Stop three was the center beach, known as Gold Beach. Bristish troops of the 50th infantry division took over this section of the beach and their central location allowed them to help the other beaches around them. The objectives of the 50th Division were to cut the Caen-Bayeux highway, take the small port of Arromanches, link up with the Americans from Omaha Beach to the west at Port-en-Bessin, and link up with the Canadians from Juno Beach to the east.
This beach has a museum, but we did not go inside. We discovered visiting the beaches of Normandie in January not only meant little to no tourists, but it also meant most museums related to the locations were closed. I’d rather visit with less people and closed museums, than with lots of people and open museums. That’s what the Google is for.
There is an outdoor “museum” of sorts, with plaques of information and small memorials. Recent construction has begun to erect a more formal memorial overlooking Gold Beach, and the construction plans for this place look beautiful. Perhaps one day I will return to see this completed monument.
The area of Gold Beach we explored was further towards Omaha Beach. The section of this outdoor memorial that was most powerful (to me) was a set of blocks with quotes from a veteran.
The weather had taken a rainy turn during our time at Gold Beach, and the longer drive to our next destination was a welcome break from the outdoors. I was blown away by the beauty of the French countryside. I never imagined it to be so green, with a UK like vibe. I want to explore more of the countryside in France because it was breathtaking.
#4: Omaha Beach – American invasion
First and foremost, I knew the Americans were a part of the allied forces, but I did not know that France had more American pride than some of the neighborhoods in America itself. Living in Europe the last year means I don’t often see American flags, but upon arrival at Omaha Beach the American flags were seemingly endless.
The sun came out by the time we arrived here, and this stretch of beach was unbelievably beautiful. The sand looked at if it stretched on forever.
We walked towards the tide, and running in the sand and splashing in the puddles had me feeling like a kid. Upon arrival at each beach, I did a quick Google search to discover more about which allied forces were most prominent at each beach. With doing this, I also discovered that at Omaha Beach there was still an old German bunker from 1944.
The area we parked the car was further down from the main parking area, and this is where we got out to walk on the beach. We weren’t sure where the bunker was, but I was determined to find it. Lo and behold the bunker was right behind where we parked.
We spent the most time at Omaha Beach, which felt appropriate because it was here where the highest amount of casualties took place. Roughly 2400 US soldiers died while invading this sections of the beach. I felt a sense of pride for my country driving and walking around this section, and it was an honor to see how much the French appreciated what the US had done.
#5: Utah Beach – American invasion
The fifth and final beach we visited of the Normandie beaches was Utah Beach. Utah Beach is the second of the American landing zones, and was the most successful of the five allied beaches in Normandie. Utah Beach has a memorial museum, but this was closed like the one at Gold Beach. Instead we were able to walk around and view the memorials outside.
The sun was setting as we made it to the final beach, and we slowly savored the final moments of daylight. It’s hard to imagine what these beaches looked like on D-Day, and it’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to be a soldier fighting for a country that wasn’t my own. A true example of humanity and bravery.
Visiting these historical war sights have quickly become one of my favorite things about traveling.
I say this often, but I think it’s hugely important to remember events like this. Not only to honor those who died, but in an attempt to learn from our mistakes as humans. I may never understand how we as people can do what we do, and sadly the world we currently live in is starting to resemble the world of the past, but my hope is one day I won’t have to fear traveling to certain countries that I am not welcomed because of where I was born.
My only regret on this day of beach hopping, is not visiting the American cemetery. I saw the sign for it, but kept on driving. After recently watching Saving Private Ryan (I tend to watch these kinds of movies after visiting the events they were based off of) and seeing what the cemetery looked like I wish I had turned off instead of passing it by.
Normandie was a great end to this recent trip to France, and I only wish I had more time in the countryside. As we waited in the airport before boarding our flight back to Germany, I had to party one more time with baguettes and butter. It wasn’t nearly as good as my Normandie B&B experience, but it did the job.
Q: Favorite French style pastry?