As this week marks the 72nd anniversary of D-Day, when thousands and thousands of allied troops successfully stormed a string of beaches in Normandy to gain an all-important foothold on mainland Europe, I wanted to highlight not only those beaches, but the entire area. Normandy is amazing, and not just because of the WWII history, so PLEASE, I beg of you - don't limit yourself to a one-day excursion from Paris! First of all, it is SUCH a long day, yet you'll still be so rushed seeing all of the sights regarding the invasion, and secondly, you'll miss some other really amazing stuff!
Instead, I would propose at least two nights, if not three in the area, if you're going out on your own, or better yet - check out one of the week-long river cruises along the Seine that are so popular. If you DO decide a river cruise sounds great, make sure you compare and contrast the itineraries carefully - they do have differences, and you want to be sure you pick the one that does the things you're most interested in! However, if you don't have that much time and still want to go a bit more in depth into Normandy, you should consider the following.
First, on your way out of Paris, stop for a morning wander through Monet's house and garden museum at Giverny. Just an hour or so outside of Paris, but already in the different world of gorgeous rolling hills and bucolic heaven of Normandy. Buy your tickets ahead of time, in order to skip the sometimes significant line, and be prepared to take lots of photos. It is NO surprise that a painter organized these gardens - insanely photogenic, even if you're not there at the height of spring (these are from mid-June, 2015). Plus, the house itself is completely adorable!
Continue your road trip on to the historic city of Rouen. Yes, it has more attractions for Monet lovers (he painted the lovely Gothic cathedral there time after time to study light changes), but it features prominently in the fascinating Joan of Arc story, in that it was here that she was burned at the stake way back in the 1400's. Slightly creepy and sad, yes, but a very important moment in the history of not only Normandy, but in the whole France/England conflict. Even if you don't care about Monet or Joan of Arc, the little cobble stone streets and half-timbered houses in the center of town are terribly charming, and definitely worth the visit. I actually didn't have a chance to stop by on my last visit, and then was horrified to realize that I haven't actually set foot in Rouen since I was a kid! So- I certainly need to get some new photos (apologies for these photos from the old photo album!), but you also get the point that it left an impression on me, even ~20 years later.
After Rouen, many would head south, directly toward the beaches, but if you do that you miss an extraordinary part of the coast, also heavily visited by the Impressionists like Monet. Specifically I'm talking about the line of cliffs that spread north from Le Harvre (which is a fairly industrialized port city). I stopped in Etretat, which is yet another insanely charming village - a tiny valley filled with fishermen and more half-timbered houses, set on a lovely pebbly beach between two incredibly dramatic white cliffs. There of course isn't a ton to do, but it made for an awesome spot for a (windy) picnic lunch, and time permitting, some amazing hiking for sure.
It was only after taking tons of photos of the cliffs and stuffing myself full of delicious seafood products did we turn south, powering through the aforementioned Le Harve for our overnight destination of Honfleur, another Impressionist hangout. Honfleur really is a jewel of a port city, which blends luxury and work-a-day perfectly. Elegant Calvados tasting rooms lie right next to casual bistros where rubber fishing boots wouldn't be out of style. You could easily base yourself here for a few nights in order to fully explore Normandy and be perfectly happy. The beach resort town of Deauville (home to film festivals and casinos, and a race course, and a great beach too - oh my) is just down the road, and you're really in the heart of Calvados country, if a little apple brandy sounds great to you.
Just an hour further south from Honfleur gets you into the heart of the historic D-Day landing sites. From Caen to Carentan (more or less) it really is chock full of important WWII sites. If everything I mentioned and showed above doesn't convince you that Normandy is worth a few days, know that I spent five hours exploring from Bayeux to Point du Hoc, which should take less than an hour to drive. You trip and you see something with a story. Obviously, for Americans, we're more interested in the American sites like Omaha Beach (at Vierville-sur-mer), the American cemetery (at Coleville-sur-mer), Point-du-Hoc (just past the cemetery, still featuring bomb-craters that amazed me when I was 12), and Utah Beach (near Sainte-Mere-Eglise, which I didn't even get to because I ran out of time), but there are many other sites to see as well. Considering that I was moving fairly quickly (other than a nice hour-long lunch by the beach), and it still took me almost 5 hours to do JUST the section from Arromanches to Point du Hoc, you'll see why any war (or history) buff would want to take their time and spend a few nights in the area. There are also tons of wonderful specialized tours, or even private guides that will really tell you the stories and show you the best of the best. Here are a few pics from my most recent visit to the beaches:
Finally, I sort of skipped over Bayeux previously, which I can't let happen as it is another home to incredible history, like Rouen. The Bayeux Tapestry is this ridiculously amazingly detailed, and ridiculously long (70 meters long!), depiction of the Battle of Hastings, which really kicked off the centuries-long battles between France & England. (The Normans conquered England with this battle, hence the title "William the Conquerer".) Did I mention that this mega long embroidered piece of fabric is 900+ years old?!?!?! Yeah - it's a treasure. Plus Bayeux has a really impressive cathedral, and then of course it's where a lot of the famous allied generals spent a great deal of time. So, unlike Caen- which were bombed to smithereens, Bayeux still retains its historic center (mostly). I will say that it is a bit more touristy than you may hope, but it still worth a visit (especially on market day).
So, as you can see, though Normandy is more famous for D-Day now, it is home to much, much more. I really didn't even touch on the "3 C's" of Normandy - Calvados, Camembert, and Cider, their three main agricultural products, which you can taste either in any restaurant around, or even on gourmet tasting tours. It really is a great region, worth far more than a simple day trip out of Paris!