October 28, 2014 | By Meredith Price
I just spent a week in Normandy and experienced some of the loveliest areas in France. It’s quite inspiring to visit the World War II sites, but there is much more to do and see. While many try to see Normandy as a day trip from Paris, or an overnight trip, it’s an area that’s deserving of a more in depth visit.
It’s an easy trip from Paris. A train from Paris to Caen or Bayeux is a little over two hours. If you choose to drive it’s about 3 ½ hours. Be aware that the main highway from Paris, the A13, is a toll road and you will pay about 30 euro in tolls.
In choosing a place to stay, Caen would have the largest selection of hotels and it’s a good central location from which to explore the area. The Caen Memorial is located there and you could spend many hours exploring it. Unfortunately, most of Caen was destroyed during the war so it’s more of a modern city. Bayeux is a more picturesque place to stay and only about 10-15 miles from Caen. It’s a much smaller town and easy to walk around and of course the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which is a must see, is housed here. There are also a number of residential chateaus in the area from which to choose.
As most people do come to this area to visit the World War II sites, I highly recommend a private guide. If that’s not a possibility, there are some very good small group tours from Caen and Bayeux. It definitely takes a full day just to see the highlights. Most full day tours would include St. Mere Eglise, the museum at St. Mere Eglise, Utah and Omaha beaches (the American beaches) Point de Hoc and the remaining gun emplacements there, and the American Cemetery. There are numerous museums in the area in addition to the museum in Caen but there really isn’t time to include all of these museums in a day tour. It would be easy to add another day just to include Sword, Juno, and Gold beaches and the German cemetery and that still doesn’t include all of the museums and monuments! In other words, you could easily spend several days if you really wanted to see all of the World War II sites.
After you have absorbed all of the WWII history you can, there are many more things to enjoy. Mont Saint Michel is currently listed as the most visited site in France, and for good reason. It’s a spectacular sight as it rises out of the ocean along the coast. It’s about a 2 hour drive from Caen/Bayeux or there are day tours from both places if you don’t have a car. The Abbaye is well worth the climb and the view is spectacular, but be prepared for seemingly endless steps to get there. If you have difficulty walking or health issues, you might want to reconsider. The narrow street to the top is lined with shops and restaurants so you can take your time going up and coming back down. I recommend that you go either very early or very late as there are bus tours from Paris that arrive about noon making it very crowded.
Bayeux is a charming medieval town and you could easily spend a day exploring it. Most famous for the Bayeux Tapestry, it is housed in it’s own museum and well worth a visit. There is a theater within the museum with a film detailing the history of the tapestry which you can view before or after you see the tapestry itself. The cathedral in Bayeux is quite lovely and a beautiful example of Norman architecture, consecrated in 1077. In our eagerness to recall our WWII history, we often forget that Normandy was the home of William The Conqueror, and historic sites related to him are abundant in this area.
There are many other historic houses to explore in this area. Chateau de Balleroy, Abbaye Saint Vigor de Cerisy la Foret, Chateau de Colombieres, Chateau de Fontain-Henry, and Prieure Saint Gabriel are all within a 10 – 20 mile radius of Bayeux and all make an interesting addition to your itinerary.
Normandy is also known for the apples, the rich cider and Calvados. There are beautiful orchards throughout the area. You can follow the Cider Route and stop at some of these orchards for cider and Calvados tastings. It makes for a memorable day to follow the picturesque country roads through these small Norman villages, stopping along the way for fresh cider. Most of these towns also host a market at least one day of the week. You can find local goods, beautifully presented fresh vegetables from the garden, fresh fish from the sea, and all sorts of other fun things to buy. Crepes are another specialty of the area and you can find a creperie in just about any village.
This truly is a lovely area to explore. It is mostly a rural area full of hidden treasures to experience. While it’s not top of mind when we think of the Normandy coast, it’s also a beautiful beach resort. You can walk on Omaha Beach, which is unbelievably wide, but you share it with couples, families, dogs, horses, wind-surfers, para-gliders and more. There is always something to see. To enjoy the breathtaking scenery, to dine in some of the small quaint restaurants along the coast, and to be steeped in more history that you can absorb, make this a most fulfilling vacation!