I remember watching Saving Private Ryan when I was a 13-year-old kid, unaware of the significance and meaning of D-Day, June 6, 1944, on the German-occupied French shores. I also never imagined that I would ever visit that same cemetery in the opening scene of the film. More than double my lifetime later, I found myself sauntering along the once blood-stained beaches and gazing over the largest American cemetery in Europe with a better understanding of why thousands of young American 20-somethings sacrificed their lives for freedom.
Last month when we traveled around Germany, we visited the Tower of Terror in Berlin to learn more about the rise of Nazi Germany and the Third Reich. Not long after, we visited the Dachau Concentration Camp in the south to absorb the brutality of the Nazis. Then while in Amsterdam we visited Anne Frank’s house to understand the lives of a Jewish family in hiding during the Nazi regime. And now here we were in northern France at a site where Americans and Allies sacrificed their lives to liberate France, more so to fight for freedom.
As a result of what happened during WWII, Lower Normandy has become a popular region to visit before or after Paris. Fortunately Lower Normandy isn’t all about historic battles. It is the region of Pays d’Auge, where charming half-timbered houses can be found throughout the French countryside along with plentiful signs advertising local cider. Driving from Paris to Bayeaux was lovely, and even Chris said that it was everything he imagined the French countryside to be.
We spent the night along the coast near the Longues Batteries just north of Bayeaux.
Dry camping on cliffs overlooking the ocean is one of our favorites.
After a night of camping near batteries, we made our way to the infamous D-Day Beaches. Seven information boards and several memorials line the long stretch of beaches; because the beach is longer than it looks, I recommend the self-guided tour by bicycle or car (or tour bus).
We finished our self-guided D-Day tour with the American Cemetery. No words can describe how heartbreaking it was to gaze across the beautiful yet ghostly landscape where over 9,000 young, freedom-fighting soldiers are now buried. Even more moving was the surprisingly large WWII exhibition at the visitor center.
Following the sobering and history-filled morning, we ventured on to perhaps the most visited site in France, Mont Saint Michel. As I said earlier, Lower Normandy isn’t all about WWII. I recall seeing a photo of Mont Saint Michel somewhere, assuming it was a 3D rendering for a fantasy game because it was too surreal to be real. Well, it was definitely real. Watching Mont Saint Michel grow upon approach could easily excite anyone.
Little did we know that this popular tourist attraction required a bit of work to get there. As a cathedral and tiny, medieval town crammed onto a tidal island, there was no surprise that its roads were limited to pedestrians. But it wasn’t as simple as driving to the bridge and crossing it, as we thought it would be. There was only one massive parking lot that charged outrageous prices (€17 for motorhome parking), and €2.80 for the optional shuttle to and from Mont Saint Michel. We ended up parking in the “village” of La Rive for free, a 20-minute walk from the bridge. It took another 15-20 minutes or so to cross the bridge into Mont Saint Michel.
Once we were finally on the bridge, we couldn’t stop gaping at what stood before us.
Mont Saint Michel was, as expected, tiny and cramped, which added to the charm. Tourist shops, restaurants, creperies, and boutique hotels all lined the steep, cobblestone streets, and lead up to the cathedral.
The cathedral costs €9 to enter. It was closed when we walked by, which suited us just fine since we preferred to walk around and look out from the “island.”
Because the tidal island of Mont Saint Michel was so tiny, it ended up taking longer to walk there than walking along its narrow streets. We made it back to our car just before sundown, concluding a memorable day in Normandy.