The strip of northern France known as Normandy stretches along the English Channel between Brittany and the Pays du Nord. The region offers bucolic scenery (rendered on canvas by impressionist painters), splendid beaches, quaint villages, rich green pastures and lots of history.
William the Conqueror launched his invasion of England from Normandy. It's also where Edward III landed to begin the Hundred Years War and where the Allied forces launched the liberation of Europe in 1944. Most parts of Normandy are two or three hours from Paris by train or car.
Many people go just to see the World War II fortifications and landing beaches. Others go to see the 170-acre American Military Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, part of the area code-named Omaha Beach during the Allied attack. Its rows of gravestones stretch out as far as the eye can see. This moving landscape gives a palpable sense of the heroism and sacrifices of D-Day.
Nearby Bayeux, one of the first towns to be liberated by Allied forces, made it through the battle relatively unscathed. Today it has a beautiful city center, dominated by an imposing Gothic cathedral.
At the edge of the D-Day landing area is the town of Caen. You may think it looks familiar—it's often painted by artists. Unfortunately, little remains of Caen's old town. It was almost completely destroyed by bombardment in the days after D-Day in June 1944, when the British fought to recapture the town from the Germans.
Farther east along the coast is Deauville, which has been a favorite retreat for generations of wealthy Parisians.
Though Le Havre is usually thought of as a place to get on or off a ship, there is a bit more to this major seaport, including beautiful estuaries and early Norman architecture. About 20 mi/32 km north is Etretat, with its spectacular and often-photographed cliffs (you'll recognize them instantly).
Dieppe, a large town near the eastern edge of Normandy, has a castle containing a fine collection of ivory. The town also has a war memorial to Canadians who died in a massive 1942 raid (the German occupiers thought it was the invasion of Europe). Below the cliff upon which the castle was built is a long beach of round stones, which gives way to a fine sand beach at low tide.
Other interesting Normandy towns include Falaise, Honfleur and St. Laurent sur Mer (the American cemetery for soldiers who died in Normandy during World War II, buried under rows of white crosses). The Contentin peninsula has many picturesque corners, including the fishing villages of Barfleur and Portbail. It's worth a side trip to see the Nez de Jobourg, an impressive series of cliffs overlooking the sea.
On the southern coastal end of Normandy is the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mont-St-Michel, one of France's most recognizable landmarks.
On the northern stretch of coastline between Cap de la Hague and Pointe de Barfleur is Cherbourg, a port with ferry service to England. Smaller ports on the west coast offer the shortest access to the Channel Islands. Plan at least three nights in Normandy.
There are plenty of monuments and museums to visit in Normandy, but they can be spread out—decide on your must-see places ahead of time to plan your route, as it could involve a good amount of driving.
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Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
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