The 75th anniversary of D-Day has me in a patriotic mood — and nostalgic for a time when America was doing good in the world, rather than alienating allies and burning bridges. This occasion has got me thinking about the place where the USA lived arguably its most stirring moment: in the northern French region of Normandy.
Here are a few “Postcards” from my recent visit to Normandy — starting with the beautiful, low-impact pastoral sights, and building up to the powerful places where the echoes of D-Day still reverberate.
Welcome to Normandy
While best known as the site of the D-Day landings that turned the tide of World War II, Normandy is a sprawling, multifaceted region that’s a delight to explore. Even an impatient sightseer could spend a week here without getting bored. In addition to thought-provoking cemeteries and beaches still strewn with artifacts from that pivotal invasion, Normandy serves up a pastoral countryside of green rolling hills misted by English Channel storms, charming half-timbered towns, towering churches, landscapes and cityscapes made famous by the Impressionists, and a delicious, apple-flavored cuisine.
Honfleur wins the title for Normandy’s most charming town, with its historic harbor, half-timbered old town (pictured earlier), and a characteristic wooden church that feels like an overturned boat. With its unique “luminosity,” it’s no wonder the Impressionists found inspiration here. Honfleur is also a delightful spot to browse for typically Norman foods, many of which feature apples from the region’s orchards. You can graze on delicious edible souvenirs such as apple-wine vinegar, apple candies and cookies, hard cidre, and Calvados, the powerful local apple brandy.
Normandy’s flagship destination is one of those great European sights that truly lives up to its billing. An island abbey that’s sometimes surrounded on all sides by water, and at other times high and dry in the middle of an expansive mud flat, Mont St-Michel strikes a dramatic pose. A new causeway provides handy shuttle-bus service (in high tide or low) from a park-and-ride on the mainland. Once at the island, you can wander the mud flat (inspecting temporarily beached sailboats), climb up the twisty lanes through town, and tour the historic abbey.
The city of Rouen, where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, clusters around the dramatic facade of its exuberantly Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral. The great Impressionist Claude Monet painted 30 different versions of this facade — depicting the same subject at different times of day, in different weather and different light. As a photographer, I enjoyed circling back past the cathedral facade every few hours to carry out a study of my own.
The main thing that attracts most visitors to Normandy — especially Brits, Canadians, and Americans — are the desolate beaches where the Allied forces staged Operation Overlord in the early hours of June 6, 1944. The D-Day invasion provided the Allies with a foothold in Western Europe, while Hitler was distracted fighting Russians on the Eastern Front. Eleven months later, Hitler was dead.
Stepping onto Omaha Beach (the most famous landing site, thanks partly to Saving Private Ryan), you’ll trip over jagged Nazi fortifications that still survive 75 years later. Put yourself in the combat boots of the young grunts tasked with taking the beach, and notice how impossibly far away that scrubby, sandy bluff is. Now add relentless machine-gun fire. Standing here, I dare you not to get goosebumps.
Of course, D-Day was more than just Omaha Beach, and the brave souls fighting on those beaches were not just Americans. Canadians have their own museum and monuments at Juno Beach. And in the town of Arromanches — in the British landing sector — the beach is still littered with gigantic prefab harbor sections. In an astonishing feat of engineering, the Allies prepared for phase two of the invasion by building an entire temporary harbor in England, breaking it into 115 modular pieces (each the size of a football field), and then shipping each one across the English Channel to reassemble here as soon as the beaches were secured. This four-mile breakwater, called “Port Winston,” allowed the Allies to swiftly begin their land invasion before the Nazis could regroup. Arromanches is still stuck with its giant chunks of Port Winston — how could you possibly remove them? — and history buffs love wandering out and getting up close to history.
This is just a reminder that D-Day is a whole series of sights, scattered across a 54-mile stretch of coastline, each one illustrating a different chapter of the invasion: Juno Beach, Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc, the church at Ste-Mère Eglise, the gun battery at Longues-sur-Mer, cemeteries honoring each nationality who suffered losses here, and on and on. (Our Rick Steves France guidebook outlines a driving route to connect all the major sights, and a long list of local guides you can hire to show you around.) Give the D-Day sights a full day. Better yet, two. Better yet, three.
For Americans, the ultimate D-Day experience is visiting the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach — vast green fields speckled with 9,387 neatly arranged gravestones honoring troops who lost their lives in Normandy. (This is just one of many such cemeteries throughout Normandy. D-Day alone brought 4,413 Allied deaths — including 2,499 Americans.) Each cross and star of David is etched with the name, place of birth, date of death, and dogtag number of a young American whose sacrifice helped turn the tide of the war.
Walking through these fields, my heart swelled with thoughts of relatives who were ripped from the dairy farms and cornfields of rural Ohio and — at an age when most of us have the privilege of taking a “gap year” or going to frat parties — traveled half a world away to fight someone else’s war and die on an anonymous beach. It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving this site with a dry eye.
Inside the Utah Beach Landing Museum, next to one of the landing craft that carried so many American troops to a premature death, someone had scratched a simple message into the sand: Merci. While I find French people, as a rule, extremely welcoming to Americans, I have rarely traveled somewhere where the locals were so genuinely appreciative of the part my homeland played in their history, and where I felt so proud to be an American. Throughout Normandy, French people of all ages tear up when talking about what we did for them.
At a moment in our history where America seems less sure about its role in the world than it has in generations, I’m filled with patriotic pride (and, I’ll admit, not a little sadness) as I reflect on a time — and a corner of France — where my country joined with its allies to do the right thing, at great personal sacrifice, and made a history-changing difference to people outside our borders who needed us. Now that’s global leadership. Merci. And God bless America.
I visited Normandy to help update our Rick Steves France guidebook. That book is, if I’m being honest, one of the very best guidebooks in our Rick Steves series (thanks to a lifetime of expertise and hard work by co-author Steve Smith). There’s no better tool for visiting Normandy on your own; the book includes all the advice you need for visiting Normandy independently, as well as a list of recommended companies and local tour guides offering tours of the various D-Day sites.
Or, to have someone else handle the details, consider our Paris and the Heart of France tour, which includes a guided visit to Normandy.