Some trips leave indelible marks, with sights and sounds forever-ingrained in your memory. My journey to the beaches and cemeteries of Normandy was one such trip.
My uncle and I were in London, but wanted to visit the famous of World War II beaches in the Normandy region of western France. Rather than fly to Paris and take a train, we opted to take a train to Portsmouth, England than an overnight ferry to Caen. We’d spend the day in Normandy, then take an overnight ferry back to England.
This trip was in Spring 2009…before I started blogging. Thus, there will not be a detailed review of Brittany Ferries and its amenities. In fact, for both voyages we simply retreated to our room, turned the lights out, and went to sleep.
But what a great solution that was. At about 150GBP r/t, the cost of a compartment for two was less than the cost of a three-star hotel room and we saved literally two days by traveling overnight.
We left rainy Portsmouth on Tuesday evening at 10:45p, with a 6:45a arrival in Caen. Including the one-hour time change, that left 6.5 hours for sleeping: a relatively short night. Radios in the compartment began blaring classical music about a half hour before arrival.
Upon reaching Caen, a representative from Avis met us at the ferry port and drove us to the Avis office in town, where a small Citroën was assigned to us. Small problem: only manual transmission vehicles were available. I had never driven a manual transmission and my uncle had not driven one in 30 years.
Driving would be an adventure that day: sometimes painful (plenty of stalls), sometimes fun. Thankfully, the roads in this region of France were largely deserted.
Visiting Normandy American Cemetery
Our first stop was the Normandy American Cemetery, which overlooks the beaches where the WWII Normandy landing took place.
The memorial and cemetery spans 172 acres and includes 9,385 graves. Most deaths occurred during the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944.
Omaha Beach is below.
In addition to the cemetery and chapel, a beautiful museum re-tells the story of World War II.
Visiting Utah Beach
We continued on to Utah Beach, another beach used by Allied powers during the D-Day invasion.
It was sobering to walk out onto the beach and realize that so many troops who landed on this beach never came home. On this day, the beach was calm. There were no other people around. It was surreal.
I’ll note once again that it seemed we had the whole region to ourselves. We passed very few other cars during the day.
German Cemetery in France?
We drove through Bayeux and found a road sign for La Cambe German war cemetery. The Germans too? It was not part of the plan to stop, but we did.
Ask yourself this: what do you do with thousands of body in the middle of the war? It is not exactly easy to bring them back to Great Britain, the USA, or Germany. Indeed, La Cambe was a battlefield cemetery, with Americans buried on one side and Germans on the others.
After the War, the U.S. opted to exhume its servicemen and move them to the Normandy cemetery or back to the USA. The Germans, which already had some World War I soldiers buried there, were granted control of this cemetery and have maintained it ever since. Over 21,000 German soldiers who died in World War II are buried there.
Evening had set in and we drove back to Caen. We checked out Château de Caen, an ancient castle (built in 1060) overlooking Abbey of Saint-Étienne, a former Benedictine monastery.
Dinner + A Scare
We found a restaurant nearby and enjoyed a nice dinner…before noticing we had lost track of time! There was just 30 minutes before boarding and were 30 minutes from the ferry port. Rushing off, we took several wrong turns (no navigation…we were just using a map) and genuinely feared we would miss our boat. But we made it. A couple stalls didn’t help.
Returning the car was as easy as parking it in the ferry parking lot and leaving the key at the tourist information desk. Things are just a bit more informal in this region of France.
The return ferry left at 11pm and arrived at 6:45a: an extra 1hr45min over the outbound voyage. We slept much better.
My trip to Normandy was one of the best day trips of my life. To see first-hand the World War II beaches and cemeteries was very sobering and meaningful. Both of my grandfathers served in the U.S. Army and to see where one served in France made the visit even more special.
We could have spent a lot more time here: this is a beautiful, laid-back region of France. We missed out on the Bayeux Tapestry and I would have liked to visit British, French, and Canadian cemeteries as well.
But make no mistake: even a day trip is worthwhile. This is a must-see region of France for anyone who is interested in World War II. And the ferries? They worked out splendidly.