Le Mont St. Michel, Normandy

“And what a plan! This vast operation is undoubtedly the most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred.” — Winston Churchill

Because of my penchant for over-planning and -researching in preparation for my trips, one might think that Winston Churchill’s above quote may very well have been referring to my oft intensive travel itineraries.  While I wish that I’d ever accomplished anything worthy of recognition by Churchill’s insightful wisdom, the British Prime Minister was  obviously referring to D-Day and Operation Overlord’s invasion of Normandy in an effort to liberate Europe from Nazi rule.  This quote came to mind as I reflected upon my 2010 trip to France with my son. As I was planning a vacation during my son’s spring break from school, I had absolutely no idea where I wanted to take my son, other than France, but for some time, I had an aversion to visiting France since all you ever heard about was the anti-American sentiment of the French as well as rude treatment of American tourists visiting France. This bum rap (addressed in my post Americans Really Can Be Ugly) inflicted upon the citizenry of France in the end did not deter me from my desire to experience the history of Normandy and ultimately the culture of Paris as well with my son Devan. Having had a short port stop in Nice the year prior, with no incident of rude treatment by the locals in the Côte d’Azur, I decided to take a chance to return to Normandy and Paris for the first time since I was a young girl so that I could share the experience with my son.

Buffalo Grill, Normandy, France
With all of the amazing cuisine accessible in France, Devan insisted upon a burger at the Buffalo Grill
Normandy Church
One of the lovely churches we passed along the way to Bayeux from Paris

Our itinerary with our limited 10 days’ time to visit Normandy and Paris ended up being split with 3 days in Normandy and 7 days in Paris, neither time frame being nearly sufficient to take in all that these areas of France have to offer. Upon commencement of the research phase, I labored over the decision of taking a train to Caen in Normandy vs. making the trip north via rental car. While the train offered the benefit of my being able to rest and take in the scenery after the long flight (especially since I don’t sleep on planes more than a blink and since we were landing at 7 am with a full day ahead of us), I eventually settled on renting a car to allow me to follow the precedent my dad set of embracing the ability to wheel off the intended path toward our destination to explore interesting things we stumble across along our way. This turned out to be the absolute right decision, as so many off-the-beaten path sites and sights would not have been possible to reach without a car to afford us the necessary flexibility.

Le Mont St. Michel from Avranches
Le Mont St. Michel from Avranches
Bayeux Cathedral
Bayeux Cathedral

What should have been a 3 hour drive north took us closer to 5 hours, since I prefer to avoid expressways in favor of highways to help us avoid the pitfall of speeding past points of interest and offer us the ability to amble through quaint non-touristy towns most travelers don’t take the opportunity to visit.  After stops in Evreux and some other towns whose names I no longer recall to sample our first (but certainly not last) croque monsieurs and macarons of the trip, we finally arrived at our initial destination of Bayeux where we’d be catching a small private Battlebus tour. While I typically veer away from taking guided tours, I opted for the tour of the American Beaches to allow Devan and me the opportunity to focus on the history, rather than splitting our energies and attention between navigation and reading about the history as we visited each of the monumental locations on our agenda. I have no regrets regarding taking the tour, as being able to hear an expert’s explanation of each of the stops on the tour including  Angoville au Plain, Sainte-Mère-Église, Utah Beach,  Pointe du Hoc, Omaha Beach, the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, and the D-Day Museum at Caen allowed us to absorb our surroundings and the wealth of history he imparted upon us.

tained Glass at Angoville au Plain church
Stained glass window at Angoville au Plain honoring the Paratroopers who liberated the town
American Cemetery in Normandy
The American Cemetery in Normandy provides a visual that inspires awe, respect and reverence.
2000 pound bomb crater, Pointe du Hoc
A boy in a 2000 pound bomb crater at Pointe du Hoc

While I’m most certainly not the most emotional person in the world, very little I’ve experienced in life not relating to my son or father has moved me the way that Devan’s and my time in Normandy overwhelmed me with emotion coupled with a pure sense of solemnity and reverence. Standing on Bloody Omaha and hearing our guide describe how the Nazis situated the Widerstandsnests with such precision and strategy that the American soldiers hitting the beach on D-Day had the odds severely stacked against them. Hearing about Paratrooper John Steele’s ordeal after getting his parachute caught on the spire of the church at Sainte-Mère-Église and learning of the two young Army medics who used the church in Angoville au Plain as an aide station to treat injured American and German soldiers as well as a child injured in the melee while standing in the locations where events shaped the history of the world as we know it was moving and memorable in a life-altering way that eternally affects your perception of history and the world. Standing amongst the hedgerows that complicated the movement of Allied soldiers, seeing the bomb-scarred moonscape of Pointe du Hoc, witnessing firsthand the blood stained pews of the church at Sainte-Mère-Église and wandering through the American Cemetery at Normandy’s row after row of grave markers of heroes  who lost their lives in a quest to liberate Europe were just some of the awe-inspiring moments that are indelibly marked in my heart and mind.

Bloody Omaha Beach, Normandy
Standing on Bloody Omaha Beach and visualizing what transpired there evoked emotion rarely experienced.
Utah Beach, Normandy
The ominous sky over Utah Beach seemed fitting.

The entire visit to Normandy was not filled with emotion and heavy hearted history. Devan and I did complement that memorable part of the visit to Normandy with lighter, yet also memorable moments and typical sightseeing. We visited the Bayeux Cathedral, saw the ancient Bayeux Tapestry and wandered the town to take in the local flavor and atmosphere. We stayed in a quaint hotel called Reine Mathilde, which was not fancy by any stretch of the imagination, but was run by welcoming staff who were as kind and helpful as all of the locals we encountered during our time in Normandy. We then headed toward Le Mont St. Michel, making a few unscheduled stops along the way. We found ourselves in the hilltop town of Avranches with its lovely botanical garden and spectacular view of Le Mont St. Michel. We spent our last night in Normandy on the Mont and wandered the cobbled streets, roamed the abbey and climbed our way around the perimeter of the colossal structure as the tides rolled in, separating Le Mont St. Michel from the mainland until the next morning when the tide subsided again.  Le Mont St. Michel lit up on a peaceful night was a sight to behold. Truly amazing.

Learning to drive stick shift in Normandy
Please don’t tell the unnamed rental car company that I taught my 16 year old to drive a manual transmission during our trip to Normandy. Not too many kids have this view whilst learning to manipulate a 5-speed!
Climbing Le Mont St. Michel
Climbing Le Mont St. Michel

Our three days in Normandy were action packed, but not nearly enough time to embrace the many, many towns, sights and experiences that Normandy has to offer. I hope to make it back to this beautiful region again one day to have the opportunity to take in a bit more of the myriad splendors of this incredible part of France. I’ve visited many places that I recommend to others. Very few of them, however, would be numbered (in my humble opinion) as a destination you MUST make an effort to visit, as I believe Normandy should be on the tip top of every traveler’s list.

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