This year will be the 74th anniversary celebrating men from all over the world who on the 6th June 1944 and during the long summer which followed, came to fight in Normandy to defeat Nazism and to re-establish freedom. This date is known as destination D-day.
I must admit, before visiting Normandy my knowledge on D-day was very basic so it was mainly the key date and the countries that worked together to fight against the Nazis that I really knew. But while in Normandy, history was actually bought to life.
Almost everywhere you stand has a bit of history to tell, all linking itself to that special time in history. With original equipment, machinery and uniform still kept and reserved for visitors to see, Normandy will be the scars of this moment in history forever.
After an overnight ferry trip with Brittany ferries and having a quick look over day 1 on the itinerary, the 8am arrival into Saint-Malo the following morning made perfect sense as we had so much planned to see each day.
Before stepping onto our mini-bus I had the opportunity to feast my eyes on the beautiful surroundings of Saint Malo (a coastal city in Brittany). It may have been mid-November with the temperature on single figures but it looked like summer with the pink mist fading away in the distance as the sun rises. No longer was I sleepy but in-fact mesmerised and excited for what new history I was about to learn today. All belted up in the mini-bus, first destination, Mont-saint Michel.
Set in the staggering bay where Normandy and Brittany merge, Mont-saint Michel is one of Europe’s unforgettable sights. We learnt something new with every step thanks to our amazing guide who told us many fascinating facts and stories about the island, such as how the mount turned into a great place of Christian pilgrimage and how Aubert (bishop of Avranches) in the 8th century who claimed he was pressured by Archangel Michael to build a church on top of the island.
We were also given the pleasure of visiting the Abbey located in Manche. It is a structural composition of the town with more than 1.3 million visitors each year making it one of the most visited cultural places in France.
After an early start and a 3 hour guided walking tour, we were thankful to grab lunch at restaurant Le Pre Sale before heading to the bakery at Le Jardin du clos fleuri.
It is much more than just a beautiful garden. With her experience, Virginie offers cooking classes for groups on several themes – bread, pizza, brioches, jams and syrups. Even if you do not fancy getting hands on, why not watch the traditional makings of bread and taste their all natural farm products. That’s what we did and it was truly scrumptious! We even got given a small bag of savoury nibbles to munch on our journey to the accommodation, La Portes des Iles in St Pair-sur-mer. After a nice evening meal with seafood caught freshly from the sea it was definitely time for bed.
With an early 08.15am departure from St-Pair-sur-mer, we arrive our first visit of the day, the Utah Beach D-day Landing museum.
Built on the very spot where American troops landed on June 6th 1944, the D-day Landing museum recounts the events of D-day in sequences, from its planning right through to its success. From the tour we had, you can get really involved in the history of the Landings and discover a rich collection of objects, vehicles and equipment. I must say the biggest star of the museum is an authentic American Marauder B26 bomber which is displayed in a specially designed hangar.
Following on from this heart-warming visit, we were given free time at Biscuiterie of Ste-Mere-Eglise to indulge ourselves with some handmade biscuits and sweet treats. They were so good that I bought a few of my favourites back home with me! After a nice spot of lunch in a local café, back on the minibus we go to visit Bayeux Tapestry.
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy and Harold, Earl of Wessex and culminating in the Battle of Hastings. It is thought to tell the story from the point of view of the conquering Normans. The Tapestry is an embroidered cloth nearly 70 metres long and 50cm tall.
With an audio headset at the ready waiting to re-tell the battle I see before my eyes, it made me a little nervous but mainly fascinated to walk the exceptional length of the Tapestry. Seeing the freshness of colours makes you truly appreciate the workmanship and makes you stare in disbelief how it survived over nine centuries in almost perfect condition.
After a moment of voluntary silence to take in all the history that has been brought to life so far, we made our journey to the second accommodation of our stay, Les Tourelles in St Aubin-Sur-Mer. We had a very peaceful dinner and well needed early night as yes you’ve guessed it! We have another early start for our final day in Normandy.
Today was our visit to 360 cinema in Arromanches to watch a short film which pays tribute to the combatants of all nations, and to the 20,000 civilians who died during this battle. I have never experienced a 360 cinema before and therefore was looking forward to this visit and was purely touched by the purpose behind it.
Situated on heights above Arromanches, the Arromanches 360 circular cinema looks over the remains of the artificial Mulberry port built by the Allies. The film we watched was called “the 100 days of Normandy”: a moving film taking you on a journey to the heart of D-day. The film was 19 minutes long and recounts “the 100 Days of the Battle of Normandy” which led to the rapid liberation of France by exhausting the German army until it was defeated at Falaise pocket. It also tells of the terrible suffering of the civilians in lower Normandy whose towns and villages were flattened by Allied Bombs. It actually brought tear to my eyes.
Staying on the topic of the civilians, our final visit of the trip was Memorial des Civils (the memorial for civilians in the war) museum in Falaise. This self-guided tour made me realise how valuable life is as in 1944 up to 35 million civilians caught up in the midst of the gigantic battle of the Second World War lost their lives. This was a very big turning point as it was the first time in history of modern warfare, that the number of civilian victims exceeded that of the military victims.
This memorial museum showed us the daily life during the occupation, the liberation and the reconstruction not just in Normandy but in France and abroad as well.
With our suitcases at the ready, our last minibus journey took us to the port of Ouistreham for us to the board the ferry back to Portsmouth. Having a lovely evening meal on board gave us the time to reflect back on every detail we learnt these past 3 days. It was a special moment visiting Normandy. Seeing aspects of the past that shaped our future…