D-Day 75th Anniversary: Seven things to do and see in Normandy
From historic landing beaches to the magical Mont St Michel, Ailish O'Hora explores France's Normandy region
This week marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy.
The famous landings saw allied forces launch the biggest amphibious invasion in history, alongside a massive ground campaign, in June of 1944.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
Operation Overlord marked the beginning of the end of WWII, when European forces came together on June 6 that year.
By July 24, over one million troops had landed.
And while Normandy is a dream for any history buff, it has a lot more to offer than landing beaches... from stunning coastline and countryside to the magical Mont St Michel. and Bayeaux Tapestry.
Here are seven things to do and see on your next trip.
1. Tour the landing beaches
The sheer scale of Operation Overlord and the landings, also known as Operation Neptune, is hard to fathom.
Under Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower, 150,000 troops were drawn from eight navies involving over 6,900 vessels, 1,213 warships as well as transport vessels, ancillary craft and merchant vessels.
The ambitious assault started with parachute jumps on June 6, 1944.
From west to east, there are five D-Day beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – while other key battle sites include Arromanches and Pegasus bridge.
When the Allies had successfully held beach heads following D-Day, two prefabricated harbours, built in Britain, were taken in sections across the English Channel, and were assembled at Omaha and Gold beach.
You can still see remnants of the harbours or mulberries along the coast with a particularly impressive piece that you can walk out and touch when the tide is out at the town of Arromanches, where the D-Day Museum is also located. This is well worth a visit - if only to get your head around what a feat the landings were.
While the landings were deemed a success, there were about 10,000 casualties, including 2,500 deaths, with the deadliest results for US troops at Omaha beach where the terrain and a deadly storm played into the hands of the Germans.
2. Mont St Michel
Mont St Michel is an unforgettable sight from the moment you spot it on the horizon. And when you get there, this rocky little island on the coast between Normandy and Brittany, with the majestic 11th century Benedictine abbey sitting on top of it, feels like the special place it is with vast sandbanks exposed and views to die for.
A highlight is the abbey on top with its majestic Gothic and Romanesque architecture– the bell tower is 170m above sea level. Sadly, there’s more than a hint of Disney about the place, and it’s advisable to bring a packed lunch as it’s not cheap. The mediocre signature puff omelette, which dates back to 1888, starts at €28!
3. Visit a farm and have a cider tasting
Close to Omaha beach, Ferme de la Sapiniere is a dairy farm as well as an apple juice, cider and Calvados (apply brandy) producer. It’s a charming place where old vegetable grading machines are now used to rank apples.
For over six generations, milk and cider have been the farm’s main source of income. There are 32 varieties of apple in the orchard and the produce is mainly sold locally.
Judging by the tour, there’s a lot more to the process than simply squeezing the juice out of the apples – it’s a complicated business. Following the tasting, the farm shop stocks the family’s cider and Calvados products that make for great gifts.
More info: producteur-cidre.com
4. Granville and the childhood home of Christian Dior
From its fortified headland, the town of Granville commands stunning views of the bay of Mont St Michel. At the headland’s western tip, there are more reminders of the World War II where German-built, hulky blockhouses, still look out onto the sea.
It is also where clothes designer Christian Dior grew up. His impressive childhood home is now a museum, with stunning gardens and sea views.
On the tour, you learn how Dior was told as a child that he would be “rich and successful, thanks to women.” The omen was true, and his signature grey and pink colours are believed to have been inspired by the sea views he grew up with.
5. Cite de la Mer, Cherbourg
The historic port city of Cherbourg is home to both a Titanic exhibition and Le Redoubtable, the world’s largest submarine open to the public. Both are worth a visit at the Cite de la Mer.
You get to walk through the submarine and see how the seamen ate, slept and lived underwater. Just two of the 16 nuclear missiles it carried had more explosive power than all the bombs used in the two world wars combined. On April 10, 1912 at 635pm, the Titanic sailed into Cherbourg harbour – it sank at 2.20am on April 15.
6. Stay in a chateau
View this post on Instagram
Meet Steven Melnikoff, 99, and who was a combat infantrymen with 175th Infantry Regiment on the landing beaches in Normandy in June 1944. This year marks the 75th anniversary of DDay and we’d like to celebrate courageous men like Steven. During the Second World War, La Chenevière was occupied by the Germans. In 1940 an administrative unit lived on the property whose facilities were able to accommodate 70 to 80 horses. The soldiers of the Third Reich stayed in the outbuildings although, at times, a few officers would live in the main house. La Chenevière became the headquarters of high-ranking German officers. Telecommunications posts were established there, and many trucks, motorcycles and cars were stored on-site. During the night of 4 to 5 June 1944 on the chateau’s property, Armand Lapierre, a member of the Réseau Alliance network, participated in the “Grande Coupure”, that aimed to destroy the German lines of communication around La Cheneviere before the Allied landing on June 6 1944. By the time of the landing, there were no more Germans in the house. 🇺🇸🇫🇷
Chateau de la Cheneviere is a charming 18th century country house which was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War and the Americans after the D-Day landings. It was fully restored in 1988 and now serves as a five-star hotel and restaurant, managed by the vivacious Francoise Fauquet.
Go for gastronomy at Le Botaniste restaurant, or a more bistrot-like menu at Le Petit Jardin. Chef Didier Robin is renowned for his love of local produce and the reinvention of traditional Normandy cuisine and the chateau boasts its own vegetable garden. The honey comes from the resident beehives.
For more, visit lacheneviere.com/en.
7. Visit the Bayeux tapestry
Nearly 70 metres long and 50cm tall, the Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth that depicts William, Duke of Normandy’s, 1066 conquest of England at the Battle of Hastings.
While created for a Norman patron, the cloth was almost certainly created in Canterbury, by English seamstresses, who revealed themselves in their technique and spelling.
The audio guide directs you along each scene of the story for the 70 metres, it’s an impressive piece of cloth. So much so, that the people at Game of Thrones commissioned a similar project to depict key moments in the epic drama. It can be viewed at the Ulster Museum but will go on display in Bayeux, beside the original tapestry, in September.
Ailish O’Hora travelled to France as a guest of Normandy Tourism and Irish Ferries. The new Irish Ferries ship WB Yeats, which operates between Dublin and Cherbourg every second day, can handle over 1,800 passengers.
See more at irishferries.com, and for more information on what to see and do in the region see Normandy Tourism (normandy-tourism.org).
Read more:4 to try: Bites and beaches in Normandy