Normandy D-day beaches code-named Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword, together with Utah in neighbouring Manche, were the setting for the invasion forces of Operation Overlord on 6 June 1944.
This offensive was the beginning of reclaiming Normandy from the occupying Germans which turned the tide of WWII but at a terrible price in lives lost and towns destroyed.
The debris of war still survives in places and almost every town has its own museum such as the Omaha museum at St-Laurent-sur-Mer.
Part of the mulberry harbours are preserved at Arromanches near Gold beach and the story of the way 135,000 men and 20,000 vehicles were landed is told in Arromanche’s Musee du Debarquement.
Bayeux tourist office tel: (00 33) 2 31 51 28 28 has full information on Normandy battlefields plus books and maps. Museums and tourist offices will also have details on 8 sign-posted routes covering different phases of the fighting.
Military cemeteries along the coast are devoted to Allied and Commonwealth graves as French soldiers were buried in their home churchyards. In the main they are beautifully kept, peaceful places, intimate and bright with flowers. The inscriptions requested by families make thought-provoking reading. The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer overlooking Omaha Beach was used in the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’.
For buses which go along the coast, ask at Caen tourist office tel: (00 33) 2 31 27 14 14. The ‘Bus Verts du Calvados’ special D-Day Line from Caen’s ‘gare routiere’ (July and August daily) makes a circular route to Coursuelles, Arromaches, Longues-sur-Mer (site of German batteries), US military cemetery and Pointe du Hoc - taking all day.
Regarded as one of the best World War II museums in France, there have been well over 6,000,000 visitors since it opened in 1988. Within easy reach of Ouistreham, the Brittany Ferries port for Caen, the Caen Memorial is a thought-provoking museum for peace using film and audiovisual displays.
Visitors walk through a 5 part presentation: the lead-up to World War II; the Battle of Normandy; 2 powerful video presentations on the Cold War and the on-going movement for peace, and ending with a gallery dedicated to Nobel Peace Prize-winners.
There are also exhibits relating to the September 11 attacks and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Child-friendly, with lovely gardens, the Caen Memorial is the ideal end to a ‘Landing Beaches’ tour.
The museum is open daily 0900 to 1900 (until 20.00hrs mid-July to mid-Aug). For further information, tel: (00 33) 2 31 06 06 44.
The site of the original Pegasus Bridge can be found 5km south of the Brittany Ferries port of Ouistreham close to the main road into Caen. A daring glider assault took place there the night before D-Day. The planes crash landed beside a tilting bridge crossing the Orne Canal, troops poured out and the bridge was secured by the British 6th Airborne Division until reinforcements arrived.
Three columns mark where the gliders landed and you can still walk over the original Pegasus Bridge preserved in the grounds of the Airborne Museum Pegasus Bridge - ‘Memorial Pegasus’.
The museum, opened in June 2000, tells the story of the 6th (Airborne) Division on 6th June 1944. See uniforms, medals, vehicles and other memorabilia along with an excellent film show. Open daily 9.30am - 6.30pm Apri l- Sept and 10am - 5pm (closed 1 - 2pm) Feb - March and Oct - Nov.
Caen’s Jardin des Plantes was originally established in 1689. It has an orangery, greenhouses, medicinal garden, collections of Norman flora, trees and shrubs and children’s playground. Contact (00 33) 2 31 30 48 38 for opening hours.
The eleventh century Bayeux Tapestry, 70 metres long and embroidered on linen, is on view to the public in the Centre Guillaume which is part of Bayeux Cathedral.
It tells the story of William the Conqueror and his invasion of England in 1066 and is one of the best sources of information on early Norman dress, armour, architecture, hunting and daily life. Look for soldiers picnicking off their shields while dukes dine at a table on roast chicken.
Open all year – except for the second week of January – 0900 to between 1800 and 1900 according to the season. Visits take about 1½ hrs – last entry 45 minutes before closing. For more information, tel: (00 33) 2 31 51 25 50
Set in 37 acres with beautiful trees, rhododendrons and shrubs, these zoological gardens have more than 500 animals from all over the world including the very rare white lion. Several shows take place in the summer with colourful falconry displays, snake handling, penguin feeding and big cats. There is a play area for young children and a self-service cafeteria.
The zoo is closed early November through to early February. For further details, tel: (00 33) 2 31 77 94 12.
Huge model railway - replica of the route from Clecy to Flanders - guaranteed to appeal to adults and children alike. One of the largest in Europe, the railway covers 310m² with 400m of track, 220 locomotives, 350 carriages, 1250 road vehicles and 650 miniature houses.
The Route du Fromage (cheese route) travels through such famous cheese producing villages as Livarot, Pont l’Eveque and Camembert in neighbouring Orne. Begin in Livarot - the centre of cheese country. Fromagerie Graindorge on the route de Vimoutiers is open Monday to Friday and Saturday mornings for visits - see cheese making with free samples.
The cheese museum in Vimoutiers over the border in Orne has lots of information on local cheese tel: (00 33) 2 33 39 07 15 and look out for the statue in the town to Marie Harel from Camembert who campaigned in the early nineteenth century to put local cheese (said to have been produced in monasteries since the Dark Ages) on the map. She even sent samples to Napoleon. Camembert also has cheese museums at La Ferme President and La Maison du Camembert.
Cider has been produced in Normandy since the thirteenth century, turning pure apple juice into a sparkling, thirst quenching drink, Pommeau and Calvados apple brandy. The 40km sign-posted route for visitors tours the main apple-growing region around Cambremer in the Pays d’Auge south east of Caen.
Explore picturesque countryside dotted with manors, half-timbered houses, stud farms and apple orchards through villages such as la Roque-Baignard, Druval and Victot-Pontfol where you can visit the cellars of local producers. Look for ‘Cru de Cambremer’ signs - to sample the produce. Visit in spring to see the trees in blossom and autumn to watch production.