by Peggy Sijswerda
When most Americans think of Normandy, WWII battle scenes of soldiers storming the beaches come to mind. Sixty-five years ago on a fateful day in June, U.S., Canadian, and British soldiers faced enemy fire from Nazi troops so that the rest of the world could be free. Many never made it home.
I’d always wanted to visit those iconic beaches and pay my respects to the men and women who’d lost their lives there. Last summer my husband, Peter, and I finally got a chance to go. We discovered this picturesque province spreading westward from Paris is full of hidden surprises, poignant moments, and stunning scenery. In fact Normandy deserves to be known for much more than the infamous battles fought on its shores.
During our four-day visit, we roamed from one end of Normandy to the other, visiting Rouen, Honfleur, Deauville, Omaha Beach, and Mont Saint-Michel. And now as I reflect on our journey, instead of bloody beaches, Normandy’s colorful landscape comes to mind, swirling like a painting by Seurat with patches of soft golds, blues, and greens, edges blurring together as in a dream. Until this trip I’d pictured Normandy as a stormy, grey land, dark and brooding. Nothing could be further than the truth. It’s beyond beautiful. A pervading sense of tranquility dwells there—as if the land and the people still cradle our fallen soldiers with love and gratitude.
In fact, it’s this juxtaposition of peace and war, tranquility and bloodshed that makes Normandy such a special corner of France.
In the decades since the Normandy campaign, many WWII veterans as well as their children and grandchildren have come to these historic shores seeking solace or the chance to remember a loved one. History buffs will find a week’s worth of sites to explore, but Peter and I were short on time and chose the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach as our entry point into this poignant period of American history.
Here the war our fathers and grandfathers fought becomes suddenly real. Spread across 172 acres are 9,387 white marble headstones as well as a solemn memorial, a garden where engraved tablets honor the 1,557 soldiers missing in action, and a visitor’s center whose stark exhibits depict what life was like for soldiers during those dark June days.
While I don’t have a close relative who died on the beaches of Normandy, I felt a real sense of sadness intermingled with pride and even a sense of joy as I pictured those valiant men marching toward the enemy, knowing they might not live to see the morning light. In the visitor’s center, Peter and I viewed a movie called “Letters” that shared actual letters and interviews with family members of soldiers who’d been killed. The film also featured local French citizens who expressed heartfelt gratitude to the North American and British forces who set them free.
When I signed the visitor’s log, I noticed a French woman had written in the comment space just above my entry: “Merci pour âutre liberté!” I could barely see to record my name through the tears that sprang to my eyes. In fact, among the crowds of people visiting the cemetery, I noticed very few Americans, but saw people from many different European countries—all making the trek to this forlorn spot on the Normandy coast to show respect to our soldiers. This is indeed a place where you will feel proud to be an American.
Besides the beaches of Normandy, this region conjures up other iconic images. Claude Monet, the father of Impressionism, was captivated by the light in this region and painted many scenes of the magnificent cliffs cascading into the Atlantic. His paintings of Rouen Cathedral, however, are among his best-known works. We spent a day in Rouen admiring its Old-World architecture and exploring its city center, where cobble-stoned streets dating to medieval times lead you past soaring cathedrals, as well as cozy antique shops and art galleries.
The Rouen Cathedral, located across from the tourist office, is a Gothic masterpiece. Built in the 12th century, it suffered damage in WWII and even now is still being renovated. Yet behind the scaffolding, the same building so familiar to us in Monet’s paintings stands tall. From 1892 to 1893 the artist painted more than thirty versions of the Rouen Cathedral, combining shades of blue and gray to create surreal images that evoke an emotional response no matter what your religious beliefs might be. Monet was fascinated by how the light played on the cathedral’s chalky sandstone exterior and would often paint multiple versions of the cathedral throughout a single day, which he would later finish at his studio in nearby Giverny.
In addition to the famous cathedral Monet memorialized, Rouen is also known as the site where St. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake by English invaders in 1431. One sunny morning we wandered through the tidy city center to the Old Market Place, a lovely square surrounded by half-timbered buildings where you can sit on a terrace and enjoy coffee or a pastis. In the center of the square sits the Church of St. Joan of Arc, a modern structure of wood and stone with stained glass windows dating back to the Renaissance. Beside the church a simple plaque framed by colorful flowers marks the spot where Joan of Arc gave her life for France at age 19.
One of our favorite things to do while traveling in Europe is to picnic. I love shopping in markets and grocery stores looking for local specialties, as well as stocking up on fresh bread, wine, and cheese. Normandy is known for its seafood, so one day we picked up a package of locally smoked fish for a picnic on our way to Honfleur.
Under a clear blue sky, we followed a scenic route that parallels the Seine River as it flows westward towards the North Sea. On a whim we turned into a small town called Tancarville, passed through it in the blink of an eye, and followed an arrow to High Tancarville. We wound up a curvy road edged by thick forests and found ourselves beside the most picturesque picnic area imaginable. Tall shade trees lined an expanse of mossy grass dotted by smaller trees and shrubs, a scene made golden by the warm afternoon sun. Eureka! We got out our picnic blanket and lunch and relaxed to the distant sound of children laughing and playing in a neighborhood hidden by the trees.
There’s something about eating outdoors that makes food taste better and gives your body and soul the chance to refresh and renew. We relished our food, sipped our wine, and toasted to a perfect picnic spot. After lunch, I did a few yoga poses and wrote in my notebook, enjoying the feeling of not having to be anywhere at any particular time. It was as if time stood still on that hilltop in France. What made it so amazing was that we had been guided to this Elysian field in the Normandy countryside as if by magic.
Honfleur is a small harbor town whose centerpiece, an inner harbor surrounded on three sides by restaurants and cafes, attracts crowds of tourists. Half-timbered buildings rise up as a backdrop, making this one of the prettiest harbor towns I’ve seen. And even though lots of tourists swarmed around, no one seemed to be in a hurry. Whether they were savoring a refreshing ice cream cone or sipping a cold beer, everyone seemed content to while away the day in this cozy town. Peter and I found a table on a terrace and fell under the communal spell, just resting and watching the world unfurl before us like a secret map. Honfleur did seem to be a hidden treasure, an ideal place to find yourself on a sunny afternoon with nothing to do.
But we did in fact have more we wanted to see. Not far to the west along the coast are a couple of famous resort towns: Trouville and Deauville. The latter has been the home of the American Movie Festival since 1975, and each September draws scores of Hollywood celebs to its beaches, casinos, and nightclubs for an event that rivals the Cannes Film Festival. While celebrities were in short supply during our visit, Peter and I did go for a walk on the beach, dipping our toes into the North Sea. In the waning afternoon sky, the enigmatic Normandy light made what otherwise would have been a typical beach scene into a magical moment where the sea the sky and the sand all melded into one continuous canvas colored by the soft translucent sunlight that filtered through the clouds.
Another iconic image rises up on the farthest shore of Normandy: Mont Saint-Michel, a massive abbey in a castle-like setting. Instead of a moat, however, tidal mud flats surround the rocky promontory. At high tide the North Sea rushes in and eclipses Mont Saint-Michel, separating it from the mainland with just a narrow causeway connecting the two.
As we approached this world heritage site, I screamed, “There it is!” Like a mirage, Mont Saint-Michel rose up in the distance, green fields of grazing sheep in the foreground, a clear blue sky behind. My enthusiasm curbed a bit, however, when I saw the long lines of traffic on the causeway, leading to and from the parking lots. Thousands of cars and even more tourists surged toward this pilgrimage site—hardly surprising, I suppose, since August is one of the busiest months to travel in Europe.
Nevertheless, we ventured toward the monument, happy to be visiting one of the must-see wonders of the world. Inside the walls of the town, Mont Saint-Michel has an amazing infrastructure including a tourist office, town hall, post office, museums, souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants, and of course an abbey and a monastery at the crown of the promontory, where a community of monks lives and prays.
Peter and I never made it to the abbey, however. After fighting the crowds along the narrow souvenir-shop lined street, we’d had enough and wandered instead toward the out-lying edges of Mont Saint-Michel to try to experience some sense of the soul of this place. We found respite in quiet gardens where we relaxed and enjoyed expansive views. After descending, we strolled on the mudflats a bit and then decided to leave before the tide came in so as to avoid the deluge of traffic that would follow. My advice is to plan your visit to Mont Saint-Michel in the off-season. Only then will you be able to appreciate the ethereal beauty of this place.
Our visit to Normandy wound down that evening in the delightful company of Jacie and Richard, an expatriate British couple who own Numero Cinq, a cozy B & B in a small town called Domfront, an hour east of Mont Saint-Michel. Our room at Numero Cinq was perfect and offered a panoramic view of the countryside. After getting settled, Peter and I decided to drink a glass of wine in our hosts’ garden and watch the sunset before heading off to eat mussels and french fries at a place Jacie recommended. With a bottle of lovely Bordeaux, wine glasses supplied by Jacie, and a few peanuts to snack on, Peter and I ambled into the hillside garden. Beneath us the landscape spread out like a blanket, dotted with sheep and apple trees and a hundred shades of green—from light golden-green to rich forest green and every iteration in between.
As we clinked our glasses, Jacie and Richard joined us, and soon we were sharing life stories, wine, and peanuts together as the changing light of the prolonged summer twilight washed across the land like a painting in motion. Peter retrieved another bottle of wine, and before we knew it, Jacie brought a picnic basket out with olives, rich brie, paté, hearty sausage, and artisanal bread—a veritable feast. The mussels and fries disappeared from my mind as we dined on this luscious local bounty.
For hours the four of us talked about everything from the war to sailing to living as ex-pats. As the evening sky segued into night, the wine caught up with us. We thanked our new friends for their hospitality, climbed the two flights of stairs to our cozy room, and fell into bed, dreaming of our next visit to Normandy.
• Peter and I rented a car in Paris. Try www.sixt.com for competitive rates.
• Consider a Eurail pass. Most of the sights we visited in Normandy are accessible by train. A Eurail Drive/Railpass is another option. A popular version features two train days and two drive days. Visit www.eurail.com.
Where to Stay
• In Rouen we stayed at the reasonably priced Comfort Hotel Rouen Alba located in the city center. Our window offered a magnificent view of the Rouen Cathedral, bathed in golden light at night. A tasty breakfast was included. Visit www.comfortinn.com for more information.
• Numero Cinq B & B – www.numerocinq.eu. Tell Jacie and Richard we said hello!
Peggy Sijswerda lives in Virginia Beach and edits and publishes two regional magazines: Tidewater Women and Tidewater Family. She freelances on the side, combining her passion for travel, her love of writing, and her insatiable curiosity about everything from architecture to zydeco. Currently she’s planning a trip to Andalusia, where she will follow the brandy route and try not to get lost. Her Dutch husband, Peter, and their three sons sometimes accompany Peggy on her adventures, but she also loves traveling solo. She recently completed a memoir, Still Life with Sierra, which follows Peggy and her family as they lose themselves in Europe for six months, trying to find home.