Your Trip to Normandy In Brief: Conquerors and Liberators
By Carolee Duckworth, NABBW’s Independent Travel Associate
This year, let’s plan to set off in early May on an independent, but expertly planned, trip to Normandy on the northern coast of France. Our travel will carry us across the Atlantic to Paris, then west to the Normandy coast, for four nights in charming little Bayeux, where stories of conquest and liberation span from the 11th to the 20th century—from William the Conqueror to the D-Day landings.
- In Bayeux, we’ll luxuriate in comfort at Villa Lara, and feast nearby on local seafood, fresh from the frigid waters of the English Channel. While in Bayeux, we’ll visit the Bayeux Tapestries, taking time to “read” our way visually through the vivid story of William the Conqueror embroidered onto this ancient 11th century, 77-yard-long tapestry.
- We’ll sit it silence in Bayeux Notre Dame Cathedral, a soaring masterpiece of Norman architecture, consecrated on July 14th, 1077 by Bishop Odo, in the presence of his illustrious half-brother, William the Conqueror. Magnificent both inside and out, the cathedral is as large and impressive as Notre Dame in Paris, with an organ that is equally phenomenal.
- From Bayeux, we’ll venture off by train to see William’s Castle in nearby Caen. In Caen, we’ll also visit the altogether unique “Mémorial de Caen,” with its downward spiral of exhibits, dropping us gradually and compellingly from the aftermath of World War I into the Holocaust in Europe, the occupation of France, the Resistance Movement and finally the D-Day Landings and liberation.
- Still in Bayeux, we’ll travel west by train to the unique in all the world Mont St-Michel. Here we will stay for one night either across from or on the Mont, with a view of the Mont in all its glory, or in the isolated silence of the Mont itself, where the ocean flows in to surround us at the “speed of a galloping horse.”
- And then we’ll make our way back to Paris by train, staying there overnight to be ready to catch our plane home the next day. We’ll have just enough time in the “City of Lights” for a lovely dinner and a walk along the Seine, meandering out onto the bridges for entrancing views of the river lit up at night.
DAY 1: SATURDAY…TO BAYEUX IN NORMANDY
We’ll fly to France on a Friday night in May, arriving at CDG (Charles de Gaulle) airport Saturday morning. After going through passport control and customs, we’ll walk out into the arrivals area to meet our prearranged driver who will transfer us to Gare St. Lazare, where we will catch our train to Bayeux on the Normandy coast. Along this northern coast of France bordering the English Chanel, 11th century conquerors and 20th century liberators braved these precipitous cliffs—William the Conqueror in the 11th century and Allied troops in the 20th. Bayeux was mostly spared the ravages of WW II and has preserved its rich heritage, architecture, and charm. We’ll feel immediately at home here.
At St. Lazare train station, we’ll pick up fresh breakfast croissants and coffee to take aboard, paying in Euros. Then we’ll find the departures board, determine our track, “compost” (validate) our tickets in one of the bright yellow boxes near the tracks, locate our train car and seat, board, and stow our luggage. Once our train departs, we will have around 1¾ hours to relax and enjoy our breakfast as the countryside drifts by. But we’ll write down the exact time we will be arriving at our station and set an alarm to allow ourselves time to collect together all of our belongings and go stand by the door before we arrive. French trains pause only briefly at stations, so we’ll need be all set to hop off promptly.
When we arrive in Bayeux, we’ll check into our luxury accommodations at Villa Lara, a small boutique hotel in the historic center, facing the 11th-century Notre Dame cathedral, and a 2-minute walk from the Bayeux Tapestries. Our room will feature its own individual color scheme of neutral tones and printed fabrics, with period-style furniture, mini-bar, and a marble-floored bathroom with bathrobes and slippers. Villa Lara offers a daily buffet breakfast of fresh pastries and hot coffee and an empire-style bar where we can relax before we walk to dinner at a nearby restaurant.
After a brief pause to freshen up, we’ll head off for a late lunch at La Fringale on the pedestrian street, Rue St. Jean. Here we’ll feast on the one-price €32.90 “Menu” that includes appetizer (onion soup, escargots or Foie gras), main dish (White butter cod, Chicken with Norman sauce or Rib steak with choice of sauce), plus dessert. And we’ll take a deep breath, raising our glass of local wine to celebrate that “we have arrived!”
After lunch, we’ll take our orientation walk-about, locating the river and otherwise learning our way around our new “home base.” We’ll spot our wine shop, deli and bakery, as well as our ATM. And we’ll pause at the Saturday Weekly Market (7:30 AM–2:30 PM) at Place Saint-Patrice.
Our walk will end at Notre Dame Cathedral. We’ll be returning here later this evening for dinner at Brasserie Reine Mathilde (23 rue Larcher), on the terrace, across from the Cathedral, brilliantly illuminated at night.
After dinner, if energy allows, we’ll walk inside the serene, light and airy cathedral (open Saturday for evening hours from 8:30 PM to 10:30 PM) to find a seat and take in the gothic details and striking stained glass, miraculously unharmed during World War II.
We’ll imagine the 77-yard tapestry encircling the walls here in 1077, to the amazement of a primarily illiterate populace, communicating the details of William the Conqueror’s heroic saga.
DAY 2: SUNDAY… TAPESTRIES & D-DAY BEACHES
This morning, after a complimentary breakfast at Villa Lara, we’ll visit the Bayeux Tapestries, with the audio tour explaining the events it depicts. We’ll watch the movie and study the models, life-sized armored figures, and other interesting displays that bring the vivid early history of this area to life.
After a light lunch, or a picnic made up of bread, cheese, pâté, wine and fruit that we gathered together yesterday at the Saturday Weekly Market, we’ll walk to the train station to meet our prebooked driver at 1 PM for a small-group tour of the D-Day (known as “Jour-J” in France) Beaches.
Our knowledgeable guide will share the stories and point out where it all happened as we visit famous invasion sites, including Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of Normandy’s WW II beaches. We’ll pay tribute to fallen soldiers at the Normandy American Cemetery, and walk the landscape of Pointe du Hoc, the German gun battery taken by American rangers.
Back in Bayeux, dinner will be at Le Moulin de la Galette, at a table beside the river.
DAY 3: MONDAY…LANDINGS & OTHER SURPRISES
After breakfast, we’ll Uber or taxi to Arromanches, location of Port Winston, the temporary artificial harbor made up of miles of floating pontoon docks. This is where troops, transport and supplies were brought ashore, providing the 18,000 tons of daily supplies needed to support the Allied troops as they broke the barrier into the Nazi’s “fortress Europe” and liberated France. From atop the cliffs, we’ll look down to the beach and out to sea, surveying the vast hunks of hollow concrete that remain, each the size of a football field. These blocks of concrete, along with the 17 derelict ships that were sunk here, were dragged into position under cover of night, forming a breakwater that shielded the harbor from the turbulent seas.
From our vantage point on the cliff, we’ll absorb the magnitude of effort required to land troops along this craggy coastline in the face of German fire from gun bunkers embedded in the cliffs above. And we’ll relive this turning point in history at the Arromanches 360°Theater, watching archived footage of actual battles. Finally, we’ll visit the D-Day Museum to study fascinating working models that bring this complex operation to life.
Lunch will be fresh seafood near the water at La Marine, with splendid views out to a now tranquil sea, where once there was all the commotion of an active harbor and landing troops.
After we taxi or Uber back “home” to Bayeux, we’ll take some free time to wander at will, walking along the river or exploring the shops on the pedestrian street, rue St. Jean. We may return again for dinner at La Fringale or at another restaurant along rue St. Jean or at Brasserie Reine Mathilde, across from the Cathedral. By returning to our favorite restaurants, we’ll begin to have the sense of being “at home” here.
DAY 4: TUESDAY…OCCUPATION, MEMORIALS AND A CASTLE
This morning, after breakfast at our hotel, we will take the 16-minute intercity train east to Caen, heading first to the famous Mémorial de Caen, with its tribute to the Holocaust and the D-Day Landings. From the Caen train station, we’ll board the Twisto tram for the 10-minute ride across the river into Old Town, then hop off at the Chateau-Quatrans stop (near the ruins of William the Conqueror’s Castle). This will put us close to the stop for Bus #2 to take us the rest of the way.
This extensive World War II museum, with its eclectic and thoughtful exhibits, will provide us an emotional as well as informative perspective on Europe’s descent into war and occupation, and the massive military operation that finally reversed the tide. The museum is built over a former rock quarry once used as a firing range by the French Army, then as a German command headquarters in 1943 under General Wilhelm Richter.
Our museum visit will begin with a walk downward along a spiral of media displays—magazine covers, newspaper clippings, video footage, vinyl records—drawing us “helplessly into the abyss…the gradual unhinging of a world that had just found peace.” The superb audio tour and the Jour J (“D-Day”) movie will complete our experience. We’ll want to take our time here, probably spending at least four hours, with a pause midway for lunch and a walk through the Memorial Gardens.Jour J
Then we’ll head back to the Quartier du Vaugueux (Old Town) on Bus #2, hopping off again at the Chateau-Quatrans stop near the castle. We’ll find an outdoor table at l’Ardoise (24-26 rue du Vaugueux) where we can decompress from the intensity of our museum experience.
When we move on down rue du Vaugueux, we’ll select an outdoor restaurant where we’d like to return later for dinner and make 6:30 PM reservations.
The remainder of the afternoon will be free time for us to walk over to the castle and explore it briefly, then wander Old Town, with its half-timbered buildings and popular shopping street, rue St. Pierre. At 6:30, we’ll head back to relax over dinner, before making our way to the train station, then back “home” for our final night in Bayeux.
DAY 5: WEDNESDAY…TO THE PHENOMENAL MONT-SAINT-MICHEL
Today we leave lovely little Bayeux for a 2¼-hour train ride to Pontorson, the station nearest to the phenomenal Mont-Saint-Michel. This will shift us from the coast along the English Channel to the Atlantic Coast, where Brittany and Normandy connect. We’ll make our way from the station to Le Relais Saint Michel for lunch with a view overlooking Mont Saint-Michel, rising from the sea like a mirage.
Tonight we will stay either at Le Relais Saint Michel, with a private terrace facing the Mont. Or we’ll stay on the Mont itself, at La Mère Poulard along the Grand Rue, with a view out to the Bay, giving us the experience of deep solitude from a night on an island surrounded by the sea.
After lunch at the Relais, we’ll catch the free shuttle that stops out front for the 10-minute ride across the causeway. Then we’ll enter through the massive gates and climb up and up the Grand Rue to the Abbey at the top. For now we will pass by all the intriguing shops along the way and keep on going. Later, on our way back down, we will have ample time for shopping. And by then the Grand Rue and its shops will be less mobbed.
As we walk past Terrasse Poulard Restaurant, we will stop in to make 8 PM dinner reservations at a window table. The hostess will understand when we communicate clearly that we hope to view the phenomenon of the tides coming in “at the speed of a galloping horse.” And she will do everything she can to accommodate our wishes.
When we reach the Abbey up top, we’ll take the audio tour and hear the stories of this unique monastic retreat. Then we’ll work our way back down, pausing in the pretty garden along the way, and stopping by any shops that intrigue us, before we return to Terrasse Poulard for dinner and a water show we will never forget.
After dinner, we’ll venture out to the ramparts, with views of either sea or sand, depending on the state of the tides at the moment. Then we’ll find a table at the cozy Piano Bar at Mere Poulard, admiring the view out across the Bay as we enjoy live music.
If we are staying on the Mont tonight, the piano bar is in our hotel, and we’re already “home.” Otherwise, we’ll pass through the gates to catch the return shuttle back to Le Relais where we’ll enjoy a glass of wine on our terrace, looking back at the Mont, illuminated against the evening sky.
BONUS DAY: THURSDAY…AN EVENING IN PARIS
Today we’ll make our way back to Paris to be near the airport for our flight home tomorrow. Since our train from Pontorson doesn’t leave until 1:40 PM, we’ll have an easy morning, with ample time to linger over breakfast at our hotel while enjoying our final views, either FROM the Mont or OF the Mont.
Then we’ll check out and catch the return bus to Pontorson in time to board the 1:40 PM train to Paris Gare Montparnasse on the left bank of the Seine. We absolutely MUST be on time to catch this train!! After a train change in Rennes, we’ll arrive at Gare Montparnasse just after 5 PM.
Tonight, we will stay at Hotel Le Notre Dame Saint Michel on the left bank, across from Notre Dame. We will have time to cross over the Pont au Doublefootbridge from the left bank to the larger island, Île de la Cité, walk around Notre Dame (still being repaired from the devastating fire in 2019), and maybe meander through the Flower Market. For dinner, we will have made reservations at an outdoor table at Le Flore en L’Ile, on the little island, Ile Saint-Louis, with views across to Notre Dame on the large island.
After dinner, as we stroll along the river back to our hotel, we’ll walk partway out on a bridge to stand at the rail, looking up and down the river at the many illuminated bridges and enjoying the spectacle of Paris aglow at night. And we’ll make note of this moment as an unforgettable reminder of Paris in all its loveliness. And we’ll promise ourselves that we will return to spend more time here soon.