When we booked our tickets to France, I immediately knew the first stop we needed to make was to Normandy. Located on the western coast, Normandy is a large region that consists of romantic villages and bustling cities surrounded with awe-inspiring landscapes. However, that’s probably not why you’re familiar with this area. It’s most likely that you’ve only heard of Normandy in the context of World War 2, and for good reason. Generally referred to as D-Day, the Normandy landings on June 6th 1944 were the largest seaborne invasion in history. And while the entire region is full of rich history, it can be difficult to truly experience the vast knowledge of Normandy without a local guide. To make the most of our stay, we opted for the highly rated Normandy Sightseeing Tours to lead us on an excursion around the country.
The tour picked us up close to our AirBnB in the center of Bayeaux. Since the van only fit nine people, the tour felt personalized and we were able to get to know each other without getting lost in a crowd. Our guide, Kate, began sharing stories as soon as we hit the road. As a local, she grew up surrounded by the stories of the land. She not only shared historical events, but also the tales from her grandfather who experienced World War 2 first hand. Her enthusiasm for the content was perfect for history buffs and newbies alike. Although I have a general idea of the events of D-Day, I was limited to what I remembered from 10th grade history. Despite my lack of background knowledge, Kate easily explained the timeline of events and the impact it had both on Normandy, and the world.
Our first stop was at the German Cemetery that was initially occupied by the French. Since many German soldiers were actually from countries like Ukraine and Poland and forced to fight in the German army against their will, they were often friendly with the French, despite their forced leadership. We arrived as the gates were opening, which allowed us a private and solemn viewing of the cemetery. While some graves are labeled with the soldiers names and dates of birth and death, many soldiers were found without dog tags and buried in a mass grave in the center. Because the battles were across the entire region, bodies and supplies are still found in fields to this day and buried accordingly.
After paying our respects, we got back into the van and traveled to Sainte-Mère-Église, an enchanting town with a unique history. This village includes multiple interactive museums regarding the paratroopers of 1944. Nearly 14,000 American paratroopers and 6,000 British and Canadian paratroopers dropped into this village to seize it back from the Germans. Kate shared the fascinating experiences of one of the paratroopers, John Steel, who landed in an unusual place and came back decades later to revisit it. This story alone is worth the visit.
Next we headed to Utah Beach, a two mile long coast occupied by Germany that the Allies invaded on D-Day. Now used as a popular fishing spot, you can still find bullet casings or life jackets pieces if you look carefully.
After an adventurous morning, we all enjoyed lunch at Grandcamp, a vibrant fishing village. Kate joined us for lunch and it was wonderful to share a meal and hear more stories of her life in Normandy. Being able to enjoy local cuisine and truly immerse ourselves in this region presently was one of the bonuses of this excursion. It’s easy to get caught up in what these towns once were that it was beneficial to embrace them as they are today.
After a delicious meal, we set off to Pointe du Hoc, one of the most shocking portions of the tour. This land is full of huge craters from bombs and cement German shelters built into the hillsides. The stories of the allies attack on the Germans was one of the most intriguing to me, since the evidence of the attack was so clearly visible to this day. Although the land is now filled with tourists and children running around the tiny mountains, Kate’s vibrant storytelling easily put us back into 1944.
Omaha Beach was our next stop, one of the most notable battles and most devastating for the Americans. The landscape caused an extremely difficult fight to take place between the two sides (which you can see clearly in Saving Private Ryan). This beach saw the loss of thousands of soldiers compared to the other divisions.
It was only fitting to conclude the tour at the American Cemetery. We made it just in time to witness the changing of the flag. This beautiful land was filled with white stones for all those who lost their lives. While many American soldiers were sent back home, others were buried here. We were given time to wander the grounds and peer down at the beach below.
Although an emotional and moving day, this Normandy tour truly allowed us to experience the history of this land while embracing the outcomes it led to. Kate gave us a personalized visit that truly made the facts come to life, rather than just simply a textbook explanation. While I shared some of the highlights, there are so many more stories and experiences you’ll hear about on your adventure.
Have you been to Normandy? How do you like to learn about the history of a new place?
Normandy Sightseeing Tours allowed me a discount for this experience in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.