A Day in Normandy, France
In 1977 I went on a high school trip to France, Belgium and Holland – a whirlwind trip over 10 days that included a visit to the west coast of France although and I was unable to see Normandy because I was sick and left at the hotel to convalesce that day. I always regretted not being able to go so when my husband and I decided to explore the west side of France, Normandy was on our schedule.
There are numerous museums dedicated to World War II throughout the Normandy region but they vary greatly in quality. Most of the small ones seem to be the result of collectors interested in preserving equipment, machines, furniture, uniforms, and maps from the time period. After a few days they start to look and sound the same. For that reason and if your time is limited, your journey should start in Caen (see map at right – northwest France) at the Museum of Caen – “Memorial de Caen Musee Normandie” which is also referred to as the “Peace Museum”: a major museum dedicated to remembering the causes and consequences of World War II and the Cold War. Just two hours west of Paris, this museum in Caen provides a comprehensive overview of the Normandy invasion.
The museum is open from Tuesday-Sunday from 9:00-6:00 and is closed most Mondays but call or check the website before going.
Approximately 50 kilometers away (a 40 minute drive) is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Built on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach (also known as “Bloody Omaha”), this 172 acre site contains three areas: the memorial, the cemetery, and the beach. Start your visit at the 30,000 square foot memorial (opened in 2007) which provides a good overview of the invasion along with several short films of the men who sacrificed their lives. Once you exit the memorial buildings, a bronze statue called “Spirit of American Youth” is at the center, aptly named because the majority of those who died were very young.
The most amazing site is the actual cemetery which contains 9,387 Crosses and Stars of David in marble perfectly lined up vertically, horizontally, and diagonally, engraved with the name of the soldier, rank, origin, and the day of death (if known). Most of the soldiers that died were under 25 years of age and so the depth of sadness is profound. Despite large numbers of visitors, there is silence punctuated only by quiet sobs.
There are several walkways down to Omaha Beach which provide the visitor a visual understanding of what happened on the beach nearly 70 years ago.