Our visit to Normandy’s D-Day Beaches was emotional, fascinating, overwhelming and a little complicated on bicycle. At times, I was stressed—by the magnitude of what happened there, by the size of the area, by how much there was to see, by how much I didn’t know. At other times, I was delighted by the peaceful coastline, pretty towns and fun festivals that we happened upon. Today, June 6, is the 76th anniversary of the Allied Invasion of Normandy, the largest seaborne invasion in history. Let me take you to the famous beaches of then and now.
A last minute decision has us taking a 3-hour train trip from Mont-Saint-Michel to Bayeux. We only have eight days left on our cycling trip—not enough time to see everything we want if we ride the entire stretch.
Our first stop when we exit the train is the tourist information office. Have I mentioned what a great resource these places are? They find us a wonderful B&B and book a half-day D-Day Beach van tour for us (my online attempts had failed).
Bayeux makes a good base for visiting the D-Day Beaches and it’s also an attractive city with excellent attractions—both related and unrelated to the Invasion of Normandy.
Bayeux’s Notre Dame Cathedral is striking, inside and out. It’s impossible to miss as it rises majestically above its modest, low-rise surroundings.
Bayeux’s most popular attraction is the Museum of the Bayeux Tapestry. The 70 m (230 foot) long tapestry is almost 1000 years old and depicts the story of William, The Duke of Normandy’s victory over the English in 1066. I didn’t expect to be so enthralled by a tapestry and end up going through the exhibit a second time.
The Bayeux War Cemetery is the largest Commonwealth Second World War cemetery in France. The gravestones show the ages of the fallen soldiers: 18, 19, 20… It makes me very sad. Not far from the cemetery is the Museum of the Battle of Normandy. We’d need multiple visits to appreciate all the detail, but the museum does a good job giving us an overview of the invasion and I feel a tad more knowledgeable than when I walked in.
Half-day D-Day Beaches tour
Before researching for our trip, I didn’t realize that the five D-Day landing beaches stretch more than 80 km (50 miles) along the Normandy coastline. Seeing them all on bike isn’t feasible for us, so our small-group van tour is a good option.
On June 6, 1944, approximately 160,000 Allied troops landed on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches. This marked the start of Operation Overlord, the codename for the Battle of Normandy, which paved the way for the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control. The D-Day casualty toll was great (over 10,000 Allied soldiers and roughly the same number for Germany). However, until the tour, I didn’t know that the battle in the weeks following the landings resulted in an estimated 500,000 casualties among Allies, Germans and civilians.
I’m fascinated by the story of the Mulberry harbour at Gold Beach. After the Allies successfully held beaches following D-Day, prefabricated harbours were transported in sections over the English channel from the UK and assembled at Omaha Beach and Gold Beach. The Mulberry harbour at Gold Beach was used for 10 months to offload millions of tons of supplies, vehicles and soldiers until deep-water French ports were captured and repaired.
We’re jostled by high winds at Pointe du Hoc. Looking down at the waves crashing on Omaha Beach it is unimaginable how American soldiers scaled the 30 m (100 foot) cliffs to capture the heavily fortified German area. The battle scars are still visible at Pointe du Hoc with its bomb craters and German defense bunkers.
The most poignant stop on our tour is the Normandy American Cemetery. Walking among the sea of white marble crosses is a sobering reminder of the loss and sacrifices made here.
Back on our bikes along Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches
Our tour had been an educational and emotional whirlwind. It feels good to be back on our bikes moving at a glacial pace with time to absorb what we’ve seen and felt. From Bayeux, we ride through pretty countryside back to the coast at Arromanches.
As we climb steadily out of Arromanches, I’m happy for a second look at Gold Beach and the pieces of Mulberry harbour that surround the bay.
Bike route signage is poor but the direction is obvious as we hug the coast on our ride east to Juno Beach. We are reminded constantly of the battles that took place here with the many interpretative signs and commemorative monuments along the way.
We take a break at Courseulles-sur-Mer to visit the Juno Beach Centre. Juno Beach was assaulted by a largely Canadian force and the Centre commemorates the Canadian experience in the Battle of Normandy.
Just beyond Juno Beach, we find a coastal path with sweeping views of the long, flat beaches that takes us to Ouistreham, on Sword Beach— our destination for the night. We stop at a number of hotels and B&Bs but they’re all full. Once again, Tourist Information comes to our rescue and sends us to Le Petite Chateau B&B. The couple who run the place are so kind and patient with our poor French. They are history buffs, and the next morning over breakfast they regale us with stories about Ouistreham during the war. We don’t get all the details but the old photos help fill in the language gaps. Our long, delicious, educational breakfast is among the most memorable of our trip.
After our history lesson, it feels surreal to be here over a festival weekend. Today, the huge, flat Sword Beach of WWII fame is the venue for the Normandy Beach Race. The vintage car race draws a big crowd and we get swept up in the excitement.
We’d love to linger in Ouistreham but it’s time to get back on the bikes. Just outside town, we cross the historic Pegasus Bridge. This site is referred to as “where it all began” on D-Day. In the wee hours of June 6, 1944, before the amphibious landings, a British glider troop captured the bridge that provided the only exist eastward for British troops landing on Sword Beach.
On the other side of the bridge, we are bizarrely transported from war history to medieval revelry. The residents of Merville-Franceville-Plage have gone all out for the annual Dragons and Cider Festival. We are blown away by how many people are in truly elaborate costumes.
We’re just beyond the D-Day beaches and stop for a refreshment in the pretty resort town of Cabourg. The promenade and beach are filled with people enjoying the gorgeous late summer weather. I’m happy to be sipping wine in such a lovely spot but I can’t help feeling overwhelmed by the diverse and emotional experiences we’ve had during our three days along Normandy’s D-Day beaches.
Sadly, I’ve just read in the paper that for the first time in 75 years, due to COVID-19, there will be no public gathering at the beaches today to mark the 76th anniversary of D-Day. This post goes out to all the people who fought, lived and died during the Battle of Normandy.
Next post: We continue east to gorgeous Honfleur and Étretat.