The catchphrases for this trip were “Thank God there’s whiskey!” and “Damn Tour.”
Out of the many trips we’ve taken since living in Germany, this road trip has been the most complex, historical, and emotionally moving. We covered historical sites ranging from Joan of Arc to WWII while traveling through France, Belgium, and Germany.
Besides the astonishing amount of World War II history in Normandy, we also discovered the region’s cultural heart in their friendliness, beautiful coastlines, Camembert cheese, apple ciders, and calvados. I also discovered a new word, “Terroir” which is a term to describe the unique aspects of a place that influence and shape the wine and food that come from it. This means the soil, animals, weather, location, people…together they compose terroir. For example: eating a French baguette with Camembert cheese, washing it down with cider, breathing in coastal air, while standing on the very soil in the very town that it all came from.
The trip wasn’t without its fair share of stories, either. I traveled with my husband, his ex-wife, their teenage son, and my two and a half year old son while crammed into our old SUV for several hours a day for seven days. There’s a good joke in there, somewhere. Don’t worry though, if it was a movie it would have definitely been a comedy. I’m very lucky that I have the family-ex situation that we do, for sure.
We broke the trip to Normandy into two days so that we could take plenty of rest stops, and check out anything we thought was interesting on the drive without feeling rushed. We left out of Stuttgart, Germany for our first haul of the ride to the Champagne region of France. We stayed in a little town called Chateau-Thierry which during WWI hosted one of the first battles of the AEF (American Expeditionary Forces). The ride took about four hours and we opted for mostly back roads to avoid tolls. We also avoided traffic and being able to view the French villages and countryside was an aesthetically pleasing distraction, albeit a bit longer than taking major roads.
Chateau-Thierry is in the Champagne region, so cellars and bottles of bubbly are abundant. We didn’t stop in the many cellars which offer tours and champagne tasting in this region which is shocking, I know. When planning our trip, this was essentially my husband’s “baby” and he wanted to plan it around war history to share with his eldest son. That being said…I’m not the only one that appreciates a good drink in this family, so we did venture into a local grocery store to buy a few bottles of local champs. Ranging from 13 – 50 Euro a bottle, this Champagne is the real deal and a must-purchase when in the region.
We stayed in an eccentric old house that had been broken into apartments just steps from the main square. The place was a little dusty, but filled with old trinkets like calligraphy sets, jewelry, antique toys, furniture, and unique artwork speckled throughout the rooms and house. I think the pictures could do it better justice, it was a quirky place to stay at and explore. The beds were comfy and the location was excellent. Le Jardin des Fables, Chateau-Thierry, France.
On the second day we avoided Paris by heading northwest to the town of Rouen, which is also the capital of Normandy and the location where Joan of Arc was tried, accused, and then burned at the stake for a variety of reasons including cross-dressing, which in that time was basically wearing pants. Stories claim that her main reasoning to her accusers for wearing pants was to prevent rape.
In Rouen, you can visit the Notre Dame to see the gorgeous, gothic cathedral and a monument erected in Joan’s honor. You can also visit the actual site where she was burned located in the market square with a bronze cross and signage. The market square is about a 10 minute walk from the cathedral. We were able to do all of this and have a nice, leisurely lunch in the courtyard outside of the cathedral in about two hours. There is a museum near the Notre Dame dedicated entirely to Joan of Arc, the Historical Jeanne d’Arc, and a shrine inside of the cathedral.
Leaving Rouen, we then drove deeper into Normandy taking another pit stop in the town of Honfleur which is a picturesque fishing town with quaint shops, oodles of restaurant options, and pubs dotting the harbor. The beauty of the town has been captured by many impressionist painters in the past, including Monet. We took some time here to wander the alleys, view the menus, and admire the funky shaped buildings and architecture. If we would have known what a pleasant town this was, we probably would have made arrangements to spend a bit more time in Honfleur, but the shores of Utah Beach were calling our names. Our final route from Honfleur to our campsite near Utah Beach was just under two hours.
To save money, we stayed in one of the many campsites located throughout the Normandy shores. Our campground was called Le Cormoran and contained everything from a pitch for tent camping to deluxe mobile homes for rent. Since we had five people all together, we opted for a three bedroom mobile home, or as they called it, the “Zen”. This was a great, no-frills home base during our four nights in Normandy.
The campground is a great choice if you have young kids as the campsite has a playground, plenty of space for kids to ride bikes, a beach right across the main road, dogs are allowed, the site has an indoor and outdoor pool, small grocery store, and a bar on-site which we hardly utilized due to their limited hours. Our trip was in late June and we were advised their “peak season” didn’t start until after July, so there weren’t many events planned or happening during the time we were there. The hours of the reception, bar, restaurant, and store were also very limited. This wasn’t too much of an issue for us since our goal was to visit the WWII sites during the day and not kick-back at the campground.
Location, right across from the beach and a short drive to Saint Mere Eglise and Utah Beach. You definitely need a car to stay here.
Newly built/modern mobile homes with stove, full-sized refrigerator, storage, and a large deck. A three bedroom slept three adults, one teenager, and our toddler son perfectly. I must add, however, that if you happen to be a larger person, be mindful of the beds. My step-son is a large fellow and every night that we were there ended up busting a slot out of the typical European-Ikea style slatted beds. It was so loud it shook the whole mobile home and resulted in cackle-laughter from all of us in the house. Every. Time.
Kitchen was equipped with plenty of dishes, utensils, pots, and pans. We cooked every day which saved a lot of $$.
Since we were without internet, we decided to teach my teen-age stepson and my husband’s ex-wife the many ways to gamble by playing cards. Texas Hold’em, Black Jack, and Rummy led to some pretty entertaining bonding and the biggest catchphrase of the trip, “thank God there’s whiskey!”.
Internet was not free and once we paid for it, it was very spotty. This made planning our next day’s events a bit difficult, but not entirely as there is an info/tourist room near the reception where plenty of pamphlets and English books on the area can be picked up. That helped a lot.
Not many options for food at the bar/pizza shack, but enough to satisfy a last-minute hunger for pizza, sandwiches, or french fries.
The mobile home is very basic so you can hear everything. The walls are paper-thin, so bring some earplugs. Especially if your friends or family members start breaking bed slats.
Bring everything with you if you can. For the kitchen: paper towels, dish soap, seasonings, cooking oils, etc.
For the bathroom: hand soap, toilet paper, towels. You can rent towels from them, but they are costly.
For the bedrooms: sheets, pillow cases. Again, you can rent them from the campsite, but they are costly.
They expect the entire mobile home to be cleaned once you leave and they informed us they do NOT wash the comforters. The campsite provided us with cleaning supplies to do so.
The Battle of Normandy, World War II
In visiting the sites for the Battle of Normandy, we already had a pretty good understanding of what we wanted to see and experience. Even now that we’ve been home for a week, I still think about the events that occurred for a good part of the day. My husband, step-son, and I have started re-watching the Band of Brothers series which sparks a lot of conversation and historical debate. I connected to these sites and these people in a way I hadn’t expected and I feel an admiration for the amount of (for lack of a better descriptive term) balls it took to do what these men and women did, on all sides of the war.
The entire visit was extremely moving, especially driving through the French countryside seeing American flags waiving alongside French flags, old photos plastered on buildings and in villages, bunkers scattered throughout the region, and bombed out chunks of earth which now produce life in the form of grazing grounds for animals and nooks in which beautiful flowers grow. The battlegrounds once filled with death, tragedy, and victory still loom over the region and have a strong visual presence.
We did a self tour utilizing Rick Steves audio guides, travel books, and local fliers. There are many options to hire a private tour guide and do a live-narrated tour around the sites, which in retrospect would have been better for us. We all had so many questions once we arrived at the sites, but our limited data and book info didn’t quite match what a knowledgable guide would have. We had decided not to go with a private tour because my husband was adamant that he had everything marked and noted and could do the whole tour himself…but he left that marked and noted “very important” booklet at home. So, we did as we normally do and winged it.
The beaches are fully accessible and monuments and descriptions are marked in both French and English. The museums are plenty throughout the region and rage from specific focus such as the Airborne Museum in Sainte Mere Elglise, D-Day Museum in Arromanches, the Tank Museum in Catz, to the all-inclusive Normandy American War Cemetery & Visitor Center in Caen. There are so many more museums in the area and pamphlets and visitor centers will have all the information you need to create a custom trip. Also, some museums offer military discounts to active duty and retired US Military, the Airborne Museum is one of them. The information, memorials, museums, and historic presence is extensive and we found ourselves stumbling across museums hidden in the most random of places. Be sure to take roads off the beaten path, you’ll be amazed at what you can discover!
During our time in Normandy…I did make one fairly big oversight; I booked our campground along part of the route of the Tour De France. I knew that the Tour started on July 2nd, which was the day we departed. What I didn’t know, is that the tour came up straight through the town we were staying and hosted events leading up to the start date. The effect that had on us was multiple road closures causing us to detour many, many times in the back roads of Normandy. We managed to see a LOT of the countryside, but also get a little taste of the Tour with the many towns we ended up crossing through. “Damn tour.” ended up being a running joke in our car every time we saw a bike on the road. That joke is still on-going back in Germany. I don’t think I can see another biker on the road without saying that in my head for quite a while.
Our itinerary in Normandy:
Day 1: Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, the Normandy American War Cemetery & Visitor Center, and a couple stops at local calvados farms.
As I mentioned earlier, there are a few things to do besides WWII history in Normandy. Being the wine and food lover that I am, I couldn’t help but stop at the calvados farms we passed when going through part of the Cider Route in the Pays du Auge. Normandy is a part of France that isn’t famous for its wine, but rather its apple ciders and calvados. The weather is cooler making it the perfect climate for apple trees and producing drinks that warm the gut. Cider is produced from these trees at an ABV of about 4.5 to 5 percent. The cider is then distilled to make the calvados which has a ABV of about 40 percent. The main things we learned about drinking these spirits is:
- Cider is to be drank cold (no ice!) and as an aperitif, during a meal, or with friends on a hot day.
- Young calvados is to be drank as an aperitif, mixed in a cocktail (there are many variations of calvados cocktails in Normandy), or served mid-meal with a scoop of sorbet.
- Aged calvados is to be served room temperature (no cocktails/mixing!) as a digestive at the end of a meal with a cigar or chocolate.
To tie in some WWII history into this, locals supplied the allied troops with ciders and calvados during the war. Photos are posted up throughout the region of villagers supplying the troops with calvados and eagerly welcoming them into France.
Day 2: Arromanches, Bayeux, and Pointe Du Hoc.
Day 3: The Airborne Museum in St. Mere Eglise, the discovery (thank to detours, “damn Tour!”…) of the La Batterie d’Azeville which was one of the 1st buildings of the Atlantic wall with bunkers, mazes, and impressive building techniques, and finally, an authentic French dinner at Auberge Le John Steele, renamed after the famous paratrooper who’s chute was caught in the steeple of the church in St. Mère-Église leaving him hanging from its roof-top to witness the carnage. The wounded paratrooper hung there limply for two hours, pretending to be dead, before the Germans took him prisoner. John Steele later escaped from the Germans and rejoined his division when US troops of the 3rd Battalion, 505 Parachute Infantry Regiment attacked the village capturing thirty Germans and killing another eleven. Source info via Waymarking.com.
Day 4: Headed out to northern Normandy to view the white chalk cliffs of Etretat and hike to the top for some amazing views. Then we ended the day with long drive into Bastogne, Belgium to visit the Bastonge War Museum remembering the famous Battle of the Bulge!