Normandy: Beyond the beaches

By Mark Edward Harris
The Les Braves sculpture.June 6, 2014, will mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy that led to the liberation of France from German occupation and, within a year, the end of World War II in Europe. To honor the event, the government of France and the Normandy region in particular are gearing up for this landmark anniversary.

A number of tour operators are running D-Day-themed itineraries, including Stephen Ambrose Tours, whose in-depth, historically focused program was designed by Stephen E. Ambrose, author of "Band of Brothers" (Simon & Schuster, 1992), "Citizen Soldiers" (Simon & Schuster, 1996) and "D-Day: June 6, 1944" (Simon & Schuster, 1994). Ambrose was also the military adviser for the movie "Saving Private Ryan" and an executive producer on HBO's "Band of Brothers" miniseries.

The Ambrose tour begins with a crossing of the English Channel to Normandy onboard a ferry, following in the swells of the sailors and soldiers who made that fateful voyage seven decades earlier.

Other tour operators that are focusing on the events of D-Day and the weeks that followed include D-Day Tours Normandy and Beyond Band of Brothers.

Within Normandy itself, more than two dozen museums are documenting various aspects of D-Day:

The Caen Memorial employs traditional and state-of-the-art displays and multimedia presentations to give visitors a broad history lesson on World War II and its impact on the Norman city of Caen and the country in general.

Display at the Grand Bunker Museum.The Overlord Museum, located near the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, chronicles the period from the Allied landing until the liberation of Paris. Its collection contains personal items from soldiers as well as a variety of weapons deployed in the war.

The Juno Beach Centre is the only museum along the landing beaches dedicated to the Canadian troops that fought alongside the rest of the allies during World War II and played a key role in the liberation of Caen. Interactive displays with archival photos and movie footage, along with artifacts, illustrate the role Canadian troops played during the war and also offer insight into Canadian culture.

Arromanches 360 is a circular cinema built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. A short film projecting 360-degree images documents the events that took place on the beaches in 1944 just beyond the site where the theater stands today. It juxtaposes depictions of those events with images of contemporary daily life in the area. Arromanches was a priority target for Allied forces who wanted to set up an artificial port in the waters off this seaside resort, a popular tourist destination since the 1870s.

The Merville Battery Museum gives insight into the experiences of the young men on both sides of the conflict during Operation Overlord. A sound-and-light reconstruction alongside artifacts donated by the soldiers themselves gives a glimpse into the individual lives of the combatants. Visitors can explore four preserved German bunkers, which house several exhibitions.

Longues-sur-Mer batteryThe Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere-Eglise includes an original WACO glider and one of the Douglas C47 aircraft that towed these gliders across the English Channel during Operation Overlord. A 20-minute film, "The Fight for Freedom," as well as interactive terminals enable visitors to learn about the liberation of Sainte-Mere-Eglise and the Battle of Normandy.

Pointe du Hoc and Longues-sur-Mer are perhaps the two most important locations that stand witness to the violence of the Normandy landings. The deeply scarred, bomb crater-filled landscape, combined with German bunkers of Pointe du Hoc and the big German guns of Longues-sur-Mer, help visitors imagine the extreme conditions the Allies faced in the liberation of the continent.

All this and William the Conqueror

Tomb of William the ConquerorNormandy's history traces much further back than D-Day, of course. And beyond the landing beaches, an exploration of the province's rich history is a must.

A perfect place to start is Caen, three hours by car from Paris. This was the favorite town of William, Duke of Normandy, aka William the Conqueror, who a millennium ago brought the English throne under his control.

In Caen, William had a castle built as well as the Abbaye aux Dames and the Abbaye aux Hommes. The latter, also known as the Abbey of Saint-Etienne, was William's final resting place.

Though 70% of Caen was destroyed during the days surrounding June 6, 1944, many of the town's residents took refuge in this house of worship. On the rooftop was a red cross painted on a sheet with blood, to show the Allied bombers that this location was being used as a hospital and a place for civilian refuge.

The people of Caen have done an admirable job of digging themselves out of the rubble of World War II and rebuilding their past.

An excellent choice for lodging in Caen is the 37-room, four-star Best Western Le Dauphin, situated within an old priory, and its 14th century chapel in the city center.

Grand Bunker Museum mapComfortable rooms are a given at a Best Western, but the haute cuisine served at its elegant Restaurant Best Western Le Dauphin is a welcome surprise. Chef Stephan Pugnat creates a marvelous menu from local products, with a focus on fish and shellfish in the finest Norman tradition. Dinner includes a glass of Calvados, an apple brandy from Lower Normandy. Unlike most regions of France, the noble grape gives way to the apple as the source of its chosen drink.

Those wanting to walk off the great Normandy cuisine and explore Caen's ancient streets on foot will soon discover that the town offers some of the best antiquing and antiquarian book collecting opportunities in the country.

In 2014, it's the Golf War

Omaha Beach Golf ClubThe German bunkers that peppered the Norman coast seven decades ago have given way to sand bunkers as golf has grown in popularity in the region for locals and visitors alike.

The Omaha Beach Golf Club offers two 18-hole courses, one of which heads toward the sea before retreating into the hinterland with its impossible-to-hit-out-of hedgerows.

The green of the sixth hole on this course offers a panoramic view of the artificial port of Arromanches and the gun emplacements of Longues-sur-Mer.

The 74-room, four-star Hotel Mercure Omaha Beach in the heart of the Omaha Beach Golf Club, features a swimming pool, restaurant and spa.

Deauville, best known for its seaside boardwalk, horse racing track, casino and international film festival, also offers excellent golf opportunities.

The Barriere de Deauville Golf Club at the 178-room, four-star Hotel du Golf Barriere opened in 1929. Since the 19th century, the town of Deauville has been a fashionable holiday resort, often referred to as the Parisian Riviera.

On the southern coastal end of Normandy is the Unesco World Heritage Site of Mont Saint-Michel, one of France's most recognizable landmarks, with more than 3 million visitors a year.

Shoe print of a German soldierMont Saint-Michel was previously connected to the mainland via a tidal causeway, covered at high tide and revealed at low tide. In 1879, the tidal causeway was converted into a raised causeway, and in 2006, the French prime minister and regional authorities announced the€164 million Projet Mont Saint-Michel to build a hydraulic dam to help remove the accumulated silt deposited by rising tides, and to make Mont Saint-Michel an island once again. Part of the project is a bridge that permits the waters to flow freely around the island.

The Bayeux Tapestry, housed in the state-of-the-art Musee de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in the town of the same name, commemorates the 1066 Norman conquest of England. The history of William the Conqueror is literally embroidered into this 230-foot-long piece of cloth. It's another example of how Normandy embraces its historic past while living in the present and keeping an eye on the future.
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