There are just some trips you have to do. Not out of obligation, but because it fills you with a sincere amount of appreciation you can only get by being there. Down to our last half-year in Europe, we knew we would always regret it if we never made it to Normandy.
Nellie and I grew up with huge regard for our greatest generation. Nellie’s maternal grandfather was a Marine in Iwo Jima, and both of my grandfathers fought in the Pacific. We knew Veterans Day weekend, also remembered at the same time as Europe remembers Armistice Day, was a perfect time to make our pilgrimage to Normandy.
Normandy is a driving experience. You can find tours that will take you from place to place, but if you are traveling with a family, it is best to take your family vehicle. There isn’t much public transportation to take you to all the sights you will want to see. Located on the French northeastern coast, the region is known for more than the heroic landings in World War II. We couldn’t fit everything in a 4-day weekend, but I hope we give you a few ideas of what to see when you get there!
Depending on where you stay, the drive to Normandy is around 7 to 8 hours from Kaiserslautern. It should have been a solid 8 hours to where we stayed, but the trip there went a little long since we stopped in Étretat. A few things to consider for the drive is that you’ll probably need to fill up in France at least twice (once each way), and also consider the price of tolls. In November 2021, we paid about €100 to fill up our Nissan Pathfinder since the Esso card is not not authorized in France. We also paid €43 each way in tolls.
Despite the cost in gas and tolls, the great news is that Normandy doesn’t really cost much once you get there. You can always figure out ways to save on food, and most attractions are either free or do not cost much.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at a super adorable château named La Faisanderie, situated on the outskirts of Grandcamp-Maisy. It was about a 5 minute drive or 15 minute walk into town. The hotel is managed by an elderly and adorable Frenchman who gives you the most authentic experience you could ask for!
We spent €360 total for three nights, and only a few other guests were staying in the Château. We had two rooms and a private bathroom, and it easily accommodated our traveling party of four.
The host provided us with the most lovely French breakfast every morning, as he entertained us with stories and news clippings of what he has experienced over the years. The only downside is that the WiFi was horrible in the accommodation we stayed in. We ended up never using it because we couldn’t keep a connection.
What We Did
We added an hour to our journey by stopping by the captivating chalk cliffs at Étretat. The bustling tourist town is known for its cliffs that rise 300 feet from the English Channel, as well as three natural arches and a pointed needle coming off the cliffs. We arrived a couple hours before sunset and battled the tense parking situation. Once we were able to park, we strolled along the cliffs until we found a spot for sunset at 5:22pm that day. It was a beautiful evening and even though the cliffs were crowded with people like us, watching the sunset beyond the cliffs was absolutely stunning. Definitely make time to see the cliffs if you can.
The first site we visited was Pont du Hoc. Access to the site is free and is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission (AMBC). Pont du Hoc is where U.S. Army Rangers of 2nd Ranger Battalion, led by Lieutenant Colonel James Earl Rudder, scaled the cliffs to capture German defenses before moving onto other defenses. While here, you can learn about the scale up the cliffs and the Rangers’ bloody stand that reduced the Battalion from over 200 to 90. Many of the German defenses, as well as artillery craters in the ground, are still there today.
After Pont du Hoc, we drove a few minutes to the Omaha Beach Memorial. Once you see the massive beach, you can understand why this site was chosen, and why the tide had to be perfect, for the 1st and 29th Infantry Divison landings. You really gain an appreciation of the distance on land and water that the infantryman had to cover, as they were targets for the enemy in overwatching buildings and hills. We had to pull up the landing clip from Saving Private Ryan while we were there just to help us understand the experience. The town was very sleepy this time of year, and we only ended up spending about an hour. We were hoping to grab lunch there but every restaurant was closed.
When in Normandy, you should definitely make a stop at the Normandy American Cemetery. The cemetery is the first U.S. cemetery established in Europe and remembers 9,386 fallen Americans, many who fell during the D-Day landings. Just a couple hours here will give you a huge appreciation for the human price paid during World War II.
The Utah Beach Landing Museum was the most interactive experience we had during this trip. Entry is only €8 for adults and €5 for children. Not only do you get to learn about the 4th Infantry Division’s role during the D-Day landings, but the museum hosts a collection of U.S. and German military clothing and weapons. Highlights in the museum include one of six B26 bombers still in existence, and a short movie about the landings. One thing I loved was how the museum incorporated the contributions from all services during the landing. The museum is a perfect spot to spend a few hours, especially if you need to catch a break from the weather!
Even if you don’t know what Mont St. Michel is, you’ve undoubtedly liked a picture on Facebook or Instagram at some point. The aesthetic site was only an hour and a half from our lodging in Grandcamp-Maisy, so we decided to make a day trip out of it. Mont St. Michel is a small commune built on a rock surrounded by a tide so extreme that at high-tide it becomes and island, and at low-tide it is a peninsula. The UNESCO world heritage site was an important site of worship during the medieval ages. It is free to enter, it just costs a small price to park. From the parking area, the 2-mile walk towards the island will give you the best photo opportunities. However, there are busses that leave frequently for those who aren’t up for the long walk. It is such a beautiful island (…or peninsula) to explore, and much worth the visit!
Where We Ate
With it being the off-season, finding a place to eat for us proved to be a challenge for each meal. Fortunately we didn’t have to worry about breakfast since it was included with our stay at the château. Below are a couple places we found to eat while there.
There was absolutely nothing available to eat at Omaha Beach in November. Absolutely nothing. Fortunately, only a five minute drive away is La CRÊPERIE de Formigny. We got there right at lunch time, and it was extremely busy since it was the only open place around. Despite being really busy, they were very accommodating, even though we had to wait 30 minutes for a table. Prices were reasonable, and I really liked that they served the D-Day beer, which they even sold in bottles in the restaurant. We ended up paying €80 for four of us to eat, including steaks for the adults.
We wanted to eat close to our lodging one night so we could grab a few drinks, so we chose to walk into Grandcamp-Maisy. We walked to Les flots bleus, a cute restaurant on the English Channel. All four of us ate fish and chips, while the adults had a few beers and glasses of wine for €90 total.
I’m so thankful we were able to finally see Normandy. We’ve needed to see it for years, and it was my honor and privilege to see it over Veterans Day weekend. I hope you can see it too, because it is such an amazing part of American history that you can experience in Europe!