Upon visiting Normandy, it is clear to see how French Impressionists felt akin to its natural beauty. The region boasts dramatic coastlines with copper-colored sunsets, coupled with a picturesque landscape, where bovacious bovines and flocks of sheep leisurely browse in the lush, emerald-green pastures under the Norman sun. To relish a land as rich as its cuisine, journey down the country roads and discover a wealth of culture and history that span millennia.
Mont-Saint-Michel appears on the horizon like a pyramid that seemingly floats between the sea and the sky. The second most visited site in all of France, the uniqueness of Mont-Saint-Michel is not only the abbey’s Norman Romanesque architecture, which took 60 years to complete, but also its location among the whims of the ebb and flow of the ocean’s tides, which recede 18 kilometers each day. The view from the grand terrace, in front of the abbey, provides amazing views of the coast and the sand banks of the exposed tidal bay. Awed by its greatness, it is easy to see how this unparalleled wonder from the Middle Ages has lured so many for centuries.
Mont-Saint-Michel’s chronicles extend as far back as the early 8th century when Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches, had a chapel constructed here in honor of St. Michael, who happened to appear to Aubert in a dream. A couple hundred years later, the Duke of Normandy bequeathed the abbey to the Benedictines and a subsequent village took root at the island’s base. Due to its indestructible fortifications, Mont-Saint-Michel became a bastion during the Hundred Years’ War and then four centuries onward as a prison during and after the French Revolution.
The abbey has literally found itself woven in the fabric of French history as well and appears in the 70-meter long tapestry from the 11th century Norman Conquest of England. The brocade is on display in the city of Bayeux—8 kilometers from the most famous beaches in all of Normandy.
A Day at D-Day
It is on Normandy’s northern coast where the waves of history wash upon the windswept beaches of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword, casting reflections of one of the most tumultuous eras in 20th century Europe. To begin to discover the scale of D-Day, start in Arromanches. Aside from the museum and tourist shops, one wouldn’t think that this small coastal town had played such an important role after the Allies’ initial landings. Yet look closer and see the remnants of Winston Churchill’s ingenious idea and the feat of experimental engineering, which went into the construction of what became known as ‘Mulberry Harbor.’ Along with encased models, videos, slide shows and further information on other participating nations involved in D-Day , the Musée de Débarquement provides a great overview of how the prefabricated concrete caissons gave rise to the Allies’ necessary artificial port at Gold Beach.
To see what Allied forces had to contend with on shore, drive to the Batterie-de-Longues near Longues-sur-Mer, which offers an up-close look into a section of the Nazi’s coastal defense system. Built into the landscape, the claustrophobic concrete posts contain the relics of 152 mm guns, which had a range of 20 kilometers and enabled the Nazi military to reach targets at Omaha and Gold beaches. From this vantage point of the command post, one can still see the not-so-distant leftovers of ‘Mulberry Harbour.’
Continue onward down the coast to visit the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach. The visitor center provides an in-depth exhibition into the planning and subsequent undertaking of history’s largest amphibious maneuvers on June 6, 1944. In addition to Allied memorabilia, information-filled panels offer a chronological timeline from the onset of WWII, in September 1939, to the liberation of Paris, in August 1944. Moreover, there is an hour-by-hour account of D-Day itself. Documentaries, which include interviews with Eisenhower, also help to interpret the prelude to the extraordinary mission of Operation Overlord.
9,386 white marble headstones, consisting of crosses and Stars of David, dot the expanse of the vast American cemetery. The manicured grounds and serene panorama, upon a bluff overlooking the English Channel, provide a location of reflection and contemplation of the unprecedented events that transpired here just 67 years ago.
A Manor of Speaking
A trip to Normandy would not be complete without a stay in a quintessential French manor. Set amid the tranquil setting of the countryside, yet within close proximity to the sea, the accommodations at the 15th century Manoir de Countainville, on Normandy’s western coast, is an exquisite example of refinement with the utmost hospitality. Whether it’s a delectable breakfast in the cozy dining room or an early evening aperitif in the garden, guests will certainly feel pampered during their visit. Attention to detail has gone into each individually decorated room, accentuated with antiques and a personal touch that make staying at the Manoir de Coutainville such a unique experience.
Normandy is a land where the wind murmurs her history upon beaches that are as long as the horizon, and where byways ramble along rolling swaths of verdant fields. Impressions of her heritage and the stories of her past will forever captivate those who come to discover the cultural uniqueness in this beautiful pocket of France.