By Duane Freitag
The beaches of Normandy on France’s northwest coast still remain high on the list of places to visit in Europe, even though the number of World War II veterans is rapidly declining.
The historic Allied invasion that happened there and its logistical achievements continue to intrigue many people. And even though most of the scars of the war are long gone, enough items have been preserved to keep the knowledgeable visitor very busy.
A few German gun emplacements and bunkers remain on guard above the beach. Equally haunting are the remnants of the breakwater sections that were towed from Britain to create a post-invasion harbor at Arromanches. The various beaches that took on World War II names of Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword are now by and large just another pleasant site for summer fun and in some areas are again lined with vacation homes.
The centerpiece of any visit has to be the American cemetery at Normandy, a serene resting place for thousands of heroes. It is hard to fathom the tragedy of it all without tears. From the cemetery’s edge you can view Omaha Beach and Point du Hoc, once courageously climbed by the Army Rangers.
For the World War II aficionado, Normandy can be a launching point from which you can follow the troops through France. At the end of “The Longest Day” few things had gone as planned and only two small areas were secured, but that enabled progress in the days that followed. Today, farm modernization and urbanization have caused a lot of the once-famous hedgerows to disappear.
The Peace Museum at Caen is terrific and worth touring. Its well thought-out displays on the causes of World War II become ever darker as the conflict unfolds. Even the building’s façade is intriguing, as it represents the German “Western Wall,” with the entrance the breach created by the Allies.
There is much more to see in this region of France, which is also partly dairy country (home of Camembert cheese) and apple cider country. Normandy is not really far from Paris, and for many it is an area for a weekend retreat. Here or within a short driving distance are the Medieval charm of Bayeux and its historic tapestry, the impressive island of Mont Saint-Michel, the charming Viking fishing village of Honfleur (home to composer Erik Satie), and assorted cathedrals and ruined abbeys. For the art-lover, Monet’s Giverny is nearby.