There are few 11th century artworks as famous as the legendary Bayeux Tapestry, which is so well known that it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage ‘Memory of the World.’ Measuring almost 70 meters long, the elaborate tapestry features an epic 58 scenes, each carefully embroidered with colored wool yarns onto a linen backdrop. Originally made in England back in the 1070s, the artwork depicts historic scenes from the Norman conquest of England, ending in the infamous Battle of Hastings in 1066. Viking ships, Norman and Saxon cavalries, bloody battle scenes and images of King Edward and William the Conqueror are all brought to life on the tapestry, with each scene captioned in Latin.
The tapestry, remarkably preserved despite being almost 1000 years old, has been on public display in the French Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux since 1983, becoming a hugely popular attraction for visitors from Normandy.
The peaceful Bayeux War Cemetery is the largest of the 18 Commonwealth military cemeteries in Normandy. It contains 4,868 graves of soldiers from the UK and 10 other countries (including Germany, in contrast to the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer). Many of the soldiers buried here were never identified, and the headstones are simply marked 'A Soldier Known Unto God'. The bodies of 1,807 other Commonwealth soldiers were never found, and are commemorated on the memorial across the main road.
Bayeux was liberated by the Allies in June 1944 and became the seat of government for France until Paris was liberated. In this time the British built the ring road to enable military vehicles to move around the city and established many military hospitals. Many of those buried in the cemetery are from those hospitals.
The Abbaye aux Dames in Caen is also known as the Abbey of Sainte-Trinité, or the Holy Trinity Abbey. As one could guess, “Abbaye aux Dames” translates to Women's Abbey, and that's just what it was – a Benedictine convent. It's almost a thousand years old, and one of the must-see sites for any visitor to Caen.
If the facade of the abbey looks a little worse for wear, it's because of its history; it was the site of a battle during the Hundred Years War, during which it lost its original spires. The larger convent today is home to the Regional offices for Lower Normandy, but the abbey, restored in 1983, is open to visitors. William the Conqueror's wife Matilda is buried there, and its interior is a treasure trove of architectural details.
A National Monument of France and one of Bayeaux’s most eye-catching monuments, the Bayeux Cathedral (Cathedrale Notre Dame de Bayeux) is best known as the original home of the Bayeux Tapestry (now a UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ and displayed at the nearby Bayeux Tapestry Museum). Originally built in the 11th-century, the cathedral’s Gothic façade was reconstructed in the 12th century, but much of the Romanesque-style interiors remain intact, shown off by atmospheric lighting during the evening hours.
Consecrated in 1077 by Bishop Odo of Conteville in the presence of his brother and King of England, William the Conqueror, the cathedral’s strong English ties are portrayed in its vibrant frescos, which depict the life of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and of course, the iconic Bayeux Tapestry, said to have been commissioned by the Bishop to decorate its nave.
Being the highest point between Omaha and Utah Beaches, the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc was an important location in the Atlantic Wall strategy of defense against the Allies. So on D-Day, it was an equally important target to overtake so that the liberation of France could proceed.
In what can only be described as old-school warfare, the the American Second Ranger Battalion climbed the 100-foot-high cliff to seize the weapons that could take out approaching Allied boats. It was an epic battle, but the Americans ultimately emerged victorious – albeit with significant loss of life.
Today, the cliffside of Pointe du Hoc is the location of a monument to this battle, which was built by the French directly on top of the German bunker that was seized by the Americans. Unlike many of the WWII battle sites that have memorials or museums, this location has remained largely untouched since the battle that occurred here; visitors can still see the scars on the ground.
Brittany is the western-most region in France, a peninsula on the coast that stretches out into the Atlantic and well past the Greenwich Mean Time line of its neighbor across the English Channel. Although Brittany is rich in history and its natural beauty is nothing short of breathtaking, it remains a hidden gem away from many foreign tourists because of its distance from Paris, everyone's favorite base for France vacations.
In French, Brittany is known as Bretagne and its inhabitants are called Bretons. The region's history goes back hundreds of thousands of years, as evidenced by BC-era stone arrangements and an ancient hearth discovery, as well as the stories of the Celtic tribes that inhabited the region at the turn of the millennium and eventually lost to the Romans, as so many did. Because of its location, Brittany has been attacked several times throughout the centuries, and both battle remnants and cultural influences of invaders can still be found today.
Le Havre is the original transatlantic port between Europe and North America, with luxury cruises and immigrants departing for New York from this historic port for over 200 years. Le Havre Port is also known as the “Gateway to Paris” with a three-hour trip by bus or train to the French capital or transfer to Charles de Gaulle International Airport.
The industrialization of Le Havre in the 20s made it famous throughout the world with the trade of coffee and cotton. The town was largely destroyed during the Second World War and rebuilt by the “poet of concrete,” architect Auguste Perret in a dazzling array of modernist post-war architecture.
The beaches of Normandy offer a trip into the wartime past; the Albâtre coast is known for its dramatic cliffs and the Benedictine liquor made at Fécamp’s distillery; while the Impressionist movement was born in Le Havre, as artists became mesmerised by the special light of the estuary.