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 Originally made in England back in the 1070s, the artwork depicts historic scenes from the Norman conquest of England, ending in the infamous Battle of Hastings in 1066.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.
If you're traveling from Caen to Bayeux on your way to WWII sites, you may pass by a fairly new-looking church in the small village of Saint-Germain-la-Blanche-Herbe. Its aesthetic might seem old, sure, but its overall look is too new to be the original architecture. And after seeing so many beautiful old churches in France, it would be easy to pass by without giving it a second thought.
But to WWII historians as well as those who are on the search for WWII sites of interest in Normandy, this church – the Ardenne Abbey – is high on the list of places to pay one's respects to the fallen heroes of WWII. It was here that the Germans made their headquarters during the Normandy battles of June 1944, and it's the site of one of the most egregious violations of the Geneva Convention from the war.
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.
The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial may very well be the most visited American military cemetery in the world after Arlington, and with good reason: It is an emotional experience that stays with visitors long after they've returned home from their travels, even if they've never given much thought to World War II battle history. There are four distinct features to the memorial, located in Colleville-sur-Mer, about half an hour from Bayeux and three hours from Paris. There is the cemetery itself, the final resting place of more than 9,000 soldiers. The vast majority of them lost their lives fighting the D-Day battles of Normandy, but there are other World War II heroes buried here as well. The rigid lines of so many thousands of graves are an astonishing sight, and the sense of loss is overwhelming. You'll see small stones placed upon the headstones in the shape of the Star of David for Jewish soldiers; this is a common Jewish custom and they should not be removed.
The slender towers and sky-scraping turrets of the abbey of Mont Saint Michel are one of the classic images of northern France. Rising from flat white sands, the abbey sits atop a small island encircled by stout ramparts and battlements, connected to the mainland by an old causeway. Legend has it that the abbey was founded in the 8th century, when Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, was visited by the Archangel Michael in a dream; to this day the abbey is still crowned by a gilded copper statue of Michael slaying a dragon, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil.
The bay around Mont Saint Michel is famous for its extreme tides. Depending on the season and the gravitational pull of the moon, the difference between low and high tides can reach 50 feet (15 m), although the Mont is only completely surrounded by the sea during seasonal equinoxes.
Omaha Beach was the location of one of the most significant moments of fighting in World War II. On June 6th 1944, American troops were given the task of securing the beach as part of a strategy to land Allied troops along five points on the coast of Normandy, France. Due to unforeseen tidal forces and stronger than expected German defenses, the American soldiers suffered massive losses, 2,400 casualties, in a day of bloody fighting. Eventually however the landing was successful with 34,000 troops securing the area for the Allies, and thus beginning the end of the war.
The landings on Omaha Beach are perhaps best known these days from the film Saving Private Ryan which opens with this battle and shows the impact of the fighting and loss of life on families back home in the USA. The American Cemetery sits above Omaha Beach and is a well-kept memorial to the events.
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.
Omaha Beach, with its Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, receives the most visitors looking to learn more about WWII history and pay their respects. But what many don't know is that Utah Beach, the westernmost landing point of the D-Day battle, has its own fantastic museum. If you're planning an overnight stay in Bayeux in order to explore the various WWII sites in Normandy, the Utah Beach D-Day Museum should be right near the top of your list.
Unlike the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, which technically lies on U.S. soil, the Utah Beach D-Day Museum is a French endeavor, and as such it carries the official name of Musée du Débarquement Utah Beach – and its motto translates to, “Their Sacrifice, Our Freedom.” However, you can be sure that everything in the museum is titled in English, so no need to worry.
As even those with a passing knowledge of WWII knows, there were several countries involved in the events of D-Day along the coast of Normandy. And as such, the WWII battle sites, memorials, and cemeteries honor each of the Allies' efforts, struggles, and successes in their own way.
The Juno Beach Center is Normandy's only Canadian museum, and as such is focused on the heroism displayed by the Canadian military and civilians alike. It's located in Courseulles-sur-Mer, roughly a half-hour from the popular tourist base of Bayeux. Note that it is closed for the month of January.
Its maple leaf-inspired architecture is entered after passing by a stirring memorial positioned at the location of an original German bunker. Inside, the permanent exhibit takes visitors through the events of D-Day, the Canadian role, how Canada came into the war to begin with, and great information about the Canada of yesterday and today.
The Juno Beach Center is Normandy's only Canadian museum, but there are two locations where Canada's heroes from the Battle of Normandy have been laid to rest: The Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, and the Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery. The former honors soldiers from earlier in the battle – on and just after D-Day - while the former is for soldiers who gave their lives later on.
Like many of Normandy's WWII battle sites and memorials, Bény-sur-Mer is about a half-hour from Bayeux, which many visitors make as their base from which to explore the region. Bretteville-sur-Laize is about 40 minutes away, just behind Caen. Both of them are considered in the “opposite” direction from most of the most important sites, and so can be ignored by those on a fast-track tour of Normandy. But both sites deserve to be given their due.
For the historian as well as the curious traveler, the WWII battle sites along the coast of Normandy can be a powerful draw. However, in the interest of time, many choose to stick to the more popular memorials and museums of Omaha and Utah Beaches. But by heading east from Bayeux instead of west, one hits a veritable jackpot of sites, memorials and museums dedicated to D-Day, but are blessedly under-visited.
It can be easy to pass through the sleepy coastal towns of Ouistreham and Lion-sur-Mer and forget that anything as monumental as the D-Day landings happened here. But the pristine beaches you see were filled with British soldiers on that fateful day, sent in to shore up this flank and take care of some German bunkers as well. And in just these few miles, there are roughly ten points of interest to discover. Here are the highlights of what not to miss when visiting the area from Bayeux.
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.
Near the Normandy hamlet of Longues-sur-Mer, Longues battery was part of the Nazis’ fearsome Atlantic Wall fortifications, built by the German Navy between September 1943 and April 1944.
Built with huge 152 mm naval guns able to fire up to 12 miles (20 km) away, the battery was strategically erected between the beaches of Omaha and Fold in order to prevent Allied landings on Normandy’s beaches. The night before D-Day on June 6, 1944, however, the Allied troops used a French cruiser and U.S. battleship to send a barrage of 1,500 tons of bombs over to the battery, where the German crew of 184 men surrendered the next day.
Longues battery is unique on the Normandy coast: it’s the only spot on the Atlantic Wall where you can still see the concrete casemates and guns just as they were after the 1944 showdown. At the battery, you can also visit Longues-sur-Mer’s command post and the personnel and ammunition shelters.