Normandy: Walking the Beaches and Towns Where History Pivoted

Travel Features France
Normandy: Walking the Beaches and Towns Where History Pivoted

Like many people, I’d been to Paris a few times, and I’d driven through the Van Gogh country of Southern France. But I’d never set foot in the province of Normandy in the north along the English Channel. The most pivotal battles of World War II were fought there, and dozens of Impressionist canvases in museums around the world were painted there. All those high-bluff beaches, hedge-hemmed fields and poplar-lined rural roads still exist, waiting to be explored.

Thus it was that I found myself in the French village Sainte-Mere-Eglise this past September. It was here on June 6, 1944, that American paratroopers floated down behind German lines in the early-morning darkness. Many of them landed far from their intended target, but enough organized themselves to storm the crucial crossroads town in the first American battle of that crucial day.

There in the center of town is the same square-towered church steeple that one saw in all the black-and-white photos of the 1944 battle, the same church that was filmed in the movie The Longest Day with Red Buttons playing Private John Steele, the paratrooper who got hung up on the tower balcony as gunfire zinged below. There was no gunfire in 2023, but a cotton-stuffed dummy hung from his parachute in the same position as Buttons and Steele.

It’s one thing to read the books and see the movies. It’s quite another to stand in the place and absorb not just the idea but the physicality of the battle. To stand in the unsheltered square and look upward to the perches that Nazi snipers had as they waited for the Americans to emerge from the surrounding countryside is to appreciate the difficulty of the Allies’ task—and the uncertainty of its result. To drive the narrow rural roads leading into town between brush-protected farm fields is to feel the difficulty of pulling scattered troops together and shepherding them into an attack.

Like most of the towns along the northern coast, Sainte-Mere-Eglise has a museum full of World War II artifacts gathered by the locals after the armies had moved on—and donated by veterans who returned to the scene many years later, eager for the same immersive connection we were  after. This museum focused on paratroopers, naturally, and it was filled with parachutes, jeeps, tanks and actual planes—not replicas but actual equipment from the battle.

Like the other museums we would see, this one offered explanations in the form of timelines and texts. Explanations were what we were after. How did the Allies manage to surprise the Germans with a risky, cross-Channel invasion and break through Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and finally conquer Germany? How did that create the world that we grew up in? Why do we nonetheless face so many threats from a resurgent fascism today? It would take more than one battle site and one museum to satisfy our curiosity.

The first battle on D-Day was fought not by the Americans in Sainte-Mere-Eglise but by the Brits in Benouville an hour to the east. British soldiers had arrived in silent gliders—often crashlanding in nearby, hedge-edged farms—and had taken the crucial Benouville Bridge over the Orne Canal from the surprised Germans. That proved easier than defending the bridge from the counterattack by no-longer-surprised, more numerous Germans, but the Brits succeeded at that as well. And the bagpipes played as reinforcements arrived from the landings at Sword Beach.

Many of the Brits were members of the First Airborne, who wore shoulder emblems of the mythical flying horse, so the span was renamed the Pegasus Bridge in 1944. In 1994, a new bridge in the same style was installed to accommodate the widened canal, but no worry, the original bridge is in the backyard of the nearby Pegasus Memorial. 

That museum and the larger, more ambitious Caen Memorial nearby not only give a good account of the local battles and the wider war but are also filled with artifacts from the war—as big as an actual glider and as small as a French resistance illegal radio. There’s even the actual bagpipes. 

From Caen, we convoyed up to St. Aubin-sur-Mere, the site of Juno Beach, where the Brits and Canadians landed on D-Day. The tide was out when we visited. Harness jockeys were racing their horses across the wet sand, and locals were raking for mussels. The bluffs backing up Juno Beach and Utah Beach, where the Americans headed for Sainte-Marie Eglise landed, were fairly low, so breaking through the German lines happened more quickly.


The scenes of carnage, of G.I.’s being gunned down in shallow water as they landed, depicted so graphically in Saving Private Ryan, took place at Omaha Beach, where the bluffs were higher and steeper. You can still see the concrete pillboxes half-buried at the dune tops, where Nazi gunners had a clear shot at the open beach below. Sometimes you can even walk inside and stare down the barrel of a rusting cannon through a slit that gives you unlimited targets. 

Or you can stand on the beach, where the sand gives way to a shelf of pebbles, and the pebbles give way to the steep cliffs and wonder how the hell anyone had the courage to advance through that killing field. Many of them did, and many of them are buried in the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach.

Thousands upon thousands of white crosses and Stars of David cover acres of ground just inland from the dunes, the rows either straight or diagonal depending on your perspective. It’s a moving site. These men—boys, really, most of them—found themselves capable of more than they believed possible. Great was the price. Great was the achievement. Great the questions they left behind.

There are many other reasons to visit Normandy. The Middle Ages come alive in the many cathedrals but especially in the Bayeux Tapestry (the 58-panel, 230-foot-long strip of embroidered cloth is a kind of movie storyboard that tells the story of William the Conqueror) and the Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey (a layered wedding cake of stone built atop a rock that’s an island only at high tide). The scenery that inspired the Impressionists is still around, and so are many of the canvases they painted on and houses they lived in; you can still see Claude Monet’s famous house, garden and lily pond in Giverny.

And, of course, there’s the food. You can get dazzling seafood, pastries, wine and meat in tiny restaurants throughout Normandy. But my best discovery was a peasant dish, the galette, a buckwheat crepe folded over whatever savory ingredients are handy. It’s everywhere, and it’s always delicious.

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