Normandy: Northern France’s Gem
In the northern region of France, where white cliffs meet sharply with the English Channel, and rolling green fields abound, time seems to slow down to a point where it almost stands still. The region has had a front seat for many world changing historical events going all the way back to the Norman Conquest of England (100 years war) and all the way up to the D-Day invasion of WWII. It has also captivated the minds of many artists such as Monet who spent time painting Normandy’s natural beauty. After enjoying your time in the big city of Paris, the north of France allows travelers to experience the more traditional and rural side of this wonderful country.
Where to go in Normandy
Our itinerary will take you to steep coastal cliffs, hallowed beaches, and medieval fortresses over the course of a week.
Day 1: Paris to Mont Saint Michel
Once you get to Pontorson (see the How to Get There section of this article) there is not much to see, so our recommendation is to spend the day having fun in Paris and taking a late afternoon train to the town. In town are some decent restaurants, but if you really want to treat your taste buds, then you have to stop by the chocolate shop, Le Baie Des Gourmandises. Run by a local father and daughter, they whip up some of the best tasting chocolate to ever meet your lips. They have even invented their own varieties of chocolate and have come up with some bizarre flavors. Try flavors such as margarita and foi gras or stick with classics such as pistachio or mint. While not exactly backpacker friendly, if you want to break your budget a little, do it here. To be honest, we thought the chocolate here was better than any of the high end chocolate we had while in Belgium (and we had a lot there).
Day 2: Explore Mont Saint Michel
What you came to the fringes of lower Normandy for. One of the most famous sights in France, the walled-in city transports visitors back to the middle ages. Its cobbled stone alleys and medieval houses stacked on top of one another is a rewarding experience no matter how many tourists invade the village. To escape the tourist shops and hoards of people, as you enter the town, keep looking to your left for the tiniest of alleyways. Once you find it, head up it to the pathway above and you will find that you have the place mostly to yourself. The views are great here for photography and for getting a view of the town below. To avoid the high costs of the overpriced restaurants in the village, pack your own lunch to enjoy (It will probably taste better too).
If you are really tight on a budget, don’t feel bad skipping the Abbey at the top of the Mont. Claire and I felt that the attraction was overpriced as there really is not much to see inside. If we could do it again, we probably would have just decided to walk around the entire Mont and enjoy the atmosphere and skip the abbey. Also note that the Mont is famous for having the fastest changing tides in Europe so be sure to check the tides chart if you plan on walking around the outside of the Mont or you may get into a deadly situation fast. Simply put, don’t do it unless you know what you are doing. Plan to spend at least a half day exploring the Mont itself. It is very small, but you will want to take it slow and enjoy it.
Day 3: Mont Saint Michal to Bayeux
Take an early morning train, as the town of Bayeux is absolutely beautiful. The town looks like it hasn’t changed since WWII and is a great example of a classic Normandy region town. While here, check out the Bayeux tapestry that depicts the Invasion of England during the One Hundred Years War. Also worth a look is the gorgeous Notre Dame Cathedral. The church dominates the town skyline and is equally beautiful from the inside. Normandy is famous for its Ciders and cheese and Bayeux is a great place to try these. Other than the two main attractions, walk around the old streets, thinking about allied soldiers marching into town, liberating the city after a successful and hard fought fight on the beaches of D-Day.
Day 4: Explore D-Day beaches
Today, Normandy is most well known and remembered for the largest amphibious invasion to ever occur in the world, D-Day. On June 6, 1944 Allied troops stormed five beach points along the coast of Normandy. The fight was won by the Allied forces and marked the beginning of the liberation of France and the rest of Europe from Nazi Germany. The victory however, came at a high price. On the first day alone, the allies suffered more than 10,000 casualties, with over 4,000 confirmed dead. Coming here is to remember the sacrifice and risks, hundreds of thousands made in order to preserve the freedom that we enjoy today.
To visit the beaches and other D-Day sites, there are a few options. The first option is to sign up for a prearranged half or full day tour. The benefit of this is that you get to see most of the D-Day sites but it comes at a cost. Tours are expensive and also force you to move from place quickly, making it difficult for you to fully take in what happened here. Another option is to hire a taxi to visit the beaches but this is also expensive. A cheaper option is to take local buses but the downside to this is that they do not run very often, making it inconvenient to get from place to place. This was the option I was planning on doing until I found out the day I arrived in Bayeux that the buses do not operate on the weekends! Frustrated, I looked over my options and concluded that my best option was to rent a bicycle and visit the places myself. To my surprise, this ended up being the best decision I could have made here.
Exploring the D-Day area by bicycle forces you to explore the region slowly. While traveling between major sites, you cycle past sleepy little villages and fields that have not changed much since the war. This gives you time to contemplate the events that were held here and also the whole area you are cycling was once a battlefield itself. The tourist office in town can show you where to rent bikes.
If you choose to cycle I recommend starting early in the morning so you can take your time at each place you visit. At each place, you will want time to take pictures, walk around, and reflect on the events that occurred. From Bayeux, first head to Tobrouk port Mortier. Here you will find several intact German defense bunkers, many of them with the guns still intact. The ride to here is about 5 1/2 miles. From here you can then head another 9 miles to reach Omaha Beach. This is where the bloodiest fighting occurred and was one of the American landing beaches. Be sure to spend some time near the 1st Infantry Division Memorial and the beach itself. After exploring the beach, pay your respects at the American War Cemetery, the final resting place of many of the soldiers who fought in the D-Day invasion but never returned home.
From here you have two options. You can either begin the 10 mile bike ride back to Bayeux or extend your trip to include La Pointe du Hoc. Pointe du Hoc is where the US Army Rangers were tasked with the job of scaling 100 foot cliffs with grapnels in order to disable several guns that had a clear shooting line of the landing beaches. Defending the area proved costly for the Rangers as after two days of fighting, only 90 men were able to bear arms out of the 225 that began the assault.
Pointe du Hoc is a 8 1/2 mile bike ride from Omaha Beach. While there, you can walk through the areas where the fighting took place. Most of the area is still covered in bomb craters and German defenses in different states of destruction. One of the bunkers still has charred wood from flamethrowers and bullet holes in the hallways. If you are up to the additional miles, it is worth the trip. From Pointe du Hoc, its a long 18 mile bike ride back to Bayeux.
Day 5: Bayeux to Le Havre
As it takes a long time to get to Le Havre from Bayeux, don’t leave too late. A late morning or early afternoon train should give you enough time to get there. While in town, be sure to check out the central market near the ‘Volcano’ to pick up fresh bread, cheeses and meats!
Day 6: Day trip to Etretat
Etretat is an adorable little town despite fully catering to tourists these days. Filled with restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops, the town is still worth a quick walk through on your way to Etretat’s beach. Once you reach the board walk, your view expands as you stare out into the English Channel with tall white cliffs rising up sharply to your left and right. These cliffs were a favorite of Monet’s as he brushed Etretat on many of his canvases.
After spending time on the beach, head towards the western cliff where you can see the remaining remnants of WWII. Two lone German bunkers remain as a testimony to what happened to the area under Nazi control. One of the bunkers shows images of what the heavily fortified beach looked like during the war. During low tide, head back down to the beach until you find a underground passage way that leads you to another beach between two breath taking arches. Take the scenery in and then head back to the bunkers from where you can climb up to the tops of the cliffs and can enjoy your packed lunch while taking in the beauty that surrounds you. Plan on a full day at Etretat as you will want to just simply relax and enjoy the scenery.
Day 7: Le Havre to Paris
Sadly, your trip to Normandy has come to an end. Grab your last few rounds of Cider and wheels of Cheese and head back to where you came from.
If you have an extra day or two, Claire and I recommend taking it in Bayeux. One day at Etreat and Mont Saint Michael are enough. There is just so much to do and see in Bayeux and the immediate area, that could occupy you for a couple of days.
Where to stay during your trip
As most of the towns on our itinerary are rather small, hostels are pretty much non-existent. Due to this, staying in hotels in the region can be very expensive and most are certainly out of the backpacker’s price range. For budget travelers the best option is to find accommodation through Airbnb. Most of the towns have really good deals where you can get private rooms for between $30-$50 per night. Staying in an Airbnb also gives you the opportunity to meet locals and blend into your surroundings better. And while on the road, it is always nice to have the home comforts that a house provides.
Accommodation in the town itself is VERY expensive and not an option for backpackers. The best place to stay in order to visit the White Cliffs found on Monet’s canvases is to stay in the town of Le Havre. A pretty port city, Le Havre is just a scenic one hour bus ride from Etretat. This was actually our favorite place to stay as our house in Le Havre included a private room, breakfast, unlimited coffee, and a garden for just $17 per person.
To visit the D-Day beaches it is best to stay in the city of Bayeux. Not only is the city centrally located to all of the D-Day historic sites, but it is one of them itself. The town is worth exploring and was the first major town in France to be liberated by the allied forces during WWII. There are plenty of Airbnb homes available in town for great prices. To visit the D-Day sights from here, sign up for a tour, hire a taxi, or better yet, rent a bicycle.
Mont Saint Michael
The only place where Airbnb is overpriced is near the entire area around Mont Saint Micheal. For this area, look for small , affordable family run hotels in the town on Pontorson that run between $45- $55 per night. Pontorson is just a 20 minute bus ride away from the Mont. The bus leaves from the centrally located train station.
How to get there
If you plan on visiting Belgium after Normandy, it is best to start with Mont Saint Michael and make your way east. Pontorson is only a 2 1/2 hour train ride from Paris and costs roughly $55. From Pontorson, trains lead directly to Bayeux, taking approximately an hour and forty-five minutes and costing $29. The trickiest transportation route is from Bayeux to Le Havre. While it looks straight forward on a map it isn’t so in reality. No matter how you go, you will have to switch in the city of Cannes. You can either take two trains or do a train to Cannes and then a bus to Bayeux. Either way will take you at least three hours of travel time. Le Havre is just a $10 bus ride from Paris and takes about three hours. To get to Belgium, you will have to go back to Paris first and then head towards Brussels.
While a week in Normandy will want you wishing for more time, it is just enough to get a good idea of what the region has to offer. Whenever, Claire and I return to France, we can easily see ourselves coming back to the region as it has so much to offer the world.