By Jim Ferri
A trip to Normandy from Paris to see the D-Day beaches…it’s a road trip I’ve wanted to do for years.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I took the plunge.
It was mid-May, a perfect time to visit Normandy (another good time to visit is in the Fall). There were fewer tourists, the weather was delightful, and prices down a bit.
Best of all, it was an exciting and easy trip to put together. If you’re in Paris and are looking for an exciting weekend trip, this may be it. In fact, even if you’re heading over for a long weekend, this is a great trip. (And yes, it is possible to make long weekend trips to Europe from North America.)
You’ll also find that the roads from Paris to Normandy are modern, well kept and easy to drive on.
Normandy from Paris With a Little Planning
Since we wanted to make the best use of our time, we connected in Charlotte, NC, with a 4:45pm American Airlines flight to Paris. That put us in CDG at 7:00am, a bit early but it gave us an extra day.
Besides, we avoided the crowds, breezed through customs and immigration, and were at the car rental counter within minutes. The paperwork was quickly done, and we were soon on our way.
If you’re renting a car, it’s best to get one with GPS since you’ll be traveling all over the countryside. Also, if you don’t speak French, ensure that the rental folks set the GPS for your native language. We had a bit of a problem the first day trying to load our destinations on a French-speaking GPS.
One other note: if you’re one who feels sleazy after an overnight flight, you can get a day room at a local hotel for a shower or quick nap before you set out. Most hotels are in one area adjacent to the airport.
Make a Stop at Monet’s House in Giverny
While driving to Normandy from Paris, stop in Giverny to visit the house and gardens of French Impressionist Claude Monet. Monet’s paintings, especially the water lilies in his Giverny garden, now grace the walls of museums around the world.
Monet’s house is relatively easy to reach. Before you depart CDG set your GPS to travel to Rouen via route A13. Take it to the Vernon exit – about one hour from Paris – and follow the signs to Giverny, about 15 minutes.
Unfortunately, I missed the exit, and at the next exit our GPS sent me off across the French countryside for a half hour. Fortuitously, however, it allowed us to see a swath of the Normandy that most people would never see. Many more swaths were yet to come.
We saw plenty of apple orchards that come autumn would surrender their fruit for Normandy’s legendary Calvados. And plenty of cows that provide the substance for Normandy’s famous Camembert, Livarot, and Pont 1’Eveque cheeses.
When we arrived at Monet’s house ahead of the tour buses from Paris, we relaxed at a café with coffee. When the entrance opened a small but comfortable-size crowd had already gathered.
Once inside, the beauty of the large garden and the water lily ponds astounded everyone. For those who have seen Monet’s water lilies in museums, it was an excellent experience. The house itself is also fascinating and beautiful. You can view it here.
Frustrated in Rouen
On our Normandy from Paris adventure, we planned to overnight in Honfleur, a town at the mouth of the Seine. First, however, we wanted to stop in the medieval city of Rouen.
Historians remember Rouen as being important in the endless wars between the English and French centuries ago. The rest of us remember it as the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
Given our luck with the French GPS, it should have come as no surprise that we got totally lost trying to find the spot that vaulted Joan into history. After a frustrating hour, we left and had as much trouble getting out as we did coming into the city.
Honfleur, however, was only an hour away.
Honfleur is a beautiful port town that has inspired many French artists, including Monet. It’s a good place where the people are welcoming and not just looking for Euros from tourists. Even better, the town is filled with wonderful restaurants, with its seafood considered some of the best in France. There’s also an old-fashioned carousel right alongside the harbor.
We arrived almost in time for a late lunch at our L’Absinthe Hôtel, an older property right on the harbor (€170 per night double). When we asked the manager about a restaurant for lunch, he explained it was almost time when many restaurants stop serving the mid-day meal. He then trotted across the street to ask that they accommodate us.
It turned out to be a good place with great food and wines, thanks to him. My wife Marjorie’s bouillabaisse was excellent, my fish top-rate (and that’s coming from a carnivore), the service also top-notch. It was a resounding Normandy-from-Paris memory.
That evening we decided to take our gustatory experience down a notch and opted instead for the Le Bistro du Port next to the hotel. Again, it was another quite satisfying meal – moules, entrecote, salad, crème brulee, ice cream, and five glasses of good wine between us for €113. We also really enjoyed the hotel’s breakfast the next morning.
A Detour to Bayeux
Honfleur is an excellent place to spend two nights as you explore the D-Day Beaches on a Normandy-from-Paris road trip. It is, however, at the northern end of the beaches, meaning you must double back to return to your hotel.
Another good place is Bayeux, centrally located a bit inland from all the beaches, and a half-hour drive from Omaha beach. It was the first city to be liberated in the Battle of Normandy.
Bayeux became an unexpected detour for us on a whim. As we raced across the back roads of the Norman countryside, we decided to make a pilgrimage to see the famous Bayeux Tapestry. It’s a 230-foot-long masterpiece (the longest in the world) depicting the Norman conquest of England.
We had a hard time finding it, even though we passed it 3-4 times as we futilely attempted to find a parking space somewhere in town. That foray, however, allowed us to see so many of the little cafés and shops that had their windows painted, thanking British, American, and Canadian veterans for their bravery on those memorable days in Normandy in June 1944.
If you’re not on a tour here, a car is a must since the beaches are so spread out.
But instead of driving you could also take the train from Paris and rent a car to see the beaches.
The D- Day Beaches
The primary focus of our Normandy from Paris journey was the famous D-Day beaches. This long, somber stretch of the Normandy coastline is speckled with little towns and villages where Gallic charm continues to thrive. Here people still greatly appreciate the sacrifices made by their family’s liberators 75 years earlier.
It’s easy to find the beaches since they are still sign-posted with their invasion code names – Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah and Pointe du Hoc – all over the area.
The Americans came ashore at Omaha Beach and Utah Beach; Canadians and Free French at Juno Beach; the Brits and other members of the Commonwealth at Sword and Gold. Paratroopers were dropped inland behind German lines. Many of them are now buried in Normandy.
Today the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial (9,388 burials) in Colleville-sur-Mer is the most famous among Americans. You’ll find other nationalities buried near the beaches where their armies came ashore. Also scattered all about Normandy are many cemeteries with the remains of the military from the U.S., Canada, England, Free French, the Commonwealth, Poland, Germany, and other nationalities.
As you might suspect, the area today bears little, if any, resemblance to how it looked 75+ years ago. But there are two exceptions.
On the beach of Arromanches-les-Bains, as well in the channel in front of it, you still see the Mulberry Harbors that were built for the invasion. Mulberry Harbors were the massive floating piers that facilitated the movement of tanks, trucks, and supplies from ship to shore. On the beach today they look like something from Star Wars. You can see historical photographs of them here.
At Pointe du Hoc, where commandos assaulted German artillery that likely would have stopped the assault, the ground has been left as it was after the attack, pockmarked with the massive craters that resulted from aerial and naval bombardment.
A visit to Normandy – especially to the D-Day beaches – is a trip many long remember. And it’s interesting enough to be taken several times.
We finished our Normandy from Paris road trip staying overnight on beautiful Mont St. Michel. It was a mistake, one I hope you won’t replicate. You can read about it here.