Recently, I spent a few rainy days adventuring around the Normandy region in Northern France with my husband. It’s a stunningly beautiful, quaint but at the same time massive area to attempt to cover in just a few days. We most certainly go back to spend some more time, enjoy a few more crepes, sip one or two or three glasses of Calvados, and feast on some terrific seafood.
Even though trip was only a few days, I still took away some invaluable lessons to pass along to my fellow adventurers!
1. Be the Driver! The tourist destinations are massive with quite some distance between locations. Public transportation is lacking, so a rental car is a necessity to spend your precious vacation time efficiently. Yes, your hotel may offer tours and excursions, but that will certainly limit your flexibility. The rental car will allow you to get to sights early (or late) and stay as long as you desire (or as short as you wish if it isn't your cup of tea). Driving is quite easy once you have done a roundabout or two. There are only a few major highways and both highways and rural roads are very well marked so navigating your way around Normandy is very achievable (even for someone like me who lacks directional sense).
2. Be Nomadic! I ca not stress enough how large of an area Normandy really is. When you read the travel books or research online, you feel like it will be easy to spend a day here, and then a day there. In reality, you can be driving up to 2 hours to get somewhere and 2 hours to get back if you keep the same base of operations for your stay. My advice and my plan for the next go-around is to book a few hotels and move across Normandy during the journey. Spend 1-2 nights near the Mont St. Michel area, another couple near Bayeux and the D-Day beaches, and another 1-2 nights near Honfleur. Sadly, that still would not cover all the potential destinations that would be worth seeing.
3. #1 + #2 = Be Sure You Have Free Parking! It is common for European hotels to charge you daily for parking and/or park your car at a garage offsite so you have to sit and wait every time you want to take your car out for the day. If you are cognizant of parking situations during your hotel search, you will see that there are plenty of hotels and B&Bs that offer free parking onsite. It’s an easy detail to overlook, especially for Americans who are used to large hotel parking lots and garages.
4. Be Flexible! I learned that it rains a lot in Normandy so try to keep your itinerary as flexible as possible. If the weather is good on day 1, then do your outdoor activities and save the indoor museums for rain days or for midday when the temperatures are their warmest. Even though rain is common, the weather forecast is fairly predictable so you should be able to plan a day or two out once your feet are on the ground.
5. Be Slow and Steady! In the summer months there are plenty of hours of daylight so pace yourself. Relax for an hour or two at lunch because the sun rises before 6AM and doesn't set until 10 pm or later in the summertime! The museums do keep regular work hours, so plan your itinerary to see a museum until 6 or 7 then tour a town or beach afterwards when the crowds have certainly thinned. Keep in mind sites like the military cemeteries have gates and close with the museums. So figure out the operating times of your destinations and plan your days around your limitations.
6. Be Active! All those breads, crepes, pastries, and cream sauces can make you feel sluggish so venture out to Suisse Normandy for some hiking, bicycling, or horseback riding to reinvigorate your trip. You will burn some calories, see the beautiful countryside, and feel refreshed for your next touring site. If refreshing yourself by the spa is more your flavor, there are some great hotels that have full European spas in them.
7. Be a Historian! Learn some history. The details of my history classes have faded away through the years so I always have to brush up on the history of the sites that I visit. This helps tremendously for visiting Normandy. There are signs all around the sites, but the places are too large to cover everything. If you can't spend and hour or two reading a travel book, then at the very least re-watch some movies based in the area. The dropping of the paratroopers in Band of Brothers or the landing at Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan will really help you visualize those heroic moments as you walk along the beaches and the surrounding lands seeing the enormous craters from bombs being dropped, the cemeteries, and the war artifacts that still linger. Understanding the history and the gravity of historical importance will bring about feelings of humility and gratitude that are beyond anything that words can possibly describe.
8. Be Proud! This is one of the few places outside of the States where it felt so good to be American. Don't get me wrong, I'm beyond proud to be American, but foreigners don't always appreciate our manners and customs. The stereotype of the ugly American tourist is still strong, and naturally, not every place you go delivers such an overwhelming feeling of disbelief at what your country helped accomplished. I’ve been to many places (Vietnam, South Korea, Japan to name a few) and have visited memorials, museums, and historical places of war. Normandy is like no other place I have ever experienced. There were plenty of American flags (British and Canadian too) and “thank you” signs in storefront windows. We stopped at a McDonald's restaurant where the staff wore shirts that said “merci” on the front and “70 ans de paix” on the back (70 years of peace). There is such a strong bond here for Americans, and a mutual admiration between us and the French is easily felt. I've been to many places that make me thankful, grateful, and proud to be an American, but Normandy is one that I may never feel those emotions so strongly again.
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