BAYEUX, France – There’s a digital clock on display outside the visitors center in the charming Normandy town of Bayeux – but it doesn’t tell the time. It’s counting down the days until the 70th anniversary of D-Day in June.
My husband and I visited Bayeux last fall to spend the weekend at a conference. The “clock” seemed to indicate we had landed in the right place to squeeze in some historical sightseeing, since we weren’t far from the beaches where Allied forces invaded on June 6, 1944.
But we soon learned that World War II-related tourism comprises only part of the attraction of Normandy, a region rich in history and natural beauty. The countryside also features quaint cities and centuries-old chateaux, as well as apple farms and windswept coastlines.
Bayeux, about three hours by bus from Paris, is a great place to start.
Billed as the first major town liberated by the Allies, Bayeux was miraculously spared damage during the war. Today, the old town center boasts cobblestone streets, upscale shops, small eateries and picturesque mills along the narrow Aure River; lacemakers practice the intricate local art across from a cathedral with stunning Norman architecture.
And visitors flock to see the town’s namesake tourist attraction: the Bayeux Tapestry. The nearly 1,000-year-old treasure, which is actually more of an embroidered scroll, depicts the story of how William, the duke of Normandy, became king of England.
I admit to being skeptical about how impressive this would be – textiles are not usually high on my list of sightseeing priorities. Yet as I moved through the dimly lit museum where the tapestry is displayed, the 230-foot-long piece of fabric came to life like a graphic novel. A quickly paced, handheld audio narrative conveyed an engaging tale of power, intrigue and double-crossing that culminates in William’s triumph at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
The threaded illustrations of battle proved a fascinating contrast to the reason we had come to Bayeux.
We were attending events for the 20th anniversary of the Prix Bayeux-Calvados, journalism awards given each year to honor war coverage in print, photo, radio and video. Prize-winning pictures of global conflicts were exhibited at indoor and outdoor venues throughout the town.
The searing images inspired us to pay our respects at the reporters memorial, about a 10-minute walk from the heart of Bayeux. The quiet grove features a path lined by dozens of stone pillars engraved with the names of 2,000 correspondents who have died on the job since World War II.
Nearby sits Bayeux’s museum of the Battle of Normandy, marked by several tanks parked outside. It’s an analog affair by today’s standards – instead of interactive iPad displays there are department-store mannequins dressed in battle gear – but the building is packed with information, wall maps, military equipment and period artifacts.
Across the street lies evidence of the true cost of war: a British cemetery and memorial for soldiers killed in the campaign to liberate France. It’s hard not to be moved by the young ages on the headstones and the grateful comments left in the guest registry by tourists from around the world. “Thank you for my freedom!” was written more than once.
To reach the actual invasion beaches about 10 miles away, you’ll need to rent a car or reserve a spot on any of several organized tours.
Each of the five “plages du debarquement” – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – has its own memorial or museum. The American cemetery above Omaha beach in Colleville-sur-Mer is the final resting place of 9,400 service members, its graves marked by somber, meticulous rows of crosses overlooking the English Channel. A German battery at Longues-sur-Mer, between Omaha and Gold, still has its original guns.
Along that same stretch of shore, you’ll find remains of the Allies’ artificial harbor at Arromanches. Without access to a port to unload the tons of supplies needed to support D-Day, officials realized they’d have to create their own. So they floated over pontoons and other structures from England to create roadways from ships to shore; some are still rusting away on the beach. You can learn more at the waterfront war museum or, farther down the road, at a 360-degree movie theater.
Our quick trip did not leave time for many other regional highlights, including the abbey on the rock at Mont Saint-Michel; the artist Claude Monet’s house and gardens at Giverny; and the renowned Gothic cathedral in Rouen, which took nearly 400 years to build.
Many of the region’s farms offer tours, tastings and demonstrations of cider making. It’s a favorite local product, and bottles of cider – as well as apple liqueurs known as calvados and pommeau de Normandie – are frequently found in souvenir stores. Such shops also have no shortage of war-related mementos, from cheap “Operation Overlord” wallets to old bullets and even “D-Day” branded beer.
Tourism is expected to be heavy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day – “Jour J” in French – with President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth among the heads of state expected to mark the day. But the history and beauty of Normandy can be experienced long after the clock ticks down.