The moment I first arrived in Lower Normandy following a lengthy ferry ride across the English Channel, my first instinct was to exhale. After spending months cooped up in the choking density of central London I felt a sense of relief from being in the presence of open fields and grazing land. My moment of zen didn’t last long as I was on a tight schedule. Lower Normandy, as it turns out, is a bit of a logistics nightmare if you are traveling without a car. Depending heavily on public transport, I set out to explore three items from my travel “bucket list” – Mont-Saint-Michel, the D-Day Landing Sites and the Bayeux Tapestry.
I caught my first glimpse of Mont-Saint-Michel on the 2-hour train ride from Caen to Pontorson. It exposed itself for a brief moment behind a cluster of drab storage warehouses, giving me and a sprinkling of other tourists on the train a preview of what was to come. Following a short bus ride from Pontorson, Mont-Saint-Michel revealed itself in full view. The result of over 1000 years of construction, this fairytale abbey is perhaps the most photogenic spot in all of France.
The abbey was built at the top of a small island just off the coast from the mainland in a shallow sandy bay. During high tide, water fills the bay and transforms the landscape, making Mont-Saint-Michel appear as a castle floating in the sea. Unfortunately I missed high tide during my visit, but that didn’t take anything away from Michel’s beauty.
Mont-Saint-Michel is still an active abbey and a small group of nuns reside here year round.
Even at low tide on a cold and gray morning, the views from the top of Mont-Saint-Michel are stunning. The photo below shows the elevated road from the mainland to Michel as well as the surrounding bay.
Below the abbey is a maze of densely packed streets covered in cobblestones, cafes, souvenir shops and a few small museums. The photo below is from a cafe located at the foot of the island with a cafe au lait in the foreground.
Head east along the coastline from Mont-Saint-Michel and you’ll reach the D-Day landing sites. Because I was without a rental vehicle, I took a D-Day tour departing from Bayeux. The photo below is of Pointe du Hoc, just east of Omaha Beach. It was here that US Army Rangers scaled the cliffs to destroy a cluster of German casemates on June 6th, 1944.
Facing the early morning sun, Pointe du Hoc makes for an eerily serene setting.
Looking towards the English Channel, pockmarks on the ground left by bombs nearly 70 years ago are still clearly evident.
Pointe du Hoc’s proximity to Omaha Beach (shown in the distance below) is part of why it was such a heavily contested area.
Some of the original German bunkers are still in tact and are open to visitors.
Omaha Beach is located a short drive from Pointe du Hoc and is now frequented by dog walkers and joggers. Nearly 70 years ago, 15,000 soldiers stormed this beach to help liberate Northern France from the Nazis.
The Normandy American Cemetery is the final resting place for many of the soldiers who fought on D-Day. The cemetery is set on a cliff overlooking the English Channel.
Most of the graves in the cemetery are named, but there are numerous unnamed markers inscribed with “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God”.
Inland from the D-Day landing sites is the ancient town of Bayeux. Like most European towns, it is anchored by a formidable cathedral. The Bayeux Cathedral (below) is striking, but is best known for once being home to the Bayeux Tapestry – a 1000 year old embroidery than runs 230 feet long.
Today, the Bayeux Tapestry is held and protected in its own museum just a few steps away from the cathedral. Across the length of the delicate cloth are numerous panels detailing the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England and the subsequent Battle of Hastings.
It’s estimated that the embroidery was created sometime around 1066 and the illustrations created from the stitching range from amazing to even comical (see the generously sized horse penis above). The battle sequences and horses are of particularly high quality, while some of the portraits and faces are reminiscent of Quentin Blake illustrations.