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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Normandy Beaches – Our Day Trip from Paris to Visit Omaha Beach

Today we are on our way out to the Normandy region in northern France to see the beaches where D-Day took place. changing the face of the war in Europe during World War II. For me, this visit is 12 years in the making -- on my previous visit to Paris in 1996, one of my biggest regrets was that I did not take the opportunity to visit any of the beaches in Normandy near Caen and Bayeux and specifically Omaha Beach.

Ken & Ashley at Omaha Beach in Normandy while on vacation in France
Before I get into too much detail, this is definitely a visit that you can make on a day trip. While not preferred due to the vast size of the beaches near Caen and Bayeux (55 miles long), you can visit several sites if you are limited on time like we were. The best way is to take a train (two hours, direct without transfers) and sign up for a local tour.

Here is how we did it:
- SCNF direct train departing from Paris St Lazare at 10:43am arriving in Bayeux at 12:53pm. Cost of our round trip fare was €128 or about $196.
- Tour departs from Bayeux station at 1:00 (they will pick you up from the track) at $65/person for a 5-hour tour of the area. (We booked on using a 10% off coupon found through Google searching for "Viator Coupon")
- Take the train back from Bayeux at 7:31pm arriving in Paris St. Lazare at 9:43pm. You could make the 6:20pm train, but then it could be tight and you would not have any time to explore the central strip in Bayeux.

Now, let us get back to the experience that Ashley and I had visiting the D-Day beaches. We all certain images of what we think Omaha Beach looks like. I am guessing the younger generations – those in generation X, generation y – picture the beaches looking similar to the images we have in our mind from Saving Private Ryan. While the movie was based on an actual story, it was filmed in Ireland. I had additional pictures on what I thought things might look like from many of the World War II era games I have played like the “Tour of Duty” and “Medal of Honor” series. Many of which are WWII period games.

While we discussed this on our train ride to Bayeux, my mind shifted to the countryside as we moved closer to our destination. I tried to picturing tanks and infantrymen roaming the rolling hills and farmlands we were passing through. I struggled to picture combat and fighting from farm to farm and town to town as the Allied forces drove the German army towards Paris during the liberation of France. So much history, but little evidence was left behind in the countryside, which interestingly – was very similar to what I had imagined.

Upon arriving in Bayeux, it was time to find our tour guide. It was easier than I expected – as we came up the steps, a placard with our names on it was there and that is where we met Olivier. Olivier was the son of a local butcher who grew up in a fishing village just north of Bayeux. He is one of three full-time guides during the winter, before it increases significantly in the summers.

To our surprise, today we ended up with a private tour with just Ashley and I because no one else signed up. That was a welcomed surprise, especially when you pay for a group tour! That meant immediately we could take advantage of it, and Olivier stopped at a Panini shop in the middle of Bayeux so we could grab a quick lunch to go.

After we got into the van, Olivier was off towards our first stop – the German Cemetery – and we were impressed by the knowledge and detail that he was able to give us as a background. I think the most surprising fact for me was that the D-Day beaches were in fact spread out over a total of 55 miles. Since I had not brushed up on my detailed history from World War II before the trip, I was thinking it was much smaller – no more than 20 miles in total. It puts the whole event in slightly different detail to understand that.

We quickly arrived at the German Cemetery which previously had been a makeshift cemetery for both the Americans and the Germans. What really stood out to us was that for its size (much smaller than American Military Cemetery), yet there were twice as many soldiers (~20k) in the cemetery.

Entrance of German Cemetery Normandy near Bayeux, France
An interesting fact that Olivier mentioned here was that with increasing frequency, he was getting a good number of German visitors from the younger generation visiting the cemetery. That is a recent development, especially based on what we have experienced during our visits and studies in Germany. Good to see.

After finishing up at the German Cemetery, we drove to Pointe du Hoc, via Sainte Marie du Mont. This is where the infamous German gun position threatened the Allied ships up and down the beaches too both Utah and Omaha. The site was attacked by the elite 2nd U.S. Rangers, commanded by LT. Col James Rudder, who had to scale the cliffs to get there.

This area proved to be the most like what we expected to see in Normandy as it has been preserved as a park with much of the historical pieces left intact. Upon arriving, we walked past the minefields that separated the cliffs from the land.

Minefield area from Pointe du Hoc in Normandy, France
From there, we walked through a number of positions, bunkers, and armories – most that were blown up by bombs. The landscape was littered with big depressions from the bombings that took place.

Here are a couple of additional pictures from Pointe du Hoc.

A former armory that was exploded by a bomb scattering concrete in Ponte du HocAn armory that was exploded by a bomb scattering concrete in Ponte du Hoc

The landscape at Pointe du Hoc showing the depressions from bombs and former entrenchmentsThe landscape at Pointe du Hoc showing the depressions from bombs and former entrenchments

Ashley in front of on of the fortifications for the 110mm guns that the Rangers were charged with disabling at Pointe du HocAshley in front of on of the fortifications for the 110mm guns that the Rangers were charged with disabling at Pointe du Hoc

After Pointe du Hoc, it was on to Omaha Beach right at the point of the National Guard Memorial at Omaha Beach where the American soldiers made their way onto the beach to clear a path in the Atlantic Wall for tanks and other heavy machinery.

Ashley and Kenny pose in front of the National Guard Memorial at Omaha Beach.Ashley and Kenny pose in front of the National Guard Memorial at Omaha Beach.

Omaha Beach today as it stands is again a coastal vacation community with vacation homes and beach houses lining the beach – it was a vacation community before World War II even. I have to say that this was the most unexpected experience of the day; I expected it to still be pretty deserted with most of the history left intact. However, as Olivier quickly explained and we realized – that was what the soldiers fought for, that one day life would return to as it was there.

After Omaha Beach we headed up to the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach. As we arrived into the parking lot, Olivier welcomed us to the United States, as the United States owns the property for this site. No passports were stamped. :-)

Ashley signs the guestbook at the American Military Cemetery at Omaha BeachAshley signs the guest book at the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach

It was a great experience – one that I will not describe in detail, but similar to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii if you have been there. The difference here is the presence of the graves, all aligned in perfect rows. The gloomy weather with light rain was just right for the experience. We even had the fortune to catch the flag retreat ceremony at Omaha Beach – quite an experience.
Flag retreat ceremony at the American Military Cemetery.Flag retreat ceremony at the American Military Cemetery.

Our last stop of the day was at the Musée Omaha in Saint Laurent sur Mer, where you get free admission on this tour. The museum was a great collection of memorabilia including a landing craft, a tank, and a ton of weapons, uniforms, and other military equipment. Probably the most spectacular part about the museum is that most of the material, especially in recent addition has been found locally during construction or washing up on shore. Amazing that almost 64 years later, artifacts are still being found.

After we finished up at the museum, we headed back to town. We had Olivier drop us off at the center of the small town so we could explore a little before heading back to the train.
The best view in Bayeux, France according to Olivier.The best view in Bayeux, France according to Olivier.

We then caught our train on the way back – which experienced an hour delay once on board due to engine difficulties. Soon enough though, we made it back to Paris in just over 3 hours rather than the two we expected.

If you happen to visit Paris and want to go out to the D-Day beaches of Normandy, I highly recommend this tour from ( They also offer other and longer tours should you want to spend more than 6 hours touring as we did. I am very glad that we took the time to see this powerful piece of American history on our trip to France! Reality definitely did not relect the expectations I have -- now I have a more realistic view of D-Day and how the region has transformed itself since that time.


Therese said...

How funny! I was checking to see if there was anything about Normandy in blogs and I started reading yours...
Very accurate.
I am actually from a village very close to Bayeux. My father fought during the war.
The only thing I would like to add is that German people come to visit the places where they spent time during the war. My own father had no problem speaking with one of them who even said that he had good souvenirs from our requisitionned house where he staid! We even stayed in contact.
Next time you visit France you could check the "Musée d'Arromanches" which is really very well done and explains everything inside and out. Personally I refresh my knowledge once in a while...

Ken Hanscom said...

Hi Therese.

Thanks for visiting my post and commenting on it. Definitely will need to check out Musée d'Arromanches on a future visit based on your recommendation.


Roland said...

I just wanted to say thank you for including all of your travel details in your blog. At the end of this month I am going to go to Paris with my girlfriend when she comes to visit me in Germany (I am doing an exchange to study here) and I was very interested in the Normandy trips. Unfortunately, most of them were out of our budget, but thanks to your blog I was able to figure out how to book the half-day trip and take the train to make it reasonable.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. My uncle and father-in-law are WWII veterans and now our daughter lives in Spain. I've been wondering how we could see the beaches on one of our trips to Spain....your post was very informative.
Thank you

Leonard Griego said...

Hi: I read your very descriptive post, I was there with my brother about ten years ago, we had relatives that were there on D Day. I will be walking the Camino in Sept and will have several days in Paris after my walk, am thinking I would like to go there with my two friends and see Omaha Beach again. Good ides to book with the company you went with. Thank you very much.

Leonard Griego

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