Despite living in France for three years, I didn’t do much sight seeing. So when the opportunity recently arose to spend a couple of days in the north-west of the country, we leapt at it.
We didn’t have a great deal of time to play with as we were visiting my parents further south in France, but we gave ourselves a couple of days in the area, basing ourselves near Mont St. Michel, with the aim of exploring both that and the Normandy Beaches.
Which was what we did. Here’s our experience over a couple of days to give you some ideas of what is possible in this region on a more limited time.
Normandy Day 1: Our experience visiting Mont St. Michel
We were travelling from the UK, and took the overnight ferry with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to St. Malo. This meant that we had a good night’s sleep, arriving into France at around 9am local time. Our guest house was an hour’s drive from St. Malo, and they were fine with us arriving early, so we did just that. After dropping our belongings off and parking the car, it was time to explore Mont St. Michel.
This was, very conveniently, within walking distance of the guest house. This is a handy tip – if you’re going to stay near Mont St. Michel, stay within walking distance. There’s no way to drive to the island on your own, and if you park there’s a daily fee for doing so (unless you park in the evening when it becomes free). And I’m sure you’d prefer to spend that money on a nice bottle of local cider, or a few glasses of wine, like we did.
There is a causeway to the island, and a free shuttle bus runs from the car park to the island. However, I’d suggest that for your first visit, you walk all the way to the island. The views are gorgeous all the way, and you can really appreciate the magnificence of the island as you get closer to it. Then, you can get the shuttle bus on the way home!
The island itself had more on it than I was expecting. There’s a whole village, with shops, two ATM’s, a number of restaurants and of course, plenty of places to buy souvenirs from your visit. There are even hotels on the island, so you can stay over and enjoy Mont St. Michel when the crowds dissipate for the night. Speaking of crowds, the streets are narrow, so it can get crowded. We visited on a less busy than average day, and it still got tight in places, so I imagine that in summer it must be very busy!
After stopping for a lunch (many places do a menu of the day option for €17 – €20), we followed the street up to the Abbey which crowns the hill. This is the key point of pilgrimage for visitors, and the focal point of the island. It’s not free to visit the Abbey, with opening hours varying depending on the season. Check the latest opening hours and prices here.
The good news is that entry does include an hour long guided tour. Tours depart somewhat regularly and are offered in both French and English. Obviously, we went for the English language option, and had a wonderful tour that taught us about the history of the abbey, the key events that led to it’s construction and look today, as well as the function of many of the rooms. If you visit, I’d very much recommend taking the tour to learn a bit about the place. But if there is not a tour going during your visit, you can also purchase an audioguide or just do a self-guided tour with the free included leaflet.
Finally, once the tour was over, we headed out of the abbey and took the bus back to the mainland, where we had a spot of dinner accompanied by some excellent Normandy cider. I then spent the evening capturing the sunset over the Mont, which was just gorgeous. So good in fact that I went the next night as well!
Normandy Day 2: Visiting the D-Day Beaches
Our second day in Normandy was a busy one. Having had a full day to explore Mont St. Michel at our leisure, we set ourselves the challenge of visiting some of the D-Day landing beaches in France.
There are quite a variety of sights, museums, memorials and attractions to visit, but we only had a day, so put together an itinerary that we felt was going to give us a good overview of the area and history.
Stop 1 – Utah Beach & Utah Beach D-Day Museum
We started by visiting Utah beach, where there is an excellent D-Day museum dedicated to the landings at Utah Beach. From our research, this was indicated to be one of the best D-Day landing museums, and even though time meant we didn’t visit any of the others, it was certainly an excellent way to start our journey.
With a focus on the events at Utah Beach specifically, one of the US landing beaches, the museum went over the key highlights of 6th June 1944, including the planning leading up to it, and the story of the day itself. There was an excellent video about the day, oral histories as well as objects and vehicles that were used. Most impressive of these is an original B-26 bomber, one of six surviving in the world, and of the same type as those used during the bombing runs that happened in the moments before the men landed on the beach.
We then spent some time on the actual beach, and viewing the various memorials. It’s hard to really visualise what it must have been like here all those years ago, and I have to say that visiting the museum was a really worthwhile way to get a really good overview of how it was.
We then had a break for lunch in the wonderful Le Roosevelt Cafe, built around a bunker which housed a German communications center. Then, we headed on to:
Stop 2 – Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
Found in Coleville-Sur-Mer, and managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission, the Normandy American Cemetry and Memorial is the final resting place of over 9,000 US military personnel, the majority of whom lost their lives either during the D-Day landings, or in the days and weeks following the landings.
It was the first US WW2 cemetery on European soil, and was established as a temporary location on the 8th of June – two days after the landings started – a necessity given the high casualty rates, particularly at nearby Omaha Beach, which was the most heavily defended of all the landing locations.
Today, there is a visitor center, a memorial, chapel, and of course, the cemetery itself, all of which are free to visitors. The visitor center is excellent, telling the story of the landings with a focus on the personal stories and losses of the people involved, particularly at Omaha beach. It’s very worth taking some time to fully explore this. Then, of course, the cemetery is a sombre reminder of quite how many people died in this conflict.
Stop 3 – Omaha Beach Monument
From the War Cemetery we headed back down to Omaha Beach itself, and the monument to the D-Day landings. There are actually two installations here – the huge monument itself, and a huge stainless steel art installation known as “The Braves”, which commemorates the 60th anniversary of the landings.
Both are worth looking at, and of course, you’ll want to spend some time here on the beach as we did, casting your mind back across the decades, and just trying to get a tiny idea of the horrors that were witnessed here.
Stop 4 – Pointe Du Hoc
Our last stop on our D-Day Landings day was Pointe Du Hoc. This is a rocky cliff top area, the highest point of land between Utah and Omaha beaches, and during WW2, was a heavily defended German installation and lookout point.
It was thought that the destruction of this stronghold was going to be critical to the success of the D-Day landings, as the six 155mm guns that were believed to be installed here could have wreaked devastation on forces landing at both Omaha and Utah beaches.
To accomplish this mission, a 225 strong force of US Rangers was dispatched in the early hours of June 6th, with the mission of scaling the 100ft cliffs and destroying the 155mm guns. As it turned out, the guns had all been moved to a nearby orchard to protect them from Allied bombardments, so whilst the rangers did find them and destroy them, the risk was not as great as first though. The battle for Pointe Du Hoc was also costly, with 70 percent casualties, so even though deemed a success, it was at a brutal loss of life.
Today, Pointe Du Hoc serves as a monument to the Rangers who fought here. Other than the encroachment of nature, the site is not much different today to how it was when the Rangers landed. Many of the original concrete bunkers, bomb craters and installations are still in place, and you can freely wander the area, and marvel at the challenges that must have faced the men landing here, from the rough seas to the 100ft cliffs to the barbed wire.
There is also a visitor centre, although it had just closed when we arrived. If it is something that interests you though, you can check the opening hours here to be sure that you schedule your day appropriately.
Pointe Du Hoc was the last stop on our tour of the Normandy D-Day beaches. It wasn’t the sort of day that fills you with joy, but I certainly learnt a great deal, and left with a heightened sense of admiration and respect for the many people who gave their lives so Europe and the world could be free.
Now.. on to some practicalities.
Where we stayed in Normandy
There are lots of options for accommodation at Mont St. Michel. We found ourselves a little chambre d’hote, which is the French equivalent of a B&B. This was excellent value, and within walking a half hour’s walk of Mont St. Michel – and more importantly, a ten minute walk to where I was able to get photos like this:
We actually found that there are lots of these in the Mont St. Michel area that aren’t listed on the large booking engines, but you will be able to find them on the French website dedicated to Chambres d’Hotes – see Mont St Michel listings here.
There were three Chambres D’Hotes near each other, including the one we stayed at, with a price for two people, including breakfast, usually in the region of €50. Definitely an option worth investigating.
How We Got Around Normandy
Since we took the ferry, we were able to take our own car to France. This was very handy, and definitely meant we got to see everything we wanted to see at our pace. I’d definitely recommend a car as the best option to get as much in as you can for your trip. If you’re coming from the UK, Brittany Ferries operates to a number of destinations in France, with Cherborg, St. Malo and Caen likely to be your best options for a trip like the one we did.
If you’re looking to hire a car in France, then we recommend Priceline’s car rental price comparison tool. It checks all the major car hire companies and we find it usually comes up with the best deal.
Getting To Normandy from the UK
As mentioned above, we took the ferry from Portsmouth to St. Malo (and back again!) with Brittany Ferries. We had a four berth cabin on both crossings, which was particularly handy for the night crossing to France as it meant we could have a good night’s sleep. Each cabin also includes a sink, toilet, and shower so you can arrive feeling refreshed.
The boat was also well equipped, and we enjoyed an excellent dinner on board on our way to France, and a lovely lunch on the day crossing back. In the evening, after our dinner, we went and watched the cabaret show (and partook of the excellent bar!), with Jess having a huge cocktail and me going for a slightly simpler beer option.
Jess also got involved in the magic show (this seems to happen to her a lot!), as a man rather worryingly stuck a sword through her throat. This was a lot of fun, and overall, we’re happy to recommend the Brittany Ferries experience to anyone looking to travel to and from the UK by ferry with a car.
And that pretty much wraps up our two days experience in Normandy! Have you ever visited the sights in the article? Have any tips or experiences to share? Let us know about them in the comments below!
So you know, we received complimentary tickets from Brittany Ferries to and from the UK for two people and a car. All other expenses, including meals and drinks on the boat, as well as our accommodation and activities in France, we covered ourselves. As always, you can read our code of ethics to find out how we choose to work with!