By Rick Steves and Steve Smith
Caen's Museum for Peace
Caen ("kahn"), the modern capital of lower Normandy, has the best and by far priciest WWII museum in France. Officially named the "The Caen Memorial: History to Understand the World" (Le Mémorial de Caen: L'histoire pour comprendre le monde), it effectively puts the Battle of Normandy in a broader context. You'll see two video presentations and numerous exhibits on the lead-up to World War II, the actual Battle of Normandy, the Cold War and the ongoing fight for peace (Nobel Prize Gallery and Peace Gardens).
The museum is brilliant. Begin with a downward spiral stroll, tracing (almost psychoanalyzing) the path Europe followed from the end of World War I to the rise of fascism to World War II. The lower level gives a thorough look at how World War II was fought — from General Charles de Gaulle's London radio broadcasts to Hitler's early missiles to wartime fashion to the D-Day landings. You then see two powerful movies. Jour J (D-Day) is a 30-minute film that shows the build-up to D-Day itself and the successful campaign from there to Berlin. While snippets come from the movie The Longest Day, most of the film consists of footage from actual battle scenes. The second movie, Espérance (Hope), is a thrilling sweep through the pains and triumphs of the 20th century.
The Cold War wing sets the scene with audio testimonies and photos of European cities destroyed during World War II. It continues with a helpful overview of the bipolar world that followed the war, with fascinating insights into the psychological battle waged by the Soviet Union and the US for the hearts and minds of their people until the fall of communism. The next wing, titled "Worlds for Peace," has a white, space-age design to encourage contemplation of a different future. The museum is the only place outside the US that displays building remains from the 9/11 attacks (you can see them at the end of the building, through the glass windows). The British Gardens, inaugurated in 2004 by Prince Charles, are located east of the Hall for Peace building.
The next section of the museum celebrates the irrepressible human spirit in the Gallery of Nobel Peace Prizewinners. It honors the courageous and too-often-inconspicuous work of people like Andrei Sakharov, Elie Wiesel and Desmond Tutu, who understand that peace is more than an absence of war. The finale is a walk through the US Armed Forces Memorial Garden. On a visit here, I was bothered by the mindless laughing of lighthearted children unable to appreciate their blessings. Then I read on the pavement: "From the heart of our land flows the blood of our youth, given to you in the name of freedom." Then their laughter made me happy.
Allow a minimum of 2.5 hours for your visit, including an hour for the movies. You could easily spend all day here; in fact, tickets purchased after 13:00 are valid for 24 hours, so you can return the next day. There are no guided tours. Babysitting is offered for children under 10 (for whom exhibits may be too graphic). The museum has a large gift shop with plenty of books in English, an all-day cafeteria and a restaurant with a garden-side terrace (lunch only, located in the Cold War wing). Picnicking in the gardens is also an option.
The museum offers well-devised minivan guided tours of the D-Day beaches, combined with entry to the Museum. The "D-Day Tour" package is designed for day-trippers, and includes pickup from the Caen train station (with frequent service from Paris), a four-hour tour in English of the major Anglo-Canadian beaches, lunch and then an afternoon at the Memorial Museum. Your day ends with a drop-off at the Caen train station in time to catch a train back to Paris or elsewhere.
Victory Tours is a one-man show run by friendly Dutchman Roel; he's informal but very informative, covering sights mostly in the American sector (best to reserve in advance, departs from Bayeux only). D-Day Battle Tours is for true enthusiasts. British owner and zealot Ellwood von Siebold has realized his dream by moving here and living out his fantasy: teaching about the D-Day invasion. He dresses in WWII army gear, drives a WWII Dodge Command Car (very cool), lives in a home where an American paratrooper landed in the garden, and owns a café in Ste. Mère Eglise (C-47 Café) that has the rudder of a WWII-era C-47 plane as its centerpiece. His specialty is the American sector, particularly the American Cemetery, Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, and Ste. Mère Eglise. His tours begin at the C-47 Café (where else?) on the town's main square, or he'll meet you at the train station in Carentan
Arromanches: Port Winston and the D-Day Landing Museum
The world's first prefab harbor was created by the British in Arromanches. Since it was Churchill's brainchild, it was named Port Winston. Walk along the seafront promenade and imagine the building of this port. On June 7, 1944, 17 old ships crossed the English Channel under their own steam. The crews sunk them so that the bow faced the next ship's stern, forming the first sea barrier. Then, 115 football-field-size cement blocks (called "Mulberries") were towed across the channel and sunk, creating a four-mile-long breakwater located a mile and a half offshore. Finally, engineers set up seven floating steel "pierheads" with extendable legs; they were linked to shore by four mile-long floating roads made of concrete pontoons. Soldiers then placed anti-aircraft guns on the pontoons, protecting a port the size of Dover, England. Within just six days of operation, 54,000 vehicles, 326,000 troops, and 110,000 tons of goods had crossed the English Channel. An Allied toehold on Normandy was secure. Eleven months later, Hitler was dead and the war was over.
The D-Day Landing Museum (Musée du Débarquement), which faces the surprisingly visible remains of what was intended to be a temporary harbor, provides an instructive hour-long visit. Take a good look at models and images illustrating the construction and use of the prefabricated harbor. Then gaze out the windows that look directly onto the harbor's remains, allowing you to mentally reconstruct this amazing accomplishment. Ponder the remarkable undertaking that resulted in this harbor being built in just 12 days, while battles raged. One video (8 min, ground floor) recalls D-Day; the other (15 min, upstairs) features the construction of the temporary port (ask for English times).
Hike 10 minutes to the top of the bluff behind the museum for the view from the Arromanches 360º Theater and ponder how, from this makeshift harbor, the liberation of Western Europe commenced. Inside, The Price of Freedom offers D-Day footage in a noisy montage of videos on its 360-degree screen. But the most thought-provoking experience in town is simply to wander the beach among the concrete and rusted litter of the battle, and be thankful that all you hear are birds and surf.
Crowning a bluff just above Omaha Beach and the eye of the D-Day storm, 9,387 brilliant white-marble crosses and Stars of David glow in memory of Americans who gave their lives to free Europe on the beaches below. You'll find this stirring sight in Colleville, near St. Laurent. First, stop by the Visitors' Office to pick up an English information sheet. Read the 1956 letter from the French president (on the wall above the fireplace), which eloquently expresses the feeling of gratitude the French still have for the US. The attendant at the computer terminal has a database that can provide ready access to the story of any serviceman who died in Normandy.
Walk past the memorial and cemetery to the bluff that overlooks the piece of Normandy beach called "that embattled shore — portal of freedom." It's quiet and peaceful today, but imagine the horrific carnage of June 6, 1944. Steps lead down to the beautiful beach below. A walk on the beach is a powerful experience. Walk back to the memorial, where you'll see giant reliefs of the Battle of Normandy and the Battle of Europe etched on the walls. Behind that is the semicircular Garden of the Missing, with the names of 1,557 soldiers who were never found. A small metal knob next to the name indicates one whose body was eventually found — there aren't many.
Finally, wander among the peaceful and poignant sea of headstones. Notice the names, home states and dates of death inscribed on each. Immediately after the war, all the dead were buried in temporary cemeteries. In the mid-1950s, the families of the soldiers decided whether their loved ones should remain with their comrades or be brought home (61 percent opted for repatriation). Officers (including General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.) were disproportionately left here. Their families knew they'd want to be buried alongside the men with whom they fought and died. France has given the US permanent free use of this 172-acre site. It is immaculately maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument
For the invasion, 300 U.S. Army Rangers were handpicked to attempt a castle-style assault of the German-occupied cliffs, using grappling hooks and ladders borrowed from London fire departments. Only 90 rangers survived the vertical assault. This was the German's most heavily fortified position along the coast, thanks to its strategic location; this point of land allowed guns to have complete coverage of the beaches below. The German bunkers and bomb craters remain just as they were found. Picnicking is forbidden here — the bombed bunkers are considered gravesites. The large monument at the end of the bluff is the Ranger "Dagger," planted firmly in the ground. A museum dedicated to the Rangers is in nearby Grandcamp-Maisy.