Our first stop is actually the day before your trip. That's when you'll stop-by your favorite delicatessen (traiteur) to pick-up the items you'll pack for lunch the next day. Your day will be way too busy for stopping at a restaurant - and there are many wonderful picnic areas along our route - so prepare a sack of your favorite goodies and get a good night's sleep; our trip starts early.
The Train to Normandy
The first leg of the trip starts at the Gare St. Lazare where you will catch the first train to Caen at 6:45am. Be aware that no food is sold on the train and none of the station vendors will be open at that hour either - so bringing some breakfast items isn't a bad idea. It's a two hour train ride through the beautiful Norman countryside with brief stops in two or three cities along the way.
You'll arrive in Caen at 8:45am and after walking outside you'll find all the car rental agencies just across the street from the train station (except Hertz - which is around the corner to your right). Pick-up your rental car and let's hit the road. And this will be the trickiest part of your day; namely, finding the road. You'll want the N13 toward Cherbourg. It can get a little confusing when you get on the freeway in Caen, but just remember, when in doubt - follow the signs that say Cherbourg.
Our first stop is at Longues-sur Mer where you will find the only remaining long-range German artillery guns, still in their bunkers. To get there exit the N13 at Bayeux (sorry - no time for the tapestry today) and follow the many signs. The guns are in three well preserved (considering what they've been through) bunkers on an isolated cliff high above the D-Day landing beaches.
Not only are the bunkers and guns fascinating - but the cliff offers a panoramic view of all of the D-Day beaches. You are above Gold Beach with the artificial Mulberry harbor at Arromanches clearly visible off to your right.
In-fact, you have a better view of the Arromanches-Mulberry area from here than if you'd actually driven there. Since you won't have time to see all the beaches we'll head for the one off to your left - and by far the most interesting - Omaha Beach.
The road just behind you is the D514, where you'll turn right toward Port-en Bessin. Pass through this quaint village and continue on to Colleville-sur-Mer (10km total) where you will find the American D-Day cemetery beautifully laid-out on the cliffs above Omaha Beach.
I think the best word to describe this experience is sobering. Here you will see the final resting place of over 9000 American soldiers killed during the two-month long battle of Normandy. There is also an excellent Visitors Center with many fascinating items from the invasion and an excellent documentary film focusing on some of the men buried there.
Also - near the parking lot and down the ridge toward the beach - you can still see several German machine gun emplacements. It's a reminder that some of the heaviest fighting on D-Day took place right where you're standing.
When you leave the cemetery you'll be back on the D514 heading toward St. Laurent (5km). Turn right at St. Laurent and follow the signs to Omaha Beach (1km).
When you reach the beach turn left and follow the beach road as it traverses the full length of Omaha Beach. To your left are the ridges where the Germans were dug-in, and to your right Omaha Beach. At the end of the road you will be at Vierville.
This is where I suggest getting out and taking a walk on the beach - for this is the location of the famous Dog-Green sector featured in the film Saving Private Ryan. As you stand at the water's edge here and face the cliffs in front of you, you can easily imagine the terror of that June day in 1944.
When you leave here, follow the road as it goes up the hill, away from the beach and back to the D514. At the corner is a small D-Day museum well worth the €5 admission fee. Spend some time here (but not too long) and then hit the road again.
Continue following the D514 (turn right out of the museum parking lot) and after 5km you will reach Point du Hoc - the famous cliffs scaled by the U.S. Army Rangers on D-Day. Here is a location where it seems as though the war ended just months ago.
As you walk out to the Point you will see not only the remains of many German bunkers and artillery emplacements - but the still existing craters left by the Allied bombs trying to knock-out those guns.
Standing on the cliffs - behind the barbed wire - and looking down at the beach below - you can only be amazed that men climbed it at all; let alone under enemy fire. You can also explore several intact German bunkers here - and see the exact view the Germans had on that day. As you head back to your car there is a pleasant picnic area near the Visitors Center where that lunch you brought will really come in handy about now.
Upon leaving Point du Hoc you will again be on the by now familiar D514 where a short 4km ahead you'll reach Grandcamp-Maisy and the Army Rangers museum.
Or - if you've had enough of museums for the day - you'll also see several places along the way where you can stop and sample the local Calvados. But if you do - just remember you have some more narrow Norman road driving ahead of you.
Now we are headed for our last stop on our day-trip. From Grandcamp-Maisy you will leave the D514 and take the D199 (there's only one direction to choose - so this one's easy) until you reach the D113 - where you'll take that road in the direction of La Cambe (left). While driving you will be passing through some beautiful countryside filled with the famous hedgerows that complicated the Allied thrust during the Battle of Normandy.
Also at the cemetery is an extremely interesting and well organized Visitors Center called The Peace Center. In one of the display cases you will seen the personal affects of three German soldiers buried in the cemetery - complete with pictures from their wallets.
It brings a face to an enemy we seldom see and reminds you that in-spite of everything - these were young men not so very different from those buried at Colleville-sur-Mer.
True - they fought for one of the worst causes ever - but they were brave young men- with friends and family - just like those resting a few miles down the road.
The cemetery is located just next to highway N13, which will take us directly back to Caen (1 hour) - where it is now time to head. All the car rental agencies close at 7pm (so be careful to not cut that too close) and our train back to Paris is at 7:45pm.
Once you drop-off your car you should have enough time to walk to the Orne River three blocks behind the train station. Take a stroll through this area and notice that even though you are in one of the oldest cities in France - there is hardly an old building to be found.
And this is your last battle scene - for Caen was the site of some of the heaviest fighting of the entire Normandy campaign. Indeed - the city was virtually destroyed - which is why everything looks so new - including all of the bridges.
In a way, the "newness" of Caen is like a scar on the face of Normandy. A scar which should constantly remind us of the cost of war.
Back to the train station for the 7:45 departure to Paris - which gets you back to St. Lazare at 10pm. Yes - it's a long day. But one you will remember always - and definitely worth the effort.