Discover Normandy ahead of the D-Day Landings anniversary
The rolling green fields, wide sandy beaches and pretty towns and villages of Normandy make this French region a great place for a family trip. This year, 2014, is a particularly good time to visit Normandy because it’s the 70th anniversary of the WWII D-Day landings.
On June 6th 1944 more than 150,000 Allied soldiers landed on the sandy beaches of Normandy. The landings were the start of the liberation of Europe and the ensuing battle mobilised around three million soldiers.
There’s a full programme of cultural events planned to mark the 70th D-Day anniversary. Today the beautiful beaches and inland areas where the fighting took place are dotted with excellent museums, interpretation centres and memorials which bring the history of D-Day and WWII alive. The location of many of these historical sites makes them ideal for family visits.
Here are some of the best places for families to learn about D-Day.
The Juno Beach Centre is right next to the sandy beach in Courseulles-sur-Mer where Canadian and British soldiers landed in 1944. The centre was established by Canadian war veterans and aims to connect young people with the story of what happened there and in Canada during WWII. It does this very well by using personal stories and objects from the time as well as enthusiastic young Canadian guides to greet visitors and show them around.
The Arromanches 360 Circular Cinema is perched on a hillside above the pretty seaside town of Arromanches where the remains of the Mulberry Harbours built for D-Day are still clearly visible in the sea. The circular cinema has nine screens where a 19-minute film about the story of the Normandy campaign are projected. The film is made with original footage from the time and gives an impressionistic overview of what happened.
Longues-sur-Mer Battery has lots of space for kids to run around in. It’s a WWII German command post on a cliff top overlooking the Channel. Each of its four concrete bunkers has a huge gun still in place. The guns point out to sea and are worn smooth where generations of children have climbed on them.
Azeville Battery has excellent English audio guides for both adults and children. The guide directs you around the battery and its tunnels and explains how the German soldiers lived here. You can see where they slept and ate and even the mural they painted next to the reservoir where they swam.
The Pegasus Bridge Memorial tells the incredible story of how the British used wooden gliders to drop soldiers inland to secure bridges and strategic points in the hours before the beach landings. You can walk across the original Pegasus Bridge which was secured by British soldiers on D-Day as well look inside a full-size model of a glider as used in the operation.
At the Sainte-Mère-Église tourist information centre you can hire a hand-held interactive GPS device which is great for families. Somewhat confusingly the device is called the Open Sky Museum but essentially it guides you on a 50-kilometre tour of sites involved in the D-Day landings telling you where to stop en route. It offers videos, photos, personal stories and quizzes at points of interest.
The Caen Memorial is a large museum dedicated to the history of the twentieth century from the origins of WWII to the end of the Cold War. A visit here is best suited to teenagers rather than younger children.
Where to Eat
Normandy is known for its dairy farms, apple orchards and coastline and its food reflects this heritage. This is the home of Camembert, crème fraîche and calvados and local dishes often involve cream.
Families are welcome at restaurants such as the excellent La Pêcherie in Courseulles-sur-Mer and at local bistros such as the friendly Brasserie d’En Face near the beach in Arromanches.
Another option which children enjoy is eating both savoury and sweet pancakes at places like the Creperie Montoise opposite the church in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.
Where to Stay
La Bergerie is a clutch of 18th century farm buildings which the friendly owners Sylvie and Frédéric have transformed into a wonderful, rustic chambre d’hôte (the French equivalent of a B&B) as well as three self-catering gites.
Price: From €310 per week for a gite for four people or €55 per night for a double chambre d’hôte room. There’s a playground and plenty of outdoor space and you can even try your hand at bread making in the original farm bakery.
The Pierre et Vacances Residence Le Chant des Oiseaux holiday village in Courseulles-sur-Mer offers one or two-bedroom apartments and individual houses as well as a communal heated indoor swimming pool and a children’s playground. It’s just a few minutes’ walk from a beautiful sandy beach and the town centre with its range of shops and restaurants.
Price: Apartments cost from £297 for 7 nights for a 1-bedroom apartment sleeping 4.
Travel time: From 3 hours by direct ferry or 1 hour flying from London City airport.
Drive: Normandy’s on the Northern coast of France between Brittany and Picardy. It’s easily reached by ferry across the English Channel from Portsmouth, Poole and Newhaven to its ports at Le Havre, Caen, Cherbourg and Dieppe.
Brittany Ferries offers the fastest crossing to Normandy from England with a daily high-speed service between Portsmouth and Cherbourg which takes three hours.
Price: Fares for this crossing cost from £48 per person each way based on a family of four taking their car.
FLY: You can also fly to direct to Deauville airport in Normandy from London City Airport with CityJet.
Price: The flight takes an hour and return tickets cost from £139 for adults, £133 for children including fees, taxes and a 23kg bag in the hold.
Gretta Schifano writes about family travel on her blog Mums do travel as well as for the Financial Times, National Geographic Traveller and the Independent. Gretta previously worked as a BBC radio producer and lives in England with her husband and children.