Where?? Carantilly is a tiny village in the Normandy region of France which we chose because it is 1 hour away from a few places we wanted to visit. Our space is a 400 year old barn, renovated into two lovely homes. We have 3 bedrooms on the upper level and 3 large rooms on the main floor, substantially more space than we need but the location is ideal. The neighbors, aside from our landlords, are 3 sheep and a herd of cows and the only traffic noise is the occasional tractor passing the house…..quite a change from the hustle and bustle of Bordeaux where we just left.
Our first road trip was to the medieval island of Mont St Michel, one of the reason’s we came to this area of France, and I must say my heart skipped a beat when I first glimpsed the island. For over a thousand years Christians have made pilgrimages to this rocky tidal island where the abbey has been a holy site since 708, when a local bishop had a vision convincing him to build here. Building took many centuries as the monks ferried granite from across the bay and to the top of the island. The vast bay of Mont St Michel has the highest tidal variations in Europe, a 46 ft difference between high and low tide which only added to the challenges of reaching the abbey.
From a distance the island appears to float on the horizon becoming more beautiful the closer you get. Parking is just over 2 km away, we decided against the shuttle bus to walk and soak up the ever changing views the closer we walked. More than 2.5 million tourists per year visit Mont St Michel so we arrived early to be with the fewest tourists possible and catch the early morning light. This turned out to be a good decision because by 11 am you could not move on the main street up to the abbey and hundreds more people were streaming on to the island. I can’t recall when I have been surrounded by such huge crowds!! We arrived at the abbey just before 9 am to purchase our tickets, then brochures in hand we made the one way tour around the numerous levels of the abbey. There are few places we can justify paying the high entrance fees, but this one was absolutely worth it. The engineering of this massive structure is awe inspiring considering how many centuries ago it was done, and the fact it is built on a pointy piece of rock in the ocean! If you are in the area, do not miss this historic landmark…..and of course don’t forget to pick up some of the local butter cookies before you leave 🙂
On a whim we visited Coutances, a village 20 minutes from our house and one of the many towns bombed in 1944 during the battle for Normandy, when 60% of the town was destroyed. The Cathedral of Notre Dame built from 1210 to 1274, and one of Normandy’s most famous architectural monuments, escaped serious damage and is a magnificent Gothic building. We were surprised finding such a large cathedral in this small a town but we know that churches are the largest and most elaborate structure in every town, and this one is no exception!
The Coutances Cathedral stands 295 ft tall, can be seen from the island of Jersey and dominates the local skyline. Added to our delight with this beautiful cathedral was a wedding ceremony beginning at the end of our visit, the massive organ emitting beautiful music before the ceremony. Who doesn’t love a wedding 🙂 In addition to the cathedral Coutances is a lovely town perched on a hilltop with small streets bustling with cafes, restaurants, shops and beautiful gardens. We thoroughly enjoyed this unexpected discovery.
The Normandy region abounds with memorials and monuments to the second world war. This area was hard hit with many towns destroyed and thousands killed. The most famous sites are the D-Day landing beaches lining the northern coastline. Our weather has been a little cool and rainy which seems appropriate weather to view the D-Day landing beaches. That terrible day, and the ones that followed, with such a huge loss of life seem a bit more fathomable under grey and gloomy skies. Our visit to the D-Day beaches began at Omaha Beach under partly sunny skies which made it hard to imagine how such a peaceful place was the scene of such bloodshed and violence.
There are a few German bunkers still around the hillsides, some still with guns in place, aimed at the landing troops. Before the soldiers could reach the bunkers they would have already faced 15 rows of obstacles beginning with floating mines, nets, tree trunks topped with mines, concrete blocks, barbed wire, antitank wall etc.
From the Omaha landing beach we went to the American Cemetery which is a beautiful memorial to the lives lost during the invasion. Wandering amongst the seemingly endless crosses left us heartbroken, as well as grateful for the sacrifice these young men made on that fateful day and the following months. There are almost 10,000 US soldiers buried here.
From there we made our way to Utah Beach, the second major US landing beach which has a large museum. Our research suggested the Utah museum was the best one to visit and with so many around we had to choose one. In addition to numerous artifacts there is a small cinema playing a 15 minute video detailing the D-Day landings, this gave us a good understanding of the strategic choices for the Allied invasion of Normandy and the reasons for the success at Utah Beach (they landed at the wrong location!). This museum also has one of only 6 remaining B26 bombers still in existence, very interesting to see. We recommend this museum if you are visiting the D-Day beaches. From Utah beach we drove to Juno beach, the location of the Canadian troops landing, where there is a museum, memorial monuments and military equipment on display.
The Canadian cemetery is 7 km inland and another beautiful memorial to the lives lost during the invasion. All these allied troops cemeteries are maintained by the French government in appreciation of their liberation from German occupation. There is so much to see along the Normandy coast you could easily spend a few days but we crammed as much as we could into one 10 hour day and came away with a much deeper understanding of how significant D-Day was and what the allied troops faced landing on these wide open expanses of beach.
Our time in Normandy has been informative, educational and completely different to all the places we have visited so far, in fact our extended time in France has been a wonderful and varied experience. We had not spent a lot of time in the countryside before and enjoyed the variety of towns we visited and lived in, so much history!!
To wind up our visit to Normandy we had some quiet time at home before our upcoming travel days. We have a long 3 day journey ahead by car and ferry before we reach Scotland…..