Destined for all time to be linked with the historic events of June 6, 1944, France’s Normandy coast is often overlooked as a cruising destination. But if what you want from a cruise is pretty scenery, interesting ports of call, and good local cuisine, Normandy can deliver. If you like a smattering of local culture and a bite of history as well, Normandy has both in spades. Long before the German occupation in World War II—long before Germany had been created, in fact—Normandy was a powerful, independent state with great castles, bustling cities, and towering cathedrals. More recently it became an idyllic rural backwater of modern France, famed for its apples, cider, butter, and cheeses—a sort of French Vermont, but with more beaches and better food.
And then came D-Day, adding a new chapter to the pages of history laid out on the landscape—shattered concrete and rusting steel among the castles and cathedrals. While the beauty of the Norman coastline and the tranquility of its rural hinterland make it possible, at least momentarily, to forget the events of 60 years ago, there is no escaping them for long. Every town has its little museum, and the shoreline and landscape are dotted with monuments, memorials, and cemeteries. Such melancholy reminders can often obscure the fact that the French are reverent about D-Day—or J-Jour, as they call it—and remember the sacrifice made by the young Allied soldiers, particularly the Americans, with great humility and gratitude.
There are seven yachting harbors on the D-Day coast, stretched between St. Vaast, located ten miles north of Utah Beach, and Ouistreham, the ferry port on the Caen Canal, which marked the eastern edge of the landing zone. These waters may not command the fearful respect of those belonging to neighboring Brittany, with its 35-foot tides and jagged rocks, but they still expect you to pay attention. The spring-tide range is more than 20 feet, and with the shoreline being predominantly shallow, shelving, and sandy, you’ve got to hold your cruising guide the right way up if you don’t want to find yourself high and dry several miles offshore, instead of locking securely through into some snug overnight haven.
St.Vaast is perhaps the most famous yachting center on this stretch of coast, long popular with English cruising boats, many of which make the trip here solely for the superb Saturday market—cheeses, seafood, smoked meats, truffles, the best of rural France—and to stock up at the legendary Monsieur Gosselin’s, one street back from the Quai Vauban. In their own quiet way the French tend to regard their country as the center of world civilization, and in a shop like this you can see what they mean. The delicatessen stocks everything you can think of and a good many things you won’t recognize, but proprietors are used to the culinary ignorance of foreigners and are happy to explain. The finest wines are in the dark cellar at the back of the shop, but for the more price-conscious, Gosselin bottles his own. Although the English Channel in December is grey, cold, and often stormy, British yachts routinely make the 70-mile crossing to stock up for Christmas at Gosselin’s, or die of exposure in the attempt. It’s worth it.
Carentan and Isigny are both some way inland, up the shallow tidal channels of the rivers Douve and Vire—a little off the beaten track for a cruising yacht. Both towns saw fierce fighting in the days after the landings and considerable bombardment from Allied aircraft. As the American General Omar Bradley remarked surveying the damage, “The people of Isigny waited for more than four years to be liberated. And now, seeing the ruins of their country, they consider us responsible.” Today this pretty town displays no outward sign of the ordeal it went through.
The harbor of Grandcamp also has some yacht pontoons and offers an easy approach when the tide is right. The port lies between Utah and Omaha Beaches and was taken by American troops on June 9. Bradley set up his headquarters there.
Continuing east, past the jutting headland of Pointe du Hoc—capped by a haunted moonscape of bomb craters and shattered concrete bunkers after the American 2nd Rangers’ heroic action there on D-Day—lies Omaha Beach. It is enormous, and it’s easy to see why it was chosen for the landing of the largest body of troops on June 6. All is peaceful now, and unspoiled. From the sea it takes an almost impossible leap of imagination to picture the chaos of 60 years ago, and it also takes a sharp eye to spot the German gun emplacements that wrought such havoc in the first hours of the landings. But they are still there, embedded for all time in the untouched, grassy slopes. On the hill at Colleville a tall, proud flagstaff marks the location of the American cemetery.
Today Port-en-Bessin is a busy fishing harbor, which within a week of its liberation by British marines on June 8 was a vital military supply port, bringing in vehicles and supplies at the rate of 1,000 tons a day. It also became the first part of the PLUTO (PipeLine Under The Ocean) fuel-delivery system, bringing in gasoline for the armies from tankers offshore before the direct pipe link was completed between England and the French port of Cherbourg.
No trace of that extraordinary project remains, but there is plenty of evidence left of the other great feat of invasion engineering. Just along the coast at Arromanches lie the massive remnants of the giant concrete “Mulberry” harbor known as Port Winston, a truly astounding feat that took the labor of 45,000 men to build in sections that were towed across the Channel after D-Day and assembled. There was a twin harbor on Omaha Beach, but it was carried away in a gale just three weeks after the landings. The remains of Port Winston—with many of its concrete caissons still in position, providing a clearly visible, mile-long outline of the vast man-made harbor—can serve as a particularly evocative anchorage on a calm day. By June 20, 1944, this improvised port was handling more than 6,000 tons of military supplies a day.
The British and Canadian sectors of the invasion coast, Gold, Juno, and Sword Beaches, stretch from here to Ouistreham. Their beachfront towns, popular and affluent resorts before the war, were badly damaged but quickly recovered and are today charming and busy vacation spots. Courseulles, which saw some of the heaviest fighting of D-Day, is now a packed yachting harbor with two marinas and a museum dedicated to the huge Canadian contribution to the invasion, the futuristic Juno Beach Center, which opened last year.
A few miles inland is Bayeux, and however you choose to get there, whether by bike, bus, or taxi, this beautiful city is a must see for anyone visiting Normandy: a medieval jewel miraculously left untouched by the battles of 60 years ago, as British troops from Gold Beach took it without a fight the day after the landings. The city is straight out of central casting: narrow, winding streets, timber-framed houses with overhanging eaves, and an imposing cathedral in the Gothic style that dates from the 11th century. There are plenty of French shops where you can search out vintage Calvados, the excellent local cider brandy, and there’s a good choice of restaurants. Indeed, this is a good place to indulge in Norman specialties like ficelle Normande (narrow French bread filled with ham, cheese, and mushrooms), escalope Vallée d’Auge (veal sautéed and flambéed in Calvados with cream and apples), and even marmite dieppoise (rich seafood stew served in an iron pot), although it’s not strictly local (Dieppe being a bit farther up the coast).
Bayeux also boasts an excellent D-Day museum, the principal British military cemetery in Normandy, and the famous Bayeux tapestry. This is a pictorial narrative of another invasion, that of William, Duke of Normandy, who sailed his army across the Channel in 1066 and defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings. The tapestry depicts the proceedings like a primitive cartoon strip 20 inches high, and it sounds a little ho-hum until you learn that it’s 230 feet long. It is also astonishingly well preserved, and it is hard to believe that it’s more than 900 years old, but hey—welcome to Europe.
Studying the tapestry, with its lively figures and busy scenes crowding one another, it is possible, just briefly, to forget about D-Day. But then you come to the part where William is loading his fleet with soldiers and horses. You see the ships at sea, the horses comically poking their heads above the gunwales, soldiers keeping watch fore and aft. Then they land on the foreign shore. Soldiers leap out, and horses charge up the beach. A battle develops, swings dangerously either way, but the invaders triumph, and history is made.
It seems awfully familiar.