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Normandy - Which sites to visit without a guide

My family and I will be in France later this year, including spending 4 days in the Bayeux area primarily for WW2 historical site seeing. For 1 (and only 1) of those days, I plan to hire a private guide. My question is, which of the WW2-related sites should I save for the guide versus seeing on our own (I have read a lot and will have guide books and maps). In other words, which sites will be most enhanced by having an expert with us? Thanks!

Posted by
9928 posts

I would do the guide the first day as they can also give you the lay of the land so to speak - and show you where the Germans flooded areas, how the topography of the landscape controlled where they defended and where the Allies chose to land. I thought Pointe du Hoc was good with a guide as they can also show you the direction the guns were moved and from there where Utah Beach is. I also though my visit was enhanced with a guide on Utah and Omaha Beaches.

If you have a particular interest or had a relative who participated in the landings, the guide can be instrumental in bring this to life. I was interested in seeing an Advanced Landing Ground and mentioned this to the guide I had the first time I visited. This was on a Rick Steves tour and he took care to bring ALG's into his basic discussion as well as point out to me where it was located. There was another tour participant who's Dad had landed on DDay and the guide was able to work in some of the movements of his division.

To me Arromanches and the Mulberry Harbor, Pegasus Bridge and the batteries at Longues-sur-Mer were OK without a guide but there is a museum at Arromanches and Pegasus Bridge. I did not visit the Pegasus Bridge museum but the glider landing points are well marked along the canal with stone markers.

I've not done much on Gold and Sword Beaches except Arromanches area and Pegasus.

Your guide may take you to some smaller places as well. One of the guides I had (Dale Booth) took us to the very small village of Angouville-au-Plain and we definitely benefited from a guide relating the stories of how the battle raged over this area on June 6 and the heroism shown.

American Cemetery, fine to see on your own as well as any museum.

Posted by
7268 posts

It would make sense to use the guide to drive to the beache battle sites because it is tricky to do it yourself; the American Cemetery and museum you can do yourself as long as you are mindful of the schedule the public bus back to Bayeux

Posted by
676 posts

Although I have not used a guide in Normandy, I agree that if you are going to use a guide, do this on your first day. That way, you can go to places where they didn't take you, or go back to places you found particularly interesting. Read, read, read all you can beforehand. The more you know about what transpired, the more you will get out of your trip. And the less time you or a guide will have to spend just getting you through the basics of the battles and the lay of the land. I agree that you don't need a guide when at a museum. The museums do a good enough job telling the stories of what they cover.

There is more than can be seen in two days—guide or not. The D-day area is huge. It is 45 miles as the crow flies between Utah Beach and Sword Beach. And you won't fly. You typically have to take local roads from the beaches inland to the larger roads that interconnect these places. I have been seven times in the last ten years, and I may go back again this year (definitely 2019 for the 75th anniversary). I go back to many places I have been before, but always find new things I hadn't yet seen.

Posted by
2 posts

Thank you all for your feedback. The advice makes sense and I will try to incorporate it into the plan.

Posted by
736 posts

We toured Normandy 2 years ago and had a great trip. We took a group guided tour on the first day and then went back to spend more time on our own after that day. We found it a little difficult to find some of the areas to revisit on our own as the locations are spread out. Make certain that you make a note of where you want to return to the next day and how to get there.
One thing I would add is visiting the 3 cemeteries. We went to the American, German and British. We were told to do this by friends that had done the same thing years before......I am so glad we did! It puts into perspective the nations and their differing roles in the Normandy battles. The American cemetery is elegant and stately. It is beautifully maintained. Only the names and towns of origin are on the gravestones. The German cemetery is stark and cold....very little to make it attractive.....not much landscaping to enhance it. We were encouraged to make certain we visited the British cemetery because it is so different from the other is in Bayeux. The British allowed the families that lost family members to put on the gravestones a personal message. They have also landscaped a row of dirt on each row of gravestones where beautiful flowers are planted that surround the gravestones. You will see irises, roses and other flowers on each row that add so much to the grounds of the cemetery. It is also so interesting to read the personal messages left there by parents and spouses of some of these British soldiers that were so young when they died.
I am so glad we added these visits to our own personal tour.

Posted by
676 posts

While I agree it is good to visit several cemeteries, I would like to add a correction. There is more than just one each American, British and German cemeteries in Normandy.

There are actually two American cemeteries in Normandy. Most will rightly visit the Normandy American Cemetery above Omaha Beach (9,387 buried there). But the cemetery in St. James (closer to Brittany) holds another 4,410 dead, and receives fewer visitors.

There are a half dozen German cemeteries in Normandy. The La Cambe gets more visitors because it is closer to the beaches and the highway. It holds twice as many dead as the Normandy American Cemetery (21,222). Another German cemetery in Orglandes (WNW of Sainte-Mère-Église) holds another 10,000+ dead. I found it more peaceful and contemplative than the La Cambe cemetery.

The UK has many cemeteries in Normandy (Wikipedia lists 13). The one in Bayeux by the museum gets a lot of visitors, but there are many more—some small, some large. Also, at their cemeteries you will see not only British graves, but other dead from local battles including Polish, Russian, Czech, Australian, and even German.

One of my favorite cemeteries is the small Canadian cemetery inland from Juno Beach in Bény-sur-Mer (2,000+ dead). Quiet, contemplative, often no or few visitors, and a wonderful view of the sloping fields leading down to the distant shore. It is a must see on my multiple trips to Normandy. Another Canadian cemetery South of Caen holds almost 3,000 dead (although I have yet to visit this one). The Canadians joined the battle against Nazi Germany much earlier than the U.S., fought bitterly for the liberation of Caen, and to close the Falaise gap South of there.

I also see a Polish cemetery listed further South of Caen that I have yet to visit, and I still haven't seen most of the German or U.K. cemeteries. It is right we remember all who fought, and recognize those who died—even those who were our enemies at the time. War has tremendous costs, not the least of which is the blood of the individual combatants. Also always remember the French citizens who suffered tremendously through the battle of Normandy—often unintentionally at the hands of their liberators.