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Self-guided Normandy

Hello all. After seeing a pretty great airfare deal the other night ($291 RT each), my boyfriend and I spontaneously booked a trip to Paris for late March. We just did Paris in November, so this time we're looking to explore outside the city. His grandfather is a WWII vet so one of the things we know we definitely want to do is go to Normandy. We're planning to rent a car for our trip (we'll be in France 6 days total), so I'm hoping that we can explore Normandy on our own... I know there are some amazing tours available, but I'm not sure if any of them would fit into our budget... I'm trying to keep it to about $2000 for the entire 6 days. Has anyone done Normandy on their own? How much time would you alot there? (We'd also like to hit the Loire Valley, Versailles, and perhaps the Alsace region) Are there any books, either history or historical fiction, that anyone would recommend reading before we go to enhance our experience in Normandy? Any and all suggestions are appreciated!

Posted by
10344 posts

"Are there any books, either history or historical fiction, that anyone would recommend reading before we go to enhance our experience in Normandy?" There's a long list of books, videos, and films. Just two of the many books are D-Day and Band of Brothers, both by Stephen Ambrose. And the film Saving Private Ryan.

Posted by
1986 posts

6 days is not a lot. Most of your sights are West of Paris by a long journey- Alsace is about as far East. Alsace doesnt fit Loire Chateaux and Chartres ( a must see) minimum 2 days Normancy WWII sites, Mont St Michel and Bayeux tapestry, 2-3 days minimum Travel back to Paris and one night Paris- sixth day. Maybe can hit Versailles on return, but probably not practical You can do it on your own- with good advance planning and an idea of where you are going. Train from Paris to Normandy or Loire. Rent a car in Loire or Normady (out of paris) and drop off before you return to paris by train- to get the best use of time and reduce car travel hassle This schedule doesnt give you any time to get lost or drive inefficiently. I would be inclined to do everything on my own- except the battle sites. Worth getting a guided tour for that one day- they know where they are going and can select the cream of the sites

Posted by
14580 posts

As for any reading on the history of D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, I recommend J. Keegan "Six Armies in Normany" and Maz Hastings' "Overlord" Since you're going to rent a car, go to Caen, see the city and the famous museum on the war, and drive around the countryside near Caen, where some of the horrendous tank engagements took place. For the most recent scholarly addition to this literature, A. Beevor's book is recommended, somewhat of a different approach from that of Keegan and Hastings.

Posted by
3313 posts

Normandy is huge. Just to see the basics, I'd allow three days. It is much harder to drive because of the rural roads and poor signage. You could do a loop through Normandy and down to the Loire and back through Versailles, but with only six days I wouldn't try to add in Alsace. It's way on the other side of FRance.

Posted by
1446 posts

I'm not an expert on Normandy, having just been there for the first time in August. However, given the slow pace my husband and I like to travel, if I had 6 days, I would limit where I go. We took the train from Paris to Bayeux which took some of our travel time. We loved Bayeux and the WWII museum there, plus the Bayeux Tapestry - definitely two things to see. We did take a WWII tour of the battlefields, but we also rented a car in Bayeux. I would take the time to go to Mt. St. Michel, but would spend the rest of my time just driving the battlefields outside of Bayeux and along the coast. Many war museums along the way. It was very easy to drive there.

Posted by
32264 posts

Kris, Visiting Normandy and Alsace in a 6-day time frame is not realistic, especially travelling by car (travel by fast trains would be easier). While it's certainly possible to "explore Normandy" on your own, the D-Day sites are spread out over a 50-mile front. Unless you do LOTS of research, you won't necessarily know what you're looking at or be able to appreciate the significance of the sites (aside from the obvious ones). That's where a tour provides an advantage, and there are some excellent tours and Guides in that area. Whether you'll be able to visit the Loire Valley or Versailles will depend on how much time you want to spend in Normandy. Be sure to allow adequate travel times between locations. Happy travels!

Posted by
655 posts

Kris Six days will make a great trip out to Normandy with a visit to Bayeaux and the Loire Valley. With extra time, squeeze in Mt St. Michel. Depending upon the depth of your interest in WWII you can spend more or less time on the coastal sites but it is not necessary to travel the entire coast to be impressed. You can easily do it on your own provided you do the homework. You will be in the country at a slow time for tourism. Driving there is not hard and the prices at the time of your visit should be reasonable. A GPS may be helpful. I would leave Versailles out of the plan.

Posted by
2349 posts

It sounds like your plan is too ambitious, and you'll just have to keep booking cheap airfare when you find it. Go to France every 6 months until you to get everything on your wish list! Are you sure the grandfather was in Normandy? If you specifically want to pay tribute to him you should find out first.

Posted by
110 posts

Kris I'm a former infantry officer who spent his youth jumping out of airplanes for a living. As someone has mentioned Max Hastings "Overlord" is the definitive, popular, easily accessible history of the campaign. I used it for several self guided tours of Normandy. I would also recommend Anothy Cave Browns "A Bodyguard of Lies" to help set the scene in the runup to DDay Which brings me to my next point. 6 days is barely enough time to do a self guided tour of the battlefields, combined with a day or two on either end, in Paris. Save the Loire for your next trip. Do it up right.

Posted by
1836 posts

We visited some of your sites a few years ago. Here is what we did: pick up car at Orly, stopped at Chartres for a few hours, then two nights at La Roserie in Chenonceux for Loire chateau (this hotel is within walking distance of Chenonceau, the chateau that spans a river)...............we then went to the western part of Brittany, which I am skipping over here......two nights in Dinan, which is just across the border in Brittany, from which you can visit St. Malo and Mont St. Michel.....leaving Dinan, visit Bayeux, Omaha Beach, American cemetery, we then headed on to Les Andeleys for two nights, convenient for Giverney and King Richard's Castle.....however, that was a very long day, you might want to stop instead at Rouen (Joan of Arc and Monet's favourite cathedral)......you can visit Versailles on your way back to Orly to return the car.........this is a quick paced itinerary, which should suit you, although the slow-travel advocates will probably be appalled!

Posted by
2744 posts

I think Steve Ambrose's book on D-Day is an excellent book to read before you go. It's very focused on the role of the US, but if you are American, that will probably not be an issue for you. I'm a huge Band of Brothers geek, but the mini-series and books cover way more than just D-Day. We spent four days in Normandy, three focused on D-Day stuff. We did two full-day tours and spent the third day travelling on our own. The tours are more efficient, but you can do it on your own. Definitely do your homework and plan out what you want to see in advance to maximize your time. The driving is not difficult, and the area is beautiful. I would try to allocate two days to see the main highlights. I could easily spend a week there.

Posted by
813 posts

Alsace deserves it's own time, so skip it this trip. I'd recommend Paris as the in and out of the country, then over to Normandy for the whole time. You don't have to do battlefields everyday, there's plenty else to see. On your way to Normandy, stop in Giverny, France where Monet painted so many pictures in his garden there. Also recommend Mont St. Michellook into staying in the castle, it's so neat to be there at night after all the big tour groups have left.

Posted by
75 posts

Thank you all for the comments and ideas! It's really hard not to give into the temptation to try to cram it everything, but i'm trying to remind myself that of course we'll be back... I'm definitely getting the impression that we should concentrate on Normandy for 2 to 3 days and the same for the Loire.... The trip is actually 7 days total, not 6 as i previously said... I just picked up a copy of RS France from the library today, so my planning will go into high gear shortly.

Posted by
143 posts

We just got back from Normandy in October and I would recommend staying in Bayeux, which has the tapestry and a WWII museum, as well as good hotels and restaurants. You might consider taking one of the D-Day tours the first day, then explore on your own for the rest of the time you're there. You might also consider a visit to St. Lo, which is about 20 miles from Bayeux and has an interesting museum to the 29th and 35th Infanty Divisions that liberated that city about 6 weeks after D-Day. A good book to get if you're traveling by car is D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, by Carl Shilleto and Mike Tolhurst, which gives good driving itineraries for going around Normandy. Enjoy the area!

Posted by
171 posts

"Overlord" is a great read, as is the follow-up, "Armegeddon" about the battle for Germany.

Posted by
1320 posts

Giverny doesn't open for the season until April 1.

Posted by
27 posts

We drove from Paris' CDG to Normandy in 3 1/2 hours with no stopping. Loved the drive but make sure you have a GPS. We toured the major sites from WWII on our own with no problems at all. We used Rick Steves guide book. Most of these older folks want to be pampered and will go on a paid tour. They indeed can be expensive. With your own car you can go at your own pace and stay at places you like for as long as you like. Sure we didn't see every single WWII site and unless you are a MAJOR WWII history buff you will have no problem doing it on your own. We spent 3 days in Bayeux, visiting that area and IMHO it wasn't enough time only because we also went to Mont St Michel and absolutely loved driving around in the Normandy area. Hope this helps you. Have fun!

Posted by
1035 posts

"Most of these older folks want to be pampered and will go on a paid tour." I am not so old and don't want to be pampered, but did a paid tour. Here are some advantages of these tours: - Tour operators have access to a multitude of places you will not have the ability to visit on your own. Some on private property no open to the public. - I don't care how may books you read, tours can provide context that go with being an on the ground expert. - Tour guide provide an interactive environment where you can ask questions about what you are seeing. - D Day tours like the now defunct BattleBus try to humanize the sights with first hand stories of the famous, infamous and not so famous. Many of these stories were told to the guides first hand. - The tour price was worth it alone for the last stop. We drove down a private dirt road to an amazing high spot overlooking Omaha beach. Then the guide pointed to a place not far away where are German gunner was able to pick off hundreds of men. Also near by was the path American troops took to neutralize the gunner (although he lived, that is a longer story I'd have never heard if not for the tour).

Posted by
75 posts

for anyone interested: We leave a week from Tuesday. We have an overnight flight out of JFK, direct to CDG. I'm hoping to actually be able to catch a few hours sleep on this flight (unlike my last trip), so I may bring some Tylenol PM or something similar for the ride. Wednesday, we'll land around 9:30 a.m. We pick up our rental car at the airport and the plan is to drive to Versailles, see the chateau, and spend the night in town. Thursday, we wake up and drive to Bayeux and spend the night there. Not set on an exact itinerary for that day. On Friday, we go to the Caen museum and do their 5 hour tour of D-Day sites. (I know some other tours are highly recommended, but time and money constraints made the museum a good fit for us). Friday night, we stay at the Chateau de l'Isle Marie, which is a one night splurge that I'm very excited about. It's near enough to the D-Day sites and beaches that we can explore around some more after we wake up on Saturday. Saturday we head to Mont St. Michel, and we're staying overnight there so we can experience it at night and hopefully with fewer crowds. Sunday, we head to Amboise, and we'll spend the remainder of that day and Monday checking out chateaux. We're thinking Ambois and Chenonceau for sure, but not positive beyond that. Tuesday, we return the car to Paris and have that night to unwind before flying home Wednesday. Definitely a bit of a whirlwind, a lot of moving around, but I'm pretty confident we can handle it. Thanks for everyone's fantastic suggestions and advice, whether in this thread or others!

Posted by
9436 posts

Sounds like a good plan Kris. Wanted to add that we found driving in Normandy, and especially the two lane roads, to be super easy and very enjoyable. Signage was very good imo. Have a great time!

Posted by
1986 posts

Chateaux:
You mentioned Chenanceaux, which I think is high on every list. The other very popular one is Chambord- very big and impressive. But we liked Azay Le Rideau. Smaller, you can get your arms around it, like an old fairy tale castle. We also liked Langeais, which is a mediaeval castle in the middle of town. If you are staying overnight- try and see a son-et-lumiere at one of teh chateaux if they are available

Posted by
263 posts

We took a train to Caen and rented a car there....staying in Arromanches. March is off season, and some hotels may not be open yet. We had three days there and it was not enough. I will say standing on Omaha Beach was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had. Don't rush it... savor the time, think of the sacrifices made by young men of all nationalities and religions, and hope humankind does not have go do this again. When I go back, I will allow more time. Band of Brothers, the book, was a good read. And Saving Private Ryan was a good movie. Hope that helps. Have a great trip.

Posted by
4411 posts

Thursday in Bayeux: >Musee Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie (aka The D-Day Museum) >British Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery (kitty-corner from the museum; see Google Maps/Street View) >Tapisserie de Bayeux (Tapestry) >Cathedrale >if you have time left over - wander and gawk. Eat at one of the fantastic restaurants - research that online. Drink the cidre. Reserve your hotel ASAP - trust me. Prepare for cold, WINDY, blustery weather.