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What Not to Miss on a Paris to Normandy Road Trip

Paris to Normandy Road trip: Sculpture on Omaha Beach
A Paris to Normandy road trip is the sort of itinerary that you only consider when you live in Europe. Located far from the major international airports, the Normandy region in France is great for a long weekend break. Why visit Normandy? Ryanair runs frequent and cheap flights between Dublin and Paris Beauvais airport and Normandy is a 2-3 hour drive from Paris Beauvais. Where should you travel in Normandy? Read on for ideas for a 4 day road trip exploring rich and tragic World War II history alongside modern charms.

Provision Your Normandy Road Trip in Grandvilliers

We rented a car at Paris Beauvais airport and our Normandy road trip was underway. We stopped in Grandvilliers to buy some supplies for our road trip. We spotted a chocolatier and popped in for a look. We were highly impressed by all their Easter creations. A whole tray of colorful chickens looked up at us. Chicks, bunnies, hens, and fish came in all shapes and sizes.
Paris to Normandy Road Trip: Chocolatier in Grandvilliers France

Navigating French Tollbooths in Normandy

We encountered a strange tollbooth while getting on the highway. We had to pull over, pay the toll, and then insert our ticket into the gate. We learned later that we could have just as easily used our credit card in the gate.

Honfleur

We approached and then drove over the distinctive Le Pont de Normandie bridge en route to Honfleur. On our way into Honfleur, we spotted a colorful shop and couldn't resist stopping. Inside, we discovered all manner of gourmet treats. We sampled some of the local cider. We also picked up some caramel and nougat. Business was slow so the proprietor also treated us to a calvados (apple brandy) filled chocolate. I'm so glad we stopped in!
Paris to Normandy Road Trip: Shop selling regional specialties like cidre and calvados
We arrived in Honfleur, parked the car, and set out on foot to explore. The first order of business was to find a bite for lunch. A variety of restaurants lined the waterfront. We passed some small colorful boats and a typical French carousel. Honfleur harbour was lined with tall, narrow buildings. At the time they were built, taxes were based on width, not height. We admired a number of curious brick structures. We made our way around to the gauntlet of restaurants lining the harbour. We finally settled in at La Bisquine. We found a tranquil spot right along the water. Our meal was delicious. We started with a Camembert and apple salad. Next up, we tried sole steamed in foil with pine nuts and pesto sauce. We finished with tarte tatin served with fresh cream. So yum!
Paris to Normandy Road Trip: Honfleur Harbour
After lunch, we tried to walk off the meal with a stroll through Honfleur. We completed our circuit of the harbour and then wound our way through the narrow cobbled streets. The architecture of Honfleur delighted us. From the detailed, decorative signage on a local paint store to stained glass windows to half timbered houses to flower lined courtyards. Some of the homes were so old that they were visibly slanted.

We decided to climb the hill to Le Mont Joli. We passed stately manors as we stopped to catch our breath during the steep climb. A thatched cottage beckoned through an open white picket gate. We climbed a series of steep switchbacks lined with brambled fences. We looked out over sweeping views of Honfleur. After sitting for a few minutes admiring the view, we descended quickly to do a little shopping in Honfleur town. We approached a small park along the water and followed the sidewalk around to where it connected to the harbour. Tourist boats were plying their trade along the Seine. Some of the boats featured racy logos.
Paris to Normandy Road Trip: half-timbered houses in Honfleur France

Caen

We concluded our stroll and hopped back in the car for the final push to Caen.

We arrived in Caen, our home base for our Easter weekend in Normandy and checked ourselves in at the Kyriad Hotel. The staff was particularly friendly and actually let us practice our French! For the most part, when we visit French speaking places, we attempt to chat with people in very basic French. Almost immediately, most people will switch to English. In this case, the monsieur working at the front desk spoke French to us all weekend long. It was only on our last day in Caen that we even learned for sure that he spoke English at all. We really appreciated this gesture. We can't learn if we don't practice!
Paris to Normandy Road Trip: Gargoyles on St. Peter's Cathedral in Caen France
We headed out to explore Caen before sunset. We discovered a sweets shop called Gourm Randi SAS that sold different flavored caramel sauces. We picked out 3 jars that were small enough to fit into our 1-quart plastic bag for the flight home.

We discovered some interesting street art on the Passage du Grand Turc. The sun shown as we passed the cinema. An amazing gothic style church stood out in the skyline. Gargoyles protruded from almost every tower. We took a peek inside at the much more sparsely decorated interior. We crossed the street to the Château de Caen. We climbed the hill and looked back at Église Saint-Pierre.
Paris to Normandy Road Trip: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen
We climbed the defensive wall of the castle and looked down into an exterior exhibit at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen. A variety of carved animals sat atop long poles. There was a crisp breeze blowing the French tricolor flag. The sun was beginning to set, so we made our way out of the castle to look for some dinner. At the base of the castle we found a triangular memorial to those that died in World War II. We walked a short distance to Rue du Vaugueux, a pedestrianized street lined with charming restaurants. One of the buildings at the head of Rue du Vaugueux was covered with insect and animal sculptures. We walked Rue du Vaugueux from end to end a couple times before settling into a crêperie for supper.
Paris to Normandy Road Trip: Château de Caen
We looked out the window of our hotel room onto Caen's Place de la République. We had a lovely view of some classic French buildings across the narrow pedestrianized way. We decided to get some fresh air and take a short stroll in Caen to find breakfast before hitting the road to Mont Saint Michel. I spotted a phone booth with Charlie Chaplin stencilled onto it. I didn't know what this text (ceci ne fera pas une bonne photo) meant at the time. I chuckled when I used Google Translate to find out: this will not make a good photo. We had a bit of trouble finding a place to sit down for coffee and breakfast. We finally found a tabac that served coffee and pastries from a nearby bakery. After breakfast, we were lured into Pean Macaronier by the brightly colored treats in the window. We love macarons. This particular place had some that were the size of hamburgers! We picked up a gros macaron for later. We also admired the adorable mini-muffins on display but decided to limit ourselves to just one (very large) indulgence for the day. Equipped with the supplies we'd need for our adventures that day, we hopped into the car and started our journey to Mont Saint Michel.
Paris to Normandy Road Trip: Gros macarons in Caen France

Mont Saint Michel

Paris to Normandy Road Trip: Mont St. Michel
Mont St. Michel is one of the most dramatic tourist attractions in France. We could see this site of an 8th century monastery emerging from the haze as we wound toward it on a narrow country road. We parked in a lot that is submerged at certain hours by the tide. Fortunately, it's very predictable and the signage was very clear about when we needed to vacate. The monastery towered over us as we drew closer. Mont Saint Michel island was overrun by tourists on the main path toward the monastery. We took a brief detour up a steep staircase that took us onto a less congested path to the top. We passed moss covered homes and a small cemetery. We admired the low-tide view as we climbed higher. A small spigot protruded inconspicuously from the wall leading up to the monastery. We entered the monastery proper, bought our tickets, and had a look around.
Paris to Normandy Road Trip: Mont St. Michel monastery
We emerged onto a stone courtyard with sweeping views. The tide was low and people were taking the opportunity to walk to the small island in the distance. Guidebooks caution to be mindful when doing this. It's easy to get lost walking on the sand in the fog and the tide comes in fast! The tide is said to sound like a freight train. We stopped to enjoy the speculoos flavored (and giant sized!) macaron that we'd bought that morning in Caen. It tasted divine. We entered the church and looked up at the huge vaulted ceilings. We entered another smaller courtyard that the monks used as a place for silent reflection. The path was lined with sharp arches. We went inside and looked through the glass at the sea below. We caught a glimpse of a well and another small garden. The monastery was once used as a prison. Workers would mount a wheel (hamster style) and drive a sled up and down the steep face of the cliff. The walls of the church were incredibly tall.

After climbing to the summit on Mont Saint Michel, we made our way back down via a winding path on the exterior of the monastery. Stark trees obscured the view of the sea below and protected visitors from the cold Spring wind. We stopped to admire the monastery from below. It looked particularly striking against a backdrop of colorful flowers. We scrambled out onto the rocks near the parking lot. A winding channel of water had carved itself into the sand. We spotted lovely seashells embedded in the silt. As we retreated to the car, we captured some panoramic views of Mont Saint Michel.

We hadn't driven far when we pulled into the parking lot of Biscuiterie de la Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel. We could still see Mont St. Michel in the distance. Inside, we were treated to samples of buttery biscuits. Historic cookie stamping equipment adorned the lobby. We sampled and bought a few treats before jumping back in the car for a quick pitstop in Granville.
Paris to Normandy Road Trip: Biscuiterie de la Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel

Granville

We parked along the road in Granville next to a bed of bright flowers. We walked through the town toward the waterfront. We passed lots of shop windows featuring chocolatey Easter treats. We walked along the boardwalk with summer homes looming on the hill side above. The tide was out and people took the opportunity to stroll on the wet sand. We even spotted a woman pushing her pram across the sand. We chanced upon a group of cabanas that had been turned into a photography exhibit. A small French band played in the center of it all. We treated ourselves to a cup of cider while we listened to the music. Overhead, paragliders floated past. We decided to tackle the climb to la Haute-Ville. We mounted a series of steep staircases. We emerged at the top and walked along a rock wall sprouting moss and yellow flowers. The chimneys looked like well-bred Victorian ladies. We wandered the narrow residential streets of la Haute-Ville. We traced the wall around and admired the view of the sea below. We descended a staircase and exited through a door hewn into the rock. We concluded our tour of Granville with a brief stroll down the main shopping streets. A mesh wire tree adored with paint brushes and a curious cat were highlights of the visit. Granville is definitely worth a stop for a little shopping and some windswept views if you find yourself in the area.

Dinner in Caen

We returned to Caen and to Rue du Vaugueux for dinner at Le P'tit B where we enjoyed a three course meal and glass of wine. We started with a salad featuring goat's cheese, sundried tomatoes, and a drizzle of caramel. Fresh fish and pasta and a hearty steak filled us almost to the limit. We still managed to find room to squeeze in our dessert: an apple parcel and vanilla ice cream tower. You can't go wrong with the menu of the day when you're in France.

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for other historical points of interest in Europe, especially related to World War I and World War II? Why not:

Caen's Sunday Market

On Easter Sunday, most businesses in Caen were closed. We were a bit concerned about finding supplies to take with us for our day trip to the Normandy D Day Beaches and World War II landing sites. Our fears were unfounded. As we were driving through town, we noticed that some roads were blocked off for the weekend market. The French wouldn't let a little holiday stand in the way of getting fresh ingredients. The market featured everything from produce to formal wear. I smiled watching the locals stroll through the market with their chic little dogs in tow. We checked out a purveyor of oysters and browsed a nice selection of cheeses. We picked up a wheel of Camembert for the drive. Colorful flowers spilled from a stall. The market even had a vendor selling mattresses! That's something you don't see everyday. We concluded our shopping by picking up a few different varieties of local apples to sample.
Paris to Normandy Road Trip: Caen Farmers Market

Reliving the Allied D Day Landings in Normandy

Paris to Normandy Road Trip: The American Cemetery

We spent Easter Sunday doing a one day self guided tour paying our respects to the veterans of World War II that liberated France by storming the beaches of Normandy. Our first stop was Pegasus Bridge. The Pegasus Bridge Cafe has the distinction of being the first house liberated during the D-Day invasion. We walked across the bridge (a replica of the original which now sits in the nearby museum) and along the canal. We stopped at Arromanches 360° to watch a video recreating what it must have been like when the Allies landed. After the movie, we walked down the hill to Arromanches. A tank stands guard on a platform just above the town. Down near the water, you can still see some debris from the temporary floating harbor that the Allies installed to support the D Day invasion. The D Day landing beaches are also littered with hazards put in place by the Nazis to repel the Allies' advance. Heavy artillery stands by -- a sharp contrast to the carousel behind. It was raining quite hard so we had an in-car picnic lunch featuring baguette, Camembert, and calvados flavored preserves. At the end of the parking lot, I braved the elements to get a picture of a sweeping field of mustard flowers. Next up, we stopped at the German coastal battery at Longues-sur-Mer. Staged not far from the shore and anchored in concrete, the artillery was fearsome.
Paris to Normandy Road Trip: Longues-sur-Mer German Battery
We took a few moments to reflect on the loss of life inflicted by this battery before heading onward to the American cemetery. Overlooking the water, it's sobering to see the crosses lined up in perfectly formed rows. Occasional Jewish stars stand out. Not everyone was identified. One cross remembers:
Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God. 
The scale of the American Cemetery is immense. Almost 10,000 people are buried here. Today, the place is so peaceful. Looking down, we could see kite runners plying the sand. A monument anchors one end of the American cemetery. A mosaic outlining the course of of the European battles of WWII (much like we saw at the Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery in Honolulu) lined the inside of the monument.
Paris to Normandy Road Trip: Omaha Beach
We finished the day with a walk on Omaha Beach. A metal sculpture with sharp lines stands out on the beach. We walked along the streams winding in the low tide. The sand stood in peaceful ripples. It was sobering to stand in this spot where so many men had lost their lives in the name of liberty just 75 years ago. A heavy concrete pillar commemorates
The Allied Forces Landing on this Shore They Call Omaha Beach Liberate Europe June 6, 1944. 
We quietly reflected on all we'd seen on the journey back to Caen.
Paris to Normandy Road Trip: pillar marking the site of the Allied landing

Drinks in Caen

We stopped for a pre-dinner drink of Pommeau de Normandie at the bar in Hotel Kyriad. En route back to Rue du Vaugueux, we passed a strange display of mannequins on a pedestrianized strip in Caen. We stopped into Le Vendome (note: since our visit, Le Vendome has closed down) for supper. Ensconced at a corner table, we tried another Camembert salad plus a poultry based terrine. For our entree, we tried fish and lamb. Dessert was good but rather boozy. We tried a donut topped with ice cream and rum plus cake drenched in chocolate sauce. Roll me home!

Caen Memorial Museum

On the last day of our Paris to Normandy road trip, we spent a rainy morning at the Caen Memorial Museum. We entered the ticket lobby and marvelled at the bomber hanging overhead. The compelling exhibits vaulted visitors into the heart of World War II. The museum features a large bookstore. I picked up a copy of The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation. This work of historical non-fiction by Richard Vinen combs the historical record for information on the lives of everyday people during the war. It plods a bit at times but the insights into the lives of those that lived through the war and the lengths they went to to survive was worth a read. On our way out of the museum, we strolled through the United States Armed Forces Memorial Garden. A small pool of water stands amid the trees. A waterfall streams over a protective ledge. A stone representing each of the 50 US states lines the wall. I was touched by the stone for Pennsylvania. The granite was taken from the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. We finished our tour of the Caen Memorial Museum and made our way back to Paris Beauvais airport after a short planned pitstop in Rouen.

Caen to Rouen

After driving for about an hour and a half from Caen we arrived in Rouen. We ducked into a patisserie (La Chocolatiere) to get inside out of the rain. We enjoyed an espresso and two small, dense pastries. A surprisingly modern church sits at the center of La Place du Vieux Marché. The inside was all stained glass and sharp angles. It was a striking bit of architecture. Rouen is synonymous with Joan of Arc. We stood at the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. A statue and cross of the saint stands nearby. Inside an unassuming tourist shop lies the Joan of Arc Museum.
Paris to Normandy Road Trip: Rouen France
We walked past a number of scenes including the pivotal moment where Joan was burned by the English. Despite the rain, we decided to take a stroll through Rouen town. We ambled along the pedestrian path until we reached the Gros-Horloge, a 16th century astronomical clock. The underside of the arch is covered with depictions of sheep and other farm animals. The Palais de Justice was recently cleaned and is much lighter than many of the other gothic buildings in the town. We popped into the Rouen Cathedral to admire the statues that had been removed from the facade and brought inside for safekeeping. The interior was filled with light. The original stained glass was replaced with clear panes after the bombings of World War II.

Our next stop was the plague cemetery tucked down a side alley. The place is now an art school but the original purpose is quite clear. Skull and crossbones line the half-timbered structure. Signs line the courtyard: Y'en marre. The translation was a bit difficult to find but it seems to mean “there sick”. We finished our rainy walk through the blooming streets of Rouen. We warmed up with a quick glass of red wine at a cafe along La Place du Vieux Marché before completing the drive to the airport and our return home.

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Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog: What Not to Miss on a Paris to Normandy Road Trip
What Not to Miss on a Paris to Normandy Road Trip
Find out where to go on a Normandy road trip. Explore Normandy's WWII history. Learn about things to do in Normandy France.
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