Exploring Normandy, Brittany, and the Loire Valley in the north of France
When most people think about travel to France, they only think of Paris. There is so much more to see, and you don’t have to go very far from Paris to see it! Venturing out for a few days to Normandy, Brittany and the Loire valley will show you the D-day beaches and other sights, but also magnificent chateaux, gorgeous countryside, cathedrals, a magical island monastery, inspiringly beautiful seaside towns, the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, and so much more.
Logistically, most people head to Normandy out of Paris, then go on to Brittany and sometimes also the Loire Valley. Along the way, some stop at Giverny to see Monet’s gardens, house, studio and Japanese gardens.
Another popular stop on the way out of Paris is the Palace of Versailles. If you haven’t seen it, this UNESCO site is worth a look. Here, you will find over-the-top opulence everywhere. If you have been to other palaces in Europe, this is the Chateau they all seem to copy. The hall of Mirrors is one of the most famous rooms in this grand castle.
Travelers head from Paris to Normandy, then Brittany, then the Loire Valley. Normandy is known for its rugged coastline with cliffs and sandy beaches, and of course the famous D-Day sites. At the border of Normandy/Brittany you find Mont Saint Michel. Brittany has Megaliths parallel to those of Stonehenge and beautiful country side with elegant manor houses. The Loire valley in Northwest France is where you will find many impressive chateaux. The amount of time you spend in France will depend upon the number of sights you would like to see. Touring the D-day beaches is a full and emotional day.
Normandy – Bayeux is said to be the best location for a base of exploration of the D Day sights. The D-day beaches run 54 miles along the Atlantic coast north of Bayeux up to Sword Beach. This tour can be done on your own, or with guides. Tours are available with a private guide, a small group tour, or a bigger bus tour. Price per person for a small group tour runs in the $120-$150/per person range, but you can get a private guide to take you in a car for about $600. Price for the private guides are usually per car, not per person, so if you have three or four in your group, this can become cost effective. Private guides offer the benefit of allowing you to choose from a few suggested itineraries or to create your own itinerary.
Bayeux in Normandy is home to a beautiful cathedral and also the famous Bayeux tapestry depicting the Norman invasion of England in 1066.
Recommended D-Day sights are many: There is a D Day museum in Bayeux or very near which is supposed to be nice as well as a 360 degree theater where you can experience the D Day invasion. The major stops that are most recommended on a D-Day tour include:
1. Arromanches – make-shift harbor.
2. Longue-sur-Mer – the gun battery where German soldiers hunkered down during the attack.
3. American cemetery at St. Laurent.
4. Omaha beach
5. Pointe du Hoc – the most heavily fortified German position, which was heavily bombed. You can still see damaged bunkers and craters where bombs hit.
6. Utah beach and the nearby Landing Museum. This is supposed to be the best of all the D-day museums.
7. US Armed Forces Memorial Garden.
8. Some people also recommend seeing the German cemetery for a counterpoint. There is a plaque there which speaks of how some of these soldiers had no choice but to fight.
Non- Dday sights in Normandy include the ports of Honfleur and Trouville. These charming seaside towns were visited by most of the major impressionist painters in the late 1800’s.
Rouen is also in Normandy. This is where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. It has a pretty old town section and the Cathedrale Notre Dame.
Brittany – Near the border of Normandy and Brittany, you will find the Mont Saint Michel. This is supposed to be absolutely stunning and worth a visit of several hours. (photo below)
St. Malo, the great walled city, is also in Brittany. At low tide you can walk out to little forts off the point. When the tide is high, these are isolated little islands. As an interesting aside, this city is featured in the recent best selling book, All The Light We Cannot See.
Also in Brittany are the Megaliths which are supposed to rival Stonehenge. They are located in Carnac.
As you head towards the Loire valley, you will find many beautiful Chateaux. Favorites are the elegant, river straddling Chenonceau (photo below), Cheverney, Villandry, Bois, Amboise and Chambord.
Another attraction in Brittany is Clos-Luce, the last dwelling of Leonardo da Vinci. This looks quite interesting.
A fun note about Normandy: The region is famous for cider, cheeses and Calvados, an apple flavored brandy.