As the room darkened, I could hear the low-pitched but deafening drone of the bombers on my left, along with the constant stuttering of machine gun fire. On my right, all I could see was an ocean of amphibious landing boats with panic-stricken soldiers either swimming ashore or just waiting their turn at a 70% chance at death as they tried to make headway to the beach.

Then as suddenly as the gruesome sight appeared, it faded out to an aerial view in full color of the same beaches today. The golden cornfields and endless miles of green pastures flew by, along with sudden drops to the ocean below, waves crashing relentlessly against the steep cliffs.

No I wasn’t zapped through a time warp, but instead viewing an intense but spectacular 360% rendition of the D-Day events at Arromanches in the Normandy region of France. And what better time to go than the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. I had been invited for a wedding in Deauville, so took the opportunity to learn more about the Normandy region, my own Normandy invasion.

As we drove further along the Route to Paris, the same route the troops followed during the D-Day invasion, the rain cast an appropriately reflective mood. Evidence of World War II could be seen in the form of commemorative monuments at the rotaries, war machine relics, or even just British and American flags, a rare sight in France. As we neared the American cemetary in Omaha Beach, the full parking lot in spite of the pouring rain proved that the war heroes hadn’t been forgotten. Rows upon endless rows of white crosses, 9,387to be exact, symbolized the huge American losses incurred in the name of freedom.

We headed back to our Chambre d’Hote in Beauzeville, greeted as usual by our very nice hosts. The next morning, we awoke to the sound of a rooster crowing, so the tranquil countryside set our rhythm, and we slowed down immediately. The stained oak wooden volets in our room opened to a view of weeping willow and a latticed white table and chair in the garden below. That night’s dinner consisted of homemade duck paté, fresh gooseberries, baby pineapples and locally produced French wine in the garden.

The unpredictable Norman weather dictated our next day’s plans, so we chose to visit the Benedictine Factory in Fécamp. To get there, we had to cross the Normandy Bridge (Pont de Normandie), a Hurculean civil engineering feat, finished in 1995—the longest cable-stayed bridge in Europe (2,141 meters long). I held my breath, gripping onto the handles of the passenger door as I peeked down over the side to the waterway 52 meters below. Apparently, it’s also quite beautiful at night with a sophisticated lighting system called Rhapsody in Blue—a blue and white colored display outlining the bridge.

We meandered through the countryside, opting for the two-lane country roads as often as possible. We stopped to in Etretat, immortalized by Monet, a breathtaking natural wonder of a sea wall promende of cliffs reaching at least 200 feet high. The arched cliffs perfectly enclosed the beach on either side; the Falaise d’Amont and the Falaise d’Aval (Upper and Lower Cliffs). Next to the Falaise d’Aval is the Manneporte Arch, with a singular needle jutting out of the water (L’Aiguille). One could elect for a staired hike to the top of either cliff, but the view from the beach with the sun-stroked cliffs on either side was equally breathtaking.

We oohed and aahed (and of course bought a few) at the cute Popeye-esque sailor figurines at the tourist shops, among other nautical-style souvenirs typical of Normandy. Lunch at the Le Clos Lupin, an affordable bistro, consisted of plateau de fruits de mer, with clams, mussels, langoustines and sea snails, served in French style cold with mayonnaise.

Continuing northward to Fécamp where the world-famous Benedictine factory was located, we first toured the gardens, where distilleries disguised as fountains creatively foreshadowed what was inside. Although the original recipe was discovered by the Benedictine Monks in 1510, the drink was again popularized by Alexandre Le Grand in 1863. He also perfected the method to mass produce it, creating a world-wide success in the process.  Special crystal bottles were even sent to the Russian Czar. My favorite part of the tour was the room with intricate collages like a dragon made from pink, green and black peppercorns using the 27 herbs and spices to make Benedictine. The indoor garden with towering palms and art deco posters of Paris in the 20s served as the perfect tasting room for the sweet, but completely natural Benedictine.

As with all of the other French regions, Normandy also has its gourmet delights, mostly dairy products because of the large percentage of farmland. We soon became experts on Camembert, and Pont l’Eveque cheeses, as well as distinctly flavored yogurts, like lynchee and pistachio. Lunch was often a plate of moules/frites fresh from the nearby Atlantic. For drinks, the cider and calvados simply had to be sampled, and not just once, more like once a day. I had never understood all the rage about aged drinks until I sampled 25-year old Calvados. Suddenly the burning alcohol taste and smell took a back seat to the explosions of apple and pear in my mouth. A Kir Normand, or cassis with apple cider instead of champagne was the perfect apperitif after a long day of sightseeing.

The next day, Honfleur was our destination, not far from where we were staying, another locale immortalized by Monet. Honfleur is one of the most beautiful coastal cities in Normandy, indicated with a four-flower rating. Flowers hung over every balcony like spectators watching a parade, or even lining the streets in welcome of our visit—color exploding everywhere. The marina enclosed by brightly colored terraces lined the beautiful scene. Shimmering reflections of the tall sailboats were the perfect setting for a painting. Streets were lined with ateliers of local artists, most of them closed—perhaps painting en plein air like Monet? A modern-day Van Gogh complete with worn straw hat and paint-splattered clothes completed the picture.The Boudin Museum was the perfect end to the day, showcasing his impressionist-style works who later inspired Monet.

The wedding in Deauville intervened the next couple of days, but the city is worth mentioning. Once a playground for the bourgeois, and still a quick weekend getaway for wealthy Parisians, Deauville’s activities cater to the jetsetters—polo, yachting, golf tournaments, galas—the French Riviera of the North. Facing its sister city, Trouville, sitting right on the water, both have casinos to attract wealthy patrons and celebrities. We ate right along with the celebs in the famous bistro, Les Quatre Chats (4 Cats) in Trouville. Brightly colored posters and black and white photographs covered the red walls. Formerly a train station, relics from an old tram served as seats. Retro bar stools and bar completed the 50s look and feel. Menus were posted on blackboards and the food was definitely bistro with a fusion twist—rare seared tuna with fresh soy and ginger served sushi style. After two days of non-stop celebrations in a typical French-style wedding, our beds were only too happy to greet us in the wee hours of the morning.

Our trip was soon ending, but another Normandy invasion still eluded us, this time from the 10th century, when the Normans successfully invaded the Saxons in 1066. The entire invasion has remarkably been preserved on a 203-ft linen embroidered tapestry located in Bayeux. Not only the battle was preserved but a very accurate pictoral depiction of everyday life in the Middle Ages. Bayeux’s medieval architecture luckily survived World War II as it was the first city to be liberated. Apparently, there’s a medieval festival in July just begging to be attended—I knew I’d be back for more. After a quick lunch of crepes and another Kir Normand, we headed back to our Chambre d’Hote, getting ready to return home soon.

After my own successful Normandy invasion, what advice do I have about visiting Normandy? Allow the tranquility of the countryside to slow you down to the pace of a meandering cow. Get lost on the country roads and be surprised by the hospitality of the people (it’s not Paris, you know). Wake up to the chirping of  birds with your biggest stress being which museum to visit that day. Enjoy the wonderful food as one would an aged calvados—have one or two of these as well. Brush up on your World War II and midieval history, and keep some extra room in your suitcase and stomach for the wonders Normandy has to offer. Don’t forget your umbrella either!

Arromanches:  Arromanches 360

Bayeux:
  Bayeux Tapestry

Etretat:  Le Clos Lupin

 
Fécamp:  Benedictine Factory

Honfleur:  Eugene Boudin Museum

Trouville: Les Quatre Chats