One of the things that’s hard to grasp is the sheer size and scope of the D-Day landings. Yes, you can look at a map and count the names of the beaches as you follow your finger across but it’s still not the same as being there. To give you an idea, we drove up from Brittany (it’s slightly over 2 hours from Saint Malo) and had our GPS take us to Colleville-sur-Mer/Utah Beach. Going from West to East, you encounter Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. If you think of Arromanches and its Mulberry Port as being in the middle of the beaches, it is easily a 40-minute drive between it and the Pointe-du-Hoc/Utah Beach to reach the western end of the battlefield and a 50-minute drive from Arromanches to Pegasus Bridge if you want to reach the eastern limit. Put differently, it is a 90-minute drive from one end of the battlefield to the other! (Anyone wishing to visit Sainte-Mère-Eglise can add-on another 40-minute one-way drive from Utah Beach!) Driving along the coast, gives you a sense of the size and topography of the invasion in a way movies and books never will!
While your GPS might indicate a slightly faster time or route, to me it makes more sense to follow the coastal road. If you’ve come to see the remains of the battle, driving along the coast lets you stop at the various bunkers, cemeteries, vantage points, etc. along the way which you would otherwise miss. Driving along also gives you a concrete look at the topography of the land, the villages and coastline situated along Utah and Omaha Beach have a rugged, natural feel to them–the cliffs and views are amazing! The land is so beautiful it’s hard to imagine what happened here 68 years ago. Walk along the beach, look up at the cliffs and let your imagination and history lessons do the rest.
If you are setting out to spend the day exploring the area, Arromanches and nearby Port-en-Bessin are nice lunch areas. Port-en-Bessin, in particular, is a cute fishing harbor (arguably more a marina at this point) with small restaurants and cafés perfect for a stop. While the town has its WWII relics, the mood is relaxed and pleasant–a nice breathing moment after visiting the beaches and cemeteries. Arromanches is slightly larger with a pedestrian street full of restaurants for tourists looking for a bite, a D-Day museum and the remains of the Mulberry harbor still visible out at sea. Even if you don’t eat here, stop to check out the Mulberry and drive up to the viewpoint on the cliff. While the parking lot directly by the viewpoint spot is not free (there is a nominal charge), you can drive a little further down the road, park on the side and walk back if you’re on a tight budget. Either way, the views from the cliff are worth the effort and you will see the remains of a few bunkers as well. For those interested in the circular theater and it’s 360° D-Day film, it is only a short walk away from the viewpoint.
Once you pass Arromanches, the topography changes–the cliffs disappear and are replaced by gentle flat beaches. The coast is more built-up here with seaside villages that clearly live for sailing, swimming and vacationers! While Courseulles-sur-Mer still has signs indicating the Invasion and, more specifically, the Canadian Cemetery, from this point on the peacetime joys of going to the beach for the weekend take over! As you continue along checking out the summer homes and sandy beaches, the last major coastal site you encounter is Pegasus Bridge. Certain sites, the British Cemetery and the German Cemetery in particular come to mind, are not located immediately on the coast. Once you begin to approach the D-Day area, you will start seeing signs with a seagull indicating WWII-related sites (see photo). I’m not sure what the relationship between a seagull and the events of June 1944 is but the signs are easy to spot and follow. Smaller roadsigns indicate the way to D-Day sites while larger ones provide background information in French and English near key points. They are especially useful as you approach the beaches from further inland or when looking for those sites not directly on the coast. While I love my GPS, I also enjoy turning it off and just exploring (or knowing that it has indeed sent us in the right direction). As you drive along the coast here, I hope you find what you were looking for when you set off. Nothing here glorifies war, the land and monuments simply honor and bear witness to the deeds of a disappearing generation while letting today’s youth enjoy the peace of the sea and sun they gave to them.