Bayeux, France: The Perfect Base for Visiting Normandy
If you are planning a visit to the D-Day beaches along the coast of Normandy you will have a few options available to you for how to go about it. Many visitors simply make a daytrip from Paris on the train. This involves taking an early departure from Paris to either Caen or Bayeux, having your tour guide meet you at the train station, and reversing the entire process at the end of the day. While this is certainly doable, it makes for a very long and tiring day. The train from Paris to Bayeux is over two hours. While there are a few direct trains to Bayeux most of the early departures require a transfer in Caen. Check the train schedule as it changes depending on the time of year.
We decided that we wanted to spend some time in Normandy so we chose a different itinerary that allowed us to spend a few nights in the charming town of Bayeux. Located just a few miles from the coast of Normandy it makes the ideal base location and is actually a very interesting place in its own right. We took an early train from Paris to Caen, picked up a rental car and drove to Bayeux where we spent two nights at Le Manoir Sainte Victoire, a wonderful B&B located in the heart of Bayeux.
This afforded us plenty of time to tour Bayeux, followed by an entire day touring the D-Day landing sites, followed by a daytrip to see the magnificent Mont Saint-Michel. Looking back I think our decision was the right one for us. Bayeux is a wonderful community and has a couple of must see sites that were fascinating. And our trip to see Mont Saint-Michel was certainly one of the highlights of our visit to France.
The community of Bayeux sits just four miles from the coast of Normandy and is on the Paris-Caen-Cherbourg rail line, which makes getting there fairly painless. While we hopped off the train in Caen to pick-up a rental car you can take the train all the way to Bayeux from Paris.
The current population of Bayeux is approximately 13,500 and the town center is fairly compact and very walkable. Bayeux can trace its roots back to the 1st century BC and this means that there is an abundance of history here. From the Viking raids of the 9th century, to the Hundred Years’ War, to its role in World War II, Bayeux has managed survive it all.
Today, Bayeux is a picturesque community that draws historians, tourists and World War II Veterans from all over the world to see the D-Day beaches, the Bayeux Cathedral, and the world famous Bayeux Tapestry. There is also the Bayeux War Cemetery and it is the largest British cemetery in France from World War II containing the graves of almost 4,000 British soldiers.
In Bayeux itself the center piece of the community is without-a-doubt the magnificent Cathedral Notre-Dame de Bayeux. Bishop Odo of Conteville consecrated this Norman-Romanesque-Gothic shrine in July of 1077 with his half-brother and King of England, William the Conqueror present. The cathedral has survived for over 900 years including countless wars and conflicts and was at one time the home of the world famous Bayeux Tapestry. With its towering central spire that peaks at 95 meters the cathedral is visible from anywhere in town and is an imposing structure. Be sure to check out the gargoyles staring down at you on the exterior.
Inside the cathedral there are a few memorials to World War II including the new liberty bell, which was on display during our visit. The touching personal notes left by the families of those who helped to liberate Bayuex is a constant reminder of the sacrifices made here. Bayeux is located in what was the Gold Beach Sector during the allied invasion and was assigned to the British forces.
Interestingly, Bayeux is also touted as the first town to be liberated in France, as is Sainte-Mere-Eglise, and was done so without much of a fight from the Germans who retreated to defend Caen further to the east. The Siege of Caen was a different story and lasted for two months, much longer than planned and was the site of an incredible number of casualties on both sides. Unfortunately most of Caen was leveled by allied bombing including its cathedral.
As you venture around the inside of the church be sure to head under the main altar where the crypt is located. There are some well-preserved frescoes here from the 15th century in addition to a number of tombs. It’s also somewhat creepy down here, dark with low ceilings, but certainly interesting and not to be missed. Legend has it that during the D-Day invasion the people of Bayeux gathered in the crypt for safety fearing the allies would bomb the town. The church also has some beautiful 14th century stained glass windows, which have managed to survive for centuries.
Cathedral visitor information:
- Jan 1 – Mar 3: 8:30am - 5:00pm
- Apr 1 – Jun 30: 8:30am - 6:00pm
- July 1 – Sept 30: 8:30am - 7:00pm
- Oct 1 – Dec 31: 8:30am - 6:00pm
- Entry is free
- Guided tours available at 3:00pm.
- Adults 4 euro
- Under age 15 Free
The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the longest and certainly one of the most famous tapestries in the world. It is on display in the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux after spending many years on display in the Bayeux Cathedral. Measuring an incredible 230 feet long it tells the story of the events that led to the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The tapestry is made up of fifty eight scenes and depicts Harold’s (King of England) betrayal of William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings where Harold is killed.
The tapestry was commissioned in the 1070’s by William’s half-brother, Bishop Odo, and made in England presumably by Queen Matilda, the wife of William, and her court. It was completed sometime around 1077 just in time for the dedication of the Bayeux Cathedral where it was displayed.
The Bayeux Tapestry, which is on display in Museum of the Bayeux Tapestry, is known as a tapestry but is actually an embroidery.
Having survived for over 900 years the Bayeux Tapestry was nearly lost on numerous occasions. The fact that it has survived intact for so long is truly a miracle. Taken to Paris by the Germans during World War II and destined to be shipped off to Berlin the tapestry somehow wound up at the Louvre when the French regained control of Paris. The tapestry was put on display for a time in the Louvre before being returned to its rightful home in Bayeux.
Your tour of the Tapestry Museum will include an audio guide that describes in detail each of the panels that make up the tapestry. It’s an incredible story that takes visitors from the broken promise of Harold, who assumes the throne of England following the death of King Edward, to William the Conqueror invading England and defeating Harold at the Battle of Hastings. It’s fascinating history and the tapestry has recorded it all for humanity.
Tapestry Museum visitor information:
- March 1 – Oct 31: 9am to 6:30pm (7pm May to Aug)
- Nov 1 – Feb 28: 9:30am to 12:30pm and 2pm to 6pm
- Full rate: 9 euro (includes audio guide)
- Students: 4 euro
- Under age 10: free
Visiting D-Day Sites
Whether you are utilizing a tour guide or exploring on your own, Bayeux is situated perfectly for visiting the D-Day landing beaches of Normandy. The five beaches are spread out over a fifty mile stretch of the coast and Bayeux sits perfectly just about in the middle of the five landing zones. In addition to visiting the beaches there are a number of interesting museums, cemeteries and villages in Normandy that all have a story to tell.
Our guide started our day in Normandy with a visit to the small, unassuming church in the center of Angoville-au-Plain. It was here that US medics Robert Wright and Kenneth Moore performed one of the truly miraculous stories of D-Day. For three days they turned the small church here into a first aid station and saved countless lives against incredible odds.
Our next stop was a visit to Utah Beach and a walk to visit the many German bunkers that still peer out into the English Channel. It's fascinating to be able to climb on and into these bunkers and one can only wonder what the German troops were thinking as the sun rose on June 6th, 1944 to the site of thousands of Allied ships.
It was a short drive from Utah Beach to our next stop in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, which was one of the first, if not the first town liberated on D-Day. This community was made famous in the movie “The Longest Day” for its reenactment of paratrooper John Steele getting caught in the church spire. Sainte-Mere-Eglise is also the home of the Airborne Museum, which is a fitting tribute to the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division who dropped here in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944.
After a quick lunch break in Sainte-Mere-Eglise we headed to Omaha Beach with a stop enroute at the German Cemetery in LaCambe. It was interesting to see how the different cemeteries are viewed here. The grey tombstones in the German Cemetery are a stark contrast to the white marble and meticulously maintained American Cemetery above Omaha Beach.
We concluded our day at Omaha Beach and the American Military Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. It was a long day but extremely rewarding and educational. It certainly gives one reason to pause and gives thanks for all that we have today. Thankfully there were young men and women who were willing to sacrifice everything for what was right and just.
From Colleville-sur-Mer it was a short ride back to Bayeux. In fifteen minutes we were back at Manoire Saint Victoire deciding where to eat dinner, which was preferable to spending the next two plus hours on the train heading back to Paris. If you have the time in your itinerary to spend a few days here in Normandy consider it a viable option.
Because of the distances involved in getting around Normandy you will find that it is impossible to see everything in just one day. We spent over nine hours with our guide and were able to see Sainte-Mere-Eglise including the Airborne Museum, the church of Angoville-au-Plain with its fascinating story, Utah Beach, Omaha Beach and both the American and German Cemeteries. We knew we would not have time to visit the British and Canadian Beaches so we didn't try. Visitors can plan their day around their particular areas of interest but don’t rush around trying to see everything in a single day because it just won’t happen. We dedicated one entire day to seeing World War II sites and arranged ahead of time with our guide what we wanted to see.
Interesting D-Day Facts:
- The code name of D-Day was "Operation Overlord".
- The naval phase of D-Day was code named "Operation Neptune".
- D-Day was the largest naval amphibious invasion ever conducted and involved almost 7,000 ships including 4,126 landing craft.
- 24,000 paratroopers were dropped behind the German lines beginning late on June 5th and continuing into the early morning of June 6th.
- At 3 am on June 6th, 1,900 allied bombers began dropping 7 million pounds of bombs on the German defenses.
- At 5 am a naval bombardment of the German defenses started and lasted until 6:25 am.
- At 6:31 am the first US troops went ashore followed by the British and Canadian troops an hour later.
- US troops landed at Utah and Omaha Beach, the British at Gold and Sword Beach and the Canadians at Juno Beach.
- There are 9,387 graves in the American Military Cemetery above Omaha Beach. Every one of them faces west toward America.
- There are 21,500 German graves in the German Cemetery at LaCambe.
You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have
striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you...
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!
Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.— Dwight D. Eisenhower speech to troops on the eve of D-Day
Any time spent in Normandy is sure to be a moving and educational experience. There is a lot to see and limiting your visit to just a few of the landing sites means you are missing out on an enormous opportunity. Looking back I think that choosing Bayeux as a base was an excellent decision and while it is inevitable that you will look back on your visit here as too short, it allowed us ample time to see Bayeux, Mont Saint-Michel and a full day visiting D-Day sites.
Not to ignore Mont Saint-Michel, this one of a kind site is located just an hour and fifteen minutes from Bayeux. While still technically in Normandy it is situated near the border of Brittany in southern Normandy. This Romanesque-Gothic shrine rises majestically above the bay and draws visitors and pilgrims from all over the world. With one of the highest and fastest tides in all of Europe the rocky island quickly transforms from sitting in the midst of muddy flats to being engulfed by the bay. All I can say about Mont Saint-Michel is that it is unlike anything I have seen in my travels and was absolutely worth the effort to visit.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tour of Bayeux and Normandy. If your travels are taking you to this region of France consider spending a few nights in the area to really experience everything that Normandy has to offer. While the D-Day landing sites are certainly a must see there are plenty of other fascinating communities, museums, churches, cemeteries and one of a kind destinations waiting for you. A special thank you to our guide for the day, Guillaume Marie of Normandy D-Day Tours, whose knowledge and passion for World War II history made for an unforgettable day.
Guillaume Marie - Normandy D-Day Tours
© 2015 Bill De Giulio