Published May 19, 2009
OMAHA BEACH, France – A silent moment on France's most evocative shore, a thoughtful stroll over once-bloodied Normandy cliffs, a mug of cider with a Frenchman who remembers hearing the D-Day bombers as a scrawny child, hiding in his cellar.
Keeping the memory of the D-Day invasion alive doesn't have to be about costumed, costly tours and pricey museums with mock exhibits. Simply being there, on the wide beaches still rimmed with ruined pillboxes and among the gravestones, may make for a more lasting memory.
President Barack Obama will pay homage to D-Day's heroes and its fallen next month, 65 years after their epochal military undertaking helped lead to the Nazis' demise. Just his presence on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, alongside French President Sarkozy, will send a message as strong as any speech: We will not forget.
For more ordinary visitors, straitened economic times don't mean Normandy is off-limits.
Curl up in a guest house in one of the many peaceful seaside towns teeming with history. Picnic on local Pont l'Eveque cheese and some of the finest apples France. Take the train from Paris and climb on the BusVerts, a local bus that takes you to key D-Day sites for around $3 to $6 (2-4 euros).
Stretched across 50 miles of Normandy coastline, the five beaches where the allies landed on June 6, 1944 percolate with exhibits and experiences around the anniversary. Veterans from across the English Channel and the Atlantic make their way to memorial sites and ceremonies at Colleville-sur-Mer, Arromanches and Sainte-Mere-Eglise. But you can still feel the commemorative spirit in May or throughout the balmy, windy summer.
Renting a car awards the most liberty, but rentals and gasoline costs in France are high. Another option is the easy two-hour, 15-minute train ride from Paris to Bayeux, a pleasant town famed for an 11th century tapestry weaving the tale of William the Conqueror's conquest of England, and an easy launchpad for the D-Day beaches.
The three Pierres run one of the town's many appealing guest houses, with attic rooms under the rafters overlooking a tranquil lane for about $55 (40 euros).
Or head to the coast, to the Hotel du Casino, perched atop the western shore of Omaha Beach in Vierville-sur-Mer in a location that should cost much more than it does. The Clemencon family has run the inn for three generations, and they have a soft spot for American guests.
On the terrace of the brasserie downstairs, you may run into Martin Duquesne, who was 9 years old and living with grandparents in Lisieux when the Allies began bombarding German-held positions inland. "Like thunder. Only we knew it wasn't thunder," he recalled.
Now a retired mason, he's full of local lore, and advice on which Atlantic shores are best for scallops and skate.
The Hotel du Casino offers both, at a reasonable price. The creperie across the street is a better bargain, and they'll let you wrap up a hearty $4 (3 euro) crepe and eat it outside on the sand.
Walking along the beaches can bring D-Day alive. Investing in one good tour or museum will fill in the details.
The Caen Memorial is the most sweeping, and comprehensive. The Memorial Museum of Omaha Beach at Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer displays weaponry dug up over decades from the sand and hedgerows. Be sure to get a Normandie Pass, which costs just $1.35 (1 euro) and offers discounts at dozens of museums along the coast.
The best free introduction to the invasion is at the Visitor Center at the American Cemetery on Omaha Beach. Audio of booming gunships and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower accompany the underground exhibit of dented helmets, ration cans and letters home. A small, quiet room is available for veterans and their families, for a private moment of reflection.
Above ground stretch nearly 10,000 American gravestones, white crosses interspersed with stars of David, lined up with military precision.
To the east, near Gold Beach, are groups of British gravestones, clustered where the soldiers fell. At La Cambe in the west, brown crosses stand under shade trees at the German cemetery. Village chapels scattered around the Normandy countryside harbor some of the 19,000 French civilians killed in the battle.
Some 215,000 Allied soldiers, and roughly as many Germans, were killed or wounded during D-Day and the ensuing nearly three months it took to secure the Allied capture of Normandy.
Among the invasion's most remarkable feats was that of the American rangers who scaled the Pointe du Hoc, now a free, open-air museum of artillery bunkers and grassy shell craters.
Many events and exhibits timed for the D-Day anniversary cost nothing, such as a recreated British military camp at Ver-sur-Mer, with veterans and vehicles on hand, and a live concert of songs from the era.
For those with a bit more to spend, there are two new ways of reliving what is dubbed "the longest day." The Vedettes de Normandie run boat tours offering a view of the shore as the approaching soldiers saw it, though aboard a comfortable tourist cruiser. Or you can paraglide with an instructor to land on clifftops near Utah Beach.
The overhead view serves as a reminder that Normandy is about more than D-Day and its legacy.
Its cows are nationally famous, as is the butter and cheese they produce. Several farms offer free tours - and free samples. The orchards of the surrounding Calvados region produce the eponymous apple brandy and many sorts of cider, and sell it more cheaply from their farmhouses than you'll find in boutiques in Bayeux or Caen.
Memories of the invasion, though, are never far away. Country roads crisscrossing the region bear blue-and-white markers, stamped with the name of a D-Day soldier.