Honoring the 80th Anniversary of D-Day in Normandy & Brittany

This year marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, pivotal moments when allied forces liberated occupied France and ultimately brought an end to World War II. As a Backroads Trip Leader in Brittany & Normandy, I’ve witnessed firsthand the profound impact of revisiting this history and the sense of pride and hope it instils.

Whether we arrive by bike or on foot, it takes no time at all to gain an appreciation for the beautiful Norman landscape that was the backdrop to this historic battle. From cycling past the daunting hedgerows that once hindered advancing tanks to strolling through quaint villages with lovingly restored church steeples, history is everywhere. A highlight for me has always been paying respects at Omaha beach and at the meticulously manicured cemetery, home to rows of stark white crosses and stars of David – it's a humbling experience.

Cliffside view of rustic building

One of the places where we sometimes stop for coffee is very special to me. The Jardins de Castillon are a series of eight themed gardens that range from rich English mixed borders to the tranquillity of Far Eastern flowers all entirely imagined and designed by Colette and Hubert Sainte-Beuve.  Now 91 years old, Hubert recounts his childhood during the liberation of Castillon by American soldiers. He has a photo of himself with the Staff 20 Engineer Battalion. He speaks perfect English, with an accent reminiscent of English royalty, and tells stories of the struggles his family faced during the war. He fondly remembers the soldiers who stayed in his home following the battle and keeps a list of their names in hopes of one day having a relative visit so he can express his gratitude in person.

Floor view of rustic castle

Something that strikes me about the guests I’ve had the pleasure to lead on this trip is that no matter their religion, politics or ethnicity, we all have a shared history here. Everyone feels united in what happened on June 6th, 1944. I’ve seen former servicemen and servicewomen lay flowers for those who came before them. Jewish families bringing their children and grandchildren to keep history alive on our Brittany & Normandy Family Bike Tour. Guests who have uncovered family history records that lead them to a memorial or a grave. Even guests with German heritage who have been brave enough to share this with the group and talk of their ancestors caught up in the war. The stories I have heard will stay with me forever.

Two bikers on a coastline road

Even without a personal connection to the war, Normandy has a special significance in my life. Conversations with locals and historians reveal a deep-rooted pride in the French Resistance and the role they played. Did you know that if it hadn’t been for the French Resistance, Bayeux would most likely have been destroyed? The Allies abandoned their plans to bomb the town after the Resistance sent word to the front of the Nazi retreat. Because of the Resistance’s actions, the town, its medieval streets and picturesque cathedral were saved from being bombed.

As we look back in 2024, 80 years can feel like a very distant memory. But the people of this region live with the remnants of that time scattered around them. On our Brittany & Normandy Walking & Hiking Trip, you’ll walk past bunkers looking out toward the English Channel while locals bask in the sun and children play on the sandy beaches below. Ice cream stands and souvenir shops now line the streets of the walled city of Saint-Malo – the backdrop for the novel (and now Netflix series) All the Light You Cannot See, a historical fiction about the Nazi occupation.

Black and white photo of a soldier with arms around 2 boys

Normandy and Brittany embody a balance between past and present. As we reflect on this anniversary, I urge everyone to visit, to preserve these historic sites and to leave with a renewed appreciation for this remarkable part of the world. 

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