October half-term provided the perfect opportunity to explore beautiful Normandy with its rich history and even richer food!
Our small inspection visit team consisted of Keith, our MD, as well as Emma, Kim and myself, Sam. All involved in the organisation of school trips to Normandy, we were excited to learn more about the opportunities the region offers our groups.
As a first time visitor to Normandy, I was astounded by just how easily accessible it is from Calais.
France’s modern motorway network saw us reach Le Havre within 2.5 hours, and our accommodation in Bayeux just an hour later. This, of course, makes it ideal for groups looking for a short transfer to resort from Calais.
Our first day focussed on visiting the numerous accommodation centres offered by the Union Normande des Centres Maritimes et Touristiques (UNCMT).
As one of our major partners in the area we were excited to see some of the locations they offer and, more importantly, the numerous little extra touches that make their centres ideal for school groups.
Lion-sur-Mer was our first stop. The centre is a short 150m from the beach and is made up of 2 buildings: le château, which is a more traditional building with a sea view, and the newer building just across the large courtyard.
Lion-sur-Mer boasts a classroom with a large TV/DVD perfect for a film evening or, if the students are more energetic, there’s a volleyball court outside!
Our second UNCMT centre of the day was Bernières-sur-Mer. The centre is set in gorgeous surroundings, overlooked by the typically Norman-style spire of the Notre Dame-de-la-Nativité church. It’s also just 600m from the Juno Beach Canadian Memorial.
As with all UNCMT centres, the entry is gated and access is controlled by the on-site director, who has a separate apartment in the gatehouse here, where coach drivers are also accommodated.
On the opposite side of the large courtyard is the main group accommodation with a classroom, canteen and games room, while outside there are volleyball and basketball courts to keep the group entertained.
Last, but not least, was UNCMT Ver-sur-Mer, which is ideal for keeping a watchful eye over your group, as the bedrooms surround a central lobby over two floors. Ver-sur-Mer is just 500m from the beach and has the usual gated access, volleyball and basketball courts, and a large classroom.
The evening gave us chance to relax and try some of the local delicacies at Le Pommier in Bayeux. This included Coquille Saint-Jacques (scallops), moules frites and plenty of local cheeses.
We also sampled the famous Calvados (a locally-produced apple brandy), which I think could probably be used as rocket fuel given its strength…
Our second day on the beautiful French coast focussed on the visits available to groups, starting with the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer.
The Normandy American Cemetery Visitor Centre here is very informative and provides an interesting perspective on the D-Day landings from the American perspective through films and exhibits.
As we were there for opening time, we were also lucky enough to witness the raising of the flags above the cemetery with Omaha beach in the background, which was a really sobering experience.
The next stop at the German Battery at Longues-sur-Mer took us to the other side of the battle lines and gave us an idea of the power of the “Atlantic Wall” that the invading forces were up against.
This particular site contains four 152mm naval guns. They seem so incredibly out of place in the quiet French countryside but serve to show how World War Two disrupted life all over the continent, even in seemingly sleepy northern French villages.
Arromanches was our next port of call and, after a quick stop for lunch, we visited the Landing Museum.
Groups here are given a guided tour around the exhibits, which include original uniforms, medals and models of the Allied invasion.
This is followed by two separate films about the invasion and subsequent building of the Mulberry harbours - the temporary solution used by the Allies to supply their armies in Europe before they could capture a port in France.
It is already an interesting museum to visit, but promises to be even better when it moves to its new premises with updated exhibits in 2019.
The highlight of the day was undoubtedly the 360° cinema overlooking Arromanches. The film shown here lasts around 20 minutes and is entitled “100 days”.
It uses archive footage and state-of-the-art animation to detail the story of the D-Day landings and also serves as an emotional tribute to the 20,000 civilians killed during one of the most ambitious military actions of the 20th century.
To finish off the day we travelled back to Bayeux (and back in time by over 900 years) to see the world-famous Bayeux Tapestry – referred to by the staff in the museum simply as “the masterpiece”.
The tapestry shows fifty scenes detailing the Norman conquest of England. Somehow it has survived countless fires and botched restoration attempts over the centuries to be displayed in all its splendour at the Musée de la Tapisserie – a must for any visit to Normandy.
Our accommodation for the night was at the Centre Bon Sejour in Merville. Right next to the sea and boasting an on-site heated swimming pool, games room and recently refurbished bedrooms, it’s no wonder it gets booked up so far in advance!
Before tackling the drive back to Calais, we managed to squeeze in a visit to the Pegasus Memorial and Merville Battery
The Pegasus Memorial is dedicated to the men of the 6th Airborne Division and their role during the Battle of Normandy. We arrived just as the museum was opening and were greeted by our guide, Mark. It was clear to see how passionate Mark is about the museum and he was eager to show us around. We were given a tour of the exhibition hall, where we were shown lots of original historical objects and photos, before being shown the bridge.
The bridge is original, although it has been repainted to help preserve it. We could see the bullet holes and other marks made during the fighting.
It was an impressive sight and, in fact, the whole museum impressed us with the sheer quantity of exhibits to see.
Merville Battery is definitely one I would recommend to any group interested in the D-Day landings.
Each bunker houses an exhibition with a different theme. One even simulates the attack by British Paratroopers on the German position, so it feels like you’re in the middle of the battle.
The pièce-de-resistance is undoubtedly the authentic American C-47 plane used in the operation. We were lucky enough to be given a guided tour of the inside!
All in all, my first visit to Normandy exceeded all expectations. It’s a place full of interesting historical sites and breathtaking open countryside. And the food is to die for too! It’s also a wonderfully safe place for students to experience the French culture and practise speaking French – I would certainly recommend a visit!