To explore the WW II battle sites and memorials in France is always a special experience. But to do so by bike during the 70th anniversary celebration of the Normandy invasion is a once in a lifetime opportunity, one that I couldn’t pass up. In just over a month, I leave for Northern France to tour the Normandy battle sites in a way experienced by few tourists–by bike. From the Normandy beaches to the Vire River Valley, to Mont Saint Michel, along the Emerald Coast to Cancale, and finally to Dinan and Rennes, this trip will be full of adventure, history, priceless memories and great food!
During this trip, I’ll have the opportunity to report back on several new cycling itineraries: the D-Day Landing Beaches to Mont Saint-Michel route, which shares its itinerary with the Petit Tour de Manche, and then the Canal Ille et Rance from Dinard to Rennes. The total estimated distance we’ll cover in 11 days is just over 400 km.
I timed the trip perfectly so that we’ll end in Rennes just in time for the famous Saturday market, one of the largest in France. After spending the morning at the market, we’ll hop the TGV to Paris. We’re going to take a short stopover in Paris to visit Giverny by bike, via the train to Vernon. This day trip is one of my most popular blog posts, so it will be fun to take some new photos and check out new restaurants in the village.
Here are some details about my itinerary:
There are three possible starting points on the D-Day cycle route: Port-en-Bessin, Arromanches and Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. I’ve chosen to begin the route in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. Since I’ll be traveling during the busy vacation month of August–busier than I like, but hopefully good for weather–I made all of my room reservations in advance. There are parts of the itinerary without a lot of lodging options, so I definitely recommend reserving rooms in advance in any season. Watch for a follow up post detailing my lodging choices for the trip.
The first few days will be spent exploring the major WW II sites near Utah Beach by bike. From a base in Saint Marie-du-Mont, my husband and I will bicycle the Open Sky Museum, a 50 km tour of the “must see” events of the Landing. I’m not exactly sure if this tour is meant to be done by bike, but we’ll quickly find out! This GPS lead tour includes testimonies, archives and videos to help visitors better understand the events and history of each area. We have been reading Steven Ambrose and watching Band of Brothers in preparation for our time here. There is so much history in this small area of Normandy that we could probably spend a week here exploring!
After spending several days exploring historical areas in and around Utah Beach, it’s time to hit the road and head inland, following the route of the Allied invasion. Our itinerary takes us to Carentan, a town that was practically destroyed during the Normandy invasion. The town was vital to the Allies and was integral to the invasion’s success. South of Carentan you cross the Cotentin marshes and you are soon treated to a greenway that follows the banks of the River Vire to Saint Lo. No where along this itinerary was the Normandy invasion felt more than in Saint Lo. All but 5% of this city, whose walls were built by Charlemagne was left standing by the end of the war.
From Saint Lo, the greenway continues and leads cyclists to an area called the Bocage, an area defined by hedgerows. Roads in the bocage are very narrow with dense hedgerows on both sides. During the Battle of Normandy, the bocage severely limited the ability of the Allies to advance inland. The hedgerow made it very easy for the Germans to hide their Panzers. Allied tanks, too wide for the narrow roads were prevented from advancing against the Germans, thus requiring more physical and bloody hand-to-hand combat. There’s no question that many lives were lost during the war in the Bocage. While many of the old hedgerows have been widened since the war, it will still be amazing to bike through this area that was so critical to the liberation of France.
Much of the route through the Vire Valley is a dedicated cycle path so I anticipate it should be a great ride. The cycle path passes right under the Roches de Ham, the Ham Rocks which veer 100m up from the bike path. I hope it’s not a busy day when we go through as it sounds like an area for a lot of photos! Most of the towns along this part of the route are quite small, and there are not a lot of places to stay, which I found to be a challenge when organizing our itinerary. Continuing south, the next major town is Vire, another strategic crossroads for the occupying army. Like Saint Lo, 95% of Vire was also destroyed in June, 1944. Nearly all remnants of the towns history were destroyed. This area is best known for the local specialty, andouille sausage. A bit further south is the town of Mortain, regarded as a turning point in the Battle of Normandy. A fierce battle took place in Mortain between the German Panzer divisions and the Allied forces. Ultimately the Germans were forced to retreat, and the tide was turned in the Battle. Like Saint Lo and Vire, most of Mortain was destroyed during the war.
After the town of Mortain, the bike path takes a turn to the west and we start watching for the signs to Mont-Saint-Michel. I have never approached the Abbey by bike so I am full of anticipation of the first view of the Abbey from afar. There are so many bicycle paths around Mont-Saint-Michel that we will spend several days exploring them and enjoying the incredible seafood of the coastal areas. I am particularly looking forward to eating mussels in Le Vivier-sur-Mer and oysters in Cancale. The stretch of road between the two towns is dedicated to seafood. I cannot wait! Oh, and by the way, by this time we are in Brittany, home of one of my favorite indulgences: crepes!
From Cancale, we head for Saint Malo, the most popular resort in Brittany, but definitely a town much too busy for me. We have traveled there before, so we will pass through this trip, preferring to spend our last day along the Ille et Rance Canal en route to Rennes. It will be a bit of a long day, but the prize at the end of the road will be charming Rennes, one of my favorite B&B’s, Symphonie des Sens, and the very popular Rennes Saturday market.
I can’t wait to report back every day on our experiences. We’ll be exploring some terrific new bicycle routes and I can’t wait. Watch for my first report in mid-August!