Even if you don't know what happened along the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, you can still find plenty of reasons to visit. During the summer months, you can get your feet went kayaking, parasailing and surfing. Or you can rent a sailboat, go horseback riding or simply hike along well-tended footpaths to take in the sights.
Near Courseulles-sur-Mer, where the water is cleanest, you could set up a beach umbrella, spread out a towel and enjoy the fine lunch you purchased in one of Caen's delicatessens. Caen, as your guidebook will tell you, is about half an hour away, and one of the prettiest towns in Normandy. The guidebook is not going to tell you how many citizens the German army executed here during the Second World War, nor how the Allies bombed Caen into rubble.
But if you do know that these sands were code-named Juno Beach in 1944, and that this is where 14,000 young Canadian boys waded ashore, carrying mountains of equipment, directly into the sights of German guns firing from protected bunkers high up on the rise, you will have something extraordinary to remember from your visit.
June 6, 1944, was a cloudy, windy day with rough seas and high waves, as was the day of our visit. We had started high up on the bluffs and descended to the beach along a sandy path. Here, looking up at the remnants of concrete bunkers, with the waves pounding behind, you can imagine what it must have been like on that fateful day.
The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division fought its way up and into Saint-Aubin, Courseulles and Bernières, now pretty tourist towns with patio restaurants and picturesque hotels. The troops were part of an Allied landing force, flanked by the Americans on one side and the British on the other. They penetrated deeper into German-held territory than anyone else. In a single day, 574 men of the 3rd Canadian Division were wounded and 340 were killed.
The Juno Beach Centre, a white, flat-roofed five-pronged structure, commemorates those soldiers, and their fierce desire to win the war and go home comes alive. I wanted to know who they were and what they were thinking, so I read some of the diaries and letters in the museum's displays. I looked at photographs and listened to audio recordings to bring the day closer.
One of the most arresting video recordings is of General Richard Rohmer (he cut a dashing figure as a fighter pilot back then, and later became a lawyer, journalist and author of more than 20 books). "What Canadians have done during the Second World War has been largely forgotten or ignored by our historians, politicians, our educations systems," he says. "But that's okay, I don't get upset about that … because we are not a military nation, I don't resent the young people today who don't know enough about what we did."
Well, General, I disagree with you. This is history all of us should know. And what better way to learn about it than in person, right where it all happened.
IF YOU GO
Tapisserie de Bayeux This famous "tapestry" is a colourful, meticulously embroidered cloth, 70 metres long, depicts in exquisite detail daily life in the 11th century. This alone would justify a trip to Normandy. tapestry-bayeux.com
Bayeux Cathedral It may be cold and forbidding, but it was consecrated in 1077 and its massive pillars have witnessed a lot of history. cathedraledebayeux.voila.net
Honfleur This is the most picturesque of the Normandy towns. It's located at the estuary of the Seine, and has a fabulous harbour, shops, galleries, restaurants and beautifully restored old houses. en.ot-honfleur.fr
Caen Memorial Museum This museum provides an excellent overview of the Second World War, with an introductory film and 11 halls of exhibits. It also pays tribute to Caen, one of the martyred cities. memorial-caen.fr
Juno Beach Centre Get a short version of what led to the war, who the leaders were and who decided Canada would join in. The centre was founded by veterans and is run by volunteers. junobeach.org
Where to stay
Le Manoir des Impressionists A short drive west of Honfleur's harbour, this renovated 18th-century manor house sits on a hill overlooking the Seine estuary. The bedrooms are decorated beautifully and the gardens are elegant. The lounge boasts deep, comfortable armchairs, a wooden bar and fireplace. Best part: the warm, friendly welcome. manoirdesimpressionnistes.honfleur-normandie.com
Where to eat
SaQuaNa Close to the harbour in Honfleur, this was the most expensive restaurant we tried in Normandy – but the fabulous meal was worth it. Splendid presentation. alexandre-bourdas.com