The region offers glorious beaches, beautiful countryside, wartime history, delicious seafood and fun by the Jeep-load says Ann Westbury
I just couldn’t understand why my husband Jools was going off to hire a car for the day. After all, our comfortable Volvo estate had got us all the way to Normandy and towed our caravan here too.
We had already planned the day. We were going to explore the D-Day beaches and drive all along the coast to Pegasus Bridge where the first British troops had landed in frail gliders to start the battle that would turn the tide of war.
We had even planned a lunchtime stop at the legendary Café Gondrée, the first building liberated in France and still open for business.
Our 12-year-old daughter Lizzie was doing a project on the Second World War and we reckoned that all this history would really help with her school work.
Jools is a glider pilot and I know he really wanted to find the tiny D-Day glider landing site. So why was he wasting time going off to hire a car?
When he arrived back at our caravan it all became clear. Lizzie and I could hardly believe our eyes. Jools was at
the wheel of a proper WWII Jeep and, from somewhere, he had even found an army forage cap. Our 10-year-old son Jimmy nearly exploded with excitement.
Jimmy isn’t keen on museums or history. He had picked Camping le Grand Large near Les Pieux on the Cherbourg Peninsula for this year’s holiday using his usual criteria: the size and style of the campsite swimming pool.
Le Grand Large has a spectacular pool complex as well as a new indoor pool – usually this would be all Jimmy needs, as most of his days are spent splashing about making new friends among campers from all over Europe.
But not today. Today Jimmy is first to pile into the Jeep. We all join him and set off on our big coastal adventure.
It’s blazing hot as we drive along the beaches of Normandy, with many flying the Blue Flag for clean beaches.
The only battles today are on the beach volleyball courts. Huge bright kites pull surfboards on the water and buggies on the sand.
Even as we barrel along in our Jeep it is hard to imagine that 70-odd years ago one of the most momentous chapters in the history of wartime Britain – and indeed Europe – was played out here just a few miles across the Channel.
Much of the success of the Normandy landings came from the element of surprise. How, the Germans reasoned, could you land an invasion army on an open coast without a major port?
The Allies did something unheard of – they brought their port with them. A harbour, as big as the one at Dover, was built, in pieces and in secret, at locations all along the south coast of England.
The Mulberry Harbour was designed to last just nine months. Today, more than 70 years later, an amazing amount of the structure is still visible.
One caisson has washed up on to the beach and at low tide you can take a look, and even climb inside. We parked our Jeep in the car park on the clifftop near Arromanches above the beach for the incredible views of the harbour.
There’s a contradiction and fascination with today’s Normandy, which is one of the reasons so many Brits come back year after year to watch colourful French beach life played out on a monumentally historic battlefield. At our campsite we had a drink with Paul and Mary, from the caravan next door.
They told us that they had found their first invasion museum so upsetting they weren’t going near anything else anything to do with D-Day. They were still enjoying a great holiday with plenty to do and see.
But another couple, Donna and Rob, were keen to see every beach, every memorial and visit every D-Day museum. Their caravan was full of books and marked-up maps and other stuff all about the landings.
Both of them were D-Day experts: Lizzie was in luck – they could answer all her project questions!
Despite all that tempestuous history, Normandy is a place of astounding peace and quiet. It is a region of sleepy fishing villages, and of silent lanes with high hedgerows full of blackberry and elder. Orchids grow in profusion on the verges of narrow country lanes.
It is a rural idyll of fat contented cows munching in rich meadows producing half of the milk, butter, cream and cheese eaten by the whole of France. Road maps read like menus – we drove through the villages of Pont-l’Évêque, Livarot and Camembert.
In the quiet orchards, apples and pears ripen slowly, ready for the even slower art of making cider, poire, pommeau and Calvados apple brandy. Normandy’s pride and joy is its seafood – especially the amazing shellfish.
There are lobsters, crabs, clams, whelks, winkles, scallops, all kinds of shrimps and prawns and, of course, oysters. Mussels are common and make a very cheap but delicious meal – especially when cooked in cider and cream with frites.
But if you should ever tire of fish, the meats of Normandy are pretty good too. Duck is common and the pork is tasty, particularly cooked in a sauce of local apples and cream.
On the salt marshes around Mont Saint-Michel they graze sheep which provide mutton with a really distinctive, subtle flavour. Look out for it on menus – it will be called agneau de pré-salé.
A caravan holiday in Normandy offers a lot: rural beauty and simplicity; fine beaches and beautiful coastline; heroic history, and food and drink that is hard to beat.
And that is why we have booked again for next year.
Good to know: Watch out for local fetes and celebrations. In the pretty little seaside town of Pirou we visited a whelk festival that could only happen in France.www.normandy-tourism.org
Getting there: The overnight Brittany Ferry from Portsmouth to Caen means you get a good night’s sleep for a fresh start in the morning. Return overnight crossings for car and caravan cost from £532 and for a four-berth cabin £75 overnight each way. Daytime saver sailings start at £409 return, with day cabins an option at £26 per crossing. brittanyferries.com
Book it: We stayed at Camping le Grand Large near Les Pieux on the Cherbourg Peninsula, from £20 to £37 a night for two adults and two children (10-16 years). The campsite is one of over 140 offered by Camping and Caravanning Club’s European Camping Holidays who have been organising overseas camping holidays for over a hundred years, arranging more than 75,000 each year.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk/travelabroad 024 7642 2024
This article first appeared in the Sunday Mirror Travel section 24 May 2015