Paris to Normandy via Nellie
As we mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, the ‘Magazine’ tools around the region where so much history happened
With a free long weekend in Paris, an itch to get out of the city and entering my third month of separation anxiety from my motorcycle in Israel, I rented a bike and traveled north to one of my favorite destinations in France, the Normandy region. Thanks to history, they still love Americans in this part of France. The Normandy region, only a few hours from Paris, was where the Allies landed for D-Day on June 6, 1944, and there is an abundance of interesting history sprinkled throughout the area. Excellent museums, a multitude of video presentations, well-documented memorials, great beaches, delicious French food, friendly locals, affordable accommodations and winding country roads make this an absolutely perfect destination for motorcycle riders. Bikers from the United Kingdom take their motorcycles on the numerous ferries that cross the English Channel to ride in France and throughout Europe, often booking a year in advance to ensure a spot on the ferry.
After visiting the rental shop in Paris a few weeks earlier and checking out the motorcycles, I chose a 2018 BMW G310GS which I christened Nellie, like a horse, since it was a bit of a chore to get my leg over the seat. But once on it, the BMW sank to the ground and provided the perfect saddle. After picking it up on a Friday afternoon and receiving a briefing on the bike, I made it – teeth clenched during rush hour – out of Porte Maillot to the A-14 highway and through the long, barely lit tunnels that transport you from the city under the La Defense suburbs and then spit you out on the A-13 all the way to Normandy.
As I wanted to get to my destination before dark, I took the autoroute, but the abundance of rest areas and nice scenery along the way made traveling on the highway a pleasant experience. Figuring out how to efficiently navigate through the many gare de peages (toll booths) was initially a bit of a challenge until I realized that I needed to use the dedicated motorcycle lane, pay by credit card (as fumbling for cash and change is too time-consuming), and not panic while removing my gloves and putting them back on, as the gate stays open until passing through. This is easy in a car but a bit more complicated while on a motorcycle.
A few notes to those who have never traveled by motorcycle or don’t ride: Motorcycle travel is a very different experience than car – or as bikers like to say, “cage” – travel. On a bike, one is totally exposed to the elements, feeling the wind, weather and smells. One connects with nature and the road in a way that cannot be experienced in a cage. One
feels the change in temperature as you climb up or down. Road conditions can become downright hazardous in construction zones and sudden downpours making the ride uncomfortable. However, when all conditions are perfect, there is no better way to travel! Thankfully, I had a trifecta – perfect weather, no traffic and no breakdowns.
Bikers are a friendly lot, especially in France, and kick their right foot out when passing as a way of saying hello. They wave or give the peace sign from the other side of the road as they pass and you are expected to do the same. At rest stops and restaurants it’s not uncommon to strike up a conversation with a fellow biker about their travels or their motorcycle and share a table, something rarely done by those traveling in a cage. To most bikers, their motorcycle is a source of pride and joy and most riders are happy to talk about their bike, especially if you throw them a few compliments. In France, motorcycles are allowed to “lane split” – ride between cars – which is a great time-saver in traffic, particularly in the heat, and one of the supreme advantages to riding in Europe. Helmet use is mandatory, gloves are required and most riders bring their own gear. Back to the ride!
AFTER A few hours, Nellie and I were well acquainted and enjoying each other’s company. We took the peripherique highway around Caen and followed signs for Arromanches-les-Bains, a delightful small village on the coast of Normandy. Like most, I’m used to traveling by using Waze or Google Maps and blindly follow their directions. But here, with no way to mount my phone on the motorcycle and no communication system in my helmet, I had to navigate the old-fashioned way – by using my intuition and destination road signs. I rarely took out my phone and instead planned my trip by looking at maps and a small atlas I had bought in Paris. I stuffed a few maps in my jacket to ensure I could make it from Paris to Arromanches and realized that it’s actually quite liberating to travel “sans GPS.”
Soon after exiting the highway, I was on beautiful twisty country D (local) roads riding through French villages, each one quainter than the last – this is why I came here! Signs of World War II began to appear everywhere. It’s difficult to believe now, but most of these villages were totally destroyed during the war and rebuilt. Many children and adults waved as I passed by, as motorcyclists are well-liked in this part of France. On the way, I stopped in Crépon, another charming village, to view a monument to the sixth and seventh battalions of the Green Howards – the British regiment that liberated the town on D-Day. Monuments to the liberating soldiers are found in most villages, especially those closer to the coast.
As it was starting to get late, I wanted to get to my destination before nightfall and as much as I wanted to linger, it was time to move on. Using Tripadvisor, I found the perfect bed and breakfast that caters to motorcycle riders. Normandy Beach B&B is run by Adrian and Karen Cox, expats that left the UK many years ago and opened their place in Arromanches-les-Bains. With only a small sign announcing their B&B, I passed by their location several times before I noticed Adrian standing outside waving me in. He had heard the sound of the BMW and had thought it was me!
Amenities included a fridge with unlimited free beer, wine and soft drinks; a common table for breakfast; and a pleasant outdoor picnic area encouraging visitors and riders to socialize and share travel information. For motorcycle repairs, they even have a tool shed and contacts at the motorcycle dealers when things go wrong – a common occurrence on long biker trips! Adrian and Karen, the perfect hosts, provided useful advice when I was planning my day trips, and I wisely altered my planned itineraries as their recommendations were spot-on.
Arromanches, on Gold Beach, was the site of Mulberry B, an artificial harbor built by the Allies to unload equipment, cargo and supplies for the D-Day invasion. This village makes the perfect base for traveling in this region – east, west, or south – due to its central location from the D-Day landing beaches, tourist sites and small villages. After a delicious dinner in town of the freshest mussels I ever had in France, I was exhausted and ready for bed. The next morning, I met with the other guests – several non-motorcycle tourists from Denmark traveling by rental car, and a friendly couple traveling on two splendid Triumph Street Triples who took the ferry from the UK to Cherbourg, a French port a few hours away. After a tasty breakfast, it was time to get back on Nellie and explore.
THE WEATHER WAS “parfait” – blue skies, high 70s, no rain in the forecast. Ideal for motorcycling! My plan was to ride along the coast to check out the D-Day Gold and Juno landing beaches and then turn inland, riding south to an area called La Suisse Normande via the Swiss Normandy Route.
I donned my gear and pulled out of the B&B, heading east on D-514 that follows the coast. The ride is idyllic! D-514 is a lovely coastal road offering inviting seaside villages, farms, sea views and ports along the way. There was no shortage of places to stop on this route. I made a spontaneous decision to stop at Graye-sur-Mer, one of several towns on the sea with several memorials and monuments that was liberated by the Canadians and other allied forces.
This is prime D-Day territory, where D-Day started, and was code named Operation Overlord. The beaches called Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword are forever burned in history. The One Charlie tank, belonging to the 26th Armored Engineer Squadron, the seventh Canadian Infantry, is permanently on display with a plaque that states:
This tank landed on Graye-sur-Mer beach at H-Hour on D-Day and was stopped on its way inland, 100 meters south of this spot. The members of its crew were killed or badly wounded. It remains as a memorial to all those who gave their lives here on June 6, 1944.
Even more touching is another plaque next to the tank with the following inscription:
In accordance with his best wishes, the ashes of Bill Dunn, tank driver of One Charlie, were scattered here on November 8, 2014.
There is even a monument to the 16,000 Polish soldiers and 400 tanks that belonged to the First Armored Division of Poland under the direction of Gen. Stanistaw Maczek, which landed here at the end of July 1944. On the beach is a large Cross of Lorraine, the French symbol that stood for “Free France” during World War II as well as its liberation.
I continued down the coast, veered inland via the D-60 to Caen and then around the peripherique, taking the exit for La Suisse Normande following the signs to Thury-Harcourt, the start of the 65-kilometer and not widely advertised Swiss Normandy Route. After traveling at 50 km. per hour for most of the coastal road, it was a relief to pull Nellie back up to 90-100 KPH on the way south. With few gas stations and mostly small villages, I made sure that I filled up before starting this route. The La Suisse Normande is a serpentine road that is better suited for motorcyclists and bicyclists than four-wheel vehicles. While it is a two-lane route, much of it is wide enough for just one vehicle and meanders through farmland, small villages, across streams and by cute B&Bs. If I had been in a car, I would probably have been nauseous due to the constant curves, but on a bike – it was perfect.
The scenery is reminiscent of Switzerland, hence the name of the route, and every turn provides spectacular scenery. Many of the stone country houses appeared as if they had been unoccupied for many years. I had to pay close attention to the signs, as the road constantly splits again and again, and it would be easy to lose your bearings. I encountered few other bikers, attesting to the “secret” of this route. For lunch, I stopped in Pont-d’Ouilly, a gorgeous town on the banks of a river with ideal, Instagram-worthy picnic areas and a starting point for kayak trips. Never did a camembert, butter and cucumber baguette sandwich picked up at the local deli taste so good!
AFTER LUNCH, I continued on to Clécy, one of the jewels of the area. This is the quintessential French tourist town and has it all; location, local restaurants and nature abound.
A pleasant park on the banks of the river offers watersports, kayaking, picnicking and walks. I stopped at the Miniature Railway exhibit, a labor of love that is continued by the founder’s son. It replicates the town of Clécy in miniature with trains running throughout and is well worth a visit. It was truly amazing, and with the lights off – it was simply wow! While the guided tour is in French only, there is a translation document in English, but no words are necessary.
After eight hours of traveling, it was time to head back to Arromanches for a rest, dinner in town and sleep.
After a very long day of riding on Saturday, Sunday was going to be more relaxing. I started by visiting the D-Day Arromanches museum that documents and explains the artificial harbors that were built by the Allies to support the logistics required for Operation Overlord. Remnants of the harbor in Arromanches, Mulberry B, are still visible in the water and on the beach. A second harbor, Mulberry A, was built at Omaha Beach for the Americans but was destroyed on June 14 by a major storm.
Construction of these harbors was an impressive feat, especially considering the engineering skills available at that time. The area was constructed piece by piece in the UK in many sections, then towed over for installation. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and vehicles and millions of tons of equipment were unloaded at both harbors to support the Battle of Normandy, and were used until November 19, 1944. Simply incredible!
I then hopped on Nellie and traveled west on the coastal road, stopping for the Sunday market at Port-en-Bessin. A short walk around this nice harbor town, a quick stop for lunch and off to Pointe du Hoc, a monument built by the French to honor the American Second Ranger Battalion. Before the Americans could land at Utah and Omaha beaches, the Rangers were tasked with taking out the artillery positions held by the Germans at Pointe du Hoc. If the artillery were not captured, the Americans would have been fired upon by these large German guns as they landed on the beach. However, to capture this position, the US Rangers had to scale 100-foot cliffs! Once the guns were found and captured, the Rangers blew them up with grenades. Out of 250 soldiers, only 90 survived without being killed or injured and were true heroes. A must-see: Remnants of the German bunkers and platforms housing the guns remain as well as a monument to the Rangers at the top of the cliff.
I was back on Nellie for a quick stop at the German cemetery, a striking contrast to its American counterpart. The cemetery is well maintained and worth a visit. I made it to the American cemetery for the 5 p.m. lowering of the flag ceremony, which I found to be quite emotional. With 9,387 graves of US servicemen, one cannot help but feel connected to the soldiers who fought for freedom. A new visitors center was opened several years ago and is a wonderful place to learn about Operation Overlord and the D-Day operation. Museums abound in this area and you can spend days visiting them all.
After returning to the B&B, Adrian provided gratis pizza to several of us chatting over drinks outside. The Triumph Street Triple couple and I agreed to ride east together the next morning to Benouville, where the famous Pegasus Bridge was captured by the British on D-Day. This capture was of strategic importance as it limited the Germans from reinforcing their positions and counter-attacking during the Battle of Normandy.
On Monday, I joined everyone for breakfast, said my farewells and packed for the return to Paris. I had a nice ride to Pegasus Bridge, where it was raised to let a French Navy vessel pass. We enjoyed coffee, and I left at 1 p.m. to return the bike by the evening, as I had a three-to-four-hour ride ahead of me. I made it back by 4:30 p.m. after a few harrowing minutes navigating around the Arc de Triomphe, where 12 avenues converge into a roundabout. The total mileage allowed was 900 kilometers without additional payment, and I squeaked by with 870 km.
Nellie served me well and was the perfect motorcycle for this short excursion.
‘NELLIE AND I took the “peripherique” highway around Caen and followed signs for Arromanches-lesBains, a delightful small village on the coast of Normandy.’
THE WRITER at the famous Pegasus Bridge, captured by the British on D-Day.
LOWERING THE flag at the American cemetery in Normandy, where 9,387 US servicemen were laid to rest.
THE ONE Charlie tank, belonging to the 26th Armored Engineer Squadron, the seventh Canadian Infantry, is permanently on display at Graye-surMer.
THE AMERICAN Second Ranger Battalion was tasked with taking out the artillery positions held by the Germans at Pointe du Hoc – requiring them to scale its 100-foot cliffs.