At the behest of one of them, a group of four friends decided to embark upon a historical tour. Given their shared fascination with the fantastic effort of the D-Day landings, the destination was predictable: Normandy. Precisely 75 years (and almost a month, but I won’t tell if you won’t) after the momentous event has started.
Since we managed to cover over 14 historical sites plus spend an afternoon at Mont Saint Michel, sharing the learnings is something that I am quite keen to do. This article and the subsequent ones will cover how you could organise a similar tour, depending on where you are coming from, what you can see and will offer information on the locations visited, admission price and worthiness of each place.
The first taste of what was to come
In a move that probably surprised everybody involved, we were able to organize and book tickets in record time. We were to launch a four-day tour, driving all the way from London to Normandy and back. Around 1100 miles were covered during this time. Which is quite a lot given many of them were not made on motorways.
Since we could use my car, leaving from London made the most sense for everyone involved. A crossing on the Eurotunnel Shuttle had to be secured at the price of 139 pounds. And that’s despite the fact we booked 2.5 months in advance. So if you’re coming from London, I suggest booking well in advance, especially if you’re looking at travelling during the summertime. If you’re coming from Paris, you don’t have to pay for the crossing (obviously) or waste two hours with the whole shebang.
If you’re coming from anywhere else in the world, renting a car at the Paris airport of your choice is the best solution. You can reach almost any WW2 site in Normandy within 300 kilometres of the French capital.
Still, crossing on the Shuttle is quite an experience and I’d recommend doing it at least once in your life, for the bucket list if nothing else. Travelling on a train from the comfort of your car seat, crossing 31.4 miles (or as the rest of would say 50.5 kilometres) in 35 minutes, many of them spent 60 meters underneath the sea level is something that makes you ponder on the miracle of human ingenuity. Or you know, fall asleep. There is something strangely inviting about the gentle swaying of the train combined with your car’s suspension, that simply pushes you to doze off. The lack of stronger ventilation also probably helps.
Second World War Museum, Calais
After we made landfall — does that even work, given we travelled underneath land instead of an expanse of water? — we decided to make our first stop nearby, at the Calais Second World War Museum. You know, since the train drops you in Calais.
The museum provided an interesting first glimpse in what was to come on our following visits, in terms of items on display and level of polish. While the uniforms, guns, dressed-up mannequins, dioramas, day to day items, war posters, etc. could satisfy any WW2 nerd, Musee de la Guerre (french for, you guessed it, War Museum) had a somewhat dated feel.
The gentleman selling tickets was very helpful and spoke English extremely well. Obviously in a very French-inflected English. He probably deals with lots of tourists so had plenty of occasions to perfect his skills, if not his accent. I don’t remember if his POS was not working or non-existent, the fact is we had to pay cash. Luckily, one of us proved to have been more cautious. He chipped in for the rest of us and in we went, complimentary audioguide slung around necks.
- Name: Musee de la Guerre
- Location: Parc Saint-Pierre, Calais
- Admittance price: 8 euro per person; it included a terribly quiet audio-guide.
- My museum rating: 3.5 out of 5; I would have given a 4.5 out of 5 for the content but the slightly dated atmosphere and musky air lowered my ranking a bit. Google maps has it at 4.2, in case you were wondering.
- Setting rating: 4 out of 5 (it’s housed in a big-ass bunker, come on!). Not to mention it’s to be found in a lovely parc, mere minutes away from the train station.
- Suggested visiting duration: 2 to 3 hours; we’ve spent maybe 30 minutes since we had a whole day planned out.
Our next destination, the Blockhaus d’Éperlecques, was a mere 35 kilometres away from Calais. We eventually found it in a forest bordering the town of Éperlecques. Out of convenience when searching on Waze, we first arrived at the town centre, expecting to find the bunker there. We obviously didn’t. Good thing we didn’t decide to walk as someone suggested. The bunker proved to be a 5-kilometre drive away.
The Blockhouse museum is one of those places that I feel totally deserved the admission price. From the entrance building, finely stocked with WW2 souvenirs and historical artefacts to the forest behind it and the bunker itself, everything was quite unexpected and exciting.
The visit starts on a sombre tone, with a couple of carts like the ones used to carry prisoners to the concentration camps. A friendly cat, begging for a good petting did its part to lessen the tense atmosphere. Leaving that behind, the way through the forest leads you along with various artillery pieces, watch-posts, real bomb-craters (remnants from the bombing of the Bunker), a surprising midget submarine, one of the few surviving Bibers (guess what, Biber means beaver in german) and big plaques with various explanations.
And then you reach the bunker. And you are in awe. Awe that something that big and massive could have been built. Awe that something that big and massive was destroyed and ultimately rendered useless before it had the chance to be used for its nefarious purposes.
The bunker was supposed to house around 100 V-2 rockets, like the ones used to bomb London. Besides that, it was to have a V-2 fuel-producing factory, own rail-tracks and ramps that were supposed to launch 36 missiles per day. The Allies decided to bomb it and other sites before they were finished and they’ve it done successfully, despite the 5-meter thick concrete shell protecting the bunker. The Germans obviously didn’t anticipate the bunker-penetrating bombs of the Allies. As a direct result of this bombing campaign, the Germans had to resort to using the facility only as a place to produce and store fuel for the V-2’s. Launching of actual rockets was delegated to mobile platforms, rather than stationary bunkers.
The Allies didn’t actually know what the bunker’s destination was before they bombed it. I’ve found rather funny the rationale behind the campaign “If it is worth the enemy’s while to go to all the trouble of building them it would seem worth ours to destroy them”. Sound logic there.
- Name: Le Blockhaus d’Eperlecques
- Location: near Eperlecques (5km away from the centre), 35 km away from Calais
- Admittance price: 10 euro
- My museum rating: 5 out of 5; less time spent reading plaques and more seeing various pieces from close up. Seeing a real V-1 rocket on a very real launch-ramp alone was worth the money.
- Setting rating: 5 out of 5; no doubts there. The overgrown forest still cratered after the bombing raids, the impressive bunker, the WW2 gear.
- Suggested visiting duration: around 2 hours; we’ve spent maybe 1 hour
La Cupole, which is 3.1 miles or 5 kilometres away from Saint-Omer, is quite close to the Blockhaus as well, being some 15 kilometres (9 miles) away from it. If nothing else, La Cupole, known back in the day as Building Project 21, is the oldest surviving precursor of modern underground missile silos.
The concrete dome that gives it its name is the only visible part of the huge network of tunnels constructed on the side of a disused chalk factory. The tunnels were housing everything necessary for the construction and launching of, you guessed it, V-2 rockets. It and the Blockhaus d’Éperlecques were quite related in their intended destination. Probably that’s why they were bombed as part of the same Allied campaign, operation Crossbow.
Much like it’s smaller brother, construction was never completed and the complex never entered service. Even so, like with its counterpart, thousands of nazi slave workers perished during their construction.
Nowadays, the tunnels and the cupola itself house a museum and a planetarium. There is a long tunnel connecting the entrance to the elevators that take tourists underneath the Cupola itself. Smaller branch-tunnels fan from this main tunnel and would have been used for storage. Nowadays they display various wartime objects. Along the walls of all these tunnels, there are enough historic posters and plaques to keep you busy for hours should you wish.
Underneath the dome, instead of V-2 rockets, a very modern museum now resides. Truth be told, there is an authentic V-2 as well, donated by the Smithsonian Institution. Along with the Caen War Museum and the American Cemetery Museum at Omaha beach, this was one of the best-organised museums seen on this tour.
A generous car park and a very modern entrance-hall mark the beginning of your experience here. Despite the 35 degrees outside, the moment we stepped through the only surviving entrance and into tunnel Ida, we were chilled to the bone. Water droplets formed on the walls and slowly slid towards the floor. I instantly regretted not bringing a hoodie.
- Name: La Coupole (d’Helfaut-Wizernes)
- Location: 5 km away from Saint-Omer
- Admittance price: 10 well deserved euro
- My museum rating: 5 out of 5; you get a very convenient GPS audio-guide in the admission price; the audio-guide is on auto mode, playing the relevant information depending on your position in the museum. The audio-guide was also used for listenig to the sound of the documentary movies played in the 2 cinemas. All in all, a very modern experience.
- Setting rating: 5 out of 5; even more impressive than the Blockhouse. Not to mention it’s a great place to hide away from the heat on a summer day.
- Suggested visiting duration: around 3 to 4 hours; we’ve spent maybe 2 hours.
As is was already around 6 in the afternoon by the time we were done with this place, we were famished. After assiduous searches, we managed to find a place where to have a very late lunch or a very early dinner (lunner? dinch?). In case you didn’t know, 98.9% of restaurants in France are closed between lunch and dinner time (grrr!). Making the ones open for business rarer than unicorns. Since we wished to be closer to Normandy, and as we didn’t have any hotel reservations (YOLO!), we headed for Dieppe, hoping to find a place to crash. On a summer Saturday that proved impossible so we headed for Rouen, where we finally found shelter. It was past 11 by the time we got to the hotel.
All in all, we covered around 460 kilometers or 285 miles for this first day, including the 60 km detour through Dieppe. Until the next, lengthier article in this series, don’t stop wandering!