NORMANDY COAST HIKING TOUR Review – Ghosts of Battle Amidst Sylvan Splendors

Perhaps a most fitting emblem of the entire Normandy countryside, sculptures of soldiers in fighting stances top a hill of Arromanches, in a park just outside the Arromanches 360 Cinéma Circulaire.   At first glance, the small holes throughout their forms render them somewhere between two dimensional and three dimensional.  They are echoes of another time; they are memories given form.

Look beyond these soldier ghosts and you see the wide expanse of sky above the blue harbor below.  In this picturesque vista, yet another charming town of the Normandy coast seems to beckon from below.  By this time in your Normandy Coast Hiking Tour, you are fully confident that there will be good food, wine, sweets and other treats aplenty to help you digest the sites of the day, and re-charge after the 17 km (~10.5 mile) hike—or bus-- that brought you there earlier that day.

This is the Normandy coast during the off-season--where you too might find yourself in periodic wonder at how such soothing pastural scenes along the panoramic shoreline could have ever been where some of World War II’s most bloody carnage occurred.  If you too have ingrained mental images of GIs sharing chocolate bars with smiling children, expect them to fade.

You will need to make room for images of towns turned to rubble, and come to learn of how so many Normandy families suffered huge losses before, during and in the weeks after D-Day.

The off-season Normandy Coast Hiking Tour of this report spanned ten days from late September to early October, though the first note of Normandy Coast Hiking TourTop Tips would be that you could—if life permits-- easily plan a much longer trip, both to enjoy more of Normandy’s bucolic coast and also for longer lingers in each stop.

All of these stops, save Bayeux, are along what you may think of as the English Channel, and which the French refer to as la Manche.

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Ouistreham to Courseulles sur Mer
At low tide, expanses of spongy kelp give you the sensation of hiking on a trampoline.

Over the course of a week+, you get to feel the moods of the sea, as it changes with the tides and weather.

By late September, rain is becoming more and more of a factor.  The weather app on your phone—and the tides tables--- conspire to narrow the window for your several hours’ hikes each day.  On most days, this writer/photographer team opted for pre-dawn departures.  This itinerary has you hiking East to West, a photogenic plus because you aren’t looking into the sun in the early morning.  What you DO see are dramatic skies, and especially near the beach.   In these early hours you also cross paths with hunters, or stop in a relatively remote hamlet with only a central Tabac, where you see neighbors joining each other for a start-of-the-day café and pickup of fresh baguettes.

Most of the time, both your phone Maps APP and the GR 223 course-- the main Normandy Coast Grande Randonnée-- will guide you along the beach and scenic coastline, though in spots it is unpassable due to either impossibly high cliffs, or private property, or both.   

Detouring from beach paths not only lets you avoid full sun, but also take in the charm of hamlets and houses with a distinct Normandy feel.  For this writer, many roofs seem inspired by the shape of Napolean’s hat, or perhaps vice versa. Later in your tour – after your immersion in WWII history—you come to realize that many of the buildings that you might have thought were very old are actually mid-Century re-builds.

As your path crosses farms, wetlands and thickets, you seem to feel the flora readying for winter at this time of year, as the fields begin their post-harvest rest.  Then--often with no warning--another small town pops up before you.  Sometimes you are on a shared bike /pedestrian path.  Often, you are walking past campgrounds, equestrian sport centers, golf courses, miniature golf courses, posh beach resorts or crowded restaurants during the lunch hours.

When the tides are low, you get to hike on the harder wet sand, or be treated to the feel of walking on a bouncy trampoline created by the layers of kelp atop rocks.

Though there are a few hills in the small towns along the coastline, this is almost entirely an easy hike that allows you to make good time with 10 – 15 pound or so packs on your back.  There are buses, and there are offers of rides, even if you aren’t actively hitchhiking.

Starting with the train from Paris’ St. Lazare station – and later returning to same‑ this itinerary included: Deauville/Trouville; Cabourg; Houlgate; Merville; Ouistreham; Courseulles sur Mer; Arromanches; Port en Bessin; Colleville; Omaha Beach; and the small city of Bayeux.

DEAUVILLE/TROUVILLE

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Trouville
Like a modern update to Gustave Caillebotte's PARIS ON A RAINY DAY, couples stroll down the few main streets of Trouville looking for the moules (mussels) that are cornerstones of Normandy cuisine.
NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Trouville
The yacht-thick harbor of Deauville
NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Trouville to Houlgate
Cabanas along the Deauville Beach are labeled with the names of Broadway and Hollywood stars.
NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Trouville to Houlgate
The villages of Deauville and Trouville allow you first glimpses of the charming house designs you see throughout Normandy.
NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Trouville
Carnival in the center of Trouville

DEAUVILLE/TROUVILLE TO HOULGATE (Approximately 14 km, <9 miles)

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Trouville to Houlgate
As you first leave Deauville/Trouville, much of your path will be along the beach and recreational areas.
NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Trouville to Houlgate
If you take the roads off the beach path, the sea La Manche, also known as the English Channel, remains in view most of the early route.

As you get closer to Houlgate, your route seems to suggest turns into thickets that get you wondering if you are off-course.  But as you soon find out-- you are totally on track to the surprise of seeing Houlgate before you.

As you get closer to Houlgate, your route seems to suggest turns into thickets that get you wondering if you are off-course.  But as you soon find out-- you are totally on track to the surprise of seeing Houlgate before you.

HOULGATE

After a pleasant break hiking in a refreshing woodsy area the path ends in an uphill climb, and eventually stairs leading up to a scenic overlook of Houlgate below.

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Houlgate
On this late September day, the sudden appearance of Houlgate on the other side of a thick forest walk was perhaps even more pleasingly surprising by the 22nd Edition of the PLEIN VENT festival — a yearly kite festival in which kite enthusiasts show their impressive works.
NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Houlgate
A main road of Houlgate parallel to the beach is wall-to-wall bars, restaurants, hotels, and other tourist spots. Even in this off-season, most of the people you see seem to be fellow tourists.
NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Houlgate
A marker identifies this as the Grand Hotel before it was relocated to THE Grand Hotel of Cabourg and Proust's pen.

CABOURG

Home to the Grand Hotel evoked in great detail by Proust's pen, and which is still serving the Madeleine cookies he made so famous, including the hotel's lobby bar offering quick bite specials that are namesakes of its most famous guest.  For an even deeper immersion in La Belle Époque, you can visit the nearby Villa du Temps Retrouvé museum.

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Cabourg Grand Hotel
Approach to the Grand Hotel
NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Cabourg
Villa du Temps Retrouvé
NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Cabourg Grand Hotel
The gracious staff of the Grand Hotel receives rain-soaked backpackers with great courtesy — quickly storing dripping umbrellas and guiding you with outstretched arms to the welcoming bar for Proust/Madeleine delights, perhaps best washed down with Calvados brandy of the Normandy region.

CABOURG TO MERVILLE-SUR-MER

NOTE:  HOULGATE TO CABOURG TO MERVILLE-SUR-MER -- APPROXIMATELY 12 KM, ~ 7.5 MILES

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Houlgate to Merville
Equestrians will see many kindred spirits in Normandy, some offering horse-drawn carriages along the beach at low tide.
NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Houlgate to Merville
You realize how much you have acclimated to the Normandy look when you stumble upon a house that seems of another age and time.
NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Houlgate to Merville
From Cabourg to Merville-sur-Mer, you can follow the beach or just as easily walk on paths parallel to the sea to take in hamlet charms.

MERVILLE-SUR-MER TO OUISTREHAM

APPROXIMATELY 13 KM, ~ 8 MILES

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Merville to Ouistreham
In an early morning hike, one can encounter duck hunters by the beach and along the path.

Your path takes you over the Orne River at the Pegasus Bridge.  As you approach Ouistreham, you share the road with cyclists on the piste cyclable, although at this time of year on a weekday, they seem few and far in-between.

OUISTREHAM

Home of The Grand Bunker Museum (MUSEE DU MUR DE L’ATLANTIQUE), which on this itinerary, is the first reminder of the WWII hardships and deaths endured by the people of Normandy.

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Ouistreham
Le Grand Bunker Musée du Mur de l'Atlantique Photo: Paul Hermans

OUISTREHAM TO COURSEULLES-SUR-MER

18 KM, or ~ 11 miles.

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Ouistreham to Courseulles Sur Mer
Your phone GPS isn't hooked into the tide chart — at least at the time of this writing — so don't worry if it's telling you that you are drowning during this leg of the tour.
NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Ouistreham to Courseulles sur Mer
Kelp is thick and bouncy — giving the beach path a trampoline bouncy feel.

COURSEULLES-SUR-MER

Home of the Juno Beach Center-- devoted to showcasing Canada's contribution to D-Day.

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Courseulles-sur-Mer
Photo courtesy of the Juno Beach Center

ARROMANCHES-LES-BAINS

The Musée du Embarquement, Arromanches 360 Cinéma Circulaire, and more -- this is where your immersion into D-Day becomes the defining experience of the hike.

ARROMANCHES-LES-BAINS TO PORT-EN-BESSIN

14 km, or < 9 Miles

One of the prettier walks in this tour, the terrain varies from bunker remnants, to farms and sea overlooks.

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Arromanches to Port en Bessin
At times, the path narrows to the size of a bike tread.
NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Arromanches to Port en Bessin
As you near Port-en-Bessin, your GPS will tell you to walk onward into a thicket, and you too might think you somehow had gotten off course and retrace your steps before you take your plunge into the unknown.
NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Arromanches to Port en Bessin
Emerging from the woods, the view of Port-en-Bessin so close below a hill astounds.

PORT-EN-BESSIN

An active port intermingles with an abundance of restaurants and hotels.

You sense the importance of the sea to locals in this off-the-beaten path church with maritime themes.

PORT-EN-BESSIN TO COLLEVILLE

8 km, or ~ 5 miles

As you approach Colleville, there are more and more signs --in all senses-- that the impact of American soldiers and their losses is still front-of-mind.

COLLEVILLE

OMAHA BEACH

5 km from Colleville, easy to approach by walking along the sand during low tide, the beach itself is dotted with D-Day memorial landmarks.

BAYEUX

Your hiking tour ends inland in this small city, much as it was a goal post for the Allied Forces in the days following the beach landings on D-Day.

Two museums-- the Bayeux Tapestry Museum and Musee Baron Gerard -- are also top tourist draws.

Read the related story---

NORMANDY COAST HIKING TOUR – TOP TIPS

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