Bayeux really took me by surprise. I was keen to see the Bayeux Tapestry and visit a couple of the War Cemeteries which is why I headed for the town but I wasn’t expecting to enjoy my visit to Bayeux as much as I did. There are so many things to see and do in Bayeux that our day-long visit wasn’t really long enough.
1 / Bayeux Tapestry
Although called a tapestry, the Bayeux Tapestry is actually an embroidery which depicts William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Believed to have been commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux (William’s half-brother) to commemorate the consecration of the Bayeux Cathedral in 1077, the tapestry was a pictorial way to explain the events of the invasion to a largely illiterate population.
Consisting of over 50 scenes, the tapestry is made from linen with the scenes stitched in wool which has, amazingly, retained much of its colour for almost 1000 years. It is now classified as a “Memory of the World” by UNESCO.
Despite it’s harsh treatment over the years (it’s believed the tapestry was used as a tarpaulin in the First World War before being rescued!), the Bayeux Tapestry is in remarkably good condition. It’s now housed in a purpose-built museum, Centre Guillaume-le-Conquerant-Tapisserie de Bayeux, and displayed in a glass case that stretches for 70 metres. An audio guide, which is included in the entry fee, explains each of the 50 panels as you move along the display.
2 / Bayeux Cathedral
My first impression of the Cathedral was WOW! It’s a huge building for quite a small town and it dominates the centre of Bayeux. Built in a combination of Norman-Romanesque and Gothic styles and consecrated in 1077, the Cathedral features two massive spires and an 11th Century crypt complete with restored 15th Century frescoes of angels. It is thought to be the original home of the Bayeux Tapestry.
3 / Commonwealth War Cemetery
The second-largest Commonwealth War Cemetery in France, the Bayeux cemetery is the resting place for 4,144 Commonwealth soldiers and over 500 soldiers of other nationalities, the majority of them German. All of the casualties are from the Second World War.
Any visit to a cemetery is moving but I was particularly touched by the ‘humanity’ of this cemetery. Having come straight from the American War Cemetery at Omaha Beach (see more info below), I was surprised to see graves of German soldiers, the fierce opponents of the Allies, at the Commonwealth War Cemetery. That, and the headstones decorated with flowers, flags and mementoes - and even photos in some instances - really brought home the tragedy of war.
Opposite the cemetery you’ll find the Bayeux Memorial which bears the names of more than 1,800 men of the Commonwealth land forces who died in the early stages of the Normandy landings and have no known grave.
4 / The Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy
War historians will enjoy visiting The Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy. The museum traces the chronological history of the Battle of Normandy which took place from June 7 to August 29, 1944. Amongst the items on display are a collection of photographs, uniforms, guns and vehicles.
The museum is just a few hundred metres from the Commonwealth War Cemetery.
5 / The town centre
Bayeux’s town centre is a pretty example of medieval Norman architecture. Water wheels, which once powered the town’s mills, still turn alongside the Aure River whilst humpback bridges provide a safe passage across the water as they have done for centuries. Honey-coloured stone buildings adorned with black slate roofs and overflowing flower boxes line the narrow streets. It’s real storybook stuff.
Our visit to Bayeux took place only a few weeks after the 70th anniversary of the D Day Landings and the streets were filled with flags from many nations involved in the conflict. Shop windows proudly displayed signs thanking the Allies for their support in the Battle of Normandy.
The pedestrian-only Rue St Jean, on which the Tourist Office is located, is a great place to enjoy lunch or a drink or do a spot of shopping. It’s also the departure point for the Petit Train, a tourist train which takes in a number of the town’s sights.
6 / Further afield: Normandy American War Cemetery (Omaha Beach)
Covering 172.5 acres and containing 9,387 graves, a visit to the Normandy American War Cemetery is a touching experience. Each grave is marked with a white cross or Star of David and the name of the soldier that is buried within. The sheer number of headstones is overwhelming and they stretch in rows as far as the eye can see.
Added to that, the Walls of the Missing lists the names of a further 1,557 soldiers whose remains were not recovered or identified at the end of WW2.
A small chapel and a memorial are also set amongst the gardens and a viewing platform has been erected beside the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach where some of the Normandy Landings occurred.
With almost 1 million visitors to the Cemetery each year, one can only hope they are all so moved by the experience, as I was, they ensure we never have to subject our young men and women to such tragedy again.
Would you like to visit the Western Front battlefields near Somme? This article will be helpful.
Need to Know about Bayeux
Bayeux Tapestry: €9 per adult which includes an audio guide about the Tapestry and entry to the museum which has lots of displays and information about the history of the famous embroidery. Allow at least 30 minutes to view the Tapestry (the audio guide lasts around 20 minutes) and a further 30 minutes minimum for the museum.
Cathedrale Notre Dame Bayeux: entry free; guided tours are available for €4 per adult;
Commonwealth War Cemetery: entry free; open daily
Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy: entry €6 per adult; open daily except 6 January to 16 February, 24 and 25 December, and 31 December to 1 January. Check the website for opening times.
Normandy American War Cemetery: entry free; open daily (except Dec 25 and Jan 1).
The Cemetery is located at Colleville-sur-Mer, 17 kilometres (approximately half an hour’s drive) from Bayeux.
Where to Eat in Bayeux
Le Drakkar restaurant, 27 Rue St Jean, serves delicious meals for lunch and dinner. We enjoyed fresh salads but a range of meals, including traditional Norman specialities, are available.
Where to Stay in Bayeux
Getting to Bayeux
Bayeux is situated in Normandy in northern France about 270 kilometres from Paris. Driving time is around three hours. Frequent train services operate between the French capital and Bayeux with a journey time of just over two hours.
That's my wrap of the top six things to see and do in and around Bayeux. Are there any I have missed?
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