This is an on-going series following our family vacation through Northern France over the course of two weeks. To read what we did from the beginning, click here and scroll to France.
When my family and I stayed in Northern France this past March, we stayed in three different cities. The first was Juvigny-sur-Loison where we ventured to and from Verdun to see the decrepit forts from WWI. After a few days, and a few hikes, we changed location to Reims where we enjoyed some spectacular Michelin-star dining and saw vineyards upon vineyards of Champagne grapes.
Now, we were on our final leg of the tour, heading from Reims, via Amiens and the Somme, toward Villers-sur-Mer and the Normandy beaches. In hunting for a place to stay on AirBnB, Jeff and I came across this spectacular apartment overlooking the English Channel. The pictures on the website absolutely matched what we drove up to, and we were floored.
On top of a hill on the edge of a small village called Villers-sur-Mer is a maroon and beige beach house with a tower that peaks above the other homes and the tops of the tallest trees. This house, alone, had a fantastic history. Built in 1867, the house was featured at the Paris World’s Fair on the Champs de Mars in Paris, the future location of the famous Eiffel Tower. As I understand, in 1900, the house was relocated to Villers-sur-Mer and propped on beachfront property for people to live in and enjoy over the next 100+ years.
We arrived at the flat just as the sun was setting, so we got some spectacular colors flooding the apartment just as we walked in. It was as if it were fate.
That night, we dined at Mermoz, a local restaurant right on the waterfront. By the time we got there, it was pitch black outside, adding to our deepest fears of a black ocean, but the food was amazingly fresh and light. We ordered oysters on the half-shell and indulged in something called Vacherin Cassis (meringue, cassis sorbet, cherries and cream). It was a bit indulgent, but the calories were well worth it, plus, it was gluten-free.
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The next day, we decided to take a much needed rest from running around France like crazy people and stayed in the city to take it all in. Jeff and I bee-lined it down to the beach, and what struck us as utterly amazing was how empty it was. We were completely on our own! What we didn’t realize until later that day was March is not high-season.
Back in Texas, where the four of us are from, March is the perfect time for beach-going. It’s not too, too hot, but it’s pleasant enough to get in the water. March in France is still way too cold to go for a dip. Most of the beach houses that surrounded ours were shuttered and closed. The town was virtually empty, and we stuck out like sore thumbs among all the locals.
We learned there were some black cliffs down the beach to the west, so we made that our destination. These cliffs are affectionately called “black cows” because, from the air, look like cow silhouettes. We didn’t see them from there air (you can here), but we did see them in the morning light where they gave off a more grey appearance. It was still really interesting to see since just a few months ago, Jeff and I walked along the black beaches of Vik, Iceland.
But these black cliffs aren’t the biggest draw to the tiny, coastal town. What makes Viller-sur-Mer famous are dinosaur fossils. It is illegal to independently go digging for these Jurassic-age rocks and shells, but we did come across a school trip learning about the species that lives on the island millions of years before we even stepped foot in France.
The small town was created in 1856 and was a popular place for artists, but it wasn’t until after the train finally connected the town to the rest of the country in 1882 that the population rose. The village was a popular resort town for vacationing families through the decades until WWII hit and the Germans took over the coastal front. It was a struggle for the town to get back on its feet after the war, but then it did steadily ascend into tourism status. To this day, less than 3,000 inhabitants live in the city giving it a very small-town and idyllic feel, but I’m sure in the summer, it is booming with tourists and travelers.
As we headed back from the beach with the sun beaming down on us, but the wind keeping our jackets on, we noticed a small gathering in the center of town. Every Tuesday and Friday the Cast Iron Market Stalls are set up selling incredibly fresh fish, meats, honeys, and their famous Normandy ciders. We didn’t buy anything, but the pure enjoyment from walking in and out of the stalls was amazing.
Just up the street from the market is a stunning church. Much smaller, of course, than the ones we had seen in Reims, Amiens, and Rouen, but it had a small village charm and some interesting sculptures on the inside. I don’t think in all of our travels we had seen a demon being crushed by the pulpit. The stained glass was absolutely lovely and the way the church looked as the sun rose and set on the small town was just incredibly picturesque. The Church of Saint Martin was built in the mid 19th century, but when the town realized it was much too small for the summer vacation crowds, it was expanded in 1872.
By now, we were starving and ready to have some lunch. Being low season, several shops were closed and shuttered saying they were on annual holiday until April or May. But thankfully, the locals have to eat, so some restaurants were still open in the village square, and one such restaurant was La Gogaille. We sat under space heaters and encapsulated in a plastic bubble to ward off the chill coming from the ocean, and were served some beautiful mussels and white fish. While the food seemed pretty average (if not a bit overcooked) for a seaside cafe, the mussels were fantastic in their butter and garlic sauce. It was a completely relaxed atmosphere where the staff spoke English and were completely accommodating when we got a little too warm next to the massive heaters in our thermal, “beach” clothes.
On our last morning in Villers-sur-Mer, Jeff and I took off again, but this time in the other direction. Our destination was the Longues-sur-Mer Battery, left over German bunkers from WWII. During the summer, the battery is open for people to go inside, but in the winter it’s closed. But, because the walk was a bit too far for the time we had, we didn’t make it to see the battery for ourselves.
During the Second World War, this battery held four 152mm navy guns in anticipation of the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. Just before the landing, the site was hammered with bombs, but they did not sustain much damage despite being squarely placed between Omaha, Sword and Gold Beach. On the day, the battery fired 170 shots and were finally disabled by British cruisers. A single gun, however, continued to fire until 7pm that evening. But stay tuned later this week for more on the D-Day history this historic coast sustained in 1944.
We made our way back to the flat by way of grabbing some fresh baguettes from La Josephine, but not before discovering something along the beach that caught us by complete surprise. In the morning glow, we noticed a big blue line painted on the white beach walls. We were standing on the Greenwich Meridian Line. We were stunned. We had picked this small town for some peace and the awesome history we learned of the house we were staying in, but to realize that the village actually had so much more to offer made the decision ideal for what we wanted.
I highly recommend staying in Villers-sur-Mer. In the summer, it may not be as tranquil as we had it in mid-March, but if you’re looking for a “home-base” where you can easily get to the Normandy beaches, Rouen, and Paris, this is your ticket.
Stay tuned in the next couple days as we switch from WWI history to the unforgettable moments of D-Day and the Omaha Beach memorials.