For a whole generation of Americans—and Canadians, British, and Germans, too, for that matter—Normandy instantly conjures up World War II and the great invasion that stormed ashore on these rugged beaches in 1944. Indeed, if you come to Caen, the battle is inescapable even to this day.

From the lovely American cemetery at Omaha Beach to Pont du'Hoc, made famous in Spielberg's film Saving Private Ryan, you will find evidence of the events that scarred this region forever. Here there is an ancient stone wall with a curious break in it where a tank came through; there in the shell-cratered ground above Pont du'Hoc stand the shattered remains of German bunkers. The visitor center at Caen is rather incredible, taking the visitor from the darkest days of Nazi Germany to the light of liberation. The opening film is worth the trip by itself, for side by side on the screen it displays the prelude to battle and the struggle from both the German and Allied points of view. From a wedding dress made of parachute silk to a real Enigma machine, the stolen coding device that was one of the most closely-guarded secrets of the war, you'll find a fascinating cross-section of the war and its impact on soldiers and civilians alike.

But D-Day and its aftermath are by no means all there is to this lovely region of France. For a really special treat, cross the Channel by ferry to Caen, and then drive out the winding back roads through the maze of hedged fields that made breaking out of the Normandy beachhead such a misery for the Allies. Visit Bayeaux, where the Bayeaux Tapestry, woven by William the Conqueror's wife and her ladies after his conquest of England, is housed. Its 230 feet of woven images tell the story of the conquest and the climactic battle at Hastings that changed the history of Europe forever. You will have no trouble understanding it; the artistry is actually quite good, and the interpretive signs are in several languages.

Normandy is known for wine and quiet beauty, but the people are one of its greatest treasures. Everywhere we went they were friendly and welcoming, unlike the rather snooty folk in Paris. Perhaps it is the independent nature of these people descended from Vikings, or the brisk sea air that makes them so lively. Or perhaps it is the shared heritage of war and suffering that makes them welcome anyone who comes in peace.