by Trevor Claringbold.
Normandy may not have the beauty of its southern neighbour, the Loire Valley, or the dramatic coastline that Brittany to the west has. But it’s pretty rolling countryside, and pleasant sandy beaches are supplemented by some intriguing cities, centuries of history, and, above all, one of the friendliest welcomes in the whole of France.
Probably the most convenient place to stay is in Caen, the largest city in Normandy. This is not particularly because of the city itself, although there is a surprising number of the historic buildings either remaining or well restored after the devastation of World War Two. It’s because Caen is ideally located with good road links in all directions.
That said, the city does have some delightful buildings that are worthy of a visit. Some date back to the time of William of Normandy, who was buried here. The Castle is a good place to commence your tour, being the only building to withstand the English attack under Edward III in 1346. Another of William’s buildings, the Abbaye aux Hommes, is also not to be missed. It’s a typically French ornate sprawling construction, but magnificent surrounded by it’s neatly manicured modern gardens. During World War Two it became a sanctuary for many of Caen’s inhabitants escaping the battle for the city.
Wherever you go in Normandy, it’s impossible to avoid the effect the last war had on the region. From the area of the invasion beaches, inland for many miles, and especially at Caen, it has completely changed the face of streets, communities, and whole towns. There are numerous memorials, war cemeteries, and museums that can be visited, but the Musee du Debarquement, in Arromanches, is amongst the best. It overlooks ‘Gold’ Beach, where at low tide the remains of the floating ‘Mulberry Harbours’ are still visible. The town itself is also pleasant to wander around, but if you have time then follow the path up onto the cliffs to the west. From here there are panoramic views back across the town, and round to the Cherbourg peninsular. It is possible to visit all five of the invasion beaches, and even today there is a certain unexplainable aura as you stand on the sand and try and imagine what it must have been like.
A few miles inland is the small city of Bayeux, famed for its huge ancient tapestry. The seventy metre long work is over 900 years old, and depicts the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066. Normandy was, at that time, an independent province, and successfully invaded countries as far afield as Sicily and the Near East. The Cathedral Notre-Dame is a favourite stop for travellers here. Dating from eleven years after the invasion at Hastings, it was the original home of the tapestry. Take your time and visit the ornate crypt, with its magnificent frescoed columns.
Despite the hoards of tourists that descend on the place each summer, Bayuex manages to retain its relaxed and appealing atmosphere. Pavement café’s in the old centre are a great place to sit, enjoy a glass of French wine, and just people-watch.
To the north-east of Caen are the chic coastal towns of Deauville and Trouville. Built in the mid 19th Century as a kind of northern Riviera, the elegant tree-lined promenades, and sandy beaches populated by neat rows of bright parasols, are filled to bursting when the sun shines. A few miles further on is the older, and far more picturesque, fishing town of Honfleur. It lies at the very mouth of the River Seine, and as such has no real beach to speak of. But the old harbour area, with its mixture of fishing boats and pleasure craft, and surrounded by the quaint 18th century slate-fronted buildings, is a photographers and painters dream.
This is also where you’ll find one of the best restaurants in Northern France. The exquisite Le Vieux Honfleur is a reasonably priced establishment, on the pedestrianised part of the harbourside. The seafood dishes are perfect for such an ambient setting.
Its always interesting to walk around this area, looking at the paintings, drawings, and sketches, which are generally under way by enthusiastic artists. Indeed Honfleur has a special place in art history. Boudin, one of the forerunners of Impressionism, was born here, and later trained a young Monet. If that isn’t impressive enough, Pissarro, Cezanne, and Renoir, also joined him at different times. As you’d expect, there are a number of exhibitions and museums relating to Boudin and art in the town.
To the east of the region lies one of the oldest cities in France. Rouen is the capital of upper Normandy, and there has been a settlement here since well before the Romans chose it as a site for a major bridge across the Seine. Over the centuries it has been the site of numerous fires, battles, bombings, and sackings, such that today it is a real pot-pourri of building styles. But it’s precisely this unique mixture that gives it its character, and makes it such a joy to walk around. Don’t just visit the main sights, though. There are plenty of pretty back streets and picturesque buildings hidden away from the general gaze.
The principal places of interest are all gathered in a relatively small area, and from the Place du Vieux Marche, where a huge cross marks the spot that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, to the magnificent Cathedrale de Notre-Dame, is just a short stroll along the pedestrianised streets. It’s a city where you’ll never have enough time to visit all the things you want, but the Musee des Beaux-Arts is always worth seeing. Quite apart from the impressive building, the treasures it houses are nothing short of stunning. The city is a fascinating blend of the old and the new, and its always disappointing when it’s time to leave.
And really that goes for Normandy as a whole too. It’s a quiet, unassuming region, that doesn’t shout about its undoubted highlights in the same way as many other French ‘departments’. But it will surprise and delight you when you realise just how much is here to see.