Normandy: A brand new landing proves it’s more than just a ferry port

Direct flights now link this historic city with the UK, proving that it’s more than just a ferry port, as Chris Leadbeater found

Towards the north-east end of the pedestrianised Rue Saint-Pierre, two ghosts leap out at me with such force that I stop in my tracks to stare at them. There they are at No 54 – twin timber-fronted houses, blatantly flaunting their heritage on Caen’s commercial drag. Even with everyday shops slotted into their ground floors (a pharmacy, a clothes store), their 16th-century authenticity – skillfully carved wood and overhanging eaves – is clear.

The main reason for their visibility is the starkness of the contrast with the neighbouring buildings – perfectly pleasant but entirely undramatic offshoots of the mid-20th century. To say that the wounds of war are obvious in Caen is to understate the situation. Scar tissue dominates the torso of this once-medieval citadel – which was almost destroyed by the military muscle that, famously, was required to grasp  it from German hands in 1944.

The historic capital of Normandy is, of course, back in international focus this year – the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, which took place on its fringes and lured  princes and presidents to its door in June. And those keen to recall the Second World War can find much to view around the city – the three easternmost landing beaches (Sword, Juno and Gold) ebbing west of the port district of Ouistreham for 20 miles; the Memorial de Caen museum (Esplanade General Eisenhower; 00 33 2 3106 0644; memorial-caen.fr; €19) dissecting the causes and carnage of the conflict in the northern suburbs.

But there is another story to be told in Caen, one that peers back further than 70 years. This, after all, is a place that has crowned the map of Normandy for more than a millennium, rising to 11th-century prominence as the base of William the Conqueror – a man whose shooting star made Caen, for a while, one of the key cities of Europe. Echoes of this era remain, some of them miraculously spared by the firestorm of 1944, some of them repaired in its wake – alongside a host of bars and cafés that buzz with happy noise.

All of this, as of July, is more accessible. Many visitors see Caen as a ferry terminal and a gateway to areas of France further south. But the launch of a flight between Britain and the city’s Carpiquet airport (Flybe, operating four times a week from Southend) means that a city long a part of UK folklore is now just a quick 50-minute air-hop away. Dining on Place Saint-Pierre

Unpack

There is a distinct silence to the reception area when I check in at Hotel Le Dauphin (29 Rue Gemare; 00 33 2 3186 2226; le-dauphin- normandie.com). Appropriate, really, because this four-star retreat, within longbow range of the château, is injected into what remains of a medieval priory. This equates to thick limestone walls and a room where a monastic arch, fitted into the modern décor, talks of prayer and piety. The 21st century intrudes, however, in the spa, with its gym, pool and sauna. Double rooms from €150 (£120), including breakfast.

Think local

For those keen to delve deeper into the city’s back-story, the local tourist office runs guided tours of the Centre Historique from its base on Place Saint-Pierre (00 33 2 3127 1414; caen- tourisme.fr; Tuesday to Saturday 4pm, until 6 Sept; €6/£4.80). This 90-minute jaunt takes in landmarks such as the Hôtel d’Escoville, a 16th-century Renaissance mansion which had to be restored after the war – and the 13th-century church of Saint-Pierre, which lost its spire to a bomb, but has since regained its full majesty.

Eat

Le Carlotta, on the edge of Caen’s little marina (16 Quai Vendeuvre; 00 33 2 3186 6899; lecarlotta.fr), is the sort of restaurant which makes claims that French cuisine has lost its way seem ridiculous. Its walls come adorned with bright Art Deco mosaics – and the food is barely less colourful, the €30.50 (£24) menu featuring ox entrecote in béarnaise sauce. Alternatively, head to Rue du Vaugueux, a splendid pocket of eateries which sits in the shadow of the castle. Here, Le P’tit B (15 Rue du Vaugueux; 00 33 2 3193 5076; leptitb.fr) is delightfully inventive, serving salmon with banana and passion fruit on its €29 (£23) menu.

Drink

While the church of the same name at its eastern end is still lacking a roof thanks to an Allied bomb, the Place Saint-Sauveur is a survivor, its 18th-century elegance having made it through the summer of ’44. This is a lovely spot for an early evening tipple – perhaps at  Au Vélocipède (21 Place Saint- Sauveur; 00 33 2 3185 7434), where locals nurse glasses of wine (from €3/£2.40) at tables on the cobbles. The adjacent Rue Ecuyère is a lively nest of merriment, lined with unfussy drinkeries – such as Bar Le 23 (23 Rue Ecuyère; 00 33 2 3185 2323), where bottles of beer start at €2 (£1.60).

Spend

A sense of yesteryear comes to the fore on the narrow alley of Rue Froide – “cold”, apparently, because of the way its tall, antique townhouses block out direct sunlight, more than any icy welcome from its shopkeepers. So it proves at Piment, Poivre & Compagnie (24 Rue Froide; 00 33 2 3123 2764; piment -poivre-etcie.com) – a delicatessen dealing in olive oils, coffee and spicy sauces. La Boîte à Calva (8 Rue Froide; 00 33 2 3196 8824; laboitea calva.fr), meanwhile, dispenses that grand staple of Normandy, apple-related alcohol – selling both inexpensive ciders (from €8/£6.40) and vintage bottles of fine calvados.

Don’t miss

The Château de Caen (chateau.caen.fr) has been the centrepoint of the city since William the Conqueror built it in circa 1060. Its ramparts shelter two museums. The Musée des Beaux-Arts (00 33 2 3130 4770; mba.caen.fr; daily except Tuesday, 9.30am-6pm; from €3.10/£2.50) plays host to a wealth of art from the 15th century onwards. The Musée de Normandie (0033 2 3130 4760; musee-de- normandie.eu; daily  9.30am-6pm; €5.20/£4.15) looks at the history of the region in loving detail.

Getting there

Flybe (0371 700 2000;  flybe.com) serves Caen-Carpiquet airport four times a week  from Southend.

More information: caen-tourisme.fr, normandie-tourisme.fr, uk.rendezvousenfrance.com

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Content Assistant / Copywriter

    £15310 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £24000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Situated in the heart of Bradfo...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reception Manager

    £18750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Hotel in Chadderton is a popular ch...

    Guru Careers: Marketing and Communications Manager

    £Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing and Co...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence