Traveller's Guide: Normandy

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In the fifth of our six-part series produced in association with Footprint Travel Guides, Andrew Sanger explores France's grandest duchy

What can I expect?

Tranquil, picturesque and profoundly rural, the Duchy of Normandy today conveys a deep peace and contentment. At its heart there is picture-book charm, with orchards and small farms in rolling green countryside. Such a richly productive land gave rise to Normandy's long tradition of hearty, flavoursome cooking served in generous quantities.

Yet Normandy has seen more than its share of strife over the centuries, and never more so than during the 1944 liberation of France, when Allied troops landed on its beaches and swept through the region battling the German occupiers. The coastal areas, especially, preserve the memory of those days.

Normandy has long been a place of high art and culture, too, especially beside the River Seine. Its winding valley was the focal point of the Vikings' original Duchy of Normandy, and here they began to develop a distinctive Norman style of design and architecture. Some of Normandy's greatest Romanesque and Gothic buildings stand on its banks. The Seine also gave birth to modern art, as the Impressionists gathered here to capture on canvas the pearly skies over the river and its estuary.

The old duchy is not one region, but two: Haute-Normandie (Upper Normandy) and Basse-Normandie (Lower Normandy). Upper Normandy reaches the Channel in spectacular white cliffs, sedate beach resorts and busy harbours, such as Dieppe, Etretat and Fécamp.

The meandering River Seine twists through Upper Normandy between forests and cliffs, abbeys and hilltop castles. Astride the river sits the city of Rouen, once capital of the whole Duchy, now the chef-lieu of Haute-Normandie.

Lower Normandy reaches from its capital, Caen, down the maritime Cotentin Peninsula to the dramatic Mont-Saint-Michel abbey, which rises pyramid-like from sea-washed sands. The heart of Lower Normandy is the Pays d'Auge, a world of apple orchards and grazing cows. The main tourist office for the whole of Normandy is CRT de Normandie (00 33 2 32 33 79 00; normandie-tourisme.fr ).

Where should I start?

Rouen, the historic capital of Normandy, and one of the most attractive places in northern France. In the old heart of the city, on the river Seine's north bank, cobbled lanes ramble among exquisite houses of timber and stone, and a dozen lace-delicate Gothic churches.

Rouen's tourist office (00 33 2 32 08 32 40; rouentourisme.com ) is located in the Place de la Cathédrale. Almost every visitor to the city makes their way to this spacious square to gaze upon the west front of the Cathédrale Nôtre Dame. Despite over 800 years of eventful history, Rouen's cathedral is probably best known for its association with the painter Claude Monet. The "father of Impressionism" sat in the square with his canvas day after day, painting the glorious Gothic stonework of the building's intricate main façade several dozen times to capture the differing moods and impressions created by changing daylight.

One example can be seen in the city's Musée des Beaux Arts, where a string of rooms is devoted to the Impressionists who loved this area so much, and a world-class collection of Flemish art is also sited (00 33 2 35 71 28 40; rouen-musees.com ; 10am-6pm daily).

From the cathedral, the old quarter's narrow main street, the Rue du Gros-Horloge, straddled by a gilded medieval clock tower, runs into the Place du Vieux Marché, where Joan of Arc was burnt alive in 1431. The city makes much of its connection to St Joan and has a remarkable modern church dedicated to her.

Normandy's first resort

Possibly the easiest to reach is Le Tréport, which is just inside Normandy's border with Picardy and easily accessible via Eurotunnel, Boulogne or Dieppe. But Etretat (between the ports of Dieppe and Le Havre) is more impressive. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Etretat (00 33 2 35 27 05 21; etretat.net ) was one of those thoroughly elegant little Normandy seaside resorts patronised by the most distinguished people, its breezy marine freshness adding to its appeal. Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert both declared how much they loved the Etretat seaside, and a stream of Impressionists came here to paint, among them Monet, Gustave Courbet, Eugéne Delacroix and Edgar Degas.

Seaside with a difference

At the south-western extreme of Lower Normandy, you can enjoy mouthwatering seafood, including local lobster at La Citadelle in the resort of Granville (00 33 2 33 50 34 10; restaurant-la-citadelle.com ). Granville is divided into the sombre fortified Upper Town (Ville Haute), high on a rocky ridge rising sheer from the sea, and the newer Lower Town (Ville Basse). The Upper Town came into being as an English fort in the 15th century. They rapidly lost control of it, and in 1695 it was the English themselves who almost destroyed the town when they attacked corsaires (pirates) based there. Granville began to flourish again with the growth of its fishing harbour, which grew to become the Lower Town, and in the 19th century it became a holiday resort. Today its most unusual attraction is the Musée Christian Dior (00 33 2 33 61 48 21; musee-dior-granville.com ; 1 May-20 Sep, daily 10am-6.30pm, €6), occupying the childhood home of the great couturier. A grand old cliff-top villa, it exhibits a dazzling collection of Dior's work as well as memorabilia.

And in between?

The beaches of the Bay of the Seine, which are known as the Plages du Débarquement after the Normandy landings of 6 June 1944. The Allied assault of Nazi Europe began with an invasion force of 160,000 soldiers landing along on the wide sandy beaches of western Calvados and the eastern Cotentin. Code-named Operation Neptune, the landings took place over an 80km stretch of coast divided into five separate areas of attack, code-named (from west to east) Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. Today, these beaches are simply wide airy sands fringed in places with the promenades of little holiday resorts and fishing ports, yet along the shore numerous memorials honour those who died, and those who lived, during the landings.

For just €1 you can buy the Normandy Pass ( normandie-pass.com ), which gives discounts on museums, sights and attractions on the D-Day Landing Beaches. The pass can be purchased at any of the 26 sites connected with the 1944 Normandy Campaign. In addition, more than a dozen other sites around Normandy participate in the scheme.

The Musée du Débarquement d'Utah Beach (00 33 2 33 71 53 35; utah-beach.com; 9.30am-7pm in summer; €6) uses authentic artefacts, archives and personal memorabilia to recall the Utah Beach landings.

Visit the Bayeux War Cemetery, on the Boulevard Fabian Ware, which is the largest British Commonwealth wartime cemetery in France, with the graves of 4,144 British dead and more than 500 others, mainly German. Across the road, the Bayeux Memorial bears the names of over 1,800 other British Commonwealth troops whose bodies were not recovered.

Although there are some local bus services in the Landing Beaches area, they are impractical for touring. It's best to join an organised minibus tour such as Battlebus (00 33 2 31 22 28 82; battlebus.fr ; day trips €85), which is run by an English-French couple offering a selection of full-day and custom-made private tours starting in Bayeux.

While in Bayeux ...

Visit the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux (Bayeux Tapestry Museum; 00 33 2 31 51 25 50; tapisserie-bayeux.fr ; 9am-7pm daily in summer, €7.80). As an V Cartwork no less than as a historical document, the Bayeux Tapestry is a phenomenal and unique object, a 900-year-old seamless embroidery telling the tale of one of the most important events in European history. Its full length – 70 metres – is displayed so that you can study each of its 72 scenes in turn as they show, with captions in Latin, how William's inheritance of the throne of England was disputed, his setting out to claim it, the Battle of Hastings in which Harold was killed, and William the Conqueror's eventual conquest.

A good impression?

The village of Giverny, on the eastern border of Normandy, is where Monet made his home after he had become successful. La Fondation Claude Monet (00 33 2 32 51 28 21; book in advance on fondation-monet.fr ; 9.30am-6pm daily from April to November, €6) occupies the painter's house. The interior, simply fitted out and decorated with the Japanese prints that so interested Monet, is impeccably preserved.

Last year, Giverny's American Museum of Art became the Musée des Impressionnismes (00 33 2 32 51 94 65; museedesimpressionnismesgiverny.com ; open 10am-6pm from April to October; €6.50). The curious name, with its plural, reflects the intention to explore not just the original Impressionists, but the impact of the movement and the artistic developments that followed it.

The grand finale

The abbey at Mont-Saint-Michel, a rocky island located about 1km off the stretch of coastline close to neighbouring Brittany. Daunting stone ramparts rise as if part of the natural rock of the island and, from within, the lofty walls and spires of the abbey church reach up, culminating in a single, immensely tall, black pinnacle, on the very point of which a gilded St Michael is poised triumphant. Visit in springtime, early in the morning or late in the afternoon, to see the abbey without tour-bus groups. Better still, stay overnight in one of the island's hotels. However, do not be tempted to make the crossing to Le Mont-Saint-Michel on the sands at low tide, or even to take a short walk from Le Mont. When the tide turns, the sea races back over the flats: Victor Hugo described it coming in at "the speed of a galloping horse" (00 33 2 33 89 80 00; mont-saint-michel.monuments-nationaux.fr ; 9.30am-6pm daily, longer in summer, €8.50).

What will I eat?

French tourists happily make their way to Normandy for the pleasures of the table. Traditional cooking has a highly distinctive regional style, with a strong emphasis on its rich dairy produce, shellfish and good-quality meats, as well as the abundant harvest of its cherry, pear and, especially, apple orchards.

The result of all those orchards and dairy farms and picturesque fishing harbours is meals with plenty of local cheeses, butter, and thick, farm-made, semi-sour crème fraîche for savoury cream sauces. Apples may turn up in any course as apple sauces and apple pastry, dry cider and fiery Calvados, and the sherry-like aperitif, pommeau.

Some of the best-known French cheeses also come from Normandy. Creamy and pungent "washed-rind" boxed cheeses, made from the milk of grass-fed cows, carry the names of the towns and villages where they were first produced. Among them are Camembert, Pont l'Evêque, Livarot and Pavé d'Auge, all in the Pays d'Auge, plus, from the other side of the Seine, Neufchâtel (which is usually made in a heart shape). Local farm-made crème fraîche is a staple of Normandy's all-important sauces: a rich, smooth, slightly soured thick cream. Normandy butter is also counted among the very best and is exported all over France and abroad.

How do I get there – and around?

From London and the South-east, the link from Folkestone to Calais with Eurotunnel (08443 35 35 35; eurotunnel.com ) could be the quickest option. Ferries include LD Lines (0800 917 1201; ldlines.co.uk ) from Newhaven to Dieppe and Portsmouth to Le Havre. Ouistreham is the port for Caen, served from Portsmouth by Brittany Ferries (0871 244 0744; brittany-ferries.com ). The same firm sails from Poole and Portsmouth to Cherbourg.

By air, CityJet (0871 666 50 50; cityjet.com ) will fly from London City to the resort of Deauville from 24 June to 27 September.

Normandy's principal towns are connected by fast trains. The main routes are Cherbourg to Caen (1 hr 10 mins); Caen to Rouen (1 hr 35 mins, €23); and Rouen to Le Havre (42 mins, €13.60). For rail information, check SNCF's regional website ( ter-sncf.com ) and search for Basse Normandie or Haute Normandie.

Andrew Sanger is the author of Footprint's new guide to Normandy, which is out now. To purchase any of the Footprint France series at a special rate of just £10 including P&P, visit www.footprinttravelguides.com and enter Inde01 in the coupon code at checkout.

Coastal charm: Cinq ports

Caen

Fortified by William the Conqueror, this city became his new capital of Normandy. The mighty rampart of his château is still the centre of the city, while the main shopping streets, the Vaugueux restaurant district and Quai Vendeuvre leisure area are all at its foot, extending away from the south side of the castle walls. Tourist information: 00 33 2 31 27 14 14; tourisme.caen.fr .

Cherbourg

Wrecked by war, Cherbourg-Octeville (as it is officially known since merging with a suburb; 00 33 2 33 93 52 02; octcherbourgcotentin.fr ) became a major cross-channel ferry port, and today is visited by more yachts than any other harbour in Europe. There is a bustling atmosphere in the old town centre as well as an attractive waterfront plaza.

Dieppe

Originally an 11th-century Viking port, Dieppe (00 33 2 32 14 40 60; dieppetourisme.com ) became one of the busiest sea ports in France. The old town lies on a narrow spit of land between the lively, crowded, picturesque harbour with its quaysides on one side, and the 2km pebble beach backed by greensward on the other. It was to Dieppe that Oscar Wilde fled on being released from prison in 1897. His favourite haunts were the big and lively Café des Tribunaux that dominates the Place du Puits-Salé, and the Café Suisse on the Arcade la Bourse quayside – both are still there.

Honfleur

Pretty-as-a-picture fishing harbour and much-loved haunt of the Impressionists, Honfleur is also a port with a considerable history. It was from here that Samuel de Champlain set sail in 1608 with a party of local men to colonise Canada. The centrepiece of the town is its charming Vieux Bassin (Old Harbour), alive with boats tied up against the cobbled quays, busy waterside bars and restaurants, salons de thé and art galleries, and all enclosed by tall, narrow buildings dark with slate.

Le Havre

A century ago, Le Havre (00 33 2 32 74 04 04; lehavretourisme.com ) was a picturesque sea port and the home of the first Impressionists – some of their views of it can be seen in the Musée Malraux. The 16th-century town was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing in September 1944 and had to be quickly and cheaply rebuilt. The rebuilding was entrusted to Auguste Perret, a 70-year-old follower of the architect Le Corbusier, who shared a passion for reinforced concrete. The Eglise Saint-Joseph is the most visible landmark, its distinctive octagonal spire rising to 110m.

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