Somewhere for the Weekend: Normandy
Commemorate the D-Day landings, see the cliffs and cathedrals that inspired Monet, then indulge in fine cheeses, cider and seafood, says Gerard Gilbert
Wednesday 29 May 2002
Why go now?
Because 6 June is the anniversary of that overcast morning in 1944 when Allied troops stormed the Lower Normandy littoral. The D-Day invasion beaches stretch for 60 miles from the mouth of the River Orne, westward to Les Dunes de Varneville on the Contentin Peninsula, and are still referred to by their wartime names of Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. One of the best of the several museums scattered along the coastline is at Arromanches, 10km north-east of Bayeux. The Musée du Debarquement is open daily at this time of year; entry price €5.34. Every June the town organises a meeting of veterans, witnesses and historians of the landings (00 33 2 31 22 34 31). Memories of war aren't the only reason for visiting Normandy in June, however. Steven Spielberg didn't film
Saving Private Ryan in Ireland just for tax reasons. Normandy shares Ireland's billowing, verdant lushness. In June, the narrow and blessedly car-free D-roads are fringed with a ran
Why go now?
Because 6 June is the anniversary of that overcast morning in 1944 when Allied troops stormed the Lower Normandy littoral. The D-Day invasion beaches stretch for 60 miles from the mouth of the River Orne, westward to Les Dunes de Varneville on the Contentin Peninsula, and are still referred to by their wartime names of Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. One of the best of the several museums scattered along the coastline is at Arromanches, 10km north-east of Bayeux. The Musée du Debarquement is open daily at this time of year; entry price €5.34. Every June the town organises a meeting of veterans, witnesses and historians of the landings (00 33 2 31 22 34 31). Memories of war aren't the only reason for visiting Normandy in June, however. Steven Spielberg didn't film Saving Private Ryan in Ireland just for tax reasons. Normandy shares Ireland's billowing, verdant lushness. In June, the narrow and blessedly car-free D-roads are fringed with a range of wildflowers that hasn't been seen in England since the Fifties. Picnic on the verge of an apple orchard on local cheese (Camembert, Livarot, Pont-l'Evêque) and a bottle of light, local cider, as you contemplate the extraordinarily vivid contrast of green fields and blue sky.
Buzz (0870 240 7070, www.buzzaway.com) flies directly from London Stansted to both Rouen and Caen, with fares from £69 return, but the traditional means of visiting Normandy is by ferry. You'll want the car, anyway (strap the bicycles to the roof) as Normandy is enormous and offers ample opportunity for exploration. Hoverspeed (0870 240 8070, www.hoverspeed.com) sails from Newhaven, Sussex, to Dieppe (five-day return for a car and two passengers from £179). The crossing takes two hours. P&O Portsmouth (0870 2424999, www.poportsmouth.com) has a fast-ferry operating between Portsmouth and Cherbourg, which takes two hours and 45 minutes (five-day returns for car and two passengers from £200) and a slow ferry to Le Havre, which takes from between five and seven hours (good for a night crossing). Brittany Ferries (0870 5360360, www.brittany-ferries.com) sails from Portsmouth to Caen and Poole to Cherbourg (both from £202).
Normandy consists of five departments: Seine Maritime, Eure, Calvados, Orne and Manche. All departments and major towns run their own web-sites and tourist offices, while the Normandy Tourist Board (0033 2 32337900, www.normandy-tourism.org) operate out of Evreux. Your port of entry to the region will depend on your itinerary, but Dieppe is the prettiest of the Channel ports, while Le Havre is a sort of Warsaw with Gallic flair. It is also handy for the impressive Pont du Normandie that arches over the bay of the Seine and links Le Havre with the more chic resorts of Honfleur, Trouville, Deauville, as well as the landing beaches. Fast, uncluttered but often tolled motorways join most parts of the region, while train links span out of Rouen, connecting Le Havre, Caen, Dieppe and Cherbourg (Rail Europe 08705 848 848, www.raileurope.co.uk).
Normandy is full of sleeping quarters, from the most fanciful château (try the Château de Sassetot le Mauconduit (00 33 2 35 28 00 11), near Fecamp in Seine Maritime, with its famous Benedictine monastery, where they used to make the drink of that name) to the humblest of half-timbered B&Bs. A real cutie, if you're visiting the Mont St Michel and don't want to stay on the mount itself (a hassle in high season), is L'Auberge de la Selune in Ducey (2 rue St-Germain; 00 33 2 33 48 53 62). It also has a rather good restaurant.
Travelling east-to-west, the flying-buttress-like cliffs at Etretat, immortalised by the painter Claude Monet, are spectacular. The quality of the northern light along this part of the littoral (it's called "the Alabaster Coast" because of the way the eroding chalk lends a milky hue to the sea) attracted the Impressionists, and is beguiling still. Monet also made several studies of the west front of Rouen cathedral. Rouen was largely destroyed in 1940 and 1944, but the Right Bank has been beautifully restored. Charming Dieppe, for my euros, is more "real" and less touristy than Honfleur. West of Honfleur, just inland from Gold D-Day landing beach, and deep in the farming country of the Bessin, lies the miraculously undamaged stone town of Bayeux. Here, sympathetically displayed, the Bayeux Tapestry is a vivid testimony to an earlier military campaign. You know, 1066 and all that. Finally, as you drive to the western edge of Normandy, where it meets Brittany among the mysterious flatlands, you won't be able to miss Mont-St-Michel looming on the horizon. This is France's greatest tourist attraction outside Paris, so be warned.
Normandy, thanks to the dairy herds brought over with the Vikings and its proximity to Paris markets, boasts several world-famous cheeses. You can buy Camembert, Livarot, Pont-l'Evêque and Neufchâtel at any supermarket, but to purchase the cheese at its best, either go to a local market (the Pays d'Auge is good for artisan varieties) or to a specialist "affineur" (someone who completes the maturing process of the cheese), such as Monsieur Olivier in Dieppe. There are lots of good country markets in Normandy, Saturdays in Dieppe and Sundays in Trouville being among the best. But the most splendid and picturesque is every Monday at the medieval "Halles" of Dives-sur-Mer. Markets are also a good source for Calvados and cider, the other two great specialities of the region. Calvados du Pays d'Auge is the aristocrat of these apple brandies. At the other end of the scale, travelling pot stills turn villagers' cider into throat-ripping apple spirit. The EEC is trying to outlaw them.
With so much cream and seafood, it was inevitable that the two were going to meet, which they do most toothsomely in a "marmite Dieppoise", a sort of creamy, Norman bouillabaisse. Spiritual home to this dish is The Marmite Dieppois in Dieppe, 8 rue St Jean (0033 2 35 84 24 26), although be warned, service can be head-bangingly slow. Another Normandy speciality is tripe, especially in the surprisingly subtle Tripes a la Mode de Caen. Rouen is more famous for its duck, and any of the fine restaurants that border the Place du Vieux Marché will give it pride of place on their menus. For the chic Parisian brasserie experience, Les Vapeurs in Trouville (160 quai Fernand Moureaux; 00 33 2 31 88 15 24) will let you pretend you're a holidaying film star as you slurp your steamed mussels, while that other Norman staple – the apple – appears together with pork and (inevitably) cream. Head for the Vallée d'Auge again. The speciality of the house at L'Auberge des Deux Tonneaux in the Calvados village of Pierrefitte-en-Auge (00 33 2 31640931) is rabbit stewed in a pint of cider and a glass of Pommeau – a sort of apple liqueur.
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