by Corinna Lothar
The name evokes wide beaches, quaint villages, creamy cheeses, pungent
Calvados, hard cider, the great invasion of Britain in 1066 that changed
that nations culture and language, and finally the greater invasion
of Normandy itself 900 years later that saved France and all of Europe
from Nazi dictatorship.
There is much to discover in Normandy. To the south,
there is the Mont St. Michel, that spectacular rock around which the
sea swirls at high tide and atop which perches a medieval abbey, reached
by climbing steep, winding streets, now lined with shops and restaurants.
In the northeastern section of Normandy lies the enchanting
fishing village of Honfleur with its colorful rectangular port and the
oldest wooden church in France. The stunning chalk cliffs and chalk
needle of Etretat bring to mind the white cliffs of Dover.
Further inland is the city of Rouen where Joan of Arc
was tried and burned at the stake in the citys central square.
Monet painted the façade of Rouens cathedral 30 times.
Clock sculpture outside Gare St. Lazare in Paris
Throughout the region, there are magnificent abbeys,
some in ruins, some intact. There are churches and bourgeois mansions
and half-timbered farmhouses. Museums abound. Normandy, after all, was
the birthplace of impressionism.
But we concentrate on the central part of Normandy,
the northern beaches and the lovely pays dAuge.
The train glides from the busy bustle of the Gare St.
Lazare in Paris through fertile fields en route to the quaint little
station serving the twin towns of Trouville and Deauville, on the northern
coast. Paris, only two hours away, has left its mark on Deauville, the
still-elegant seaside vacationing spot built in the nineteenth century
by three aristocrats. The town is full of impressive turn-of-the century
villas and a splendid half-timbered hotel, the Normandy, serving the
monied clientele. The long wooden boardwalk, a casino and racecourse
were added in 1910 and the town quickly became the playground of the
Beach at Deauville
Deauville is still stylish and the place where many
Parisians have summer and weekend homes. In fall and winter, the colorful
umbrellas on the wide beach are furled and removed until the warmer
days of spring return, but the seafront promenade remains a wonderful
place for a healthy stroll in a brisk wind.
Deauville has a market where the regions
bounty is displayed, from gleaming fresh fish to creamy rounds of Camembert
cheese. Every September, Deauville hosts an American film festival and
the town is awash in celebrities of various calibre.
The citizens of Deauville have always looked down their
Gallic noses at neighboring Trouville-sur-Mer, separated from its twin
by the Touques River. Trouville is the older of the two towns. Its beaches
were immortalized by the French impressionist painters, and in the film
Gigi. An air of informality reigns in the narrow streets
and along the waterfront where the huge and colorful Sunday market takes
Pantyhose for sale at the Trouville Sunday market
Trouville is more fun than its elegant sister across
the Touques. It too has a casino and a boardwalk, as well as an aquarium
and busy fishing port. You can enjoy moules-frites (mussels and French
fries) at one of the outdoor cafes along the waterfront boulevard, and
wash them down with a glass or two of hard cider (cidrein
French) and a little Calva to finish.
Its hard to visualize the carnage that
took place on the wide sandy expanses of Normandys beaches in
early June of 1944. The French call the D-Day landing le debarquement.
Nothing is left of the material of war except for the remarkable artificial
harbor, built in England and floated to Normandy, now bobbing in the
water like a giant spectre at the village of Arromanches, or perhaps
the ghost ship of the Flying Dutchman.
Standing on the cliffs looking down from the Pointe
du Hoc, one can but marvel at the courage of the young American Rangers
who scaled the cliff in the face of devastating German machine gun fire.
The American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer contains
almost 1,000 graves. It is a serene place of beauty and sadness. The
French government in a gracious gesture, has given the land in perpetuity
to the United States so that the soldiers who lie there rest in American
soil. There are smaller cemeteries throughout the region where Allied
soldiers lie, as well as German cemeteries with their dark stone crosses.
It is relatively easy to tour the landing beaches and memorials. Signposts
indicate the way and the local tourist offices have brochures and maps
Norman villages are particularly attractive with
their half-timbered houses, flower gardens, weekly markets. Such villages
as Beuvron-en-Auge and Beaumont-en-Auge in the lush Pays dAuge
seem untouched by time. Many of the villages have excellent restaurants,
for example the Pave dAuge in Beuvron-en Auge, La Mere Poulard
in Mont St.Michel and La Ferme St. Simon in Honfleur. Cream, cider and
calvados are incorporated into many of the dishes, and a cheese course
is almost obligatory.
A typical Norman village is Camembert, origin of the
famous cheese. Camembert (the cheese) is said to have originated in
1791 by Marie Harel who made the cheese with the help of a priest who
came from the village of Brie. Marie gave the cheese the name of her
village not the other way around as tourists sometimes believe.
Caen, the capital of lower Normandy, is a charming
university town, much of it destroyed by fire during the fighting in
Normandy in 1944. But the city has been carefully restored and is now
a pleasant mix of the old and the new.
When William of Normandy set out from France in 1066
to conquer England at the Battle of Hastings, it was from his hilltop
royal home in Caen, which became a fortress in 1204. All that remains
today of the Conquerors castle are the ramparts, the chapel and
the great hall of Henry I of France. Like the ruins of Williams
castle in East Yorkshire, the castle fortress in Caen is an imposing
sight, hovering over the city. Inside the walls are lovely gardens and
Ruins of the castle of William the Conqueror
Caens most beautiful churches are the Abbaye-aux
Hommes and the Abbaye-aux-Dames, built by William and his wife, Matilda,
respectively. William and Matilda were cousins whose marriage was opposed
by the pope. When the pope relented, each built an abbey as penance
for their marriage. Matildas Womens Abbey is a beautiful
church with simple elegant lines, founded in 1063. The more imposing
Mens Abbey was founded by William in 1066 or a year later.
The Abbaye-aux-Dames in Caen
The Memorial Center for History is located on the outskirts
of Caen. It is a museum dedicated to the history of the 20th century,
with particular emphasis on the second world war. The museum shows a
fascinating 30-minute film on the D-Day landing in which a split screen
shows the Allies landing on one side of the screen with the German preparations
and attempts to hold off the invasion on the other. Reservations can
be made at the Memorial for guided tours of the landing beaches.
Although William set forth from Caen on his journey
of conquest, the famed tapestry recounting his voyage and battle with
the Saxons is admired in the town of Bayeux. The 11th century tapestry
is some 75 yards long, embroidered on linen. Itdepicts more than 600
men and women, 200 horses, 40 ships and hundreds of animals and mythological
figures, all meticulously and splendidly drawn in hundreds of thousands
of tiny stitches of thread.
Bayeux was spared from destruction during World War
II and retains its charming old town. It has lace and porcelain museums,
as well as a D-Day museum and a British cemetery and memorial.
Normandy also offers the more mundane pleasures of golf,
horse racing and riding, gambling and, of course, enjoying some of the
best cooking in France. Close enough to Paris for a day-trip, yet far
enough for a summer holiday, the region of apple trees and cows is a
feast of history, beauty and fine food. Small wonder it continues to
draw artists to its vistas of sea, sand and the ghosts of tumults past.
Normandys ubiquitous cows and apple trees
WHEN YOU GO
Most major carriers fly nonstop from both east and west
coasts to Paris. Once in Paris, train service from the Gare St. Lazare
to Trouville-Deauville, to Rouen or to Caen is frequent throughout the
day. Rail tickets and passes for France and the rest of Europe can be
obtained in the U.S. through RailEurope
Information on Normandy:
Tourism Board website
Center for History, Caen-Normandy