Located west of Paris and stretching along the coast of the English Channel, the region of Normandy is one of France’s most important historical regions. It is the region of the majestic fortified island of Mont Saint-Michel, one of France’s most iconic sights. It is home to the white cliffs of Étretat and Atlantic resort towns that inspired the Impressionist painters, the postcard-pretty harbour of Honfleur, and the region of Camembert cheese and apple cider.
Normandy was instrumental in shaping France as a nation. With Gallic and Roman roots, Normandy’s cultural identity began to take shape with Viking invaders under their first leader Rollo. The Duchy of Normandy changed the course of European history with William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings. For many, Normandy is synonymous with the D-Day Landings, the Allied amphibious landings that turned the tide of World War 2 in Europe. Today, Normandy is a region of incredible cathedrals, seaside resorts, great art galleries, and lively markets.
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Cities Of Normandy
Normandy is one of the smallest and most sparsely populated regions of France, with a population around 3.3 million people. Its biggest city is Rouen, with over half a million people. While many of Normandy’s cities were heavily damaged during WW2, there are still a lot of incredible historic buildings to admire.
A historic river city on the banks of the Seine, Rouen is the region’s prefecture and was an important urban centre during medieval France. The city was the seat of the Exchequer of Normandy, and a capital of the Anglo-Norman world. Rouen was occupied by the English in the hundred years war, was the site of Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake in 1431, and was subsequently occupied by the English. There are reminders of Rouen’s long and fascinating historical legacy throughout the city, from it’s magnificent Gothic cathedral, artefacts in the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, and the half-timbered houses of old Rouen.
Rouen Cathedral (Cathédrale primatiale Notre-Dame de l’Assomption de Rouen) is one of the most striking buildings in Rouen, with its triple towers spearing above the skyline. One of the most sensational examples of Gothic and Rennaissance styles, the cathedral was constructed over more than 800 years, between 1030 and 1880. It is also the subject of some of Impressionist artist Claude Monet’s works, appearing in more than 30 paintings in different lights and times of day.
Characterised by leaning half-timbered buildings, colourful façades, lively restaurant terraces, and meandering cobblestone alleyways, Rouen Old Town looks like it’s frozen in medieval France. The Rouen Astronomical Clock, Le Gros Horloge, is a 14th century masterpiece located on an archway in the old town. It miraculously survived shelling during WW2, which destroyed much of the city.
Other notable sights in Rouen are the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, a museum of ironwork artefacts located in a a historic church; the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which is home to France’s second largest Impressionist collection; and the Historial Jeanne d’Arc, a museum located in the archbishops palace where she was tried and condemned to death. For those looking for a way to enjoy the outdoors in the city, the scenic Jardin des Plantes is a wonderful Botanical gardens to enjoy on a nice day.
Caen is the historic city of one of Normandy’s most famous figures, William the Conquerer. From its origins as a Celtic village and Roman settlement, Caen gained significant prestige and power in 1060 when the Château de Caen was constructed, serving as the seat for the Dukes of Normandy. The city oversaw some pivotal moments in the history of France, such as its sacking in the hundred years war, and the devastating battle of Caen during WW2.
Almost a thousand years old, the imposing Château de Caen is still standing in the centre of the city. Visitors can walk the massive ramparts and explore the two museums inside. Another building dating back to William the Conqueror is the Abbaye aux Hommes, an 11th century Romanesque Benedictine monastery, which also houses William’s tomb. The Église Saint-Pierre and Abbaye aux Dames are also some of Caen’s architectural masterpieces.
The best place to see medieval half-timbered houses is the charming Vaugueux District, which didn’t have paved roads until 1844. Also not to be missed is the Mémorial de Caen, a war memorial located on the former German command post for the Normandy defence.
Located on the northern bank of the mouth of the river Seine, Le Havre (which translates to ‘the harbour’) is one of Normandy’s youngest cities, and a centre of modern art and design. While the city traces its origins to 1517 as a port town named Franciscopolis (After King Francis I), it wasn’t until the 18th century that the city began to expand. However, the destruction of WW2 that brought the city to almost complete ruin; firstly with German occupation, expulsion of the population and construction of fortifications; and most devastatingly the Allied bombing of Operation Astonia that flattened 12,500 buildings, ruined the port and killed thousands of civilians. But Le Havre underwent a rebirth. Led by French architect Auguste Perret, the city centre was rebuilt using innovative concrete techniques and styles in a feat of modern urban planning, and today is classified as a UNESCO World heritage site.
Le Havre city centre is completely unique in France, a departure from medieval city centres or decorative 19th century styles. The buildings are angular and geometric, solid, brown and uniform in style, a curious and creative mix that feels industrial, yet spacious and airy. The lighthouse-like St Joseph’s Church is a must-see, with an interior space filled with amazing stained glass windows. Le Havre Port is one of France’s largest ports, and receives some of the largest container ships in the world. It was the subject of Claude Monet’s iconic work Impression, Sunrise, and Le Havre was the painter’s home during his childhood years. Indeed, Le Havre is an Impressionist fan’s dream, with the Impressionist Trail leading to 9 sites where famous paintings were painted.
Le Havre is a city of fine art, with Le Volcan (The Volcano), a white concrete volcano-shaped building which is the home of arts and theatre. The Musée d’art moderne André Malraux (or MuMa) has a wonderful collection of Impressionist paintings. For architecture fans, one of Le Havre’s oldest surviving buildings is La Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Havre, famous for its beautiful Baroque façade and low stature. Meanwhile, the Hanging Gardens is located on the grounds of an old hilltop fort filled with outdoor promenades, a series of greenhouses filled with a wide variety of plants, and a tea room. Le Parc de Rouelles is a public park with 160 hectares of green spaces to explore. One of the more recent installations is Vincent Ganivet’s Catène de Containers, two massive arches made of interlocked colourful shipping containers.
On the southern bank of the mouth of the Seine, opposite Le Havre, is the charmingly pretty port town of Honfleur. Due to its strategic position as a port city, the city saw economic boom due to its maritime trade, despite its numerous captures by the English during the Hundred Years War. However, it declined during the wars of French Revolution, because of silting of the harbour, and the emergence of the more modern port at Le Havre. Today, it’s a popular tourist site, and most recognisable for its picturesque Le Vieux Bassin, its main port lined by rows of slate-roofed buildings. Decoratively painted, packed with bustling cafes and wooden boats, and reflecting in the still waters below, it is often considered one of France’s most beautiful ports.
Inside the city, Honfleur has a lovely old town with cobblestone alleyways and half-timbered houses. One of the most impressive buildings in the city is Saint-Catherine’s Church, a wooden church built using naval building techniques that give the impression of an upside-down ship’s hull. It is the largest wooden church is France. There are several other interesting buildings, such as the Notre Dame de Grace chapel, and l’Église Saint-Leonard. Honfleur was a popular spot for Impressionist painters, and the Musée Eugène Boudin de Honfleur is a collection of over 200 of Eugène Boudin’s masterpieces. For something a bit different, the Greniers à Sel are former salt storage granaries open to visitors, providing an interesting look at Honfleur’s maritime past. The city is also close to the Normandy Bridge (Pont de Normandie) that crosses the Seine, a 2143 metre (7,032 ft) bridge which was the largest cable-stayed bridge in the world when it opened in 1995.
About an hour an a half drive west of Paris is historic Évreux, capital of the Eure department. Évreux is located on the picturesque Iton valley that channels the Iton river, and features several interesting buildings of historical importance. Its landmark Cathedral, La Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Évreux, is a great example of the Flamboyant Gothic style, known for its futuristic organ design, which was installed in 2006. The Évreux Belfry Clock Tower, completed 1491, is another iconic landmark.
Évreux is particularly known for its Vieil-Évreux archaeological site, just 10 minutes drive east of the city. The site is a Roman ruin of the Gisacum religious sanctuary. In the 1st century CE, the site featured a public baths, religious sanctuary, aqueduct, and theatre. Several important Roman artefacts have been discovered there, in particular the Jupiter Stator bronze statue. A museum of artefacts in the city, the Musée d’Évreux, is the best place to learn about the city’s ancient history. Whilst exploring the city (and particularly the lovely Iton river waterfront promenade), keep an eye out for small remains of the Évreux Ramparts, the old city walls that still exist along the Iton, Rue Saint-Louis, and outside the Médiathèque centre.
On the Atlantic coast of Normandy is the small coastal community of Dieppe, a cross-channel port that connects to Newhaven in England, known for its distinctive white cliff formations. The name traces back to the Dutch word for deep (diep), which describes its harbour. The port was historically a launching point for many explorers that journeyed to Africa and the New World. Dieppe has long, pebbled beaches along its coast, which were the site of the disastrous 1942 Dieppe Raid in WW2, an amphibious landing that caused thousands of allied casualties.
Landmarks include the Dieppe Castle (Château de Dieppe), which was completed in 1433 and offers great views of the city, and has a museum inside for visitors to explore. The Dieppe Market, once voted the most beautiful market in France, is the place to pick up fresh ingredients, eat street food, and buy souvenirs. Les Tourelles gate is the only surviving gate of the city’s city walls. For something a bit different, Dieppe’s International Kite Festival takes place in September every 2 years, and fills the sky with incredible colourful kites.
Attractions On The Normandy Coast
With a long coastline along the Atlantic, some of Normandy’s most popular destinations can be found beside the water. From luxury resort towns to busy shipping ports, castles to war memorials, Normandy’s coast is packed with sights.
For many, the region of Normandy is synonymous with one of the 20th century’s most important military events. The D-Day landings on the 6th of June, 1944 was a critical turning point for the allies in WW2. The amphibious landings, supported by airborne drops, involved hundreds of thousands of combatants taking on German defenses along five beaches north of Caen and Bayeux. Operation Overlord created a critical foothold for the allies to launch subsequent offensive campaigns against Nazi Germany, ultimately winning the war in Europe.
For visitors, there are many sites dedicated to providing information, and preserving the memory of the participants in the battle. Some examples include the Mémorial de Caen, which features vehicles, uniforms, models, and a large garden. The Juno Beach Centre is a war memorial for Canadian servicemen, and a museum about the Canadian war effort. At Arromanches, there is a lot to see, such as the remains of an artificial Mulberry Harbour, as well as the Musée du Débarquement and the Liberators Museum. At Omaha Beach, there is the Overlord Museum, the American Cemetery, and the memorial sculpture Les Braves. Bus tours from Paris often allow visits to multiple sites.
Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel
One of France’s most visited sites outside of Paris is the iconic Mont Saint-Michel, a UNESCO World heritage listed island and commune. Mont Saint-Michel is a fortified rocky island ringed by a defensive wall, and topped with the towering Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel. Located about a kilometre offshore, it is linked to the mainland by a narrow causeway that would cut off the island from the mainland in high tide. Except for rare flooding events, the permanent bridge today allows for clear access.
Mont Saint-Michel is a great day trip from Paris, and the whole island is a pedestrian zone. One of the best ways to see the island is via the Chemin de Remparts, a walk along the ramparts that circle the island. The island’s main Street is called La Grand Rue, a narrow cobblestone street packed with houses, cafes, souvenir shops, and restaurants, including the legendary omelettes of l’Auberge de La Mère Poulard.
Deauville is one of the most prestigious resort towns in France, conceived in the 19th century as a getaway for the wealthy. It hosts events such as horse racing, polo, and the Deauville American Film Festival, and attracts crowds that visit the Casino Barrière Deauville, the yacht club, and multiple golf courses. For a lot of visitors, the main draw to Deauville is its 2km (1.2 mile) sandy beach, attractively dotted with hundreds of free-to-use colourful parasols. Its 1923 beach boardwalk is lined with cafes and restaurants, as well as 450 Art Deco beach huts, many of which are inscribed with the names of famous movie stars who have visited over the years.
Bordering Deauville on the other bank of the Touques river is Trouville-Sur-Mer, a fishing village turned resort town. A favourite subject matter for painters such as Monet, Trouville has a long, leisurely beach front and is known for its lively, historic fish market, le Marché aux Poissons. One of its best sights is its Escalier du Serpent, a steep staircase that offers fantastic views of Trouville and Deauville.
On the coast of Normandy, north of Le Havre is the small town of Étretat. It is famous for its incredible white chalk cliffs, with three natural rock arches and sea stack known as l’Aiguille (The Needle). For many, Étretat is best known as the inspiration for artists, in particular Impressionist painters such as Monet, who would visit to capture the cliffs on canvas.
Beyond the cliffs and the pebble beach, the town is a place of charming shops and restaurants. It is also the setting of Maurice LeBlanc’s thriller novel about Arsène Lupin, the gentleman thief who would hide his treasures inside The Needle rock. Le Clos Lupin is the former house of LeBlanc, which now serves as a museum.
Other Things To See In Normandy
From Impressionist houses to outdoor hiking, ruined castles to the exquisite medieval Bayeux Tapestry, Normandy has plenty to see.
Claude Monet’s Garden at Giverny
A must-visit for lovers of Impressionist art is Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny. Located about 70km north west of Paris, the house and beautiful gardens were the home of the painter for 43 years, between 1883 to 1926. The most iconic sight is the lily-filled water garden, with its leafy canopy and arching Japanese bridge that reflects into the still waters below. The town of Giverny has a small museum dedicated to Impressionism, and the beautifully decorated Hôtel Baudy is a great place to stop for a meal.
The Bayeux Tapestry
The town of Bayeux is located near the north coast, close to the D-Day landing beaches. A historic town that has roots in the Roman era, Bayeux has a turbulent history of Viking raiders and pillaging by the English in the Hundred Years War. In WW2, it was the first town to be liberated in the Battle of Normandy.
Bayeux is best known for its landmark cultural artefact, the astonishing Bayeux Tapestry. The epic single-piece cloth measures about 50cm (20″) high and 70m (230ft) long, and was embroidered some time in the late 11th century. It tells the story of the 1066CE Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror, depicting coronations, sea crossings, the Battle of Hastings, and royal deaths. It can be viewed in the Musée de la Tapisserie.
Along the river Orne just south of Caen is a mountainous region known as Suisse Normande (Norman Switzerland). Dramatic cliffs, mountains and valleys follow the river, ideal for outdoor activities of all types. The capital of the region is the pretty town of Clécy, which is a great base to organise kayaking, canoeing and boat trips on the Orne. Hiking is another popular option out of Clécy. Natural wonders are plentiful in Suisse Normande, most notably La Roche d’Oëtre, a magnificent 118-metre high rocky lookout with panoramic views.
With its commanding position looking over a bend in the river Seine near Les Andelys, Château Gaillard is one of Normandy’s most spectacular castles. It was constructed between 1196CE and 1198CE for Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart), King of England and Duke of Normandy. Today, the castle is in ruins, but its impressive massive defensive walls still stand, made all the more amazing by its location atop its white chalk cliffs. It has numerous design features which were innovative for its day, such as concentric walls, machicolations to launch projectiles or hot oil onto attackers, and entrance towers to remove blind spots. About an hour and 40 minutes drive west of Paris, 25 minutes west of Giverny, or 1 hour drive south east from Rouen, visitors can explore the ruins and imagine what the castle must have looked like in its heyday.
Roman Ruins at Lillebonne
There are numerous Roman ruins scattered around Normandy, and one of the best preserved is the Gallo-Roman amphitheatre and Roman baths at Lillebonne, which the Romans named Juliobona. The town of Lillebonne is located on the Seine, about 40 minutes drive from Le Havre. Built in the 1st century CE, the theatre was thought to have seated 3000 people, but the town was abandoned as barbarian invaders arrived in the 3rd century CE. Some artefacts have been uncovered on the site, including a bronze Apollo statue now housed in The Louvre, and mosaics which are now in Rouen. There Juliobona Gallo-Roman Museum is located in front of the amphitheatre, which dives into the history of the area.
Eating And Drinking In Normandy
Normandy is one of the great gastronomic havens in France. The region has expansive farmland that is ideal for cattle and sheep grazing, as well as fresh seafood from the Atlantic, and vast orchards of apples and pears that are used for everything from cider to cakes.
Drinks of Normandy
Normandy is not a big wine producing region, and while there are some small vineyards to be found in the region, the most popular drinks are cider, poiré (a form of pear cider), and calvados (an apple or pear brandy). Normandy cider comes in many varieties, and are generally separated into brut, a drier cider, or doux, which is sweeter. While cider is ubiquitous in Normandy, to truly appreciate the art of French cider, it’s worth travelling the Cider Route.
The Cider Route is located in the hills of the Pays d’Auge, an area of apple production that lies roughly between Caen and Rouen. The marked ring route is about 40km (25 miles), stopping at the orchards and breweries of some of Normandy’s best cider makers.
Cuisine of Normandy
With over 600km (370 miles) of coastline, fishing villages and ports, seafood is a speciality of Normandy. Normandy produces fine oysters, mussels and coquilles Saint-Jacques (scallops). One of the most famous Norman dishes to try is marmite Dieppoise, a fish and seafood stew, made with white wine and crème fraîche. For lovers of scallops, the Goût du Large festival in the small fishing town of Port-en-Bessin-Huppain is a great place to enjoy fresh seafood.
Normandy is also a large producer of meat, in particular poultry, pork and lamb. One of the most unique dishes is salt-marsh lamb, which comes from the area around Mont Saint-Michel. The lambs graze on the plants from the estuary salt marshes that take up the rich minerals of the sea. In turn, the lamb has an incredibly rich flavour and tender, juicy texture. From Mont Saint-Michel itself is the specialty omelette with the delightful name of Omelette à la Mère Poulard (the omelette of mother Poulard). Cooked in a single restaurant on the island, the 19th-century dish is made by beating eggs for several minutes until foamy, and cooked to give a light and wobbly omelette. Other favourites in Normandy include the chitterling sausage Andouille de Vire; and canard à la Rouennaise (pressed duck), a dish from Rouen which is made by roasting a duck and squeezing it under pressure, then making a sauce from the juices.
Dessert of Normandy
Normandy’s number one dessert is teurgoule, a rice pudding made with milk, rice, sugar, and cinnamon, and baked to give it a crunchy caramelised crust. Taking advantage of the region’s abundance of apples is tarte Normande, a shortcrust pastry topped with an egg custard, apples, almonds, and sometimes calvados. Another Normandy specialty is douillons aux poires, a baked pear wrapped in pastry, sometimes stuffed with cinnamon, almond, or brown sugar.
The most famous cheese out of Normandy is none other than Camembert, a wheel of soft, creamy cheese made from pasteurised or unpasteurised cow’s milk. Now found all over the world, the first camembert was produced in the 18th century in the small commune of Camembert. Livarot is another wheel of soft cheese with a creamy and springy texture, known for its strong smell. It is sometimes nicknamed The Colonel, after its five strips of raffia that traditionally bind it (similar to a French Army Colonel’s uniform). Neufchatel is a soft and creamy, slightly crumbly cheese known for its distinctive heart shape. It has a salty taste, and is thought to be one of France’s oldest cheeses, dating to the around the 11th century.