Now firmly incorporated into the French mainstream, the seaboard province of Normandy has a history of prosperous and powerful independence. Colonized by Vikings from the ninth century onwards, it went on to conquer not only England but as far afield as Sicily and areas of the Near East. Later, as part of France, it was instrumental in the settlement of Canada.
Normandy’s wealth has always depended on its ports: Rouen, on the Seine, is the nearest navigable point to Paris, while Dieppe, Le Havre and Cherbourg have important transatlantic trade. Inland, it is overwhelmingly agricultural – a fertile belt of tranquil pastureland, where the chief interest for many will be the groaning restaurant tables of regions such as the Pays d’Auge. While parts of the coast are overdeveloped, due either to industry, as with the huge sprawl of Le Havre, or tourism – as along the “Norman Riviera”, around Trouville and Deauville – ancient harbours such as Honfleur and Barfleur remain irresistible, and numerous seaside villages lack both crowds and affectations. The banks of the Seine, too, hold several delightful little communities.
Normandy also boasts extraordinary Romanesque and Gothic architectural treasures, although only its much-restored capital, Rouen, retains a complete medieval centre. Elsewhere, the attractions are more often single buildings than entire towns. Most famous of all is the spectacular merveille on the island of Mont St-Michel, but there are also the monasteries at Jumièges and Caen, the cathedrals of Bayeux and Coutances, and Richard the Lionheart’s castle above the Seine at Les Andelys. Bayeux has its vivid and astonishing tapestry, while more recent creations include Monet’s garden at Giverny. Furthermore, Normandy’s vernacular architecture makes it well worth exploring inland – rural back roads are lined with splendid centuries-old half-timbered manor houses. It’s remarkable how much has survived – or, less surprisingly, been restored – since the D-Day landings in 1944 and the subsequent Battle of Normandy, which has its own legacy in war museums, memorials and cemeteries.Read More
The food of Normandy
The food of Normandy
The food of Normandy owes its most distinctive characteristic – its gut-bursting, heart-pounding richness – to the lush orchards and dairy herds of the region’s agricultural heartland, especially the area southeast of Caen known as the Pays d’Auge. Menus abound in meat such as veal (veau) cooked in vallée d’Auge style, which consists largely of the profligate addition of cream and butter. Many dishes also feature orchard fruit, either in its natural state or in successively more alcoholic forms – either as apple or pear cider, or perhaps further distilled to produce brandies.
Normans relish blood and guts. In addition to gamier meat and fowl such as rabbit and duck (a speciality in Rouen, where the birds are strangled to ensure that all their blood gets into the sauce), they enjoy such intestinal preparations as andouilles, the sausages known in English as chitterlings, and tripes, stewed for hours à la mode de Caen. A full blowout at a country restaurant will also traditionally entail one or two pauses between courses for the trou normand: a glass of the apple brandy Calvados to let you catch your breath before struggling on with the feast.
Normandy’s long coastline ensures that it is also renowned for its seafood. Waterfront rows of restaurants in its ports and resorts compete for attention, each with its “copieuse” assiette de fruits de mer. Honfleur is probably the most enjoyable, but Dieppe, Étretat and Cherbourg also offer endless eating opportunities. The menus tend to be much the same as those on offer in Brittany, if perhaps slightly more expensive.
The most famous products of Normandy’s meadow-munching cows are, of course, their cheeses. Cheese-making in the Pays d’Auge started in the monasteries during the Dark Ages. By the eleventh century the local products were already well defined; in 1236, the Roman de la Rose referred to Angelot cheese, identified with a small coin depicting a young angel killing a dragon. The principal modern varieties began to emerge in the seventeenth century – Pont l’Evêque, which is square with a washed crust, soft but not runny, and Livarot, which is round, thick and firm, and has a stronger flavour. Although Marie Herel is generally credited with having invented Camembert in the 1790s, a smaller and stodgier version of that cheese had already existed for some time. A priest fleeing the Revolution stayed in Madame Herel’s farmhouse at Camembert, and suggested modifications in her cheese-making in line with the techniques used to manufacture Brie de Meaux – a slower process, gentler on the curd and with more thorough drainage. The rich full cheese thus created was an instant success in the market at Vimoutiers, and the development of the railways (and the invention of the chipboard cheesebox in 1880) helped to give it a worldwide popularity.
Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc
When the 17-year-old peasant girl known to history as Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc in French) arrived at the French court early in 1429, the Hundred Years’ War had already dragged on for more than ninety years. Most of northern France was in the grip of an Anglo–Burgundian alliance, but Joan, who had been hearing voices since 1425, was certain she could save the country, and came to present her case to the as-yet-uncrowned Dauphin. Partly through recognizing him despite a simple disguise he wore to fool her at their first meeting, she convinced him of her Divine guidance. After a remarkable three-week examination by a tribunal of the French parlement, she went on to secure command of the armies of France. In a whirlwind campaign, which culminated in the raising of the siege of Orléans on May 8, 1429, she broke the English hold on the Loire Valley. She then escorted the Dauphin deep into enemy territory so that, in accordance with ancient tradition, he could be crowned King Charles VII of France in the cathedral at Reims, on July 17.
Within a year of her greatest triumph, Joan was captured by the Burgundian army at Compiègne in May 1430, and held to ransom. Chivalry dictated that any offer of payment from the vacillating Charles must be accepted, but in the absence of such an offer Joan was handed over to the English for 10,000 ducats. On Christmas Day, 1430, she was imprisoned in the château of Philippe-Auguste at Rouen.
Charged with heresy, on account of her “false and diabolical” visions and refusal to give up wearing men’s clothing, Joan was put on trial for her life on February 21, 1431. For three months, a changing panel of 131 assessors – only eight of them English-born – heard the evidence against her. Condemned, inevitably, to death, Joan recanted on the scaffold in St-Ouen cemetery on May 24, and her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The presiding judge, Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais, reassured disappointed English representatives that “we will get her yet”. The next Sunday, Joan was tricked into breaking her vow and putting on male clothing, and taken to the archbishop’s chapel in rue St-Romain to be condemned to death for the second time. On May 30, 1431, she was burned at the stake in the place du Vieux-Marché; her ashes, together with her unburned heart, were thrown into the Seine.
Joan passed into legend, until the discovery and publication of the full transcript of her trial in the 1840s. The forbearance and devout humility she displayed throughout her ordeal added to her status as France’s greatest religious heroine. She was canonized as recently as 1920, and soon afterwards became the country’s patron saint.