Few tourists go out of their way to visit Caen, capital and largest city of Basse Normandie. It was devastated during the fighting of 1944, so busy roads now fill the wide spaces where prewar houses stood, circling ramparts that no longer have a castle to protect. However, the former home to William the Conqueror remains impressive in parts, adorned with the scattered spires and buttresses of two abbeys and eight old churches, and makes a convenient base for the D-Day beaches.
Most of the centre is taken up with shopping streets and pedestrian precincts. The main city market takes place on Friday, spreading along both sides of Fosse St-Julien. The Bassin St-Pierre, the pleasure port at the end of the canal linking Caen to the sea, is the liveliest area in summer.
The spectacular Romanesque monument known as the Abbaye aux Hommes was founded by William the Conqueror and designed to hold his tomb within the huge, austere Romanesque church of St-Étienne. However, his burial here, in 1087, was hopelessly undignified. The funeral procession first caught fire and was then held to ransom, as factions squabbled over his rotting corpse for whatever spoils they could grab. During the Revolution the tomb was again ransacked, and now holds a solitary thigh-bone rescued from the river.
Corresponding to William the Conqueror’s Abbaye aux Hommes, across town, the Abbaye aux Dames holds the tomb of William’s queen, Mathilda, who commissioned the abbey church, La Trinité, well before the Conquest. It’s starkly impressive, with a gloomy pillared crypt, superb stained glass behind the altar, and odd sculptural details like the fish curled up in the holy-water stoup.