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. Bayeuxhas 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 theD-Day landings in 1944 and the subsequent Battle of Normandy, which has its own legacy in war museums, memorials and cemeteries.
The food of Normandy owes its most distinctive characteristic – its gut-burting, heart-pounding richness – to the lush orchards and dairy herds of the region’s agricultural heartland, and especially the Pays d’Auge southeast of Caen. 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 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 so 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 traditionally entails pauses between courses for the trou normand: a glass of the apple brandy Calvados to let you catch your breath.
Normandy’s long coastline ensures that it is also renowned for its seafood. Waterfront restaurants in its ports and resorts compete for attention, each with its “copieuse” assiette de fruits de mer. Honfleur is the most enjoyable, but Dieppe, Étretat and Cherbourg also offer endless eating opportunities. The menus tend to be similar to those 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 had already existed for some time. A priest fleeing the Revolution stayed in Madame Herel’s farmhouse at Camembert, and suggested modifications in line with the techniques used to make 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.
Seeking out specific highlights is not really the point when you’re exploring inland Normandy. The pleasure lies not so much in show-stopping sights, or individual towns, as in the feel of the landscape, with its lush meadows, orchards and forests. On top of that, the major attraction in these rich dairy regions is the food. To the French, the Pays d’Auge and the Suisse Normande are synonymous with cheeses, cream, apple and pear brandies, and ciders.
This is also a place to be active. The Suisse Normande is canoeing and rock-climbing country, and there are countless good walks in the stretch further south. Of the towns, Falaise is inextricably associated with the story of William the Conqueror, while Lisieux was home to France’s best-loved modern saint.
The region that centres on St-Lô, just south of the Cotentin, is known as the Bocage; the word describes a type of cultivated countryside common in western France, where fields are cut by tight hedgerows rooted into walls of earth well over 1m high. An effective form of smallhold farming in pre-industrial days, it also proved to be a perfect system of anti-tank barricades. When the Allied troops tried to advance through the region in 1944, it was almost impenetrable – certainly bearing no resemblance to the East Anglian plains where they had trained. The war here was hand-to-hand slaughter, and the destruction of villages was often wholesale.
The rolling hills and green twisting valleys of the Pays d’Auge, stretching south of Lisieux, are scattered with magnificent manor houses. The lush pastures here are responsible for the world-famous cheeses of Camembert, Livarot and Pont L’Evêque. They are intermingled with orchards yielding the best of Norman ciders, both apple and pear (poiré), as well as Calvados apple brandy.
For really good, solid Norman cooking visit one of this area’s fermes auberges, working farms which welcome paying visitors to share their meals. Local tourist offices can provide copious lists of these and of local producers from whom you can buy your cheese and booze.
By the time 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 secured 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 “we will get her yet”. The next Sunday, Joan was tricked into 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 transcript of her trial was discovered in the 1840s. The forbearance and humility she displayed throughout her ordeal added to her status as France’s greatest religious heroine. She was canonized in 1920, and soon afterwards became the country’s patron saint.
The stupendous abbey of Mont St-Michel was first erected on an island at the very frontier of Normandy and Brittany more than a millennium ago. Until recently, however, that island was attached to the mainland by a long causeway, topped by a road. Now, thanks to a vast hydraulic and reconstruction project, it has become an island once more, connected to the shore by a futuristic curved bridge, surfaced with wooden decking. Crucially, that has enabled tidal waters to sweep all around, and thus flush away centuries of accumulated sand.
The real point of all this work was to control access for the millions of tourists who come here. It’s therefore no longer possible to drive all the way to Mont-St-Michel in your own vehicle; instead you have to park on the mainland, roughly 2km away, and access the island either on foot, by bike, or riding in a shuttle bus or horse-drawn carriage.
The 80m-high rocky outcrop on which the abbey stands was once known as “the Mount in Peril from the Sea”. Many a medieval pilgrim drowned while crossing the bay to reach it. The Archangel Michael was its vigorous protector, leaping from rock to rock in titanic struggles against Paganism and Evil.
The abbey itself dates back to the eighth century, after the archangel appeared to Aubert, bishop of Avranches. Since work on the sturdy church at the peak commenced in the eleventh century, new structures have been grafted to produce a fortified hotchpotch of Romanesque and Gothic buildings clambering to the pinnacle, forming probably the most recognizable silhouette in France after the Eiffel Tower. Although the abbey was a fortress town, home to a large community, even at its twelfth-century peak it never housed more than sixty monks.
After the Revolution the monastery became a prison, but in 1966, exactly a thousand years after Duke Richard the First originally brought the order here, the Benedictines returned. They departed again in 2001, after finding that the present-day island does not exactly lend itself to a life of quiet contemplation. A dozen nuns and monks from the Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem now maintain a presence.
The département of Seine Maritime comprises three distinct sections: Normandy’s dramatic northern coastline, home to major ports like Dieppe and Le Havre and such delightful resorts as Étretat; the meandering course of the River Seine, where unchanged villages stand both up- and downstream of Rouen; and the flat, chalky Caux plateau, which makes for pleasant cycling country but holds little to detain visitors.
Dieppe in particular offers an appealing introduction to France, and with the impressive white cliffs of the Côte d’Albâtre (Alabaster Coast) stretching to either side it makes a good base for a long stay. The most direct route to Rouen from here is simply to head south, but it’s well worth tracing the shore west to Le Havre, then following the Seine inland.
Driving along the D982 on the northern bank of the Seine, you’ll often find your course paralleled by mighty container ships on the water. Potential stops en route include the medieval abbey of Jumièges, but Rouen itself is the prime destination, its association with the execution of Joan of Arc the most compelling episode in its fascinating history. Further upstream, Monet’s wonderful house and garden at Giverny and the English frontier stronghold of Château Gaillard at Les Andelys also justify taking the slow road to Paris.
Nestled into an especially delightful loop of the river, 23km west of Rouen, the majestic abbey of Jumièges is said to have been founded by St Philibert in 654 AD. Now a haunting ruin, the abbey was burned by Vikings in 841, rebuilt a century later, then destroyed again during the Revolution. Its main surviving outline dates from the eleventh century – William the Conqueror himself attended its reconsecration in 1067. The twin towers, 52m high, are still standing, as is one arch of the roofless nave, while a one-sided yew tree stands amid what were once the cloisters.
The most dramatic sight anywhere along the Seine has to be Richard the Lionheart’s Château Gaillard, perched high above Les Andelys. Constructed in a position of impregnable power, it surveyed all movement on the river at the frontier of the English king’s domains. Built in less than a year (1196–97), the castle might have survived intact had Henri IV not ordered its destruction in 1603. As it is, the stout flint walls of its keep, roughly 4m thick, remain reasonably sound, and its overall outline is still clear, arranged over green and chalky knolls. To reach it on foot, climb the steep path that leads off rue Richard-Coeur-de-Lion in Petit Andely.
Squeezed between high cliff headlands, Dieppe is an enjoyably small-scale port that used to be more of a resort. During the nineteenth century, Parisians came here by train to take the sea air, promenading along the front while the English indulged in the peculiar pastime of swimming.
Though ferry services have diminished in recent years, Dieppe remains a nice little place. If you have kids in tow, the aquariums of the Cité de la Mer and the strip of pebble beach are the obvious attractions; otherwise, you could settle for admiring the cliffs and the castle as you stroll the seafront lawns.
The area around the gare SNCF is where to head for bars, cafés and brasseries, while all sorts of restaurants, from traditional French to Japanese, fill the back streets of the waterside St-François district.
The house where Claude Monet lived from 1883 until his death in 1926 remains much as he left it – complete with water-lily pond – at Giverny, 20km south of Les Andelys near the Seine's north bank. While the gardens that Monet laid out are still lovingly tended, none of his original paintings are on display, so art-lovers who make the pilgrimage here tend to be outnumbered by garden enthusiasts.
Visits start in the huge studio, built in 1915, where Monet painted the last and largest of his many depictions of water lilies (nymphéas). It now serves as a well-stocked book- and giftshop. The house itself is a long two-storey structure, painted pastel pink with green shutters. Almost all the main rooms are crammed floor-to-ceiling with Monet’s collection of Japanese prints. Most of the furnishings are gone, but you get a real sense of how the dining room used to be, with its walls and fittings painted a glorious bright yellow. The flower-filled gardens stretch down towards the river, though the footpath that drops to the water-lily pond now burrows beneath the road. Once there, paths around the pond, as well as arching Japanese footbridges, offer differing views of the water lilies, cherished by gardeners in rowing boats. May and June, when the rhododendrons flower and the wisteria is in bloom, are the best times to visit.
While LE HAVRE may hardly be picturesque or tranquil, it's not the soulless sprawl some travellers suggest. Its port, the second-largest in France, takes up half the Seine estuary, but the town itself, home to almost 200,000 people, is a place of pilgrimage for fans of contemporary architecture.
Built in 1517 to replace the ancient ports of Harfleur and Honfleur, then silting up, Le Havre – “The Harbour” – swiftly became the principal trading post of northern France. Following its near-destruction during World War II, it was rebuilt by a single architect, Auguste Perret, between 1946 and 1964.
The sheer sense of space can be exhilarating: the showpiece monuments have a winning self-confidence, and the few surviving relics of the old city have been sensitively integrated into the whole. While the endless mundane residential blocks can be dispiriting, even those visitors who fail to agree with Perret’s famous dictum that “concrete is beautiful” may enjoy a stroll around his city.
Rouen, the capital of Upper Normandy, is one of France’s most ancient cities. Standing on the site of Rotomagus, built by the Romans at the lowest point where they could bridge the Seine, it was laid out by Rollo, the first duke of Normandy, in 911. Captured by the English in 1419, it became the stage in 1431 for the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, before returning to French control in 1449.
Bombing during World War II destroyed all Rouen’s bridges, the area between the cathedral and the quais, and much of the left bank’s industrial quarter. When the city was rebuilt, its inner core of streets, north of the river, were turned into the closest approximation to a medieval city that modern imaginations could conceive.
Rouen today can be very seductive, its lively and bustling centre well equipped with impressive churches and museums, and the effect is enhanced by the fact that they’ve recently, at long last, got round to restoring the riverfront. As well as some great sights – Cathédrale de Notre-Dame, all the delightful twisting streets of timbered houses – there’s history aplenty too, most notably the links with Joan of Arc.
While Rouen proper is home to a population of 110,000, its metropolitan area holds five times that number, and it remains the fourth-largest port in the country. The city spreads deep into the loop of the Seine, with its docks and industrial infrastructure stretching endlessly away to the south.
Despite the addition of all sorts of towers, spires and vertical extensions, Rouen’s Cathédrale de Notre-Dame remains at heart the Gothic masterpiece that was built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Its intricately sculpted western facade was Monet’s subject for multiple studies of changing light, several of which now hang in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Monet might not recognize it today, however – it’s been scrubbed a gleaming white, free from the centuries of accreted dirt he so carefully recorded. Inside, the ambulatory and crypt hold the assorted tombs of various recumbent royalty, such as Duke Rollo, who died “enfeebled by toil” in 933 AD, and the actual heart of Richard the Lionheart.
On summer nights, under the name of Cathédrale de Lumière, spectacular thirty-minute light shows are projected onto the cathedral facade; one show draws on Monet’s paintings to create giant Impressionist canvases, while another depicts the story of Joan of Arc.