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Heading west along the coast of Basse Normandie, from the mouth of the Seine, you come to a succession of exclusive resorts: Trouville and Deauville are the busiest centres, while Honfleur is a delightful medieval port. Continuing west brings you to the beaches where the Allied armies landed in 1944, and then to the wilder shore around the Cotentin Peninsula.
With its perfectly preserved medieval ensemble, magnificent cathedral and world-famous tapestry, Bayeux is smaller and much more intimate than its near neighbour Caen, and a far more enjoyable place to visit. A mere 10km from the coast, Bayeux was the first French city to be liberated in 1944, the day after D-Day. Occupied so quickly that it escaped serious damage, it briefly became capital of Free France.
A grand eighteenth-century seminary, now remodelled as the Centre Guillaume le Conquérant, houses the extraordinary Bayeux Tapestry, known to the French as the Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde.
William the Conqueror, or William the Bastard as he is more prosaically known in his homeland, was born in Falaise, 65km southeast of Caen. William’s mother, Arlette, a laundrywoman, was spotted by his father, Duke Robert of Normandy, at the washing place below the château. She was a shrewd woman, scorning secrecy in her eventual assignation by riding publicly through the main entrance to meet him. During her pregnancy, she is said to have dreamed of bearing a mighty tree that cast its shade over Normandy and England.
Created more than nine centuries ago, the 70m strip of linen known as the Bayeux Tapestry recounts the story of the Norman Conquest of England. The brilliance of its coloured wools has barely faded, and the tale is enlivened throughout with scenes of medieval life, popular fables and mythical beasts; its draughtsmanship, and the sheer vigour and detail, are stunning. Commissioned by Bishop Oddo, William’s half-brother, for the inauguration of Bayeux Cathedral in 1077, the work is thought to have been carried out by nuns in England, most likely in Canterbury.
The tapestry looks, and reads, like a modern comic strip. While it’s generally considered to be historically accurate, William’s justification for his invasion – that during an enforced sojourn after he was rescued by William following a shipwreck on the coast of northern France, Harold had sworn to accept him as King of England – remains in dispute.
In the tapestry itself, Harold is every inch the villain, with his dastardly little moustache and shifty eyes. At the point when he breaks his oath and seizes the throne, Harold looks extremely pleased with himself; however, his comeuppance swiftly follows, as William crosses the Channel and defeats the English armies at Hastings.
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.
Though its heyday as a transatlantic passenger port is now long gone, the sizeable town of Cherbourg, at the northern tip of the Cotentin peninsula, makes an appealing point of arrival in France. Its old town, immediately west of the quayside, is an intriguing maze of pedestrian alleys.
The tempting cluster of small shops and boutiques around place Centrale offers the chance to buy the city’s most famous product, the genuine Cherbourgumbrella, at 30 rue des Portes, while the excellent Thursday market is held on and off rue des Halles, near the majestic theatre with its belle époque facade. A pleasant stroll north leads to the Basilique de la Trinité and the former town beach, now grassed over to form the Plage Verte.
Hard against the frontier with Brittany, and cut off from the rest of Normandy by marshy terrain, the Cotentin peninsula has traditionally been seen as something of a backwater. By sea, on the other hand, it’s very easily accessible. Beyond the peninsula’s major port, Cherbourg, little ports such as Barfleur and St-Vaast on the indented northern headland presage the rocky Breton coast, while La Hague to the west offers a handsome array of heather-clad cliffs and stone-wall-divided patchwork fields.
The Cotentin’s long western flank, with its flat beaches, serves primarily as a prelude to Mont St-Michel, with hill towns such as Coutances and Avranches cherishing architectural and historical relics associated with the abbey. Halfway down, the walled port of Granville, a popular destination for French holiday-makers, is a sort of small-scale mirror-image of Brittany’s St-Malo.
At dawn on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Allied troops landed at points along the Normandy coast from the mouth of the Orne to the eastern Cotentin peninsula. For the most part, the shore consists of innocuous beaches backed by gentle dunes, and yet this foothold in Europe was won at the cost of 100,000 lives. The ensuing Battle of Normandy killed thousands of civilians and reduced nearly six hundred towns and villages to rubble, but within a week of its eventual conclusion, Paris was liberated.
The various D-Day beaches are still widely referred to by their wartime code names. The British and Commonwealth forces landed on Sword, Juno and Gold beaches between Ouistreham and Arromanches; the Americans, further west on Omaha and Utah beaches. Substantial traces of the fighting are rare, the most remarkable being the remains of the astounding Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches, 10km northeast of Bayeux. Further west, at Pointe du Hoc on Omaha Beach, the cliff heights are deeply pitted with German bunkers and shell holes, while the church at Ste-Mère-Église, from whose steeple the US paratrooper dangled during heavy fighting throughout The Longest Day, still stands, and now has a model parachute permanently fastened to the roof.
World War II cemeteries dot the Normandy countryside. While most of the French dead were taken home for burial, the remains of fallen foreigners were gathered into cemeteries devoted to the separate warring nations. In total, over 140,000 young men were disinterred; more than half of the 31,744 US casualties were repatriated. In addition, almost every coastal town has its own war museum, in which the wealth of incidental human detail can be overpowering.
Honfleur is Normandy’s most beautiful seaside town, and its best-preserved historic port. All that holds it back from perfection is that it’s now cut off from the Channel itself; with the accumulation of silt from the Seine, the sea has steadily withdrawn, leaving the eighteenth-century waterfront houses of boulevard Charles-V stranded and a little surreal. The ancient port, however, still functions – the channel to the beautiful Vieux Bassin is kept open by regular dredging – and though only pleasure craft now use the harbour moorings, fishing boats tie up alongside the pier nearby.
Honfleur remains recognizable as the fishing village that so appealed to nineteenth-century artists. Its compact size, quaint waterside setting and abundance of restaurants make it an ideal destination for a weekend break. Visitors inevitably gravitate towards the old centre, around the Vieux Bassin, where slate-fronted houses, each one or two storeys higher than seems possible, harmonize despite their tottering and ill-matched forms. They create a splendid backdrop for the Lieutenance at the harbour entrance, which has been the gateway to the inner town since at least 1608, when Samuel Champlain sailed from Honfleur to found Québec.
As you head west along the corniche from Honfleur, green fields and fruit trees lull the land’s edge, and cliffs rise from sandy beaches all the way to the sister towns of Trouville, 15km away, and Deauville, just beyond.
Of the two, Trouville is more of a real town, with a constant population and industries other than tourism. But it’s still a resort, with a tangle of pedestrian streets just back from the beach that are alive with restaurants and hotels, and a busy boardwalk running along a sandy beach.
Deauville is slightly larger than Trouville, and significantly smarter, its sleek streets lined with designer boutiques and chic cafés. In summer, life revolves around the beach and the planches, 650m of boardwalk, beyond which rows of primary-coloured parasols obscure the view of the sea. It’s best known for its American Film Festival, held in the first week of September and offering public admission to a wide selection of previews.