Normandy’s eventful history encompasses both William the Conqueror, who subjugated England in 1066, and the D-Day landings of World War II, an audacious British campaign which turned the Western Front in their favor. The region also has a fascinating cultural heritage, and the landscapes around the mouth of the Seine inspired some of Impressionism’s most loved paintings and painters. These landscapes remain beautiful to roam today, an experience made all the more pleasurable by the region’s superb cheese, cider, seafood and sweet pastries.
Caen is a paradoxical tourist destination, a city whose main attractions are historical, but 80% of which was destroyed only 70 years ago. It was the birthplace of William the Conqueror, who established both the beautiful Romanesque Abbey aux Hommes and the imposingly fortified Chateau de Caen. William’s body was buried in the former, though only a thigh bone remains of it today. Both buildings are predominantly reconstructions, as Allied Bombing decimated the town in 1944. The city is close enough to the D-Day landing sites to act as a good base to explore some of the beaches where the Allied Forces launched their offensive. And finally, a groundbreaking museum and memorial uses vivid multimedia to track Europe’s descent into world war, the Battle of Normandy, and the subsequent Cold War.
Anyone who has seen the highly acclaimed 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg starring Catherine Deneuve will recognize some of the more distinct landmarks the town has on offer. Perched on the Cotentin Peninsula, Cherbourg was the first Norman territory to be captured by the Vikings, who swiftly proceeded to establish a bustling port. The town’s own heavily fortified port has played an important role through centuries of European conflict, and it remains central to the town’s economic life today. The striking Art Deco ferry terminal houses an unusual museum, the Cité de la Mer, which combines a vibrant aquarium with various exhibitions about the French Navy. Beyond the port, Cherbourg has a pretty Basilica, an eccentric botanical gardens (open by appointment only), and a small but interesting museum relaying the role played by the town and its port in World War II.
Moving further inland, Rouen is a historic French city with a beautiful Medieval Old Town composed of narrow cobbled streets. At its center stands the tallest cathedral in France, the subject of over 30 paintings by Monet, one of which hangs in the city’s Musée des Beaux Arts, among France’s best art galleries outside of Paris. Pissaro and Gauguin also experimented with scenes in and around Rouen, and the city’s streets are dotted with small art dealerships. Famously, Joan of Arc was burnt alive in the town’s central square in 1431 – a tall cross marks the spot today, and a wildly eccentric modern church, dedicated to St. Jeanne, stands beside the site of the execution. And Rouen also has some great restaurants, including Gill, a two-starred Michelin restaurant, and La Couronne, which claims to be the oldest inn in France.
Le Havre sits at the mouth of the Seine and its harbor has long played a key role as a seagate to Paris, transferring goods from ocean vessels to barges for the final stage of their journey to the French capital. But it was transformed forever in September 1944 by allied bombings that killed 3000 civilians and blew most of the city out of existence. It was subsequently rebuilt under the guidance of modernist architect Auguste Perret, and its unique city center was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005. This modernist street theme is reflected inside the Malraux Museum, with an excellent collection of Modernist art alongside more contemporary work. And the town has a lively night scene lighted by lots of great bars and restaurants, including the long established brasserie La Taverne Paillette.
Perhaps Normandy’s most picturesque coastal town, Honfleur’s charms revolve around its gorgeous vieux bassin, or old harbor. Once a launching point for expeditions to the New World, the narrow, colorful, slate-tiled houses lining this harbor became a favorite setting with nineteenth century painters. Monet, Courbet and Boudin all set up their easels in the town, and the école de Honfleur was one of the key tributaries feeding into Impressionism. Once you’ve admired the view, and wandered the winding streets, other sights to check out include the Église Ste-Catherine, a 500-year old wooden church built by ships’ carpenters, with vaults shaped like upturned hulls.