An Affair of the Heart
Normandy is an affair of the heart. To visit this land of apple orchards and loamy pastures, of windswept cliffs and wave-dashed beaches, is to fall in love with its generous charms. This is one of France's largest regions. Its five départements—Calvados, Eure, Manche, Orne, and Seine-Maritime—are divided into Upper and Lower Normandy. Within easy reach of the French capital, Normandy is often called the “lungs of Paris”; and it lies but a short sail across the Channel from Britain. Normandy's 375 miles of coastline have been crossed by countless invaders, both incoming and outgoing, throughout its long history.
Like other parts of France, Normandy saw the passage of Celts, Romans, and Franks before 820 AD, when the first wave of Vikings from Denmark glided up the River Seine in their flat boats. They went on to rape, pillage, and generally devastate the region to which they later gave their name: Normandy, land of the Norsemen. By the tenth century, these uncouth invaders had settled down. In 911, the Norman leader, Rollo, made peace with the Frankish king, and was officially recognized as Duke of Normandy, converting to Christianity as part of the bargain. Thus began a period of prosperity carried forward by a line of dukes who combined ability as statesmen and warriors. In 1066, Rollo's descendant, Duke William (The Conqueror), defeated his English rival, Harold, at the Battle of Hastings and became King of England, shuttling between his two capitals at London and Caen. For the next four centuries, Normandy played as great a role in English as in French history.
Under civilized rule, the medieval Church flourished. Benedictine and Cistercian monks set about building abbeys and churches and perfecting the Norman Romanesque style. In 1154, Henry, Duke of Normandy, became king of England. His marriage to land-rich Eleanor of Aquitaine gave the English Crown control over almost half of France. It was just a matter of time before the Hundred Years' War—which lasted from 1337 to 1453 and was fought largely on Norman soil—erupted between France and England. Eventually, and with heroic help from Joan of Arc, the English were sent packing and France reasserted its control over Normandy.
From that period on, Normandy prospered. As urban centers flourished so, too, did the bourgeoisie. Textile manufacture and the cotton industry put the river-port town of Rouen on the map and Norman sailors set to sea for broader horizons, exploring Canada and other parts of North America.
A paradise for Impressionists
In 1824 a new invasion of Normandy began, instigated by the Duchesse de Berry. She launched the fashion for sea-bathing at Dieppe, where she was carried into the water, fully garbed, in a sedan chair. The craze picked up steam thanks to the new Paris-Dieppe railway which rumbled into Normandy in 1848. This time it was from Paris's Gare Saint-Lazare that inland invaders sped to the new resort towns which bloomed along the Normandy coast. Dieppe, Deauville, Trouville, Cabourg, Étretat, and Le Tréport boomed during the Second Empire, reaching their peak in the Belle Époque. Simply everyone in society flocked to the luxurious hotels, casinos, and race courses (horse breeding remains an integral part of Norman life), to see and be seen. Rich Americans like William Vanderbilt erected huge estates at Deauville and Trouville. The British congregated in Dieppe—the first place Oscar Wilde went after leaving his English jail. Famous artists such as Boudin, Monet, Corot, Courbet, Sisley, Pissarro, and Cézanne turned Normandy into a vast outdoor studio. Writers, too, came in droves. Marcel Proust boasted that he could “leave Paris from the Gare Saint-Lazare at lunchtime and be in Cabourg in time to change for dinner.” And Guy de Maupassant, a native son, set many of his most memorable tales in Belle Époque Normandy.
World War I spared Normandy. World War II devastated it. The Allied Normandy landings or Operation Overlord took place on June 6, 1944 on the beaches of Calvados and the Manche. Once more invaders swarmed over Normandy. Today, those stretches of shoreline still carry their wartime names: Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword. Above the beach at Omaha, rows and rows of crosses honoring the American dead are a poignant reminder of battles fought within living memory.
By September 1, 1944, Normandy was liberated, but at a terrible price. Towns and cities, industrial sites, bridges and communication systems, countless works of art and architectural gems were totally or partially destroyed. The long, slow task of rebuilding began. Tourism has been a driving economic force in post-war years; ironically, while that sea-bound jewel of medieval architecture, the Mont-Saint-Michel, attracts 850,000 visitors a year, some 2.5 million people come to see the Landing Beaches and the Battle of Normandy sites, proving that events which ravage a region can in time contribute to restoring its fortunes.
Normandy is eminently accessible by road or train; it boasts monuments and places of interest to suit every palate. History buffs can stroll in the steps of William the Conqueror at Caen (Lower Normandy's capital city), visiting his castle and twin abbeys—the Abbaye aux Hommes, the finer of the two, and the Abbaye aux Dames—commissioned by King William and his consort, Queen Matilda. Another town closely associated with William is Bayeux, miraculously spared destruction in 1944, and home to the justly famous Bayeux tapestry, one of the world's earliest and most engaging historical “comic strips.” Said to date from about 1077, the embroidered linen scroll shows 58 scenes of William's conquest of England.
Characterful Rouen, capital of Upper Normandy, lies on the Seine between Paris and the sea. Not everyone will appreciate the tourist train—now a questionable feature of many French cities—which trundles through the heavily restored medieval streets in the pedestrian zone of old Rouen. Little is left of the bohemian quarter, that "district of theaters, bars, and brothels" described by one the city's most famous native sons, Gustave Flaubert, in his great work, Madame Bovary. But in the Place du Vieux-Marché, look for the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. The train disgorges its passengers at the foot of Rouen's cathedral, so often painted by Claude Monet.
Monet ended his life in Normandy, at his house in Giverny upriver from Rouen, in 1890. The house and garden have been meticulously restored and attract busloads of visitors in the spring when the garden is at its best. Despite the crowds, Giverny always breathes a magical tranquility and seems happily haunted by the grand old man of Impressionism.
Not far from Rouen the impressive remains of a medieval fortress, Château Gaillard, perches on a rocky outcrop strategically overlooking the Seine. Built in 1196 by Richard the Lionheart, King of England and Duke of Normandy, the castle's hulking ruins offer one of France's most famous views over the Seine at Les Andelys. Another striking view, over the estuary of the Seine, is that from the new Pont de Normandie linking directly Le Havre to Honfleur. Downstream from Rouen is Normandy's second great medieval ruin, the tenth-century abbey of Jumièges, once a powerful Benedictine seat, now stripped by time and conquest to its architectural bare bones—a romantic, melancholy site.
On the Alabaster Coast between Dieppe and Le Havre, Étretat has remained remarkably unspoiled with its swimming beach, busy promenade, and plunging, limestone cliffs. Sadly, much of its former enchantment has worn off Honfleur, a charming port town at the mouth of the Seine. Beware of the overpriced cafés, gewgaw boutiques, and crush of vacationers. Similar dangers lurk at mystical Mont-Saint-Michel. Wait until nightfall when the crowds disappear and you won't fail to be moved by the spiritual mystery of this sea-swept, anchored stone vessel of medieval piety.
The “Belle Époque” of Deauville, Trouville, and Cabourg has passed, but these resort towns retain a definite whiff of glamour which mingles with the crisp scent of sea air sweeping across beaches dotted with gaily striped deckchairs and umbrellas. Venerable establishments like the Deauville and Trouville Casinos, the Normandy Barrière hotel at Deauville or Le Grand Hôtel at Cabourg maintain a dowager-like dignity. Designer boutiques (Gucci, Cartier, Hermès), sumptuous villas, a popular racetrack, and some enticing restaurants and night spots testify to a smart and very mondain presence from Paris and abroad. The annual American Film Festival at Deauville also brings today's glitterati to Norman shores.
“White Gold” and Briny Seafood
Normandy in a nutshell? Well, it's not very hilly; it get lots of rain; and the sea is never very far away. But that definition gives short shrift to Normandy's myriad charms. South of the Pays d'Auge (Calvados country) lies La Suisse Normande. This “Norman Switzerland” may lack Alpine peaks but its bluffs, woods, and river valleys lend drama to an otherwise pastoral landscape. The Cotentin peninsula, which juts out into the Channel, is wild and weatherbeaten, with craggy cliffs, vast beaches, and marshland. The southern Cotentin around the cathedral town of Coutances is a bucolic vision of small fields bordered by raised hedges so characteristic of Lower Normandy.
An astounding 90 percent of Normandy is farmland, and milk is the region's white gold. A Norman cow produces five tons of milk a year and Normandy produces ten percent of all France's dairy products. No wonder that cream, butter, and cheese are the keystones of Norman cooking! To taste authentic examples of Normandy's cheese “trinity"—Camembert, Livarot, and Pont-l'Évêque—just follow the sign-posted Route du Fromage that meanders through the Pays d'Auge, a brilliant emerald canvas dotted with brown-and-white cows grazing amid apple orchards. Along the way, you can explore scenic villages such as Beuvron-en-Auge or Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives, with its informative Cheese Museum, which tells you everything you ever wanted to know about Camembert (invented by Marie Harel in 1785).
Cider and the apple brandy known as Calvados are also Norman specialties. Calvados is made from local cider twice distilled and slowly aged in oak casks. The best comes from small, independent producers in the Pays d'Auge. Along the Route du Cidre you will stumble upon cider farms advertising their wares. Sample with caution: “Calva,” as the natives call it, is strong stuff!
What better place than Normandy to indulge a taste for seafood? From beds at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue or Isigny-sur-Mer come plump, meaty oysters; sweet-tasting scallops hail from Dieppe, as do mussels, clams, shrimps, crabs, and tiny lobsters. Sole is also a great specialty, often served à la normande (Norman-style usually implies an addition of cream and perhaps a touch of cider or Calvados). But carnivores need not feel neglected: the Norman table offers lamb from the salt marshes near Mont-Saint-Michel, duck in many guises, tripes à la mode de Caen, and andouille de Vire, a gutsy chitterling sausage for robust appetites. Not for nothing does a local dictum say: “Qui a fait Normand, a fait gourmand”, loosely translated as “Every Norman loves his food”! By now, you are probably ready to judge for yourselves.