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Did You Know … ?
- Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431.
- More than 130,000 troops landed in Normandy on D-Day (1944), history’s largest one-day amphibious invasion.
- Samuel de Champlain sailed from Honfleur for Canada where he founded Quebec City (1608).
- Normandy is considered the birthplace of the Impressionist school of painting.
- Mont-St.-Michel withstood a 30-year siege during the Hundred Years War; it was used as a prison during the French Revolution.
Before D-Day, the Bayeux Tapestry
About 900 years of Normandy’s history are bracketed by the two events tourists know best — the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and the D-Day landing on Normandy’s beaches on June 6, 1944.
North Americans by the hundreds of thousands have come and are still coming to see the beaches, memorials and cemeteries associated with the assault that was so crucial to an Allied victory in World War II.
History buffs also look for sites associated with William the Conqueror: Falaise, his birthplace; the Abbaye aux Dames and Abbaye aux Hommes, bestowed upon Caen by William and his queen Matilda; and the piece de resistance, the Bayeux Tapestry, a 230-foot-long piece of embroidery that tells the story of the conquest of England, now displayed in a Bayeux museum.
But there is plenty more to entice a visitor: bucolic country scenes; half-timbered houses in medieval towns and old city centers; numerous abbeys and cathedrals, and coastal towns that have been by turns popular resorts and a lure for artists — most famously, the Impressionists.
And for the active traveler, options include biking, hiking, water sports including scuba diving and, fittingly, horseback riding in an area noted for breeding horses. There is even a site for bungee jumping.
Farmers in rural Normandy produce apples used for cider and the Calvados apple brandy; their dairies provide milk for cheeses including Camembert, named for the village where it originated. Renaissance-era monks in Fecamp created Benedictine, which remains a locally produced product.
The 25-mile Cote Fleurie (Flowery Coast) is dotted with resort towns — Cabourg, Deauville, Honfleur and Trouville-sur-Mer — built up for a 19th century clientele, but still popular for their grand hotels, casinos, racecourses, esplanades and scenic harbors. Artists came, too, and ranged to nearby Le Havre, where Claude Monet grew up. The artist later retreated to Giverny to paint; his home and gardens there are open to tourists. The capital, Rouen, is a natural attraction, made still more famous by Monet’s paintings of the cathedral.
Finally, Mont-St.-Michel, a spectacular abbey sited on a rock off Normandy’s coast, draws millions of tourists each year.
Things to do for Venturers
- Try bungee jumping, the French version, at La Ferriere Harang off a railroad viaduct built in the 19th century by Gustave Eiffel.
- At any of several cemeteries, pay your respects to American, British, Canadian and Polish soldiers who were killed in Normandy during World War II. The cemetery for German soldiers, some as young as 16, is heart-wrenching, too. At the American Military Cemetery, you can see the graves of two of President Theodore Roosevelt’s sons, one who was killed in World War I and one who died in World War II. Add time to see the landing beaches where German bunkers have been converted to memorials.
- For active water sports, Granville is the place to go. Choices include canoeing, kayaking, sailing, scuba diving, surfing and windsurfing.
- Or head to Granville for sand yachting, i.e., travel across land in a wheeled vehicle with a sail, powered by wind.
- Plan an itinerary built around William the Conqueror, starting with his birthplace Falaise (although the 12th-13th century castle itself is too new to be his birthplace), and including Caen, the conqueror’s favored residence; Dives-sur-Mer, the port from which he sailed to England in 1066, and Bayeux for the tapestry.
- Choose from the several routes designed for walkers. For example, the Coastal Path, from the Bay of Mont-St.-Michel to the edge of the Cotentin marshes, extends more than 190 miles.
Things to do for Centrics
- Take a fascinating walk through history by walking the 230-foot length of the Bayeux Tapestry and studying a 900-year-old embroidery work that is still “readable.” It is protected behind bulletproof glass at the Centre Guillaume-le-Conquerant in Bayeux. (Read Andrew Bridgeford’s “1066 The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry” before you go.)
- Stop to wonder at the sight of Abbaye-de-Mont-St.-Michel before approaching the site for a guided tour. Arrange your schedule to get at least one look at the abbey early or late in the day.
- Visit the places that inspired the Impressionists, particularly Honfleur, and see examples of their works in local museums, among them Musee Eugene-Boudin in Honfleur which is named for the harbor town’s famous native son.
- Treat yourself to a sightseeing tour of Rouen, the city on the Seine that Gustave Flaubert featured in “Madame Bovary.” See the cathedral that Claude Monet painted so many times. Also, the Place de Vieux-Marche (Old Market), where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
- Learn more about Benedictine liqueur, which was created by monks at Fecamp. Today, it is made at a commercial distillery in the same town, and the facility includes a museum open to the public.
- For an overview of the Normandy invasion of 1944, choose the Musee Memorial de la Bataille de Normandie in Bayeux. Many Norman towns have museums, too, but another meaningful choice is the Musee du Debarquement in Arromanches, which tells how the Allies stealthily towed artificial harbors across the English Channel. See part of those harbors, too.
Things to do for Authentics
- Taste a local specialty, Calvados brandy, in the area where it is made — and where the best was buried in order to hide it from the Nazis during World War II.
- Stay in one of the very grand hotels in Deauville or Trouville-sur-Mer, on the Cote Fleurie (Flowery Coast), popularized by moneyed Parisians as a resort destination in the 19th century.
- Sample the cheeses for which Normandy is known. They include Brillat Savarin, Camembert, Neufchatel and Pont l’Eveque.
- Attend lunchtime Mass, observed daily at the Abbaye-de-Mont-St.-Michel.
- Take your chances at one of the casinos in the resort towns on the Normandy coast.
- Shop for locally made lace in the Saturday market in Bayeux. The market and cathedral convey a sense of this town’s medieval roots. Bayeux was relatively undamaged during the two-month Battle of Normandy in 1944.
For more information, consult the Normandy Tourism Board at www.normandy-tourism.org and choose your language if necessary.