Off the beaten track in Normandy
Lesser known gems you need to know about
Normandy is familiar to countless Brits. A popular holiday destination for generations, it’s easy to see why. With its proximity to Channel ports, lush rolling countryside, turbulent history entwined with ours and a fabulous (and rich!) cuisine, it packs a lot of holiday punch.
Popular headline acts might include the Bayeux Tapestry, the D-Day Landing Beaches, elegant Deauville or the white cliffs of Étretat on the Alabaster Coast.
And don’t forget Honfleur with its harbour-side houses, six floors or higher, crammed around the picture-perfect harbour.
But, as with many things familiar, the obvious sights and the well trodden paths can obscure the lesser known gems. And there are many hidden away in this fascinating region.
So look beyond these attention seekers and surprise yourself at the variety and richness to be found in Normandy.
Café Gondrée, Pegasus Bridge, Bénouville
A fascinating slice of living history, this café is adjacent to the famous bridge, captured by British airborne troops on 6th June 1944 at the start of the Normandy invasion. Actually, to be strictly true, the original bridge has been decommissioned and lies across the canal. Today the café’s owner, Mme Gondrée (a young girl in 1944), can still bring to life stories and experiences that a museum cannot. It’s no ‘secret’ but is a truly unique place for breakfast on disembarking at Caen.
Though not quite of the epic scale of Switzerland’s mountains, this little known region of southern Normandy is nonetheless one of craggy gorges and rocky outcrops, popular with outdoor sports enthusiasts, particularly canoeists and climbers. The wilder areas give way to gentler terrain, with picturesque villages linked by tumbling rivers and endless, verdant valleys and hillsides. Stone bridges and timeless watermills add to the bucolic charm. Thury-Harcourt, with ruined castle and delightful gardens, is a real gem and the gateway to the Suisse Normande.
Monet’s Garden, Giverny
Just inside the Normandy border, Giverny was made famous as Monet’s home. Lying north-west of Paris, it is neither close to the holiday beaches nor is a convenient stopover for most tourists heading north or south and so a visit requires some commitment. But you are well rewarded with a real sense of history, familiar vistas and, of course, the lily pond. To avoid the coaches arriving from Paris, try to get there early.
Set on the English Channel at the southern end of the Cotentin peninsular, this is traditionally something of a seaside resort and is not far from Mont Saint-Michel. But stroll the cobbled streets of the old town and enjoy an excellent seafood lunch before visiting the Christian Dior Museum, located in the famous designer’s childhood home Villa Les Rhumbs.
This is a small town at the foot of the Normandy peninsular, and can be a handy stop for refreshment and to stretch the legs. But there is more to it than a baguette break. The central square is typically pretty with cafes and shops and comes complete with the requisite central hotel.
Traditionally the town was a centre for manufacturing copper pans (the town name means, literally, ‘God’s town of the frying pans’) and today many shops still offer gleaming pans of every description. Such was the extent of metal working that many inhabitants were deaf, due to the incessant hammering involved.
The town was also renowned for bell making, which probably didn’t help the deafness. The crafts continue, so wander the town and visit some of the workshops and buy at factory prices.
Dating from 654 the abbey has witnessed a procession of colourful and turbulent events involving Vikings, William the Conqueror, Huguenots, an Archbishop of Canterbury and the Benedictines. The scale of its imposing ruins epitomise a time when monks held sway over the land and its setting, amid rolling countryside west of Rouen, is quintessential Normandy.
Think of Bayeux and the first thing that comes to mind tends to be the famous tapestry. There’s also the stunning cathedral, the immaculate and moving American cemetery and, further afield, the iconic orchards.
But get to Place Saint Patrice early on a Saturday morning and you can witness one of France’s great and most authentic markets. It’s an assault on the senses, with the scent of cut flowers and herbs filling the air, and traders proffering cider and Calvados, fruit and vegetables. Larger stalls are packed out with a range of fresh fish on ice, smaller stalls offer local mussels, crabs, grey shrimps, as well as live poultry, rabbits and game.
You can pick up wines of course, as well as breads of every shape and size, charcuterie and local cheeses – an irresistible picnic. In addition, browse past street food stalls offering pizza, paella, crêpes and more.
Château de Crèvecoeur-en-Auge
Located east of Caen, this is a perfectly preserved medieval site – a fortified castle surrounded by a moat. The original layout is intact with the manor house set on a mound, a lower courtyard, chapel and timbered outbuildings of real character. The oldest parts date back to the 12th century and are astonishingly well maintained. Yet perversely this castle is often overlooked in tourist itineraries.
Cap de la Hague
This is a wild spot on a rugged stretch of coastline at the tip of the Cotentin peninsula. Popular with poets and artists, it has scarcely changed over the years but venture here and you will be rewarded with epic seascapes and dramatic scenery, as well as a riot of colourful flora and wildlife.
Fancy holidaying in Normandy?
Main article images:
Original bridge in the Memorial Pegasus - July 2005 - By SiMCard25 - CC BY-SA 3.0
Water Lilies and the Japanese bridge, 1897–99, Princeton University Art Museum - By Claude Monet - the-athenaeum.org , Public Domain
Paysage de la Suisse Normande. Boucle de l'Orne, près de Clécy - By Osbern - Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0
The harbour of Granville, with Notre-Dame church in the background - By Soyrana - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Street in Villedieu-les-Poêles - By No machine-readable author provided. JeremyA assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 2.5
Jumièges Abbey - By Urban at French Wikipedia - photo by Urban, CC BY-SA 3.0
The historic centre, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Aure and tourist office - By Anton Bielousov - Own work: France, Normandy trip, CC BY-SA 3.0
logis seigneurial du château de Crèvecœur-en-Auge - Par Karldupart — Travail personnel, CC BY 3.0
La Hague Lighthouse at twilight - By Luk - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
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