Lapped by the Channel, Normandy is home to a sandy coastline and was the site of the D-Day landings in World War II, when US, British and Canadian forces landed on five beaches along the heavily fortified coast in 1944.
Despite the tall, wind-rustled grasses and peaceful dunes, memories of the brutal episode in the war reveal the grittier side of Normandy, an area that was home to the Viking warriors who conquered England in 1066 and were said to have terrorized parts of Europe.
For visitors who wish to understand more about this fascinating history, and enjoy gastronomic delights at the same time, Normandy is well worth a visit. From the Bayeux Tapestry to the magnificent island commune of Mont St-Michel, there are plenty of attractions to visit in the area.
If you are planning a trip to Europe’s cream capital — Normandy is famed for its dairy ventures — look no further than this guide. Be sure to pack a raincoat, however, as the area is known for its almost-constant drizzle. Temperatures remain mild throughout the year, and range between 10 and 25 degrees Celsius.
The D-Day landing beaches
A visit to the landing beaches in Normandy will prove a sobering start to your trip, but it is crucial if you wish to understand how the largest seaborne invasion in history was carried out. The June 6, 1944, operation sparked the liberation of German-occupied northwestern Europe, which eventually led to an Allied victory on the western front of the war.
Wartime planners divided the stretch of golden coastline into five sectors, which are still known by their code names. Sword, Juno and Gold were stormed by British and Commonwealth troops, while the Americans came ashore on Omaha and Utah.
One of the most visited sites is the poignantly huge American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, which houses the graves of 9,387 US military personnel. Visitors can also stop at the town of Arromanches, where Mulberry harbor, which facilitated 2.5 million men in coming ashore, still lies exposed offshore.
The 1,000-year-old town of Bayeux, with its medieval cobbled streets and Norman-Gothic cathedral, is breathtaking. Tourists can flock to the overpowering Cathedral of Our Lady of Bayeux, wander the history-dipped streets, then pay a visit to the undisputed jewel of the area, the Bayeux Tapestry.
The 70-meter-long embroidery, on show at the Bayeux Museum, depicts the story of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066. William insisted he was the rightful heir to the English throne after the death of King Edward the Confessor, and when the Anglo-Saxon Harold Godwinsson was anointed instead, an irate William stormed the beaches of England and conquered his detractors at the Battle of Hastings on Oct. 14, 1066.
French legend has it that the tapestry was created by his wife Queen Matilda with her ladies in waiting. Although scholarly analysis has not dug up any evidence on exactly who sewed the epic embroidery, it is sometimes called “La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde” (“The Tapestry of Queen Matilda”) in France.
The Pays d’Auge
Normandy’s reputation for cream, cheese and apples rests on the meadows and orchards of the Pays d’Auge. This idyllic slice of rural France is dotted with hungry cows chewing on long grass, dairy farms, and long stretches of tree-topped hills and deep valleys. The tiny village of Camembert is worth a visit due to its important place in history — and our diets — as the home of the deliciously pungent cheese created there during the days of the French Revolution.
Half-timbered houses and farms can be seen throughout the area, one that is perfect for bicycle rides ending with a visit to Pays d’Auge’s principal town of Lisieux. The town is France’s second-ranking Roman Catholic pilgrimage destination after the town of Lourdes, due to the Basilica of St. Thérèse, which was opened in 1937.
Rouen is Normandy’s largest city and is home to a major port, which is the closest to Paris. The bustling city straddles the Seine river and boasts a medieval core, with tangled streets that are both authentic and restored — Allied bombing during World War II ravaged the city and led to many of the riverbanks and pathways being obliterated.
For history buffs, the city is most recognizable as the place where Roman Catholic St. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431, and as the home of the awe-inspiring Rouen Cathedral. Built over three centuries, the cathedral has seen the crowning of various dukes of Normandy.
Several are buried in the cathedral, which also houses the heart of England’s King Richard I, who ruled in the 12th century. The famed king was known as Richard the Lion Heart, and is remembered for battling the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, Saladin, during the Crusades. Fast forward to the 19th century, and the much-loved artist Monet made it his mission to document the beautiful facades of the cathedral in a series of paintings completed in the 1890s.
Mont St. Michel
It is impossible to miss the abbey of Mont St. Michel as you drive toward it through twisting country lanes — it is awe-inspiring even at a distance. The abbey was built on the highest point of a tiny island near the frontier between Brittany and Normandy more than 1,000 years ago.
What began as a religious sanctuary, built on a rock in 708 AD by the bishop of the nearby town of Avranches, was developed into the megastructure we see today between the 11th and 16th centuries. It quickly became one of the most important places of medieval pilgrimage, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Nowadays the site is a busy tourist trap, so make sure to visit early in the day or be prepared to climb the stone stairways in order to escape the hubbub below. Whether you arrive by car or coach, you will park in a set of car parks about 20 minutes away from the island, and can choose to travel by a free shuttle or pay a fee for a horse-driven cart.
Normandy is a mere three-hour drive from Paris, so jetting into the capital and organizing a car or coach trip is the best way to soak in the delights of this food, history and art-rich stretch of France.