Visit Normandy for its rich history and sigh-worthy cheeses

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The Cathedral of Our Lady of Bayeux is an imposing structure. (Shutterstock)
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It is impossible to miss the abbey of Mont St. Michel as you drive toward it.
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What is left of a World War II landing port is visible off the coast of the town of Arromanches.
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Normandy is home to blissful beaches and stunning scenery.
Updated 01 October 2017

Visit Normandy for its rich history and sigh-worthy cheeses

BAYEUX, Normandy: Normandy is blessed with stunning landscapes, a rich history and some of the best cheese and cream in all of Europe. Sprawled across France’s northwestern corner, the spectacular cliff-lined coast and rolling green fields have inspired centuries of creative talents, including Impressionist painter Claude Monet.
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.
Bayeux
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
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.


Notes from a European COVID-19 summer

Updated 29 September 2020

Notes from a European COVID-19 summer

  • After the ease of the lockdown in early June coinciding with the summer holidays, Europeans started seeing light at the end of the tunnel

BARCELONA: No doubt this has been an uncommon and unconventional summer, and with the second coronavirus disease (COVID-19) phase knocking at our doors, looking back at the short-lived break feels like a black and white memory.

It’s unclear if, in the history of the EU, borders have ever been shut the way they were forced to at the beginning of the pandemic. COVID-19, though, is critical enough to allow this exception; the virus threatens hundreds of thousands of lives.

After the ease of the lockdown in early June coinciding with the summer holidays, Europeans started seeing light at the end of the tunnel. For those who usually pick international destinations, such choice was still largely impossible, and the question of mobility dawned on everyone. For an Arab who made the choice to live in Europe for the freedom of movement and openness, this became an even greater existential crisis.

The third week of June brought a wave of euphoria, and the thrill of weighing the anchor and sailing away after a long pause. Commercial airlines returned, trying to brush off the traumatizing period, and the new reality of reduced fleets and travel routes making air travel impractical. That did not discourage those who depend on bridging long distances, whether for work purposes or family, though others found the new experience daunting and scary, turning to national and local tourism by car; camper vans began to dot the continent’s highways.

Needing to travel as soon as the travel ban was lifted in June, my first trip was from Barcelona to Berlin. The usual commute to the airport to catch a flight felt like I was preparing to set off into space, getting ready physically and mentally for the most extreme conditions. Buses were rare, everything was wrapped in plastic. Masks, gloves, scared gazes, and an eerily empty El Prat airport all prompted nerves. The plane was mostly empty; everyone was required to keep masks on, disinfectants were offered at the entrance and no printed inflight material was made available.

QR code menus were the rule for all airlines, and inflight consumption was drastically reduced, with the aim to avoid at all cost the removal of masks and unnecessary contact with objects.

Arriving in Zurich for a stopover, something that wasn’t necessary before COVID-19, I was faced with another world, one that was careless and at ease; barely anyone was wearing masks in the airport, and flights were fully booked. The further north I went, the more sturdy and confident the system seemed to be.

The German success, as it became known, was one that was based on trust of science and pragmatism. Social distancing and prevention were not alien concepts, contrary to in the Mediterranean south, and the low death rate gave them an invincible feel. I was quickly swept away, trusting the system and happy to play along. The mask was only required in closed spaces and on public transport, and the majority of people obeyed, otherwise risking a fine as in the rest of Europe. 

New systems were organized in public spaces, such as handing over personal details upon entering cafes and restaurants, that would be used for notification purposes in case of an outbreak of the virus to quickly identify and isolate the cluster. Traveling from one region to another remained open, and the Germans who would usually rush off to favorite destinations such as Mallorca or Northern Italy were rediscovering their own country. Coastal cities took on the role of Mediterranean rivieras, despite the cold waters and flat surroundings.

My second stop was Southern France, this time by car, from Barcelona. It was a seamless transition from a still traumatized city to a place enthralled by a joie de vivre; like at Zurich airport, most people were not wearing masks, markets and gatherings were back, events and concerts took place with minimal restrictions and the economy felt rebooted from within. Restrictions felt like a cover, and gave the feel that the French were COVID-19 skeptics.

Paris felt the same; public transport saw masks and social distancing, though no limit was set on numbers, though routes were diverted or canceled, especially around airports. Museums reopened with limited capacity, introducing online pre-booking, and long queues formed everywhere around the city. The Mona Lisa at the Louvre still received a throng of visitors, though in a more organized manner.

Picking Milan as the final summer destination felt like a very daring challenge. The images seen online of Europe’s worst affected city in spring still reverberated. Friends who defied that gave encouraging news and I was off again. Long tracking forms had to be filled out, and the PCR test became mandatory prior to every flight. The COVID-19 station at Malpensa Airport was signposted in giant letters, requesting travelers from risk areas, such as Spain, to take the free test prior to leaving the terminal. Milan and Northern Italy, where I stayed, seemed to have learnt from the virus not to underestimate its speed and impact. The mask was respected in all closed spaces, hygiene gels were provided at every door, and social distancing was more visible, to the point of making public beaches only accessible through prior booking and code sharing.

While I write this from Barcelona, now one of the most infected cities in the world, where hotels have not yet opened, masks are mandatory, cafés and restaurant capacities halved, fines distributed for hygiene failures, and medium and large events are canceled, the question on everyone’s mind is, what are we doing wrong? It seems that Spain initially reacted too late, and then relaxed its lockdown too early. What does the next phase hold for us? We will soon find out.