Normandy is one of the great historic regions of France. In the Middle Ages, Normandy was a powerful dukedom which, like Burgundy, rivalled the kingdom of France in power and prestige.
Indeed, the dukes of Normandy managed to achieve the same status as the kings of France, to whom they owed allegiance.
Before he died, Edward the Confessor, king of England (1042-1066) named his nephew William, duke of Normandy, as his successor. But after Harold, William’s cousin, took the English crown for himself, William invaded England in 1066, to assert his claim to a royal crown.
The story of Harold and William the Conqueror is magnificently told in the historic Bayeux Tapestry, which can be visited in Bayeux, a few miles to the west of Caen.
The Normandy area, the former dukedom of Normandy was reunited into a single region under changes made by the French government. Until 2015, it was split into Upper Normandy (Haute Normandie) in the east, and Lower Normandy (Basse Normandie) in the west.
Upper Normandy (Haute-Normandie) consisted of the French departments of Seine-Maritime and Eure, and Lower Normandy (Basse-Normandie) of the departments of Orne, Calvados, and Manche. The new region covers 30,627 square kilometres (11,825 sq miles).
Le Havre, Caen and Rouen are the three main cities in this region. Outside the towns and cities, Normandy is a prosperous agricultural area, specialising in dairy products, fruit (notably apples) and mixed farming.
The most famous regional products are the cheese Camembert, and two drinks, cider and the spirit distilled from it, Calvados. Normandy is also famous for its racehorses, and the region has many top breeding stables.
Places to visit in Normandy
Giverny: Visit the home of the greatest Impressionist, Claude Monet, and the Giverny Museum of Impressionism – formerly the Museum of American art.
Caen: Much damaged during the Second World War, has a Memorial museum of the Normandy Landings and the Liberation.
The Mémorial de Caen is a museum and war memorial in Caen, commemorating the Second World War and the Battle for Caen.
The memorial is dedicated to the history of outstanding conflict in the 20th century and particularly World War II. The museum was officially opened on 6 June 1988 (the 44th anniversary of D day) by the French President François Mitterrand.
The original building deals primarily with World War II looking at the causes and course of the conflict.
The museum was subsequently extended:
· In 1991 a gallery dedicated to the Nobel Peace Prize was added
· Three memorial gardens, The American Garden, The British Garden and the Canadian Garden were dedicated to the three main allied nations involved in liberating France.
· In 1994, marking 50 years since the liberation of Europe, the American Garden was officially opened. With a fountain at the centre, symbolising life, plaques of the fifty American states have been erected nearby.
· In 1995, it was the Canadian Support Committee’s turn to create its own garden. Designed by twelve students of architecture from the universities of Montreal and Ottawa, the Souvenir Garden encourages reflection.
· In 2004, Prince Charles inaugurated the British Garden. Various sculptures evoking the participation of the various forces in the conflict: the Royal Air force, the Royal Navy and the 15 British divisions are represented by cypress trees planted alongside a colonnade in bloom.
· An extension focusing on the Cold War and the search for Peace was opened by President Jacques Chirac in 2002. It comprises neutralized warheads, planes and a fragment of the Wall of Berlin.
Calvados: Wide sandy beaches for bathing and behind them lush hilly countryside ensure relaxation in this beautiful northern department.
Calvados belongs to the region of Basse-Normandie and is surrounded by the departments of Seine-Maritime, Eure, Orne and Manche.
To the north is the Baie de la Seine, part of the English Channel. On the east, the Seine River forms the boundary with Seine-Maritime. Calvados includes the Bessin area, the Pays d’Auge and the area known as the “Suisse normande” (“Norman Switzerland”).
The Cote Fleurie,the ‘Flower coast’, isn’t impressive just because it has Deauville, but also because of the neighbouring beach resorts along the coast. The Cote de Nacre with its flat sandy beaches is far less touristy.
This is where the D-Day landing beaches are and the area is peppered with bunkers, military graveyards and D-Day museums.
What is Calvados brandy?
Calvados is an apple brandy, and a delightful conclusion to an evening meal. Calvados is distilled from specially grown and selected apples, of which there are over 200 named varieties. It is not uncommon for a Calvados producer to use over 100 varieties of apples.
Calvados is the basis of the tradition of le trou Normand, or “the Norman hole”. This is a small drink of Calvados taken between courses in a very long meal. Calvados can be served as apéritif, blended in drinks, between meals, as a digestive, or with coffee….or just because there’s nothing on television!
A tot of Calvados is especially beneficial in settling the stomach after a heavy meal – at least that’s my excuse, and it works for me.
High quality bottles of Calvados are something you may not want to share, but to keep for private consumption, maybe on a quiet summer’s evening.
Well-made calvados should be reminiscent of apples and pears. The longer the calvados is aged, the more the taste resembles that of any other aged brandy, and the more it becomes golden or darker brown with orange elements and red mahogany.
The Normandy Beaches: The site of the D-Day Landings in World War 2. The landings are commemorated in monuments, museums and war graves.
Bayeux: An attractive old Norman town where the historic Bayeux tapestry was made, and is still preserved, 900 years after it was made.
The area around Bayeux is called the Bessin, which was the bailiwick of the province Normandy until the French Revolution.
During the Second World War, Bayeux was the first city of the Battle of Normandy to be liberated, and on 16 June 1944 General Charles de Gaulle made the first of two major speeches in Bayeux in which he made clear that France sided with the Allies.
The buildings in Bayeux were virtually untouched during the Battle of Normandy, the German forces being fully involved in defending Caen from the Allies.
While in Bayeux is would be a pity to miss the Musée-Mémorial de la Bataille de Normandie ((Boulevard Fabian Ware, 14402 Bayeux. Tel: 02 31 51 46 90; www.mairie-bayeux.fr. Open: Oct-Apr 1000-1230, 1400-1800; May-Sep 0930-1830; Admission: Adult: €7, child: €4), situated on the line that separated the British and American sectors in 1944. The museum recalls the dramatic events of that year.
According to the legend, the Bayeux tapestry was made by Reine Mathilde, wife of William the Conqueror. In fact, it was probably embroidered by monks in the south of England after the Battle of Hastings on October 14th, 1066.
Listed as a “Memory of the World” by UNESCO, the Bayeux Tapestry (Calvados) is an embroidery, 70 metres long, made in the 11th century.
Legendary animals, ships, Vikings, Norman and Saxon cavalries illustrate the exploits of William and his opponent Harold, another pretender to the throne of England.
In 2018, it was learned that secret wartime documents revealed how Allied code breakers uncovered a Nazi plot to steal the Bayeux Tapestry to hang on the walls of Heinrich Himmler ’s castle.
Tel: 02 31 51 25 50
Every day except 7-22 Jan, 24-26 Dec, 31 Dec-2 Jan:
Mid Mar-mid Nov, 0900-1745 (1815, May-Aug); mid Nov-mid Mar, 0930-1145, 1400-1715.
The “Parc Michel d’Ornano” is specifically reserved for free parking for vehicles. It is equipped with public conveniences and a shaded picnic area. The car park gives direct access to the museum.
The Bayeux Tapestry is indicated throughout the town, and near the museum itself, with two types of signpost: one for pedestrians and the other for motorists, easily to identify with their different logos.
Falaise: Impressive Mediaeval fortress, birthplace of William the Conqueror.
Honfleur: Attractive small port at the mouth of the Seine. Old harbour with picturesque quayside; Eugène Boudin museum. St Catherine’s church, from the 15th century, is the largest historic wooden church in France.
Rouen: With its quays on the river Seine, its picturesque historic centre, with half-timbered houses, an ancient clock, and a magnificent gothic cathedral, one of the finest in France.
The Rouen Fine Arts museum has the best collection of works by the Impressionists outside Paris, plus a broad collection of old masters from 15th century to the 20th century, including Rubens, Velasquez, Poussin and many more.
Le Havre: In the 1950’s, the old town, destroyed in the war, was rebuilt in concrete by architect Auguste Perret, to the wishes of the Communist city council. This example of post-war urban planning is classed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The Musée Malraux is one of the best museums outside Paris for impressionism and fauvism.
The White Cliffs of Étretat: The most famous cliffs in France, but also worth checking out are the remarkable Jardins d’Étretat. Read about them in our guide: Things to do in Etretat.
Le Cotentin: Countryside, cliffs and sandy beaches, on this granite promontory jutting out into the English Channel.
Le Cité de la Mer, Cherbourg: Devoted to underwater exploration, the museum includes a visit of the ‘Redoutable’, one of the biggest submarins in the world, plus the deepest aquarium in Europe.