A chateau or two in enchanting Normandy

by Emma Cleary

Experience the ultimate unwind when you explore the peaceful picture-postcard spa towns and villages of rural northern France

Here’s a pretty picture. You’re sitting in a cosy front room with a real fire flickering orange tongues of flame deliciously before you. Or perhaps you are sitting in a summer garden, gentle rays of sun imbuing the sky with a pale yellow light. You are eating chocolate éclairs from the local patisserie filled not with cream but, in the French style, with... more chocolate! A coffee pot sits at your elbow and in the distance there is the sound of… nothing. Perhaps a little bird song.

The part of the world to which I return again and again is Normandy. My love affair with this region began with a holiday with the hugely hospitable Richard and Victoria at Belle Vallée on the outskirts of Domfront. They run the main house as a beautifully appointed B&B and also have a lovely self-catering cottage within their well-landscaped grounds in which guests are free to roam. Wellies are optional.

If you’re staying in the Domfront area, the coast is only a couple of hours away, whether you head north or west. There are many historic sites and tourist attractions to take in. You can visit the beaches of the Normandy landings, the solemn war cemetery on the outskirts of Bayeux, or the engineering masterpiece of Mulberry Harbour – all are humbling experiences.

You’ll most likely want to view the charming Chateau de Carrouges, or the famous Mont St. Michel, a place that surely belongs in a fairytale. Here, though, I will detail some less known local attractions.

But first, just one more thing about Bayeux. True, it is home to the famous tapestry (a must see, but perhaps only the once), and the awe-inspiring cathedral, surrounded by pretty winding streets that are quintessentially French. But make your way towards the Rue St Martin behind the cathedral and you may find yourself captivated by the sight of the confectionery in the window display of the La Reine Mathilde - a sumptuous salon de thé that has an interior as delectable as its cakes. Try some or you will regret it!

In the department of Calvados, straddling the river Orne, sits the peaceful picture-postcard village of Pont d’Ouilly. Here you can relax with a good book, a fishing rod, or indulge in a picnic on the river bank. To get on the water you can hire out a pedal boat or a kayak, but there is something quaint and old fashioned about this particular spot. The view of dappled sunlight streaming through the silver trunks of the birch trees across the river is divine. There is a Sunday morning market here and, late in the afternoons in summer, you can follow the strains of accordion music to discover couples dancing in pairs by the riverside.

Heading east from Domfront through the Foret De La Ferte Mace brings you to the spa town of Bagnoles de l’Orne. It’s a little garish with its casino and crazy golf, and attracts an older clientele, but they hold seasonal festivities by the lake which are well advertised in the local area. We happened across an autumn gourmand that showcased local produce (huge heads of lettuce,
monstrous tomatoes, and rich splashes of saffron) and livestock, with cookery demonstrations in a specially erected marquee and a marching band thrown in for good measure. There is also luxury chocolatier here which is a tad pricey, but they sell reasonably priced heavenly ice creams in  summer.

For more local flavour, continue along this road until you hit Lassay les Chateaux, home of Les 3 Elephants music festival, one of the best preserved medieval chateaux in France, and Pub à Victor. Things don’t get going in here until around 10pm at weekends when, if you’re very lucky, you may catch an impromptu performance by the local patrons on the bar’s slightly dilapidated upright piano, guitar and tambourine.

There is a legend circulating that Victor Hugo stayed here after being turned away from the chateaux as a tramp. Afternoons are also nice to pop in for a coffee or a sneaky pint, but whatever time of day you choose to call be careful Brasco the dog, a playful grey Weimariner, doesn’t knock you over with a friendly greeting on the way in.