As well as having many historic links to Britain, beautiful beaches and magnificent cities, Normandy is also one of the friendliest regions to visit in France
Having visited and studied Normandy’s Second World War history in some detail, including producing two award-winning documentaries for the BBC, it’s an area I’ve always enjoyed exploring. But it was only when I found some time to enjoy it as a tourist that I really began to appreciate just how much it has to offer.
It may not have the beauty of its southern neighbour, the Loire Valley, or the dramatic coastline that Brittany to the west has. But its pretty rolling countryside and pleasant sandy beaches are supplemented by some intriguing cities, centuries of history and, above all, one of the friendliest welcomes in the whole of France.
I generally aim to stay in Caen, the largest city in Normandy. This is not particularly because of the city itself, although there are a surprising number of historic buildings either remaining or well restored after the devastation of World War Two, but because it is ideally located, with good road links in all directions. The small, friendly Hotel Courtone is a good choice, overlooking the Bassin St Pierre, where the many pleasure boats are moored.
Wherever you go in Normandy, it’s impossible to avoid the effect the last war had on the region. In the area of the invasion beaches, and especially at Caen, it has completely changed the face of many places. There are numerous memorials, war cemeteries and museums that can be visited, but I recommend the Musee du Debarquement, in Arromanches, as the best. It overlooks ‘Gold’ Beach, where at low tide the remains of the floating ‘Mulberry Harbours’ are still visible. The town itself is also pleasant to wander around, but I like to follow the path up onto the cliffs to the west for the panoramic views back across the town, and round to the Cherbourg peninsular.
A few miles inland is the small city of Bayeux, famed for its huge ancient tapestry. The 70-metre-long work is over 900 years old, and depicts the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066. Normandy was, at that time, an independent province, and successfully invaded countries as far afield as Sicily and the Near East. The Cathedral Notre-Dame is my favourite building here. Dating from 11 years after the invasion at Hastings, it was the original home of the tapestry. Take your time and visit the ornate crypt, with its magnificent frescoed columns.
Despite the hordes of tourists that descend here each summer, I always find Bayeux manages to retain its relaxed and appealing atmosphere. Pavement cafés in the old centre are a great place to sit, enjoy a glass of French wine, and just people-watch.
To the north-east of Caen are the chic coastal towns of Deauville and Trouville. Built in the mid 19th century as a kind of northern Riviera, the elegant tree-lined promenades, and sandy beaches populated by neat rows of bright parasols, are filled to bursting when the sun shines. I actually prefer to travel a few miles further, to the older, and far more picturesque, fishing town of Honfleur. It lies at the very mouth of the River Seine, and as such has no real beach to speak of. But the old harbour area, with its mixture of fishing boats and pleasure craft, and surrounded by the quaint 18th-century slate-fronted buildings, is a photographer's and painter's dream.
This is also where I found one of my favourite restaurants in northern France. The exquisite Le Vieux Honfleur is a reasonably priced establishment, on the pedestrianised part of the harbourside. The seafood dishes are perfect for such an ambient setting.
Its always interesting to walk around this area, looking at the paintings, drawings and sketches that are generally under way by enthusiastic artists. Indeed, Honfleur has a special place in art history, I’m told. Boudin, one of the forerunners of Impressionism, was born here, and later trained a young Monet. Pissarro, Cézanne and Renoir also joined him at different times. As you’d expect, there are a number of exhibitions and museums relating to Boudin and art in the town.
To the east of the region lies one of the oldest cities in France. Rouen is the capital of upper Normandy, and there has been a settlement here since well before the Romans chose it as a site for a major bridge across the Seine. Over the centuries it has been the site of numerous fires, battles, bombings and sackings, such that today it is a real pot-pourri of building styles. But it’s precisely this unique mixture that gives it its character, and that I so enjoy walking around. Don’t just visit the main sights, though. I have found plenty of pretty back streets and picturesque buildings hidden away from the general gaze.
The principal places of interest are all gathered in a relatively small area, and from the Place du Vieux Marche, where a huge cross marks the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, to the magnificent Cathedrale de Notre-Dame, is just a short stroll along the pedestrianised streets. I never have enough time to visit all the things I want in Rouen, but the Musée des Beaux-Arts is always worth seeing. Quite apart from the impressive building, the treasures it houses are nothing short of stunning. The city is a fascinating blend of the old and the new, and it's always disappointing when it’s time to leave.
And really that goes for Normandy as a whole, too. It’s a quiet, unassuming region that doesn’t shout about its undoubted highlights in the same way as many other French départements. But it will surprise and delight you when you realise just how much is here to see.