Sarah Baxter travels to the French region of Caen via train, ferry and bike, discovering the green spaces and rich history of this often overlooked destination
And relax... As the train pulled up at Portsmouth Harbour station, disgorging me amid the tallship masts of the city’s historic dockyard, I felt the adventure beginning. Soon after, cabin-cosy aboard the overnight MV Normandie, bound across the Channel for Caen, I was definitely on holiday. One night’s sleep, then breakfast on the continent...
I’m not a keen driver, nor lover of airports. So heading to Normandy via train and ferry was ideal, not to mention easy and extremely efficient. By 7am, unstressed and rested, I was on French soil, seeking my first croissant.
Ouistreham, the port city of Caen, was just warming up. Golden light played on the Pointe du Siège nature reserve and the boats bobbing at the mouth of the River Orne. The rising sun also cast a glow on the long, sandy strand: Sword Beach, easternmost of the D-Day landing sites, taken on the fateful morning of 6 June 1944 by British and Free French troops. Now, though, all was quiet, save the whirling gulls and the flags of many nations flapping in the breeze.
I sipped coffee, watching the place awaken, before collecting my wheels – a sky-blue bicycle – and riding west along the beach. It was flat, delightful going, with the sea to one side, handsome villas to the other and few other people: another cyclist with a dog in her basket, a man riding a horse-cart along the sand. At Lion-sur-Mer I parked my bike to explore on foot. In summer 2018, the little town launched an audio-guided walk with a GPS embedded parasol and, as I strolled with the smart-umbrella, I heard Lion in soundscape, ears filled with bygone market traders, laughing children, casino bustle. I also heard the stories of people who’ve lived here for decades: memories of Edith Piaf staying at art nouveau Villa Louis, of the muscle boats hauling ashore 40 sacks a day, of the timber-frame house that survived the war, though lost its chandelier when a shell blew in one side and out the other.
After my walk, I rode back to Ouistreham and picked up the Vélo Francette. This cycle path leads all the way to La Rochelle, over 600km south, but I was following only the first, traffic-free 15km along the canal to Caen.
Nostrils full of sea salt, I glided beside the duck-dabbled waterway. A few people were fishing, a few were foraging for berries; several more were drinking outside Café Gondré, the first building to be liberated in June 1944 as the Allies took the adjacent Bénouville – aka Pegasus – Bridge. Memorials to the troops now line the far bank.
I pressed on, and soon arrived in Caen. The city was put on the map in 1060, when William the Conqueror made it his main base, building a huge castle-fortress here; he’s buried in Caen’s huge Abbaye-aux-Hommes while wife Matilda lies in the equally impressive Abbaye-aux-Dames. Caen has taken a battering in the centuries since, not least from Second World War bombs, and many motorists drive off the ferry and give it a miss. But I was in no rush. And I’m glad I stuck around.
For a start, the city was pleasingly green. Cycle paths sneak around the centre while parks and grassy spots pop up around corners, behind walls and beneath castles. I hired a kayak and paddled south along the Orne, and within a few minutes I’d lost the streets. My watery way was flanked by weeping willows, mansion gardens and the expansive Prairie plain, formerly farmland and an urban lung where locals come to race horses and amble beneath the trees. This river, so instrumental in William settling in Caen, and of such strategic importance during the 1944 Battle of Normandy, was now a tranquil place to float. Just me, the quick-skipping pond-skaters and the wading moorhens. If I continued this way I’d eventually end up in the lush hills of ‘Norman Switzerland’ – a tempting prospect. But in the end I turned back, keen to find the green within the city itself.
There are many appealing spaces, from the gardens of the Caen Mémorial, dotted with sites honouring those who died during the war, to the quiet cloisters of William’s abbey, but my favourite was a more accidental find. Passing the lively pavement tables of Place St-Sauveur, heading north via the Fossés Saint Julien (home to a large Friday market) and streets of 19th-century houses, I found the Cimetière des 4 Nations. One of Caen’s ‘sleeping cemeteries’ – no longer used for burials and seemingly untended – the high-walled graveyard was macabrely serene.
I walked along empty, leafy avenues of leaning and fallen headstones, ivy-draped memorials and crosses gnawed by rust. It felt less like a cemetery than a film set (indeed, François Truffaut once set a movie here). And it seemed to sum up the city itself: green, historically layered, bearing the scars of the past, but a secret worth finding.
For further information on Normandy, visit www.normandy-tourism.org For further information on Caen and Ouistreham, visit www.caenlamer-tourisme.fr Book your accommodation in Normandy with Sawdays: www.sawdays.co.uk/france/normandy Book your transport to Normandy with Brittany Ferries: www.brittany-ferries.co.uk
Words and photos by Sarah Baxter
Disclosure: Sarah Baxter was a guest of Normandy Tourism and Brittany Ferries. Sarah had full editorial control of the review, which is written in her own words based on her experience of visiting Caen in the late summer of 2018 for Greentraveller's Guide to Normandy. All opinions are the author's own.