As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Normandy, Paul Bloomfield picks out a selection of local attractions in this glorious part of northern France.
It’s no surprise that history looms large in this part of France. Large, and long: with Norman castles and abbeys dominating many parts, echoes of William the Conqueror and Richard the Lionheart ring across the landscape. But the intervening centuries haven’t been too quiet. The famed abbey was built and expanded on Mont St-Michel; lacemakers perfected their art in Alençon; the new liqueur, Bénédictine, was created to a secret recipe; pedigree horses were bred and trained, artists inspired and the Allied invasion successfully completed via the D-Day landing beaches.
You can explore the past at castles and cathedrals, floating harbours and horse studs, Monet’s garden and the museum housing the incredible Bayeux Tapestry. We’ve provided practical details to help you visit and enjoy ten of the most fascinating attractions in Normandy.
The Mont Saint-Michel
With its needle-spired abbey piercing the sky above scores of medieval buildings tumbling down the sides of its rocky island, the sight of The Mont Saint-Michel reflected in the waters of its eponymous bay is one of the world’s great spectacles. Founded on the directions of a divine vision in AD 708, the oratory – now a mighty abbey – on the Mont has drawn pilgrims for 13 centuries. Today it’s more magical than ever: with the removal of the causeway and removal of silt around its flanks, the Mont is, at high tides, an island once more. Climb the winding Grand Rue, lined with half-timbered houses, to explore the mesmerising abbey church, in part dating from the 11th century. ot-montsaintmichel.com/
Haras National du Pin (national stud)
The ‘Versailles of the Horse’ is a 1,000-hectare estate in the Orne Valley, a legacy of Louis XIV’s decision to move the royal stud here from Saint-Léger. Created to produce the finest horses for military use and for royal enjoyment at Versailles itself, the château of Le Pin, stables and other buildings are themselves fascinating to discover. But most absorbing is a visit to the 40 or so breeding stallions of the finest pedigrees, representing 10 different breeds, either on a guided tour or the self-guided Discovery Trail. Visit on a Thursday and you might enjoy a horse-riding display, while races and other special events take place over the summer. haras-national-du-pin.com/
A detailed historical document? Extravagant Norman propaganda? Or the world’s most famous graphic novel? Stretching 70m and incorporating 58 key scenes in the unfolding saga of William’s conquest of England, the tapestry – actually a fine piece of embroidery, probably commissioned in 1077 by William’s half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux – is fascinating as much for the border details as the main episodes. Look for Halley’s Comet and men grilling brochettes (skewers). The tapestry is displayed in an excellent museum with insightful commentary. The town of Bayeux is itself worth exploring in depth, with its massive medieval cathedral, museum commemorating the WWII Battle of Normandy and nearby war cemetery. The Saturday morning market brings together local producers of traditional food.
More than eight centuries since it was built, the remains of the bastion ordered by Richard the Lionheart in 1196 still loom over the twin towns of Grand and Petit Andely. With walls 4m thick and a virtually impregnable eyrie above the winding Seine, Château Gaillard was Richard’s redoubt against the incursions of King Philippe-Auguste of France into Normandy. Wander the streets of riverside Petit Andely, between its half-timbered old houses and fine restaurants, then climb to the castle for spectacular panoramas across the Seine. There are fine walks in the area, and frequent medieval-themed events in the castle itself.
Fondation Monet/Claude Monet’s Home and Gardens
The pioneer of the impressionist movement bought his house in Giverny in 1883, and spent half his life here. In its colourful rooms and, particularly, the two enchanting gardens he created, he drew inspiration for some of his most memorable works – and a visit shows why: the dreamlike Jardin d’Eau (Water Garden) is particularly evocative, with its water lilies, pool and Japanese bridge still mesmerising nearly a century after he died. Visitors enter through the studio where he daubed his Nymphéas (Water Lilies) series, then explore the house, decorated in vibrant yellows and blues, admiring the Japanese prints that influenced his work.
Le Palais Bénédictine, Fécamp
This fishing town set amid the soaring white cliffs of the Côte d’Albâtre owes its fame to two miraculous liquids. The first, a drop of Christ’s blood, reputedly floated here in a tree trunk; its arrival sparked the construction, under Richard the Lionheart, of the 12th-century Abbatiale de la Sainte-Trinité, a wonderful abbey church. The second was the creation in 1510 of a secret elixir, a concoction devised by the Benedictine monk Dom Bernardo Vincelli using herbs including angelica, hyssop and 25 other (still secret!) ingredients. Centuries later, in 1863, the recipe was rediscovered by Alexander Le Grand, and the production of Bénédictine liqueur began. Visit the museum to admire works of art and temporary exhibitions, the distillery and the drink itself – try a sample or even join a cocktail-making class. en.normandie-tourisme.fr/museums-and-heritage-sites/the-benedictine-palace-2/
Two millennia of history seep through the streets of this ancient city, founded in the 1st century AD, laid out in 911 by Duke Rollo, the viking founder of Normandy, and site of the trial of Joan of Arc in the 15th century, it was severely damaged during WWII. Historic highlights include the spectacular Notre Dame Cathedral, with a 151m-tall spire that was, when built in 1822, the tallest in France; the Gros Horloge, the gilded 14th-century clock that’s the country’s oldest; and the Aître-Maclou, the grimly fascinating medieval plague charnel-house. The city’s artistic heritage is well represented at the Musée des Beaux Arts, with a fine selection of impressionist works and other pieces from the past six centuries. Two new attractions make a visit even more memorable: the Panorama XXL (www.panoramaxxl.com), a giant 31m-high rotunda displaying the world’s largest circular artworks, like a vast camera obscura; and the Joan of Arc History Museum, housed in the 15th-century archbishop’s palace. rouentourisme.com/
Parc Naturel Régional des Boucles de la Seine
West of Rouen, the Seine meanders in a series of exaggerated loops for 180km to the coast at Le Havre, forming swathes of wetlands – the 4500-hectare Marais Vernier – and watering the verdant Forêt de Brotonne. The Curves of the Seine Natural Park encompasses these habitats, along with delightful villages and the remains of medieval abbeys – visit the ruins at Jumièges, Saint-Wandrille or Saint Georges de Boscherville. At Moisson, the Base de Loisirs et de Plein Air is a 25-hectare outdoor playground offering climbing walls, tennis courts, archery, mountain-biking trails and windsurfing and sailing on the lake. pnr-seine-normande.com/
Parc Naturel Régional des Marais du Cotentin et du Bessin
This area spanning some 250 sq km of low-lying marshland, rivers and canals on the Cotentin Peninsula is a haven for birds – look for white storks, Montagu’s and marsh harrierr, lapwings, yellow wagtails, whinchats and bitterns. The Baie des Veys is an important staging post for migratory species flying between the Arctic and west Africa, and welcomes various gulls, waders and ducks. Spring and summer see wetland meadows spangled with orchids and other blooms. This is fine territory for walking and cycling, and there are opportunities for canoeing and kayaking, too. parc-cotentin-bessin.fr/
Parc Naturel Régional du Perche
Probably the least populated part of Normandy, the Perche is still dominated by rolling hills topped with forests of oak, beech and ash. Now largely protected by a huge natural park covering nearly 2,000 sq km, the Perche remains a slow-moving, rural region where the forests of Reno-Valdieu, Bellême, Trappe and Senonches seem unchanged in centuries. Ancient megaliths lurk among the trees, along with red squirrels, wild boar, black woodpeckers and roe deer; in spring you’ll find carpets of bluebells while in autumn mushrooms emerge – join an expert for some fungi-foraging in Bellême forest. It’s also famed for its apple orchards, producing wonderful cider and calvados. Some 1,000km of marked trails crisscross the Perche, so it’s perfect for walkers and cyclists – or you can explore on a guided nature trek on a horse-drawn carriage. parc-naturel-perche.fr/en
Though perhaps not as similar to Switzerland as the wistful name suggests, this region of crag-lined hills and woods, alongside the gorge of the Orne River south of Thury-Harcourt, is an attractive patch of countryside to explore – ideally by bike (be aware of the many hills!) or kayak. Both Thury-Harcourt and Clécy have outfits renting canoes, kayaks and mountain bikes, while the latter is also the place to head for hang-gliding. Walkers follow the trails up the 205m-high Pain de Sucre massif – and you can enjoy a ride astride a donkey to take the strain off the climb suisse-normande-tourisme.com
Parc Naturel Régional Normandie-Maine
Straddling the border of Normandy and Maine regions, this natural park was founded in 1975 and celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2015. Like other parks in Normandy, the many trails beckon walkers, cyclists and horse-riders through forests bustling with deer and the occasional wild boar, while overhanging crags tempt rock-climbers and kayakers paddle streams and rivers. There are plentiful reminders of times past, too – ruined castles such as the crumbling remains at Domfront, and even echoes of neolithic times in the tall banked-up hedges demarking the bocage farming landscape. parc-naturel-normandie-maine.fr/
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