Normandy

Best times to go: Spring, summer or fall. In summer, it can be hot in the interior, but it is pleasant along the coast.

Major Sights

Giverny:   If you are a fan of Monet, a visit to his house and gardens is a must. Note that there is no original art here (all the paintings inside the house are copies) but the gardens are remarkable. Giverny can get very crowded in summer.

Rouen:   The largest city in Normandy. It contains an extensive historic section with traditional half-timbered houses, and multiple significant cathedrals, including the famous one painted many times by Monet. One of our favorite churches is a post-WWII work in the shape of an inverted ship. The ancient stained glass from a church previously on this site has been placed close to eye level in the new church, so it’s brilliant to look at. This church is dedicated to Ste. Jeanne d’Arc, and is located in the square where she was burned.

Cathedral country: Eastern Normandy, Picardie, and the Champagne district contain many of the most glorious cathedrals ever built, all within maybe 100 miles. These would be Amiens, Laon, Reims, and Beauvais (as well as Rouen).   Chartres is nearby too, but on the other side of Paris. More on this later.

Bayeux: After William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings, he ordered the nuns of England to embroider an enormous tapestry to celebrate his victory. The nuns did as ordered, but included some very precise details of the battle (people getting arrow-shot in the neck, or having their limbs hacked up) which constitute the most subversive anti-war propaganda this side of Picasso’s Guernica.

There is a small museum attached, which you should visit before viewing the tapestry – it has some very useful explanations of what you’re going to be looking at.

Bayeux was one of the first French towns liberated on D-Day, and you can visit Bayeux and the nearby Normandy landing beaches in the same day.

Normandy Landing Beaches: Be sure to visit the American cemetery, where there is an over-sized reproduction of the battle maps showing the positions of American and Allied forces on D-Day.

Pointe du Hoc, which was scaled by Texas Rangers early on D-Day, has been left as it was on the day of the invasion.   You can still see the German concrete “pillboxes” (defensive emplacements), albeit often partly blown up from the offshore bombardments.

Mont St. Michel: This monastery, begun in the 8th C, is one of the wonders of the world, and should not be missed. You can wander around on your own, but I strongly recommend taking one of the guided tours (there are several daily tours in English).   In addition to the monastery, one of the principal activities is watching the tides, which are among the biggest in the word (only those in the Bay of Fundy, in Newfoundland, are bigger). They are also among the fastest – during the last ½ hour, they can outrun a horse, and every few years, an overly nonchalant tourist gets caught.   If you can, stay overnight (you will need to reserve in advance, because there are only a couple of inns). The island takes on an other-wordly quality at night, particularly in moonlight.   In the summer, there is also an evening “sound and light” tour of the monastery.

Photos:   please look here

Food and Drink

  • Fish is king here, especially sole. Lieu (whitefish) is also common. Fish is often served in a butter and cream sauce which is less rich than the versions you might have had in the US.
  • Another local favorite is “moules frites” (steamed mussels served with French fries).
  • Chicken and pork are also common here, often with cream sauce, sometimes with apples.
  • Some of the best cheeses in France are made here: Camembert, Brie, Pont L’Eveque. Most of the cheese here is made with raw milk, which gives it a slight tangy flavor quite different from the pasteurized-milk versions of these cheeses available in the US.
  • Normandy is one of the few regions of France which doesn’t produce its own wine, although wine from other parts of France, as well as beer, is available everywhere. Many locals drink cider, made from local apples, a little spritzy and very lightly (2-3%) alcoholic.
  • You can also drink Calvados, a distilled apple brandy that packs a punch.
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