On one of my earliest visits to the Normandy coast, I spent an idyllic couple of days exploring the area – newly in love, newly discovering the pleasures of the French table. My husband and I stayed in a small country hotel in Saint-Valery-en-Caux, about 30 kilometres from Dieppe. In the morning, I watched the inn’s chef leave at 10 for the market, returning an hour later with baguettes, vegetables and cheeses. The sun was warm, the streets calm and quiet, the light golden.
It was later when I had returned home that my sister-in-law told me that her father had been captured by German troops in Saint-Valery-en-Caux during the Second World War. Part of the 51st Highland Division, he was taken prisoner in June, 1940 and spent the next four years in a labour camp. Those years marked him for life.
A stone’s throw from our hotel were the white cliffs and stony beach, now calm and washed in sunshine. Time has removed most of the evidence of that dreadful conflict, but traces remain – the 51st Highland Division monument, the French Monument and the War Cemetery. In the Hotel de Ville is a “Scottish” room displaying items from the war – poems, uniforms, commemorative plaques.
Such is the complex draw of Normandy: While the area preserves and honours its memories of conflict, it prides itself on being a place of serene natural beauty, notable historical sites and a venerable culinary abundance. Just a two-hour train ride from Paris, it is a richly layered and battle-scarred part of the country, in many ways a living museum of invasion, conflict and survival.
Reminders of the war linger everywhere along the coast. It is impossible to walk the pebbly beaches at the foot of the chalk cliffs in Dieppe without visualizing the disastrous Allied raids – even though the city is now celebrated for its huge Saturday morning farmers market and as the site of the world’s largest kite festival. First-time visitors may be surprised to learn that – beyond the battlegrounds – Normandy is home to some of France’s prettiest towns and two of its most visited attractions.
Le Havre – on the coast where the Seine meets the English Channel – is one highlight. It was almost entirely rebuilt after the war, but in a fresh direction, with Belgian architect Auguste Perret designing a new modern city built on the bones of the old one. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is a big draw for architecture lovers, particularly aficionados of reinforced concrete architecture and modernist design.
Just across the river, via the Pont de Normandie, is Honfleur, whose old harbour has been painted and photographed innumerable times. Of course, it is just one of the dozens of places in Normandy – some often visited, some less publicized – that have attracted artists because of the coastal light.
Claude Monet’s painting of Le Havre, Impression, Sunrise, gave the impressionist movement its name. He also painted the noble cathedral in Rouen many times, capturing it in every light and every season, and as you walk through the old part of that port city you can easily imagine the artist lingering to perfect his vision. He – and many others, including Gustave Courbet, Georges Seurat, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet – also painted the cliffs of Étretat, a quiet corner of France close enough to Paris to be convenient, but removed enough to paint en plein air in rustic solitude. Fans of Monet must visit Giverny, about 75 kilometres from the capital, which served as his home and studio and is instantly recognizable from his famous works.
The Bayeux Tapestry, embroidered in the 11th century and depicting the events of the Norman invasion of England, is another must-see artistic attraction, on display at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux. The stories told on the nearly 70-metre-long cloth – of war and peace, of the old and the new – weave together to create a profoundly moving narrative.
But perhaps the most iconic attraction in Normandy is Mont Saint-Michel. The island location of a medieval Benedictine abbey constructed in 966, its isolated architectural beauty has lured visitors since it was first built. Do the guided walk across the tidal flats to the island and amble up the narrow streets and ramparts to the top of the abbey. It is always busy but well worth the visit. I stopped at a small street vendor’s cart in one of the lower passageways for a thin crispy crepe, still warm from the grill and filled with whipped cream and caramelized apples, to fuel the climb to the top.
It was a simple but memorable meal, much like the impromptu picnic we had one day on a quiet beach, enjoying slices of fresh baguette, a chunk of runny camembert from a local fromagerie and a plate of tart apples and ripe pears – as close to tasting the region as you can get.
The Norman culinary tradition is a rich one, having evolved in an area abundant in seafood, dairy and fresh produce, and a visitor can savour local specialties in almost every town. Four famous cheeses originated here – the noble camembert, livarot, pont-l’Évêque and neufchâtel – and where better to sample them than close to their origins? Many of the cheesemakers offer tours and tastings.
The area’s ample apple crops have resulted in the production of excellent ciders and the dangerously delicious calvados, an apple brandy perfect as a tipple on its own, but lovely in crêpes, laced into a chicken fricassee or drizzled over a tarte. Salt-meadow-raised lamb, a seafood stew called marmite Dieppoise and solette, thin fillets of sole quickly grilled in butter and lemon, are some other treats of the local table.
Thank goodness the best way to truly appreciate the region is via a leisurely exploration by bike or on foot. Lingering around it all – the half-timbered thatch-roofed chaumières (country cottages), sloping beaches, historic abbeys and war memorials – allows one to witness up close how traces of the past blend seamlessly with the modern story of today’s Normandy.
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