Salut, mes amis!
Perhaps when you think of Normandy, you assume nothing but D-Day landing beaches during World War II. Or maybe you imagine cold, windy Atlantic-coast weather all year-round. Not to forget its stinky, but tasty Camembert cheese.
…well, you assumed right.
Yet, there’s so much more to this distinctive region in northwest France. Besides the history and the chilly, rainy weather, there’s also a sort of charm to it. From its rural, lush-green countryside to its quaint, medieval architecture, Normandy has so much to offer in terms of visiting (even living in) there. Plus, there’s the sea…although it’s not the same kind of atmosphere as that I’m used to (being Los Angeles born and bred), I enjoy being able to go to the beach, even when far away from home!
Geographically (and administratively) speaking, Normandy used to be divided into two regions–Upper Normandy and Lower Normandy– until just recently (January 1st, 2016), when they were united together into one, big Normandy. Having been to both regions before and after the unification, I can say that there’s a distinction between the two, in terms of weather (for some reason, I find Lower Normandy colder than Upper), size (Upper Normandy is smaller and more compact than Lower), and cuisine (Lower Normandy has the famous, but strong Camembert cheese and Calvados apple brandy).
I admit, I didn’t know much about Normandy when I applied to teach there as a language assistant, except for those assumptions stated at the beginning of the post. But I chose it, anyway, and spent the next eight months living and working there. During my time, I traveled a good amount throughout the region and discovered so many different places that I hadn’t even heard of, let alone vaguely recalled from tourism websites I looked up to see what was there to do there.
With that said, I’ve decided to make a list of the top things to see in Normandy. From the famous to the lesser-known hot spots of this region, perhaps you’ll be inspired to go there for your next vacation (which I would highly recommend!). Get ready for some bright, eye-popping scenery porn from this lovely, picturesque coastal region of France!
1. Caen. As a city dedicated to the famous William the Conqueror, Caen (pronounced “con”), is steeped in tons of medieval history dating all the way back to the 11th century. From the Men’s Abbey (l’Abbaye aux Hommes) to the Caen Castle (Château de Caen), this second-largest city in Normandy is home to plenty of good architecture, as well as a decent night life, since the University of Caen is situated nearby (and college life, you know…).
There’s also the Mémorial de Caen, which is dedicated to World War II and, generally speaking, the history of violence and subsequent peace. Some of my personal favorites when I visited were the Abbey of St-Étienne and the botanical gardens of Caen (the latter dating all the way back to the late 17th century!).
2. Étretat. One of the most touristic places to visit in Upper Normandy, Étretat is famous for its incredible, jaw-dropping views of white cliffs along the turquoise waters of the English channel. The cliffs are so well-known that painters such as Claude Monet (my personal favorite artist) and writers like Maurice Leblanc (who wrote the Arsène Lupin novels) were inspired by them for their works. Even the famous French author Guy de Maupassant spent his childhood over there.
Really, aside from hiking along the cliffs and stopping by the touristy town center for lunch and souvenirs, there’s nothing else to Étretat. It’s all just beautiful scenery, and sometimes, it can be a good thing to pass the afternoon idly with a glass of wine, some good company, and a view of the the magnificent, three-arched cliffs.
3. Giverny. Famous for having the garden and home of French Impressionist Claude Monet, Giverny draws huge crowds of tourists (domestic and international alike) to its tiny town every year from spring through fall (the Fondation Monet is closed in the winter, reopening in late March). This is the place which inspired much of Monet’s paintings that we’ve grown to know and respect today, from the iconic bridge in the Japanese garden to the colorful flowers blossoming over and along the archways leading to the painter’s home.
You can easily spend an afternoon, even a whole day, at the Fondation Monet; it’s easily an hour train-ride away from Paris or forty minutes from Rouen, whichever direction you choose to come from. There’s no direct stop at Giverny; instead, you get off at Vernon, then take a shuttle bus over to the place (or walk the four kilometers over from Vernon). Definitely buy your tickets in advance, since lines will no doubt be long as heck. Enjoy both the home and the gardens, and take plenty of photos (of course)!
4. Landing beaches of Normandy. This doesn’t highlight a specific location, but rather a stretch of ocean across the entire Lower Normandy region, since there were many different landing places from World War II from all of the American, British, and Canadian soldiers who came and risked their lives for the war effort. When I went with a fellow teaching assistant in February (mind you, it was chilly af!), we only explored Omaha Beach, since it was one of the two American beaches (and us, being American, found it most relevant). However, there are also Gold Beach and Juno Beach to visit for the British and Canadians, respectively.
Walking further down the long stretch of the Atlantic coast, you will make it to the Normandy American Cemetery, which is surprisingly owned by the U.S. government (France has granted it a permanent concession to the land); in other words, consider it a piece of the United States…in France! It’s very humbling to walk through the cemetery and see the tombstones of the lives lost, even if your family didn’t serve in the army. If I’d thought that patriotism was dead in my heart (considering these upcoming elections, that is, *ahem* Donald Trump), then it was restored upon seeing those monuments.
5. Le Havre. Pronounced “luh-av,” this port city is the largest in size in Upper Normandy, and has been a booming hub for industrial and maritime business since the 1950’s. Le Havre was almost entirely destroyed by the Germans during World War II, and since then was completely rebuilt from scratch; very few of the buildings before war survive today. Designed by architect Auguste Perret, the city was rebuilt using concrete, which people today consider it to be moche, or “ugly.” Personally, I don’t find it ugly at all, but modern compared with other cities in Normandy which weren’t as heavily bombed and still retain most of its old, medieval structures.
While I didn’t live in Le Havre during my time as a language assistant, I wished I did. For one, there was the beach (which I missed dearly since moving to France) and it was more city than what I had while living and working in my small, rural town: there were bars and restaurants, shopping, and other forms of entertainment that I just couldn’t get from where I was at. Whether it was buying groceries at Les Docks or enjoying the pebble-stoned beaches in the afternoon, Le Havre felt like home away from home.
6. Le Mont St-Michel. Since it was an inspiration for The Lord of the Rings films, it comes as no surprise that le Mont St-Michel’s architecture is the stuff of fantasy and fairy tales. This small island is just a few hundred meters off the French coast, and has been used as a fortification for battles, as well as a prison and even a pilgrimage site. The abbey of Mont St-Michel sits at the very top of the island, only accessible by climbing up the narrow, switchback paths to the summit.
The abbey of Mont St-Michel is definitely worth the price (about 9 euros when I went), since there’s a good amount to see besides the church’s nave: there are various rooms throughout the inside of the abbey, from the Knight’s Hall to the cloister. You can spend the whole morning there, and then enjoy the rest of the time at one of the not-cheap, but pretty good restaurants on the mainland. Pro tip: eat the mussels and have yourself a sample of kir normand (an apéritif mixed in with apple cider, a Normand drink).
7. Rouen. If Caen is the city dedicated to William the Conqueror, then Rouen is devoted to Joan of Arc, who was imprisoned and burned at stake there. Situated about halfway between Le Havre and Paris, this medieval city is small, but packed with locals and tourists alike: you’ll see plenty of young, college-age students, for the University of Mont St-Aignan is not too far away (in fact, it’s located a bit outside of the city proper), as well as tourists from England, the U.S., and elsewhere tour this quaint, cobblestone place.
Many people choose to flock to the Gros Horlage, a 14th-century astronomical clock, as well as the Rouen Cathedral (be careful; there are tons of other similar-looking cathedrals in the city, although not as big as this one!) and the Rouen Castle (essential a tower where Joan of Arc was imprisoned). It’s also encouraged to take a scenic walk along the historic, half-timbered buildings, since the city is famous for them, let alone the entire region of Normandy.
…while I’m sure that I’ve missed plenty of other good places to visit in Normandy (including, but not limited to: Deauville, Fécamp, Bayeux, etc.), these are the main ones which people visit. Let me know if you’ve been to any of these places listed or if you intend to go see them! Until later, à bientôt!