Just like with my adventures in Strasbourg and Colmar, it was also around this time of year that I spent a weekend in the beautiful city of Caen (pronounced “con”), located in Basse-Normandie and is the capital that is dedicated to Guillaume le Conquérant (William the Conqueror). In fact, I went there the weekend after visiting the Alsace region (where Strasbourg and Colmar are located), considering that, apparently, the weekend before just wasn’t enough for me.
At first, I had plans to go to Lyon that weekend, since les fêtes des Lumières (“Festival of Lights”) were taking place then and, considering that it’s famous worldwide, I really wanted to go. I actually had booked tickets and accommodations for that weekend, but unfortunately ended up canceling all of them, due to the fact that the festival got canceled for that year due to les attentats in Paris the month before. There was no point in visiting Lyon then, so I decided not to go. Which was a huge disappointment, but it was understandable under those circumstances.
In any case, I didn’t know what I would be doing that weekend, since I wasn’t going to Lyon anymore. I was set on just staying at home, but then one of my assistante friends in the Normandy region contacted me and asked if I would like to go visit Caen with her then. Considering that the city was on my bucket list (and the fact that I had nothing better to do), I decided to tag along. Granted, I was slightly concerned about spending money than I already was and needing to save up for the upcoming les vacances de Noël, but in the end, I decided just to go for it. In the end, it didn’t cost too much actually, since we took the bus over and split the price for a cheap hotel near the train station.
I woke up early on Friday to catch the bus over to Le Havre (where the assistante lived and where we would be catching the bus over to Caen). However, there was rush-hour traffic (darn!), but eventually made it around the estimated time to the port city. We met up at the bus station, but didn’t know exactly where the bus we were taking was located at, so we actually ended up missing the one that was heading there in the morning. Super frustrating, but there was nothing we could do to change the situation. C’est la France…
Our other option was to wait three, four hours for the next bus to come at noon, which we ended up doing. We spent the morning wandering Le Havre, in the centre ville down to the beach, where the windy, winter breeze was in full effect. Although it was bone-chilling cold, I still enjoyed the pleasant stroll with company.
Eventually, we made it back to the bus station around noon and this time knew exactly where to go for our bus to Caen. Spent the next three hours in transit, passing through Honfleur and Deauville, port cities which I ended up visiting this time around in October (wrote about them here). We finally arrived in Caen around 15h00 and crossed the street over to the budget hotel we’d booked (40 euros per night, and split among the two of us was only 20 euros), checked in, and dropped off our bags before going out again to explore as much as we could of the city before the sun went down at 17h00 (winter hours really put a damper on time spent to explore!).
We made our way into the centre ville by passing along the bridge; we also stopped to admire the sunset along the water, its rays cutting through the barren, winter trees that just made things so golden, so serene despite the late-afternoon traffic from work. For some reason, this moment was so beautiful that it made me fall in love with Caen…even after being there for only an hour or so!
We arrived in the centre ville, where we proceeded to head over to the Abbaye aux Hommes (Men’s Abbey), the city’s iconic monastery founded by William the Conqueror back in 1063. It’s also connected to the hôtel de ville and walking around it, I couldn’t help but admire its majestic, castle-like exterior. The late-afternoon sun hit all of the right spots to make this place absolutely gorgeous!
Just across the block from the Abbaye aux Hommes was the église St-Étienne-le Vieux (Old St. Etienne’s Church), which is quite distinctive with its aqueduct-like extension off to the side of the church building. Very dramatic, especially in the setting sun (really, sunsets make things look so inexplicably stunning!).
Eventually, we wrapped around the historic neighborhood before ending up at the château de Caen, also established by William the Conqueror back in 1060. It was involved during the Hundred Year’s War back in the 14th and 15th centuries, and it was severely damaged in the World War II bombardments. However, much of it proudly remains today, and is the site of two museums: the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Musée de Normandie. Although we didn’t have the time to visit the museums (I’d been interested in checking out the latter), just walking on and inside the courtyard of the once-important site of political affairs in Normandy definitely was rather humbling to experience.
While not the highest point, the château was located on a slope, and so we were able to get a sort of elevated view of the city. Also saw église Saint-Pierre right across from the thriving city center.
We kept wandering the city until it was around dinnertime, and then we headed over to a restaurant near the Abbaye aux Dames (Women’s Abbey, which we would visit the following day) and got a three-course meal with a kir wine apéritif at a tavern-style joint. Had a bit of a tiff with the waiter (who had overcharged us with the meal, but I think it was an accident. Still, miscommunication wasn’t fun to deal with!), but eventually we got charged correctly and headed back to our hotel, arriving back close to 21h00. We were spent after a whole day of traveling and walking, so we went to bed right after that.
The next morning, we headed out to the Mémorial de Caen, a war museum memorial that was located in the outskirts of the city center (easily a forty-minute walk over). Passed through some quiet residential neighborhoods and a lovely park before arriving in front of the famous sailor-kissing-woman statue, titled the “Unconditional Surrender,” which was constructed just recently, in 2014, and modeled after the famous 1945 photograph V-J Day in Times Square. Interestingly enough, the plaque right next to the monument challenges this notion of the woman receiving the kiss, as the story behind it recounts her claiming that she’d been forced upon by the sailor (who was a stranger) during the parade toasting the end of war, but eventually gave in to the act among the happiness and revelry of the celebration. Especially from a feminist viewpoint, this image is controversial in that it blurs the lines between willpower and being forced from it to give men pleasure. Quite the irony, but it was fascinating that I’d never thought about this “other side” to the famous moment in history (I’d assumed that the two people were a couple, that’s why).
We didn’t stay too long at the memorial and shortly thereafter, we walked back to the centre ville, where we then headed to check out the Abbaye aux Dames, also built in the late 11th century by William the Conqueror, along with his wife, Matilda. As its name suggests, the abbey was exclusively for women, since back in the day both genders attended separate church services.
We returned to the château de Caen, since we’d wanted to visit the Musée de Normandie. However, we arrived around noon, so it was closed for “lunch break” until 14h00 (darn!). We decided to forgo it and just head back to Le Havre. Took the 15h20 bus back, arriving there in the evening and from there, I caught the last bus back to my small town.
…and that was my short weekend in Caen! Overall, I found it to be a very beautiful city, rich in history and architecture which, personally, offers more than Rouen in my region. It’s just right for a weekend trip over, but no more than that; I was able to see more or less everything in that one night we stayed. I actually returned for the day in February with the same assistante friend, but we were just there in passing after a weekend at the D-Day beaches and le Mont Saint-Michel; all we did was visit le jardin botanique de Caen, which interestingly has been around since the 18th century!
Any case, Caen remains one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited in Normandy, and I would recommend travelers to make a trip over sometime while in the area. More travel posts to come soon, so stay tuned!