A Land of Plenty.
Stretching for 375 miles along the coast between the northernmost and westernmost arms of France, Normandy covers a territory that is roughly the size of Maryland and incorporates five counties, or départements (see below). Bracketed between the regions of Northern France and Brittany, it is home to 3.2 million people who are known for their thriftiness, determination and penchant for hard work. Their sea-faring traditions have made them open to the world, and you will find that Normands are very friendly indeed.
The Normandy coastline with its 33 sailing harbors is a study in contrasts. North of the Seine estuary, the chalky cliffs of the Côte d’Albâtre, or Alabaster Coast, are worn by the action of the tides, leaving treacherous, needle-like rocks and underwater shelves in the sea. Dieppe, Fécamp and Etretat are fishing ports whose natural attractions have made them seaside resorts since the 19th century.
An Artist’s Paradise.
Spanning the mouth of the Seine River near Le Havre is the Normandy Bridge, whose technology has been copied for Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge near Tampa. With a total length of 1.33 miles and a central span of 2,853 feet, it is the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge. Across the bridge, the Côte Fleurie, or Flowered Coast, is home to picturesque fishing villages and elegant resorts.
Honfleur is a fishing port that has been an artist colony since the heyday of impressionism. In a nearby inn, the Ferme Saint-Siméon, Jongkind, Monet, Corot and Boudin shared brushes and glasses of cidre while recreating the deep blue of the sky, the white of the clouds, the rich greens of the meadows and the gray of the sea. Honfleur’s harbor facility, the Lieutenance, bears a plaque recalling Samuel de Champlain’s departure to conquer Canada 400 years ago, and there is a spectacular wooden church and separate steeple (Sainte-Catherine) that was erected by ship builders.
Elegant Resorts on a Flowered Coast.
Built along a splendid beach of fine golden sand, Trouville-sur-Mer is the seaside resort that launched the Côte Fleurie. The nearby stylish resort of Deauville has been fashionable since the days of the Napoleon III's Second Empire. Known the world over for its boardwalk, races and casino, the town has added an international conference center that hosts the American Film Festival every September. It is also horse country: it has been Europe’s leading venue for yearling auctions since 1887 and its Polo Grounds compete with Buenos Aires to attract the game’s best players.
Also created under Napoleon III, Cabourg has kept its elegant clientele. Marcel Proust was a frequent visitor and his novel Within a Budding Grove describes life and customs at the turn of the 20th century in his adopted town, renamed Balbec in the book.
The D-Day Landings.
On the stretch of coast from Deauville to the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula one can still tour the sites that once witnessed the fierce D-Day battles: Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah and Omaha Beaches and Pointe du Hoc. On a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach is the American Military Cemetery, whose 9,385 perfectly aligned crosses and stars are poignant reminders of the events that shaped Western history.
In the little harbor of Arromanches-les-Bains (Utah Beach), the D-Day Museum has been built on the very site of the artificial port installed for the Allied Forces’ landing (its remains can still be seen a few hundred feet from the shore). Animated models, videos and films relate the incredible technical challenge involved in its construction.
Inland on the Cotentin Peninsula, the town of Sainte-Mère-l’Eglise was the setting for the landing of American airborne troops. In the town’s square is the first of the 12,000 symbolic milestones labeled "Normandie Terre-Liberté"(Normandy Land of Liberty) planted along the Voie de la Liberté (Road of Liberty) followed by General Patton’s troops to occupied Lorraine and Belgium.
To the west are the sandy beaches of the bracing Côte de Nacre (www. cotenormande.com) or Mother-of-Pearl Coast, that surrounds the Cotentin Peninsula. On its northern shore is Cherbourg, which claims the world’s largest artificial harbour, built in 1776. On the western coast of Cotentin is Granville, the birthplace of Christian Dior, whose family house has been turned into a museum of 20th-century fashion.
France’s Third Most Popular Attraction.
The last point on the coast before Brittany is the Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel, one of the Marvels of the Western World and a shrine long before its church and abbey were constructed. The jewel in the crown of Normandy’s architectural treasures, the abbey was built in the early 8th century on a granite rock in the middle of a bay and includes rooms that are masterpieces of medieval architecture. It is France’s third most popular attraction after Paris and Versailles.
A Magnet for American Artists.
The Seine River is the great artery of Normandy and its valley is covered by a thick layer of alluvial soil that forms the areas of Vexin, Pays d’Auge and Campagne de Neubourg. To the north, a limestone plateau stretches between the Seine and the coast to form Pays de Caux and Pays de Bray.
In the Seine Valley a mere 48 miles from Paris, Giverny is the site of Monet’s house and garden–including the famous water lilies bridge–that are preserved as a museum to the artist. Next to it is the more recent Musée d’Art Américain. Acting as a center for American art in France, the museum presents a large number of exhibitions of American art of all periods, as well as a variety of related programs, including conferences, concerts and art classes.
Halfway to the coast is the Jumièges Abbey that soars 150 feet above a bend in the Seine River. Built in the 7th century, Jumièges counted at one point over 2,000 monks but was destroyed during the Revolution. Nestled in a park with majestic trees, it is still a great example of Norman Romanesque art.
Although Rouen is forever associated with Joan of Arc, who was burned alive on the city’s main square, the city is of interest to the modern visitor. Its most popular monument is the Gros-Horloge (Big Clock) that used to adorn a medieval belfry but is now installed on a street with attractive 16th-century half-timbered houses.
Horse Breeding: The Pride of Normandy.
Open country and woodlands make up the balance of Normandy’s hinterland and include the areas of Bessin, Perche, Cotentin and Suisse Normande (although none of its peaks matches Switzerland’s mountains). Numerous fortified chateaux evoke an affluent life style generated by a fertile land. Today some of these estates are home to the world’s best stud farms, drawn to the area’s climate and the quality of grass. Racing stables owned by famous names such as Niarchos, Aga Khan and Rothschild have produced winners on the world’s best-known tracks. These facilities are not open to visitors but Haras du Pin, a superb 18th-century property that has been converted into a top thoroughbred facility near Argentan, welcomes visitors one afternoon a week in summer.
Closer to the coast and not far from the D-Day beaches is the Château de Balleroy. Built in 1631 by the celebrated architect Mansart, the castle has undergone extensive restoration since Malcolm S. Forbes purchased it in 1970. The outbuildings house the International Ballooning Museum where paintings, models and documents recall the history of ballooning. The city of Falaise is graced by a medieval castle that miraculously survived the ravages of 1944, when 90% of the city was destroyed. William the Conqueror was born in the castle keep in 1027, and grew up to lead his troops to Hastings and become King of England.
The Middle Ages’ Most Accurate Document.
Bayeux has a magnificent cathedral, but it is most famous for the Bayeux Tapestry. Actually a crewel-type wool embroidery on linen, the hanging was made in the 11th century to record in detail the events of Duke William the Conqueror's expedition to England. The story unfolds over 230 feet on a strip of cloth 1.5 feet high and concludes with a gripping depiction of the Battle of Hastings. In the town of Clécy, heart of Suisse Normande, is a 15th -century manor that serves as a museum of old Normandy.
Normandy is actually divided in 2 regions and they include the following five départements:
- Calvados (14)
- Manche (50)
- Eure (27)
- Seine-Maritime (76)
- Le Havre. France’s leading commercial port with a terminal for ferries to England and Ireland. It is a remarkable example of post-war reconstruction.
- Rouen. The capital of Upper Normandy and a dynamic river port on the Seine, it is also the hometown of Pierre Corneille, the 17th-century father of the classical drama.
- Evreux. Its old ramparts, cathedral and 15th-century belfry were spared from the ravages of World War II.
- Dieppe. France’s oldest seaside resort where a monument commemorates the men of Dieppe who explored Canada in the 16th, 17th and 18 century.
- Alençon. The city has a rich architectural heritage and has been a center for fine lace since King Louis XIV.
- Cherbourg. On the north shore of the Contentin peninsula, it is a port of call for the Cunard Line ships on their way to New York and a French Navy base.
- Lisieux. There are several shrines here to Sister Theresa, a nun in the local Carmelite convent, who became a saint in 1925.
- St. Lo. The city played a strategic role in the Battle of Normandy and recovered from its wounds to become a modern city.
- Bayeux. In spite of its proximity to fierce battle sites, the cathedral still keeps watch over a charming old-fashioned town and its tapestry (also known as Queen Mathilda’s Tapestry).