Dotted with villages of half-timbered houses and covered by a neat patchwork of hedgerows, the rolling green countryside of Normandy has a beauty and peace that belie its tumultuous history. Over preceding centuries, numerous wars on Norman territory reflected the unending rivalry between the French and the English. Earlier still, in the 9th century, Viking raids were an incessant menace. Indeed, the word “Norman” itself is derived from “Norsemen.” Weary of the commute to Scandinavia, the invaders eventually settled down and intermarried with the Frankish inhabitants.
For Americans, of course, this northwestern province of France is indelibly associated with the heroic D-Day landings of 1944. Many travelers come to Normandy specifically to see the D-Day beaches and monuments, such as the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc, where American Rangers scaled cliffs to capture key gun emplacements hours prior to the landing. Begin with a visit to the Mémorial de Caen, which features an impressive audiovisual history of the Battle of Normandy.
The Pays d’Auge in the southern part of Normandy is renowned for its rolling hills blanketed in apple orchards. Winding through small towns around Cambremer, the 25-mile Cider Route invites visitors to discover cider and calvados (apple brandy) producers.
Activities in Honfleur
The ancient port town of Honfleur is one of the prettiest in Normandy. Surrounded by 17th- and 18th-century tall, narrow houses and colorful market stalls, its port, Le Vieux Bassin, is charmingly picturesque.
While in town, visit the Musée Eugène Boudin (16 Rue de l’Homme de Bois) to see works by the painter who made the town a cradle of impressionism. The museum’s annex houses the beautiful oak bell tower of the 15th-century Église Sainte-Catherine nearby. I also like to buy delicious Norman specialties at Gribouille, located just a few doors down from the museum.
The small village of Giverny is where impressionist painter Claude Monet lived and worked from 1883 until his death, in 1926. His beautiful house (84 Rue Claude Monet), flower-filled estate and renowned water garden look like a perfectly preserved time capsule.
While in town, save time to visit the delightful Musée des Impressionnismes (99 Rue Claude Monet). The museum displays a selection of canvases by painters influenced by Monet, including works from the colony of American artists who came to Giverny in the 19th century, the Japanese painter Hiramatsu Reiji, Alfred Sisley and others.
The Monaco of Normandy
With its casino, racecourse and polo club, Deauville is often referred to as the “Monaco of Normandy.” This elegant town was home to Coco Chanel’s first shop. After strolling along the boardwalk, rent a deck chair and spend a day on the beach enjoying the sea air.
The Women of Rouen
It is chiefly due to two very different women that Rouen, a wealthy and cultured city, is known to American travelers. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the Place du Vieux-Marché in 1431.
The second, Julia Child, rolled into town following a transatlantic crossing in 1948 and, after eating oysters and sole meunière at La Couronne (31 Place du Vieux Marché), fell in love with French cuisine. Though it was badly damaged during World War II, Rouen still has a charming medieval quarter. The high gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame was a recurring subject for Monet when he lived nearby.