Normandy! The name brings a dozen different images to mind: William the Conqueror, the D-Day landings, Mont-St-Michel; the bleak landscape of the Cotentin coast, the sparkling summertime playground of the Côte Fleurie; sumptuous châteaux, historic abbeys, famous gardens; the orchards of the Auge, the picture-postcard scenery of the Suisse Normande; Monet’s home at Giverny, the Cabourg immor- talized by Proust – or perhaps it’s cider, calvados and camembert. If you are coming from England, you can get to Normandy using one of the car ferries to France. But if you are coming from other parts of the world, a train or plane would probably be the most suitable option.
So given the above, it looks like no matter how much time you will designate to your holiday to Normandy, chances are, you will barely scratch the surface of this rich and rewarding region. But if you are short of time here are the top 3 picks.
One of the most spectacular sights in Normandy, this craggy rock crowned by a magnificent abbey appears to erupt from the surrounding landscape – a broad expanse of sand or sea, depending on the dramatic tides. The region’s star attraction since pilgrims first flocked here 1,000 years ago, it now draws some three million visitors each year – and has perhaps 50 true inhabitants.
According to legend, St Michael, the archangel, appeared three times in a dream to Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, commanding him to build an oratory on Mont Tombe (tomb on the hill). When Aubert delayed, the impatient archangel prodded a finger into Aubert’s forehead, leaving a dent. Aubert’s church rapidly became a centre of pilgrimage for the miquelots, followers of the cult of St Michael, which had taken root in the West in the 5th century.
The brightly gilded statue on top of the abbey spire, sculpted in 1897 by Emmanuel Frémiet, portrays the archangel in traditional fashion (below). Armour-clad, he is slaying a dragon (symbol of the devil) with his sword. In his other hand he carries a set of scales – a reference to the medieval belief that it was his role to weigh the souls on Judgment Day. The Archangel Michael is the warlike angel of the Apocalypse, who slays the devil – in the form of a dragon – in the great conflict at the end of time. In Normandy, he is the patron saint of mariners.
Both a unique historical document and an astonishing work of art, the Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 – and it tells it with thrilling narrative drive. Stitched in eight brilliant shades of red, yellow and blue wool, the 58 strip-cartoon-style scenes were embroidered just 11 years after the Conquest onto a single 230 ft (70 m) linen cloth – at the behest, it is thought, of William the Conquerer’s half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. It is displayed in a renovated seminary, preceded by helpful explanatory exhibitions.
A slide show projected onto billowing white “sails” describes the Viking invasions of western Europe. Next, echoing the Tapestry itself, an 85 m (280 ft) band of cloth explains the story told by the embroidery. Using life-size figures, maps and scale models (including a delightful model of the village of East Meon), William’s
influence on every sphere of English life after his conquest is cleverly portrayed.
Seductively pretty, with cobbled streets and half-timbered or slate-fronted houses, Honfleur is a working port with a long maritime history. First mentioned in documents of the 11th century, by the 15th it had become a significant fortified port. Its heyday came some 200 years later, when it spawned intrepid explorers like Samuel de Champlain, who set out from here to found Québec. Le Vieux Bassin, the charming old dock at the heart of the town, is brimming with colourful sailing boats; artists have flocked here since the 19th century.
Turner, Corot, Courbet, Daubigny, Dubourg, Jongkind, Monet and the Impressionists, the Fauves, Dufy, Friesz – these and countless others were drawn to Honfleur by the special quality of light in the Seine estuary, the unspoilt medieval town, and the beauty of the surrounding countryside – the same reasons that Honfleur has a thriving artists’ colony today.
Normandy is a culturally rich region and it is definitely worth spending some time here. And budget restriction should certainly not stop anybody from visiting. Although getting from England to France by train can be expensive, and to be honest, not very interesting (ok, maybe once for the sake of ticking the experience off your bucket list), a far more interesting choice is taking a cheap ferry to France. It doesn’t take that long either, and it can be a relaxing time spent in good company. I’ve always found ferries to be quite charming and the idea of being surrounded by water (maybe watching a beautiful sunset at the horizon) sounds simply magical. It can be a surreal experience. All you need is to let go and enjoy. By the time you will get to France, you will already be in the right mood for your holiday.