France is much larger than many of us imagine, both in geographic area and cultural diversity. Similar to when selecting dishes from the menu of a fine restaurant, so too should travelers choose a region of the country that will satisfy their palate and give them a good enough understanding of the country itself. Those who choose Normandy, one of France’s many distinct regions, will not be disappointed as it offers unique landscape, its own interesting history and sites, as well as its own distinct culture and cuisine. There is no doubt that for recent generations, Normandy is initially associated with World War II and the D-Day invasion, followed by the subsequent bloody battles before the Germans finally retreated. As it happens, Normandy’s associations with warriors goes back far earlier than WWII, and in fact its very name is derived from an early wave of invaders – the Northmen; the Northmen of France may be more familiar to you as the Normans who invaded England. Despite its ‘warrior’ past, today it is a very peaceful region of contemporary France that charms all of its visitors with fine old cities, striking buildings, good food and drink, gentle terrain, and varied vegetation.
At 11,600 square miles/30,100 sq. kms, Normandy is just a bit smaller than the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined, and half as big as Wales. The Seine River winds its way through Normandy on its way to the English Channel, and enters at a large estuary between Le Havre and Honfleur. There is a fair amount of industry along the lower course of the Seine including oil refineries, chemical plants, and textile mills; the rest of Normandy is farmland and gentle hills. The Normandy farmland is famous for its high and thick hedgerows that partition the fields – this is what caused the Allied soldiers considerable trouble as the Germans retreated behind them. Its relatively humid climate also supports many of the dairy cows that supply the milk and cheese for which Paris is renowned. Although Normandy is not a wine-producing region, it makes up for it with its fine cider and apple brandy known as calvados. Normandy is also known for its horse breeding, and its long coast that hosts many fishermen and their catch including turbot and various crustaceans such as oysters. It is also noteworthy to mention that the Channel Islands – of which Jersey and Guernsey are the best known – historically belonged to Normandy. When the Normans conquered England, the Norman kings took the islands over under the English crown and since then, ironically, they have remained as British dependencies. Today, although most residents speak English, French is the official language on Jersey, and many inhabitants are of Norman descent and speak a Norman patois and practice Norman customs.
Normandy rebuilt itself and today visitors will essentially be unaware of any of the war years of the region’s history, with exception of the Allied cemeteries and the memorials dedicated to events that occurred here, as well as the fortifications still visible on coast. Having said this, many visitors do however come to Normandy to visit these cemeteries, as well as the sites of some of the most famous engagements. For example, Saint-Lô, Caen and Sainte-Mère-Église, where American paratroopers carried out one of the more successful operations during the night of D-Day. The American cemetery and memorial is near Omaha Beach; there are also four British and Commonwealth cemeteries – at Bayeux, Ranville, Banneville-la Campagne, and Saint-Manvieu Cheux and the Canadians have two cemeteries – Bény-sur-Mer and Bretteville-sur-Laize.
Driving through the countryside of Normandy, stopping at the smaller towns and villages, dropping into the small churches and older buildings, sampling local food and drink is definitely the best way to experience Normandy. There are of course several larger historic cities that attract visitors, including Le Havre, Cherbourg, Honfleur, and of course the region’s capital of Rouen. All of these cities offer visitors an authentic look at local life in Normandy, while each provides something unique and interesting relative to their individual history. For those interested in the culture of the region, arguably the best known artistic locale in Normandy are Claude Monet’s gardens at Giverny where he lived and painted for many years; his studies of the Cathedral at Rouen are equally revered as icons of the Impressionist movement. Gustave Flaubert, the 19th century novelist, and Pierre Corneille, the 17th century dramatist were both born in Rouen. Several other French writers came from Normandy like Guy de Maupassant, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Reading some of these writers’ works is a great way to learn more about this fascinating region of France.
Route 1: Touring Historical Normandy
It is inevitable that most people initially associate Normandy with World War II, however there are many more things about Normandy than most realize. Many painters including Poussin, Gericault, Millet, Dufy, and the Duchamp brothers were from Normandy, and many other French and foreign painters have been drawn here to paint. Have you heard of the Bayeux Tapestry, the famous casino at Deauville, and Monet’s gardens at Giverny? All of these locales and several more await visitors to Normandy, all of which can be visited as a two-day round-trip some 485 miles/775 kms from Paris.
Driving north from Paris to Rouen about 40 miles/64 kms, you may want to stop before Rouen to visit Claude Monet’s gardens at Giverny – this is where he lived and painted for many years. The largest city in Normandy with some 520,000 inhabitants in its metropolitan area, Rouen occupies both banks of the Seine River and serves as the port for the import and export of goods to and from Paris; as such it is a highly industrialized city, but it continues to attract visitors because of its role in European history. The capital of Normandy since the 10th century, Rouen was occupied by the English during the Hundred Years War between 1419 and 1449, and it was during this time that Jean d’Arc in 1431, after being tried for heresy in Rouen, was burnt at the stake here.
Although it suffered greatly from the bombings and artillery during World War II, Rouen managed to restore its major buildings and its reputation as “the city of a hundred spires.” The Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame (12th - 15th century) is particularly famous for two of its spires. The first is the so-called Tower of Butter that was erected in the 16th century at a time when butter was forbidden during Lent – the wealthy that contributed to building this tower were allowed to eat butter. Then in 1876, a second cast iron spire was added, making it the tallest building in the world for the next four years, until the tower of the Cathedral of Cologne in Germany surpassed it. The 14th century Church of Saint-Ouen is especially admired for its 16th century stained glass windows, while the Church of Saint-Maclou is known for its flamboyant 15th century Gothic style. Also noteworthy is the Palace of Justice that dates to the 12th - 15th century, and the Gros Horloge or the grand clock tower that dates to the 14th century.
Now head due west to the coast and the delightful port town of Honfleur. With its many surviving old wooden houses, its 15th century wooden church, its museum of Norman art and ethnography, and its picturesque 17th century harbor, Honfleur never fails to charm its visitors. It also happens to be the port from which so many navigators and explorers set out in the 16th and 17th centuries to explore North America, among them Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain; it is also a homeport for many fishermen, who supply Paris with its famous seafood. From Honfleur take the scenic coast road known as the Corniche Normande northeast 10 miles/16 kms to Deauville – one of the most fashionable resorts of France. Deauville’s casino and racetrack are what attract many but its beach and boardwalk, and many cafes and restaurants are also very satisfying. Deauville is also noted for its annual Festival of American Films, held for 10 days every September.
From here proceed some 30 miles/48 kms to the small town of Bayeux, if not for its museum dedicated to the Battle of Normandy, then to view the Bayeux Tapestry, the centerpiece of its own museum. Some 230 feet (70 meters) long, and 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) wide, its 50 scenes depict the events leading up to the Norman invasion of England and then the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Strictly speaking it is not a tapestry, it is embroidery and its linen panels are embroidered with colored woolen yarn. Scholars continue to debate just who was responsible for making this, but it is certainly one of the marvels of the medieval ages and anyone who has come to Normandy should make the effort to see this important piece of historic art.
Another marvel of the medieval world, and today an UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Mont Saint-Michel, the fortified Benedictine monastery perched on a tidal islet only 0.6 miles/1 km off the coast of Normandy. It is a “tidal islet” because it could be reached safely only when the tide was out; today there is a causeway that allows cars and pedestrians to approach it from the coastal town of Pontorson. Although there had been fortifications and a monastery on this islet since the sixth century, the present monastery was started in the 8th century and had many additions during the next five centuries. It sits some 300 feet/92 meters above sea level, while below and around it are the structures of the community that once supported the monastery. This brings your historic exploration of Normandy to an end and you can choose to head back directly to Paris at some 200 miles/320 km away or continue exploring some of the picturesque towns and villages of the countryside.
Route 2: Normandy of World War II
If you are visiting Normandy with an interest in its modern history, then this route is for you. Visit the infamous D-Day beaches, sites, and the cemeteries where many thousands of troops are buried – soldiers who died in the early months of campaign to drive the Germans back.
For those who may not know about the events that happened on June 6, 1944, here is a short account of what happened on this important day in history. Parachutists and glider-borne Americans, together with British troops arrived first in the dark early morning hours dropped well behind enemy lines; at 6:30 AM, the sea born troops began landing along the 32/50 km mile stretch of beach where sections were assigned to different nations’ armies. Starting from the west, Utah and Omaha (USA), Gold (British), Juno (Canada), and Sword (British); some Free French and Polish troops were also with the British and Canadians. Just west of Omaha Beach are the cliffs of the Pointe de Hoc that American Rangers had to scale to capture German gun bunkers. As is well known, the American forces met the strongest resistance and suffered the heaviest casualties, but by the end of that day, the Allies managed to get 135,000 troops ashore to begin what would become a weeks-long battle to secure Normandy. The films ‘The Longest Day’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’ actually give quite a realistic reenactment of D-Day.
If you are interested in the invasion and the early days of this campaign, it is traditional to start at the Normandy American Visitor Center, located at Collevile-sur-Mer, behind Omaha Beach; the center is a museum/memorial and provides an introduction to the first days. Additionally located here is the Saint Laurent Cemetery, where 10,000 troops – mostly American – who fell in those days are buried. Also, in this town is the Overlord Museum, which received its name after the ‘code name’ for the Normandy campaign. To the east is Arromanches-les-Bains, where the Allies constructed the famous mulberry artificial harbor, of which remains can still be seen today, and the Museum of the Beach Debarkation. East of this is the Gold Beach Museum, devoted to the British forces role; still further east is the Juno Beach Center devoted to the Canadian’s role. There are three other major cemeteries in this area with troops killed in the early days. Ranville, which are mostly British, La Cambe, which is one of six cemeteries in Normandy for German troops, and Bayeux that is a cemetery for British troops.
Those with a deeper interest in military history may want to visit other sites that played a role in the Normandy campaign. Pegasus Bridge, at the far east of the landing beaches, is the location of the first goal captured by British glider-borne troops in the early hours of June 6, 1944. There are also the great ports of Cherbourg or Le Havre that had to be secured in order to land all the troops, armaments, and materiel that would be needed to advance into Germany; both ports were heavily destroyed in the effort to drive out the Germans, but they are completely rebuilt and bustling with passenger and commercial shipping. You may like to head for Sainte–Mère Église, famed as the town where American parachutists got stuck on trees and utility poles and – most notoriously – the church spire.
Then there are several towns that proved to be crucial for the advancing Allies: Carentan was taken on July 15 in order for the Americans to join Utah and Omaha beaches; Caen fell on July 9; Saint-Lo fell on July 18; Falaise fell on August 17. With the entrapment and retreat of the remaining German troops west of these cities, the struggle for Normandy was basically a ‘mopping-up’ operation. With the liberation of Dieppe along the coast of Upper Normandy on September 1, Operation Overlord was considered over. Dieppe was also the scene of one of the great disasters early in the war. On August 19, 1942, British and Canadian forces, as well as a few Americans, conducted a surprise raid on the German installations located here; unfortunately, it accomplished nothing except for heavy casualties. This leaves you with an excellent introduction to the most important points of interest relative to World War II’s Normandy campaign.
Although humans had lived in Normandy from prehistoric times, its history begins with the arrival of Celts and other tribes who moved in around 400 to 200 BC. When Julius Caesar arrived with his Roman legions in 57 BC, the people were known as Gauls, and like much of modern France, Normandy became part of the Roman Empire’s Gaul. However, by the late 3rd century AD, Saxon and other Germanic tribes began to invade Normandy and in 406 the Romans largely withdrew, but not before Christianity had taken hold among many of the Normans. Clovis, king of the Franks, took control of Normandy beginning in 487, and then about 850 the Scandinavian warriors known as Vikings began to move up the Seine, attacking and destroying those who resisted. In 911, the Norwegian/Danish Viking leader known as Rollo agreed to turn the region to be known as Normandy into a vassal-state of Charles the Simple, king of the Franks. Rollo and his followers and their descendants intermarried with the Gauls and Franks and as Normans adopted the local language, a mixture of the original Gaulish and a Latin-based French. It was one of Rollo’s descendants, William of Normandy, who in 1066 led his fellow Normans to victory over the English at the Battle of Hastings and went on to conquer Wales and Ireland. In so doing, he and his fellow Normans would introduce the French language that to this day supplements the basic Germanic roots of English.
Some of the more powerful Normans who remained in Normandy went on to conquer Sicily and parts of southern Italy and then, after participating in the Crusades to the Holy Land, set themselves up ruling small territories in Asia Minor. Meanwhile, in 1204 King Philip II of France took Normandy away from the English King John, but during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) between France and England, English forces ruled much of Normandy, until in 1450 it was restored to France. Then during the 1500s, the religious wars between the Catholics and Protestants spread across France, and Normandy, with its large population of Protestants, known as Huguenots, was the scene of much bloodshed. These wars came to an end with the Edict of Nantes (1598) calling for the toleration of Protestantism, but when King Louis XIV revoked this in 1685, many Huguenots fled Normandy for England and North America. Normans had an even more significant relationship with North America – many of the great early French explorers came from Normandy including Champlain and La Salle; they in turn were followed by many Normans, who colonized French territory in North America including Louisiana.
Despite the loss of the important economic contributions of the Huguenots, Normandy in the 1700s began to prosper with its agriculture, weaving, shipbuilding and other industries; but like the rest of France, it soon began to suffer from the combination of the desperate policies of the king, bad harvests, and high unemployment. Normandy had no choice but to go along with the French Revolution and Napoleon’s seizure of power, and then as the 19th century proceeded, most Normans simply went along with the constant series of changes in the government based in Paris. Agriculture, dairy farming, light industries, and the ports kept Normandy relatively prosperous, and by the end of the 1800s tourists were beginning to turn Deauville and other coastal towns into summer resorts.
Normandy escaped most of the destruction of World War I, but in World War II it became a major battleground, starting with D-Day on June 6, 1944 when the Allied forces landed on five beaches along its coast. After gaining a foothold, the Allies made a slow advance across Normandy due to the heavy resistance put up by the German forces. The port of Cherbourg fell by June 27, but it was not until the end of July that the Allies really began to move eastward out of Normandy; even then they chose to leave Le Havre in control of the Germans, who did not surrender until September 12. Much of Normandy lay in ruins after the Allies left – cites like Rouen and Le Havre were bombed virtually into nothing; smaller towns and villages were in ruins, while fields, crops, and livestock were devastated.