A thriving commercial and university town favoured by William the Conqueror, Caen suffered much devastation during WWII.
The centre has been rebuilt with pedestrianised precincts - great for shopping trips - including cafes, elegant shops and a variety of cosmopolitan restaurants where you can eat well and economically.
Caen’s main market is on Friday along the Fosse St-Julien and there’s a lively pleasure port on the canal at Bassin St-Pierre.
In 1060, William began work on a castle in Caen. Inside the original ramparts are the former Exchequer dating from before the Norman conquest and 2 more modern buildings housing the Musee des Beaux-Arts with its fine collection of French and Italian paintings and the Musee de Normandie concentrating on archeology, history and traditions.
Caen’s magnificent Romanesque abbeys - Abbaye aux Hommes and Abbeye aux Dames were also built by William for himself and his wife Matilda. Current buildings on these sites are open to the public.
William’s tomb is in the church of St-Etienne although the remains were ransacked during the Revolution. Matilda’s church of the Trinity containing her tomb in the Abbaye aux Dames, though gloomy, has wonderful stained glass behind the altar.
The Caen Memorial just north of the town and described as a ‘museum for peace’ is a local ‘must’ to visit. In July and August there is a special D-Day line ‘Bus Vert’ departing daily from Caen’s gare routiere on a circular route calling at WWII sites.
Historic Bayeux, 23km west of Caen, is perhaps best known for its world-famous 70m long tapestry detailing not only the Battle of Hastings but also many of the significant events leading up to the invasion of England in 1066. In more recent history, Bayeux was the first town to be liberated by the Allies on D-Day in 1944 and so was spared the devastation suffered by many other towns.
Visit Bayeux’s lovingly preserved medieval centre and magnificent Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame (open daily) with its eleventh century crypt and delightful later frescos. Bayeux is also known for its bobbin lace which developed its figurative character in the late eighteenth century.
The Lace Conservatory in front of the cathedral makes fascinating viewing (open 1000 -1200 and 1400 - 1800 everyday except Sunday). See lacemakers at work and examples of their art - enthusiasts should ask about courses.
Nearby the Musee Baron Gerard exhibits paintings, lacework and ceramics. Stroll along cobbled streets south of rue Martin to see Bayeux’s fifteenth and seventeenth century stone and timber framed houses and picturesque old mill and water wheels by a bridge over the River Aure. Choose holiday souvenirs in nearby craft shops and be reminded of medieval bustle in Bayeux’s Saturday market offering local produce in Place St-Patrice.
Bayeux’s strong WWII connections are marked in the Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum on the ring road south west of the town. Open daily 0930 - 1830 May – mid-Sept and from mid-Sept - April 1000 - 1230 and 1400 - 1800. The large British War Cemetery opposite is peacefully poignant with graves of many nationalities including 466 Germans.
A very picturesque old fishing port at the mouth of the River Seine, Honfleur has a long maritime history. In 1680, Samuel Champlain set out from Honfleur to found Quebec.
Nineteenth century artists such as Boudin- who was born in the town and trained the young Monet - Pissarro and Cezanne were drawn here to paint by its light and ambience. Visit the Musee Eugene-Boudin to trace the story of the port’s artistic past and see works by Boudin, local born Dubourg and also Corbet, Monet and Duffy.
Nearby is the red painted house of composer Erik Satie, also born here in 1866, (Les Maisons Satie) brim full of Surrealist musical surprises to delight you. Monet painted the fifteenth century wooden church of Sainte-Catherine - one of the largest wooden churches in France - built by ships’ carpenters, with a roof shaped like a ship’s hull and separate massive oak belfry.
Two huge seventeenth century stone salt stores are now used for exhibitions and concerts plus housing the Musee du Vieux Honfleur. Watch today’s painters and pleasure craft around the ‘Vieux Bassin’ and dine at delightful quayside restaurants specialising in seafood.
Across the road, enjoy the promenade walk to Honfleur’s sandy beach. Stroll around by yourselves or ask at the tourist office about summer guided tours and day excursions including meals.
Part of the ‘Cote Fleurie’ popular with nineteenth century artists and writers, Trouville originally became popular in the 1860s when Napoleon III began visiting with his court each summer.
Less formal than neighbouring Deauville across the River Touques, Trouville is now a family resort with beautiful buildings and beach, fishing port and narrow streets packed with curiosity shops and restaurants. Visit the aquarium and busy daily markets.
Deauville was developed in the mid nineteenth century from a little fishing village amidst marshland and sand dunes when land was cheap and the Duc de Morny persuaded wealthy Parisians that staying on the coast would be good for their health.
The long sandy beach at Deauville, with its famous 500m ‘Planks’ promenade, is perfect for people-watching. Deauville still draws the rich and famous to its golf courses, casinos, marina, exclusive shops, Deauville-La Touques racecourse and polo grounds. The area around Deauville is one of the main horsebreeding regions of France and the town also plays host to an American Film Festival in the first week of September each year – contact Deauville Tourist Office for details, tel (00 33) 2 31 14 40 02 for dates.
The Wednesday and Saturday markets in Lisieux, the main town of the Pays d’Auge, are just the place to shop for the area’s famous cheeses and cider and there are plenty of cider producers and distilleries worth seeking out locally.
Visit Lisieux’s Cathedrale St-Pierre and Basilique de Ste-Therese, built in 1954 with its impressive modern mosaics and dedicated to the lovable Sainte Therese who died in the Lisieux Carmel in 1897. The town has become a place of pilgrimage to see relics of ‘the Little Flower’ as she is known. Her posthumous memoirs ‘Story of the Soul’ have been translated into 60 languages and are read worldwide.
The stately home of Chateau St-Germain de Livet is open to the public daily except Tuesdays and Abbe Marie Gardens close by displays flowers and foliage used in religious ceremonies.
Birthplace of William the Conqueror in 1027, the bastard son of Duke Robert of Normandy and a village laundry woman called Arlette. The Fountaine d’Arlette down by the river marks the spot where they met.
Falaise’s twelfth-thirteenth century castle, home of the former dukes of Normandy, dominates the town, set on a high cliff between the Rivers Ante and Marescot 32km south east of Caen.
Heavily damaged during WWII, when two thirds of the town was destroyed in August 1944, the castle is open again to visitors after the latest phase of restoration. English language tours daily in high season. Visit www.chateau-guillaume-leconquerant.fr
Earlier restoration work in the 1990s caused local controversy by using modern materials to make clear the difference between what was original and restored areas. Near the chateau, the Museum of August 44 details the closing of the ‘Falaise Gap’ which was the grim climax of the Battle of Normandy in 1944 - open early April to mid-Nov.