As May slips into June, the beaches and apple orchards of Normandy will play host to a kinder, gentler invasion than the Big One five decades ago that landed it a rock-solid place in the pages of world history. This time around, the tourists are coming, and the Normans are prepared for them: over 600 events are planned to commemorate the liberation of a war-ravaged Europe, which struck the shore like lightning on the morning of June 6, 1944.
Anniversaries of this magnitude are inherently, so no opportunity to take in the events should be passed by. But early to mid-June will bring an unprecedented influx of visitors and veterans to the region, which may pose logistical problems for those seeking a piece of the action.
“The difficulty will be to lodge everybody,” says Michèle Andrieu, spokesperson of the Paris-based Service National d’Accueil. “All the way through July 14, the poor tourist will experience difficulties.”
But according to sources at the Comité Régional de Tourisme de Normandie, while from June 4 to June 8 “No Vacancy” signs will be posted at virtually every hotel within a 50-kilometer radius of the landing beaches, outside this zone “the lodging possibilities remain numerous.”
Those possibilities, ranging from hôtels de charme and gîtes ruraux to chambres d’hôtes and camping, hint at the many diversions that the relatively compact region called Normandy has to offer. While traditional Norman tranquillity will very often yield to the buzz of traffic in the weeks ahead (especially in the commemoration zone), that is no reason to rule out a journey to this fair green land, which comprises five départements: Calvados, Orne, Eure, Manche and Seine-Maritime. Even though most of the official ceremonies June 5-8 will be restricted to veterans and politicians, the villages and towns that were the first to be liberated in Nazi-occupied Europe are well worth visiting around those dates.
The proud Norman heritage is not restricted to heart-wrenching battle sites and hearty comestibles. The region’s fertile soil has sustained not only the apple trees responsible for that heady potion called Calvados and the cows whose pure milk is like gold to the fromagers of the world, but also such icons of French culture as Marcel Proust. The author spent many a summer’s day in Cabourg – a tranquil alternative to the noisier seaside resorts of Deauville and Trouville, 15 miles northeast of Caen – and transformed it into the Balbec of Remembrance of Things Past fame. Gustave Flaubert fashioned the verdant countryside into a backdrop for the amorous misadventures of Emma Bovary, while luminaries from Victor Hugo to Claude Monet have also drawn inspiration from the land and its inhabitants – who, wrote André Siegfried in 1913, “are not French people.”
Normandy has an intricate history that belies its size and has endowed the land with an architectural legacy as rich as a kettle of crème fraîche: from the soaring Gothic cathedral and Renaissance Great Clock in Rouen to the august Abbaye-aux-Hommes in Caen and the stunning ruins of Notre Dame in Jumièges (Seine-Maritime), the region is home to many of the most beautiful churches in the world. Then there are the ancient fishing ports, such as Honfleur (near over-industrialized Le Havre), colored by antique boutiques and artists’ ateliers. Centuries have elapsed, municipal fortunes have waxed and waned and air raids have turned entire towns into raging infernos, but somehow the Normans have preserved a sense of place that is unlike virtually any other in France.
The bucolic landscape is one of the high points of a trip here; indeed, crowd lovers aside, this spring visitors’ enjoyment of Normandy may hinge on their ability to resist the temptation to go strictly touristic. Nevertheless, the following attractions are famous for a reason, and only the most dogged of misanthropes should go out of their way to avoid them.
- Le Mont St. Michel. Actually on the Normandy-Brittany border, the celebrated abbey-fortress encircled by the bay of the same name is a dream to behold from afar and makes for enticing inspection up close. The Mont has a special appeal on a drizzly day when mist enrobes the citadel and there’s no wait for a steaming omelet at the venerable restaurant/inn called La Mère Poulard.
- The Bayeux Tapestry. Housed behind glass in the highly edifying Tapisserie de Bayeux-Centre Guillaume le Conquérant (follow the ubiquitous signs), the 231-foot-long stretch of linen is neither a tapestry nor of Bayeux fabrication, though it merits a viewing for its colorful depiction of the Battle of Hastings and the expedition that preceded it. But beware: the first sizable town to be liberated by the Allies lies squarely within the 50 kilometer radius of:
- The landing beaches. Catch the action if you can, but if that means bedding down on the beach, rest assured that the spirit of commemoration will outlast even an anniversary of this magnitude. Besides, nothing quite compares with the solemnity of a visit to the Normandy American Cemetery when it’s just you and the caretaker, or contemplating the ruined fortifications on the Pointe du Hoc in solitude (e.g., post-September).
Yet what makes Normandy the ideal escape from the blaring horns and motorcycles of the capital are the things that are not quite so celebrated, such as a three-hour drive along the coastal road from the pleasant seaside resort of Dieppe to the stunning white cliffs of Etretat. This territory, the cliff country of the Pays de Caux, is largely untrammeled despite its beauty. A bit to the southwest, a ramble through the wooded Pays d’Auge of Calvados, along winding roads that traverse emerald orchards and half-timbered farmhouses, offers its own rustic rewards.
One of the best ways to savor the scenery is by bicycle, various models of which can be rented throughout Normandy. Alternatively, bikes can be transported by car or the French Railways’ “Train-Vélo” service.
Another way to while away the hours is in the company of a trusted equine friend – in the land where the Norman trotter was born, one can practically say Camembert and find a horse for hire. The leading horse region is Calvados, with easygoing Deauville at center stage. Arrangements to ride along the broad beach or in a carriage can be made at the Hansel and Gretel-like Hôtel Normandy (a Lucien Barrière property, tel: 220.127.116.11), and children can take advantage of the Pony Club directly behind the famed boardwalk. Two places of note offering both riding lessons and excursions are: l’Oxer, two miles from Deauville near the Clairefontaine racetrack (tel: 18.104.22.168) and the Circle Hippique in Pont l’Evêque (tel: 22.214.171.124).
More structured leisure pursuits abound as well, and need not break one’s budget. Normandy is home to several public golf courses, such as Golf de Dieppe-Pourville, set on a bluff overlooking the coastal town and la Manche beyond. The three English-style courses at the Hôtel du Golf, another Lucien Barrière hotel in Deauville (tel: 31.88.19.01), are not for members only: a Monday to Friday greens fee of 350F enables any golfer to enjoy what many consider one of the most beautiful golf sites in the world.
Thalassotherapy treatments provide another way to wind down in refinement. In Deauville and Trouville, municipal spas offer visitors the rare opportunity to “take the cure” on a single-day basis. Although the idea of submerging oneself in a tub of swirling seaweed may strike some as slightly offensive, it helps to remember that beauty takes effort (and besides, this is relaxing). After all, when in France, do as the French do.
When to Go: Springtime is when much of Normandy awakes to the sight and scent of apple blossoms, or “blushing flowers with white satin trains” as Proust described them. Each season has its merits; summer weather may be ideal, but as the days grow longer so do the queues at major attractions.
Where to Stay: If you want to chance bumping into Catherine Deneuve or Clint Eastwood after a day at the beach, check into Deauville’s four-star Hôtel Royal (tel. 126.96.36.199) or the other Deauville hotels mentioned above. Alternatively, consult the comprehensive guide called “Normandie: Hôtels et Restaurants de Charme 1994” available free of charge from the Comité Régional de Tourisme de Normandie. Address: Le Doyenné, 14, rue Charles Corbeau, 27000 Evreux; tel. 32.33.79.00, fax 32.31.19.04. In general, the price of lodging increases as you head toward the coast.
Transportation: As the countryside is one of the region’s chief attractions, ideally travelers should have cars to explore the backroads. However, regular train service to several cities and towns permits a variety of touring options, including day trips to the seaside ports and resorts (Honfleur, Fécamp, Deauville, etc.) or cathedral towns such as Evreux and Rouen. If arrangements are made in advance, some country inns will do train station pick-ups, or at the very least inform you of the approximate taxi fares, which are often quite reasonable. Brochures on the “Train-Vélo” service, including rate information, are available at the major train stations.
Exploring the D-Day beaches sans automobile: A fleet of air-conditioned coaches, fully adorned with “Welcome to our Liberators” signs, awaits those who want to (or must) explore the historic battle areas without a car. The Bus Verts du Calvados are now making regular stops at major sites such as Arromanches, the Normandy American Cemetery and Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc and the Caen Memorial, with the Bayeux train station as the starting point. For 80F travelers can purchase a “Pass 44,” valid for an entire day of transportation. Call 188.8.131.52 for more information.
For regional details: All manner of free information is available from the Comité Régional de Tourisme de Normandie and the following departmental tourist offices:
Comité départemental de tourisme de la Manche, Maison du Département, 50008 Saint Lo Cédex, tel: 33.05.98.70.
Comité départemental de tourisme du Calvados, Place du Canada, 14000 Caen, tel: 184.108.40.206.
Comité départemental de tourisme de l’Orne, 88, rue Sainte-Blaise, B.P. 50, 61002 Alencon Cédex, tel: 220.127.116.11.
In addition, most towns have their own tourist bureaus (syndicats d’initiatives), with maps and detailed information about local attractions.