In the time it takes to cross from England to France via the Portsmouth to Caen ferry, you can be transported from modern day Hampshire to a kingdom of castles, abbeys and monasteries dating from the Middle Ages – 2011 marked 1100 years since the Duchy of Normandy was formed.
Caen was chosen by the Duke of Normandy, later known as William the Conqueror, as the administrative seat of his Duchy. The Battle of Normandy in 1944 destroyed much of the city but it is still home to a number of significant sites, amongst them the Abbaye aux Hommes that combines Romanesque and Gothic styling, and the impressive Abbaye aux Dames, founded by William and his wife Matilda.
In the Abbaye aux Hommes church lies a marble plaque that marks the spot where William was buried, though the tomb itself is long gone. Today this abbey is used as Caen Town Hall. It is made of the local Caen stone, so durable that it was imported to England– Westminster Abbey is constructed from the same material.
Château de Caen is immense. Square in shape with a tower at each corner, it is one of the largest castles in Europe. It was built by William around 1060 and in 1886 achieved monument historique status. Looking at the dry moat, you can see where the famous Caen stone has been extracted.
Over the years, the château has morphed from royal residence to military barracks, at one time catered for by the grandparents of Edith Piaf who ran a restaurant nearby. Nowadays, Café Mancel serves visitors within the castle walls. After lunch you can wander the ramparts for a view of Caen from above.
Not far down the road is Bayeux, where its famous 70m tapestry has been housed since 1983 at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux. Given that the museum welcomes up to 3,000 visitors a day in peak season, it might be worth saving your own trip until school’s out – the venue is as popular as ever with groups. However, the audio guide moves quickly and as you will discover, we still have plenty to learn about how it was made and the events it depicts from the Battle of Hastings. The tapestry is nearly 1,000 years old and designed to explain what happened even to those who could not read. Its 58 scenes include 37 buildings, 41 ships and 626 people.
Of course the Bayeux Tapestry is not all that Normandy is famous for. The region is also covered in apple trees and a major producer of apple juice, cider, pommeau (a blend of apple juice, cider and Calvados) and AOC Calvados (half of which is exported).
Les Vergers de Ducy is a Calvados distillery located between Caen and Bayeux. During my visit, I learned that the wooden barrels give the alcohol its colour, but must be changed so that the end product doesn’t taste of wood. An apple smell lingers in the air – apparently they have a saying that the evaporated alcohol goes to the angels.
Also in Calvados is the town of Falaise, birthplace of William. The restoration of Château de Falaise has not been easy and has at times proved controversial. There are areas where it has been impossible to rebuild the castle properly and some parts have been replaced by metal structures or concrete.
A more authentic example is Château d’Harcourt. The stone castle is well preserved and surrounded by trees in the oldest arboretum in France, a position that has afforded it great protection over the years. The arboretum was planted in 1840 and today it is filled with 3,000 trees of 470 varieties, amongst them the ‘Wig Tree’.
As if to prove how little life has changed in this part of the world, the nearby Abbaye Notre-Dame du Bec-Hellouin is still home to Benedictine monks. A resident (just one of 13 now) took me on a tour of the grounds, pointing out the sun dials that meant the monks were never late for prayers and breaking into song to demonstrate the acoustics indoors.
THE ROAD TO ROUEN
Rouen on the other hand, is a big city with all the modern amenities you would expect, next to historical sites such as that where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Here you will find the Church of Saint Joan of Arc, which is far from traditional in design… the roof has been variously compared to a witch’s hat and a crocodile.
Fred Ollivier from the tourist board then led his group through the cobbled streets on a whistle-stop tour of the other main sites to see, including Notre Dame Cathedral. Along the way, we met a chocolatier who invited us to sample a handful of larmes de Jeanne d’Arc. The saint’s cocoa dusted ‘tears’ tasted delicious!
We later stopped to gaze at the Gros Horloge, once the only clock in the city. It has just one hand, but can show the days of the week in pictorial form: Mercury for mercredi and Venus for vendredi. Before the mechanism became automated, a ‘clock master’ would have lived above the clock to help maintain its accuracy.
La Couronne on Place du Vieux Marché thrives on its reputation as the oldest tavern in France. Since it was established in 1345, it has attracted everyone from Serge Gainsbourg to Princess Grace of Monaco. The menu is laden with local delicacies such as oysters, pork simmered in cider, Normandy cheeses and duck à la Rouennaise.
On the outskirts of the city are the ruins of Jumièges Abbey, which you are able to explore. It must have been a magnificent structure. Over the years, several of the abbots went on to become bishops. In 1051, Robert Champart even became Archbishop of Canterbury.
Whether you are visiting Normandy for the first time ever or the first time in years, embracing the medieval angle as a theme for your tour is great fun. From the Bayeux Tapestry to the familiar sight of Caen stone or a visit to Rouen, they all inspire a certain warm feeling. Not as warming as a little sip of Calvados though…