In the year in which Normandy celebrates its 1,100th birthday, it is a privilege to share a few of the reasons why I decided to make this corner of France home.
There is a sense of tradition and patrimoine (heritage) surrounding us here. The architectural splendour of William the Conqueror’s castle occupies more than five hectares in the centre of Caen, while just 40 kilometres further south – and equally impressive – is the castle in his birthplace of Falaise.
A favourite pastime of mine is driving through small towns and villages in Basse Normandie, spotting the more modest châteaux, many of which are open once or twice a week during the summer. If you are lucky, the owner will even be prepared to take you on a personal tour of their home.
Of equal pride to the area is the local produce: cheeses, cider, Calvados and seasonal vegetables are always displayed in abundance in the markets, alongside fish freshly landed from the boats in ports along the coast from Trouville to Granville.
FOOD AND DRINK FAIRS
Come to the agricultural fairs and food festivals in the autumn to really see and taste the essence of Normandy. There are many to choose from but a favourite in November is the fête Goût du Large in Port en Bessin, combining a celebration of the famous coquilles Saint Jacques and the sea shanties of the fishermen who bring them in.
As enjoyable as the food festivals are the music festivals throughout the region, which also provide something to suit all tastes. Normandy can offer Jazz Sous les Pommiers in Coutances, ‘Calvados Rock’ near Bayeux or, perhaps the most unusual experience, is to cross the oyster beds in the bay of St-Vaast-La-Hogue, preferably on foot (so take your Wellingtons!) for a concert on the Ile de Tatihou before making sure you get back to dry land before the tide sweeps in.
A FRIENDLY PLACE
But it is not all farmyards and fishing boats. While Caen is just two hours by train from Paris, it is not necessary to travel that far for a bit of people watching and glamour. Deauville is known locally as the 21st arrondissement, which is hardly surprising given the number of second homes here belonging to Parisians – proof is in the number of cars bearing the tell tale 75 registration plates.
Annual highlights in Deauville are not only based around horse racing, show jumping and polo. Both Asian and American film festivals and Normandy Sailing Week attract international stars. If it is designer labels that attract, Coco Chanel opened her first boutique here and others have followed in her footsteps ever since.
With a few minor exceptions, I have experienced nothing but kindness and courtesy since arriving in Basse Normandie. However, it is also true that as a race, the Norman people are generally somewhat inward looking and rather private. But given time and the opportunity to take things at their pace, once you have a Norman friend, they will be there for life.