Normandy is a region of northern France, bordering the English Channel.
Once the centre of a powerful medieval empire that controlled a significant area of continental Europe, and most of England and Wales, Normandy has an incredibly rich heritage to draw from. Many visitors come to be enchanted by historical attractions such as the triple peaks of Rouen cathedral, the Bayeux Tapestry’s engrossing tale of vengeance and conquest, and the fantastical abbey atop Mont Saint-Michel. Normandy is also famed for the D-Day Allied invasion on 6 June, 1944, and the brutal inland fighting that ensued, but which eventually resulted in the liberation of France from Nazi rule. However, Normandy is more than just a history museum this is a region of natural beauty too, from the chalky cliffs of the Alabaster Coast, to the rocky hills of the Suisse Normande, and the Cotentin marshlands. And where better to savour the twin pillars of Norman cuisine, milk and apples.
Regions : Lower Normandy
The more rural west of Normandy is on and around the Cotentin peninsula, which thrusts into the English Channel. Lower Normandy was the location of the D-Day landings and much of the subsequent fighting. Other standouts include the towns of Bayeux and Honfleur.
The more urban east of Normandy is where the river Seine flows to meet the sea. Upper Normandy hosts the cities of Rouen and Le Havre, picturesque landscapes on the Alabaster Coast, and the home of impressionist painter Claude Monet.
Cities and towns
1 Rouen — Normandy’s smart capital city has abundant medieval heritage, with several notable Gothic monuments and many half-timber houses. Joan of Arc met her gruesome fate here in 1431, when she was burnt at the stake as a heretic.
2 Bayeux — Pretty cathedral town that serves as a good base for visiting the eastern D-Day beaches (Gold, Juno and Sword). The most well-known attraction in Bayeux itself is the eponymous tapestry which chronicles the Norman invasion of England, culminating in William’s victory over Harold in 1066.
3 Caen — In contrast to so much of olde worlde Normandy, Caen is a modern city, due to its near complete destruction in 1944, a tragic outcome meticulously recorded by the city’s Memorial museum. There are fortunately still some surviving relics of old Caen, including two abbeys and several churches.
4 Cherbourg — A maritime town and ferry port with two museums of national importance – the Musee de la Liberation and the Cite de la Mer. Cherbourg also serves as a base for exploring the wider Cotentin peninsula and the western D-Day beaches (Omaha and Utah).
5 Dieppe — A lively seaside resort with the closest beach to Paris, popular with weekenders and daytrippers. In 1942, it was the location of a catastrophic raid by Canadian and other Allied troops that resulted in a Nazi victory in 1944, the Canadians returned with a vengeance and liberated the town.
6 Honfleur — A 17th-century harbour town with oodles of charm and character the old port is lined with higgledy-piggledy buildings of comical width and height. Still an active fishing port, Honfleur is a renowned location for seafood restaurants.
7 Le Havre — At the mouth of the Seine sits one of Europe’s principal seaports, known for its art and natural history museums. Le Havre’s concrete modernist city centre is the chef d’uvre of Auguste Perret and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Claude Monet’s house in Giverny
1 D-Day beaches — On 6 June 1944, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops disembarked on French sand across five named beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – stretching from near Cherbourg in the west to Ouistreham in the east. The ensuing Battle of Normandy and ultimate victory on the western front is commemorated at hundreds of cemeteries, memorials, services and events across the area.
2 Giverny — The country home of the best-known painter of the Impressionist movement, Claude Monet. Visit the gardens which inspired Monet’s work, and enjoy the bucolic village surroundings of rural Normandy.
3 Mont Saint-Michel — Perhaps the most recognisable French landmark outside Paris, this real life Minas Tirith is a rocky pinnacle of an island capped with a benedictine monastery and flanked by a steep and winding town.
Understand : History : Normandy is the land of the Normans, the then partially French-acculturated Norsemen who first arrived in 820. The Duchy of Normandy grew out of a treaty signed in 911 between the Viking leader Rollo and Frankish king Charles III. Rollo is widely recognised as the founder of the Norman civilisation, and his descendants became the Dukes of Normandy, one of whom – William the Conqueror (Guillaume le Conquerant) – invaded England in 1066 and crowned himself King William I. Thus followed a long period of Anglo-Norman domination on both sides of the Channel, and Normandy was for several centuries a part of the Kingdom of England. During this time, many defensive castles and Romanesque and Gothic churches were constructed, and the famous Bayeux tapestry was woven by now-unknown hands.
This state of affairs was only altered by the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453), as the Kingdom of France took back more and more of its territory. During this time, French national heroine Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) was infamously executed by the English at Rouen. Despite this blow, the French won the war and the only part of Normandy left under English – now British – control today is the Channel Islands.
Today, Normandy is a peaceful land that is an integral part of France. The Norman people have not forgotten the sacrifices of their liberators, and all over the region you will see French Tricolores, American Stars and Stripes, Canadian Maple Leaves and British Union Flags proudly flying. The countless war cemeteries and memorials, though each owned by their respective countries’ war grave commission, are lovingly tended primarily by locals, and are thus kept in immaculate condition. Normandy remains very accessible from Britain and is also a favoured day or weekend trip for people from Paris and the Ile-de-France, due to its beautiful coast and fascinating history.
When to visit
Typical Norman weather is characterised by rain followed by sun followed by more rain. Here is a rainbow over the Chateau d’Acquigny.
The climate in Normandy is very similar to that of southern England, with mild winters and warm, sometimes hot, summers. The weather can be unpredictable and is rainy by French standards, but is also often very nice. Most people visit during the summer, from June when the annual D-Day commemorations take place, through to the end of August. While it is perfectly possible to escape the crowds in much of Normandy even in the high season, the most well-known destinations are usually thronged with international tourists in summer, often bussed in on rushed and exhausting-looking day trips from Paris. Therefore, the best time to visit the big-ticket attractions (including the Bayeux Tapestry, the D-Day beaches and cemeteries, Giverny and Mont Saint-Michel) is late spring and early autumn, where you should hopefully achieve the right balance of reasonable weather and manageable crowds.
Access : Coordinates: 48.88, 0.17 / By car : From Paris, take the A13 autoroute (motorway) in the direction of Rouen, which takes about 2 hr. Caen is around 2 hr 45 min from the capital, while Cherbourg is about 4 hr. The A28 links traffic from the south, i.e. Le Mans and Tours, for the A10 from Bordeaux and ultimately Spain. Those coming in from Rennes and the rest of Brittany should find the A84 helpful. If driving from the north (Hauts-de-France and the Benelux), the A28 branches off the A16 at Abbeville and heads down into Upper Normandy. Driving times from the Calais ferry port and Channel Tunnel terminal are around 2 hr to Rouen using the A16 and A28 motorways.
- The Gros-Horloge, a 14th century astronomical clock, is one of the best known monuments in the French city of Rouen, in Normandy.
Attractions : Castles : Both the ‘ruined fortress’ and ‘fancy chateau’ varieties are present in Normandy. A notable example of the former is Richard the Lionheart’s Chateau Gaillard in Les Andelys, a seemingly-impregnable fortress commanding an impressive vantage point, but which lasted only a few years before being captured by the Spanish. An example of a castle that provided comfort as well as defence can be seen in the Dukes’ Castle at Alencon. There are also some chateaux in the region with no defensive purpose which were built purely to show off their owners’ wealth and prestige. Examples include the slightly worn-around-the-edges renaissance Chateau de Gaillon in the town of the same name, and the 17th century Chateau de Balleroy near Bayeux, which is now owned by the hot air balloon-obsessed Forbes family, of American business media fame.
Normandy has several named coasts, each with a different character. Furthest east is the iconic Alabaster Coast (Cote d’Albatre), known for its white chalk cliffs, mirroring similar formations on the south coast of England. Etretat has the most well-known of the cliffs, while Dieppe is more of a beach town with wartime history to boot. The good-looking resorts of the Flowery Coast (Cote Fleurie), including Deauville and Honfleur, are rather posh; this area is popular with second homeowners from Paris, with good reason. Continuing west are the beaches of the lesser-known Mother of Pearl Coast (Cote de Nacre) around Ouistreham, then the infamous D-Day landing beaches (plages du debarquement), which stretch for many miles right up the Cotentin Peninsula. At the top of Cotentin (near Cherbourg) are the lively harbours of Barfleur and Saint-Vaast, along with wild and rugged landscapes around La Hague. The west coast of the peninsula offers a long stretch of sandy beaches that lead south past Granville all the way to Mont Saint-Michel and the Breton border.
There are literally hundreds of medieval churches, abbeys and cathedrals scattered around Normandy, primarily in the Gothic and Romanesque styles. Romanesque architecture, characterised by rounded arches and lots of pillars, is often known to the British as “Norman”, as it was they who introduced the style to many parts of Europe. Significant examples of this style include the Church of Saint-Etienne and its abbeys in Caen, Fecamp’s Benedictine abbey, and Bayeux Cathedral. Gothic architecture developed from Romanesque in neighbouring Picardy, but is more than fairly represented in Normandy too. Gothic churches tend to be more elaborately designed than Romanesque ones, with pointed arches, flying buttresses, complex stained-glass windows and gargoyles. Important examples include Notre Dame de l’Assomption Cathedral and Saint-Ouen church, both in Rouen. The abbey at Mont Saint-Michel is notable for its Gothic style, but with several older elements retaining the Romanesque.
The Avenue Verte cycle path links Paris and London. In Normandy, you can follow the route from Dieppe inland through the countryside of Seine-Maritime to Beauvais over the Picard border. This section is 122 km in total, and is fully signposted with distinctive green signs.
Grandes Randonnees (GRs) are long-distance footpaths. They are usually well-maintained, and waymarked by horizontal red and white bands, which are painted on fence posts, trees and at the bases of pylons. You can choose to go the whole way if you have lots of time on your hands! Otherwise, select day trips or an itinerary for a few days walking along the most interesting parts. Normandy has two coastal GRs of note:
The GR21 is a coastal footpath that tracks north-east from Le Havre to Le Treport on the Norman/Picard border. This 186-km route takes in the entire Alabaster Coast, and its glorious chalk cliffs and snug harbour towns. Like other long-distance paths, the GR21 lends itself to much shorter walks, with highlights around Etretat and Dieppe being especially favoured.
The GR223 (Sentier des Douaniers/Custom Officers’ Way) is a mostly coastal footpath that goes all the way from Honfleur in the east along the coast of Calvados, around Cotentin to Mont Saint Michel, on the Breton border in the west. The entire walk takes a month, but most prefer to pick sections according to their interest. History fans often choose the D-Day beaches, while lovers of spectacular nature (cliffs and coves) prefer the walk around Cap de la Hague, west of Cherbourg, and others still opt to approach Mont Saint-Michel around its eponymous bay. Word has it that there are problems with cliff erosion over certain sections, so don’t be surprised if you are diverted inland at some points.
Go next : Staying in France
Brittany is Normandy’s celtic neighbour, and shares this region’s affinity with cider and seafood. The rugged Breton coastline, quaint fishing ports and historical cities such as the little-visited but surprisingly cosmopolitan Rennes and the walled port city of Saint-Malo tempt many travellers to combine Normandy and Brittany into one trip.
Centre-Val de Loire was the heartland of the French Renaissance and has the extraordinary castles to prove it. Centred on the Loire Valley, this region combines fine wine and dining with splendid Gothic cathedrals at Chartres and Tours, while Orleans hosted Joan of Arc’s greatest victory before her success turned to ashes in Rouen.
Hauts-de-France is the land where much of the First World War was fought, barely 20 years before the events of the second. As well as a large number of memorials and cemeteries, the region has a picturesque coast, diverse cities such as Lille and Amiens and many fine Gothic churches and their belfries.
Ile-de-France can be reached by following the Seine inland. The Palace of Versailles and its glorious gardens are readily accessible by train from Rouen, and the glittering lights of Paris are just a bit further. Wealthy and sophisticated Ile-de-France is a place where even a mouse can own a chateau.
Pays de la Loire is the most downstream part of the Loire Valley and a section of Atlantic coastline. Close to Normandy is the Le Mans racing circuit, while further south is the Anjou homeland of the Plantagenets, the royal house which succeeded the thrones of Normandy and England.
Across the sea :
Normandy has excellent maritime connections with the British Isles see above for details. The following countries are not part of the Schengen Area, despite membership of / affiliation with the European Union. You will therefore need a passport and/or other travel documents to visit:
The Channel Islands are part of Normandy, but very much not part of France. Jersey and Guernsey are in fact two mostly-autonomous dependencies of the British crown, and form an attractive archipelago of small and pretty islands.
England lies on the other side of la Manche. Newhaven is a gateway to Sussex’s chalk downland and cliffs, and the trendy resort city of Brighton. Portsmouth’s naval dockyards are just one of many attractions in historical Hampshire. Poole is the watery playground of the wealthy and well-situated for exploring Dorset’s prehistoric coastline.
Ireland is an overnight ferry crossing, but is well worth the journey. Cork is an urban gateway to the Emerald Isle’s mythical south west, while Rosslare has the beaches of County Wexford where Saving Private Ryan was filmed. Travellers daring the 20-hour crossing to Dublin will be rewarded with a hundred thousand welcomes and a stiff pint of Guinness.