Visit Normandy: Look beyond the battlefields for culture and beauty

Parisians tend to swoon over mentions of Normandy. The fact that I had planned to spend a week exploring there came back jokingly several times during my brief stopover in the French capital, and the response was generally the same: “Ahh, Normandy! So pretty!”

Americans, on the other hand, tend to have Normandy permanently classified in our collective consciousness as “Normandy, Allied invasion of WWII beaches at…”. , there wasn’t much more recognition when I mentioned some of my planned stops in Cherbourg, Caen and Deauville.

To many foreigners, France seems rather homogeneous, but it is in fact a diverse country of distinct regions, and Normandy is among its most distinctive and outward-looking. Named in honor of the Vikings (“Norse Men” or “Men of the North”) who attacked and colonized the region from the 9th century onwards, the region has been known for centuries to maintain the conquest bias turned towards the North. exterior of the Vikings, most famous with the last successful land invasion of Britain in 1066.

Cherbourg-en-Cotentin

It’s hard to imagine the global ambitions of these medieval Normans on the train from Paris through placid green fields and ancient forests en route to the rocky outcrop of Cherbourg on the Cotentin peninsula.

Cherbourg, with its medieval dike, has been a port city for centuries. It was the mainland stopover for British and German liners at the beginning of the 20th century, and the historic terminal and the railway station at the quayside are today the maritime museum of the Cité de la Mer, where it is not difficult to spend a whole day.

There is an exhibit dedicated to the Titanic and other ocean-going liners, as the museum takes up space in the vintage 1913 terminal. The space is still used for modern cruises and ferries, and I watched an overnight car ferry from Ireland get into its berth while reading some of the outdoor exhibits. The Titanic exhibit focuses on passengers who embarked on tenders in Cherbourg to embark on the ship, which anchored just inside the dike (the berth would not be dredged to accommodate large liners for a few years) .

Visitors can also dig inside the retired French nuclear submarine Redoutable and peek into the spaces where the nuclear reactor and nuclear missiles were once housed, before going upstairs to view exhibits on aquatic life and ocean conservation. There is also a fairly good restaurant where I dined on moules frites (steamed mussels with fries) served Norman style brushed with melted camembert and bacon lardons.

In the inner harbor, I watched French fishing boats cross the drawbridges as they left to collect their catch. There is even a well-known umbrella factory that offers tours – the umbrellas of Cherbourg are known for their beautiful construction.

Caen and Cabourg

In Caen, I strolled through the historic city center, charmed by a riverside street named Rosa Parks, and an 11th century castle built by William the Conqueror. Then it was a lazy stroll through apple orchards and cow pastures to the coastal town of Cabourg, where the vacation homes line the sandy loam beach of La Manche, called “La Manche” in France.

The Grand Hotel Cabourg is right on the promenade, and I was delighted to find my room overlooking the sandy beach and its blue and white striped umbrellas and beach cabanas were right next to the one favored by the writer Marcel Proust, who often retired to the Hôtel de Paris to work.

On the city side of the grand hotel is a garden and park with an early 20th century carnival atmosphere among the city’s traditional white and brown striped Norman architecture. Even at the beginning of September, it was still pleasantly warm, with a radiant sun tempered by an invigorating sea breeze.

Deauville / Trouville

Then it was in Deauville, where Coco Chanel claimed to have come up with the idea for her first jersey fabric women’s clothing line, based on the loose clothing she had noticed on fishermen on the beach here. Deauville beach is wider and less silty than Cabourg – and it’s closer to Paris, making it a somewhat busier seaside destination, with outposts of Louis Vuitton, Hermès and of course Chanel bordering avenues one block from the boardwalk.

Deauville Beach has long been popular with Hollywood decor – the Deauville American Film Festival is one of the few film festivals where screenings are open to the public. The beach itself has considerably preserved (if underutilized) swimming facilities, where the rails still list the names of movie stars who once graced their surroundings. Here is also an Olympic swimming pool, built for the Paris games of 1924.

The hotel to stay here is in neighboring Trouville – les Cures Marines, which is part of Accor’s MGallery collection. It is a palace from 1907 that was recently renovated to pay homage to its original purpose as a seaside resort. True to its name, the seawater is heated and pumped into the basement pools so that guests can take the “cure” directly from the comfort of the hotel, even if the beach itself is not. just a few steps away.

Deauville is a beautiful central place to discover the rest of the Calvados region. Nearby, visitors can visit the Experience of Calvados, which traces the process of making apple brandy from the orchards of Normandy.

For a change of pace, stop near Le Havre, which was heavily bombed during WWII and therefore has almost entirely modern architecture. It also has a transatlantic maritime tradition serving as a terminus for the French Line (the salvaged bow of a French liner is commemorated at the water’s edge), but it is still a sprawling commercial port without the benefit of a museum. like that of Cherbourg.

Further down the coast of Le Havre lie the Cliffs of Etretat – France’s answer to the White Cliffs of Dover. It’s best to start early, as the cliffs are more spectacular in the early morning light, and the parking lot in the small village quickly fills up with tourists, especially on weekends.

The health pass

France requires a sanitary pass, or sanitary pass, to access most covered public places, regional trains and domestic flights. The vaccination card provided by the US Centers for Disease Control is not recognized in France, so travelers have three options:

They can send a copy of their CDC card to French authorities before travel to have it converted into a French COVID-19 vaccine certificate, they can get COVID-19 tests for a fee (usually around 30 euros) every 72 hours at French pharmacies, or they can ask a pharmacist to convert their American CDC card into a French vaccination certificate.

For me, it was all three. I sent my CDC card and my request by email, but the backlog of requests was not resolved when I arrived in France. I had read that some pharmacies in Paris issued vaccination certificates, but the ones I tried all said they couldn’t, so I took a test instead.

I had the same luck in Cherbourg, and it was in Caen that a pharmacist agreed to issue a French COVID-19 certificate – which is now valid in perpetuity not only in France but is also recognized by all member states. of the European Union.

Take-out

It is now easy to understand the gasps of the Parisians of “Ah, Normandy!” This charming region of France offers so much more than navel gazing on a battlefield – it’s a glimpse of ancient and vibrant culture in a tranquil and bucolic seaside and rural environment with a proud and welcoming population for travelers. curious.


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