Normandy, for most will conjure up images of that fateful day in June 6, 1944 when the largest armada to ever set sail charged the heavily guarded Normandy Coast between La Pointe Du Hoc and Houlgate, in order to push the Nazis back to Germany and to also end the war on the Western Front.
Normandy is much more though. Rouen, its capital ,has been one of France’s most important cities since Viking times. Nestled on the shores of the River Seine, Rouen and its towering cathedral act as a beacon, attracting tourists from all over the world, drawn to the beauty of its archeological treasures, Impressionists’ paintings, rich culinary heritage and the various music and arts festivals which occur throughout the year. Not to forget the Armada of the world’s tallest ships which sail up the River Seine staying 3 weeks in June every few years.
Normandy is an obvious destination for the more self-sufficient traveller looking for maximum bang for the buck with easy train or vehicle access from Paris airports and close to numerous points of interest from the D-Day beaches to the Mont St-Michel. Best to hire a vehicle in your home country as there are many deals which are heavily discounted compared to off-the-street rates at European airports. GPS technology has made self-guided vehicle trips easier and France’s road network is one of the best in Europe-you do pay for it though! You can also take a train from Paris and arrive in the centre of the Rouen. Good public transportation is available including a tram and numerous bus lines. It will take a couple of hours to drive from Paris to Rouen depending on traffic and about the same by train.
We cover most of the areas we are visiting throughout our Normandy D-Day Beaches & Loire Valley trip in this post.
If you have any questions or would like more information about Normandy, please contact us.
The A13 is one of France’s oldest motorways dating to just after the end of WWII and runs from Paris to Caen. Base yourself out of Rouen for a few days and contact the Rouen Tourist Office for English-speaking guided tours of the city. With a little over 100K Rouenais living in the city, walking is certainly the best way to discover this Medieval city. The main core is very compact and French drivers are becoming much better at respecting pedestrians. Difficult to get much worse!
The main tourist street is the famous Rue Du Gros Horloge, or street with the big clock. With homes dating as far back as 1431, the recently renovated buildings are some of the major tourist attractions. This street leads to the Rouen Cathedral and to the Place du Vieux Marche, or old market place, where Jeanne D’Arc, the liberator of France was burned at the stake in 1431 by the English. Cobble stones and ancient buildings really give you a flavour of what this trading city was like.
Staying in the centre of the city, you really need to visit certain areas such as the Rue Eau de Robec and is tiny, running stream, lined with excellent restaurants and shops. Don’t miss the Musee des Beaux Arts or Fine Arts Museum with its Caravagio. Another example of fine architecture is the Gothic Palais de Justice, or Court House still riddled with bullet holes from the heavy fighting during the last days of Nazi occupation in Rouen. The Cathedral is a must but don’t neglect St Ouen’s Abbey nor the Church of St Maclou.
When it comes to food, Rouen has a large selection of fine eateries ranging from traditional fare such Canard a l’Orange and its many cream-based dishes to more modern fusion cuisine. As a student in Normandy, my favourite was the P’Tit Bec located Rue Eau de Robec. Simple food, great salads and desserts with quick, friendly service. Get there early as it is the favourite of the local office workers and students. Another favourite if you like mussels is Le Rocher, located not far from the P’Tit Bec on the same side of the street. Large portions, served hot with home made fries.
If you are looking for something slightly upmarket for the evening, why not try Le St Hilaire in the neighbourhood of La Croix de Pierre, a short 10 minute walk from the Rue Eau de Robec. Menus are based on what the chef finds at the market so it keeps changing daily. Great specials, reasonably priced wine list and above average portions. Another great deal is North African cuisine coming from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. Tagines are earthenware, conically shaped, pots where delicious food such as lamb, chicken and dried fruits cook slowly, locking in the flavours. You will certainly not leave hungry!
Rouen to the Coast
If you leave Rouen by rental vehicle, take the D982 and head toward Duclair along the River Seine and the farms and secondary residences which line the banks of the river. Once in Duclair, take the D65 and head for the Abbey of Jumieges and its ruins of this ancient Benedictine monastery. The drive in itself is worth it and there are several excellent restaurants in this small hamlet. A perfect stop for an early lunch…but don’t get there too early as most meals are served between 1200 and 1330 each day. From Jumieges take the D65 north and head back towards Caudbec-en-Caux and get back onto the D982. The roads are well marked but drive carefully as you are in ” La France Profonde” or deep France, a somewhat pejorative term for any agricultural region of France. You will often have to share the road with tractors and other heavy farm equipment. And remember, the speed limits are now strictly enforced in France, mainly using fixed radar units. Speed limits in towns are posted and often do not exceed 50 km per hour. You are on holiday so no need to race around.
From Caudbec-en-Caux, make your way to the D 926 and head towards Fecamp. In France, the closest destination will be listed first on the sign and the farthest last. Once you get to the outskirts of Fecamp, aim for the old port and try and park along the old harbour. There are plenty of free parking spots there. Wedged between white cliffs and the River Valmont on the Alabaster Coast, Fecamp has seen permanent habitation since Roman times. Book a tour of the Benedictine Distillery and palace and then enjoy the beach of Fecamp. The palace itself is the wild creation of a wealthy art collector and eccentric named Alexandre Le Grand, who re-discovered the secret recipe for the famed Benedictine liqueur in a trove of manuscripts he purchased. Housed within the extravagant distillery complex is a vast collection of religious art dating back to Medieval times. Well worth the 1 hour visit. A great place to spend the night before heading to Etretat and it famous pebble beach and landscape so often painted by the Impressionists.
Etretat and Honfleur
Once you depart Fecamp, take the D940 which heads west until you reach the D211 and the road to the tiny hamlet and fishing port of Yport. A short detour allows one to reach this gem of a town, tiny but stunning due to its location. Once a thriving little fishing village, Yport exists only thanks to summer tourists who come to admire the high chalk cliffs and blue-green waters of the Manche or English Channel. Several excellent seafood eateries are tucked away in the street leading to the water.
From Yport, the next stop should be Etretat, one of the most painted and photographed towns on the Alabaster Coast. With its famed natural chalk arch dominating the landscape and beautifully green fields above the Manche, Etretat is worthy of an overnight stop. There are many hotels and inns ranging from 4 star affairs to simple family run no stars. Best to book well in advance as Paris and its population of 10 million are not far away! If you enjoy walking, take the Sentier des Douaniers, or the Customs Trail, high above the town. Great views out to sea and towards the coastal fortifications of the Great Atlantic Wall that was meant to keep the Allies at bay. Remember, trails will often be blazed with red and white paint but you can always ask a local for directions.
Its best to get an early start today as you will have a few hours in the vehicle in order to get to Honfleur taking the beautiful Pont de Normandie, an engineering feat which spans the mighty River Seine. Heading out of Etretat is tricky as there are three possibilities but look for the signs directing you to the Autoroute A29 direction le Pont de Normandie.
Once you approach Le Havre and the Seine Estuary, you will realize how industrialized this part of Normandy really is and why both the Allies and the Nazis vied for control of this port. Upon crossing the bridge, head to Honfleur but do not enter the town but rather, park in one of the exterior parking areas. You can pay for 24 hours and then just top it up without having to move your vehicle.
Honfleur is a Medieval town with tiny streets making it a nightmare to negotiate in a vehicle. Highly popular with British tourists and Parisians alike, Honfleur gets really busy during summer months.We suggest staying away from the restaurants located along the old harbour. They are not bad but there are better places if you simply walk one street back.
You may not get the views but the food will certainly be better. Honfleur is famous for small, grey shrimp which are eaten raw. Mussels when in season are delicious and come straight from the Ocean into your plate.
Cider, made from apples is the main summer drink in Normandy and a Brut accompanies really well a bowel of steaming mussels. For a great place to stay, why not try L’Absinthe, located just off of the inner habour. A great three-star hotel with modern rooms in a 400-year old building.
Depending on your interest level in Operation Overlord, the code name for the D-Day landings, there are many options for guided and self guided visits to the main sights. We strongly suggest visiting the beaches coming from the north and then heading south. From Honfleur, take the main motorway A13 heading toward Caen and then head to Ouistreham.
One could spend time in this fishing port which acts as the port for Caen, enjoying the harbour’s bustling activities or take in the numerous museums dedicated to the June landings such as the Grand Bunker Museum or the Commando number 4 museum, a tiny museum dedicated to the French commandos who landed on Sword Beach.
Ouistreham is also a major ferry crossing taking tourists and trucks across the English Channel.
Taking the coast road from Ouistreham,head toward Courseulles-sur-Mer and make sure to visit the difficult-to-find Canadian War Memorial, located across a small bridge at the very edge of the beach where Canadian troops landed. The museum, opened in 2003 is an interesting mix of WWII documentaries, stories of individual soldiers and a look at what it means to be Canadian. A very unique take on this type of memorial. And it is also run by a group of young Canadian students taking a year out of their lives for an opportunity to guide visits in this museum.
Driving along the coast, you will have too many choices of places to visit from simple bunkers to cemeteries and museums. Make sure you purchase a guide book of the area and specifically one which covers the D-Day Beaches.
I have down loaded a free app Arromanches 1944, Altitude Cherbourg which gives the viewer a pretty excellent idea of what the landing look like in a virtual way.
A few are a must such as the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial and the D-Day Musee du Debarquement in Arromanches. Both require several hours and we strongly recommend booking a guided visit. Not inexpensive but worth the $400 for the half-day tour. We have been very satisfied with the services of Normandy Sightseeing Tours, a French company with excellent English-speaking guides who really know what they are talking about.
Mont St Michel
If you still have time on your hands, a push to the second most visited site in France, the Mont St-Michel is truly worth the drive. If you leave from Arromanches, take the road to Bayeux and then to St Lo before joining the national road to Pontorson then head onto the D976 to the Mont. The Mont St-Michel is located in the heart of an immense bay, where some of Europe’s fastest and highest tides completely surround the Mont. The original church was built in 709 at the behest of the Archangel, Michael, so goes the story.
The abbey was built several centuries later and little-by-little the Mont St-Michel took its present form. One of the key pilgrimage destinations in Europe, for nearly 1000 years men and women have journeyed from the far reaches of the Continent to spend time in the Abbey.
The actual town is part Disneyland and kitsch shopping with low quality trinkets hawked in packed shops. But the beauty of the structure is what is really worth seeing and if you arrive early, by 0900, you will have plenty of time to visit the entire town unhindered by the hoards of coach tourists.
There is a major infrastructure project underway with a new parking area and buses allowing tourists to leave there vehicles in a secure parking area and then take shuttles which leave every 15 minutes or so. A new bridge is nearly finished will allow a more natural flow of water back into Bay, ridding it of the silt which has accumulated over the years.
Another great idea would be to join a three-hour bay hike with a certified guide.
The hike takes you to a nearby island where you get a stunning view of the Mont.
Along the way, your guide will explain the rich history of the region and the natural history which makes this area so unique.
We have been very happy to use the services of Sylvère GARDIE, a jovial character who knows the Mont St-Michel Bay very well.
The tourist office of the Mont St-Michel will have the necessary contacts for certified guides in the Bay and for guided visits of the Mont itself.
St Malo, Brittany’s jewel.
Basing yourself in St Malo, in Brittany, is an excellent idea as it is but a short, 1 hour drive to the Mont Saint-Michel and the city itself if incredibly interesting, with a tremendous amount of history both within ( intra-muros) and outside of the city’s fortified walls. Famous for being the place where Jacques Cartier set off from on an historic journey to the discovery of Canada, it was also the home of corsairs, or privateers, pirates paid by both England and France to plunder their enemies’ ships and disrupt trade.
St Malo has also given its name to the Malouines, or Falklands, as sailors from St Malo sailed to this rugged part of Argentina (OK Britain) and established a trading colony. Today, St Malo is famous as a tourist destination, with one of the highest concentration of restaurants in all of Europe.
Oysters from the nearby town of Cancale are well appreciated by tourists and malouins alike, and the long, sandy beaches of the town are packed during the summer months.
Sailing is also very popular as Brittany is really the epicentre of French sailing with a long tradition of navigators and explorers.
From St Malo, you can also head south and west toward other towns such as St Brieuc, Brest, Lorient, La Rochelle and my favourite, Sable-d’Olonne, where the amazing Vendee Globe, solo race around the world by sailboat starts from.
Bonne route et bon vent!