Few places anywhere in the world can combine medieval and modern history quite so seamlessly as historic Normandy, in northern France. Here, World War II cemeteries and memorials rest serenely, harmonious in the shadow of the truly magnificent Norman cathedrals, all but a stone’s throw away from the lush, green countryside for which the region is so famous.
The birthplace of William the Conqueror, this area is immortalised in modern-day memory as the site of the D-Day landings.
If you’re heading from Paris, your first stop on this journey should almost certainly be the town of Giverny, on the border of Normandy. This picturesque place was home to Claude Monet, one of France’s greatest artists, and his legacy lives on. Be sure to spend time exploring the gorgeous gardens, which served as inspiration for some of his later masterpieces.
Tour the house and you can also learn about Monet’s gastronomic side – he relished good food almost as much as he did painting! The property closes for the winter, but tickets are €10.50 (about £9.50) in summer.
From Giverny, head for Rouen. This remarkable medieval city is home to a very grand 11th-century cathedral, which features many noteworthy quirks, resulting from nearly a millennium of reconstruction and renovations. Be sure to visit Rue du Gros-Horloge, to see what is possibly the world’s largest remaining astrological clock.
At this point, you might want a break from historic Normandy; so take the opportunity to head towards the coast, where you can drive the celebrated Corniche Normande. Scenic coastal towns, harbours and fishing villages pepper this coastline, so it’s worthwhile exploring what these picturesque places have to offer.
Caen has to be the next port of call for any tour of Normandy. While records of the city date back to the Romans, little remains of its historic past, because it was almost flattened by bombs during World War II.
To ease yourself into the history of Normandy’s role in that conflict, head to the Mémorial de Caen. Tickets are €14.50 (£13.20) for adults (children go free), and the museum is an essential stop for any keen historian.
With your initiation into Normandy’s history completed, it’s time to immerse yourself in the region’s gritty recent past. Drive further along the coast to Bayeux – this largely medieval city is the nerve centre of the region’s D-Day story, so it’s worth setting up base here for a few days to explore at your leisure.
The area’s plethora of museums, monuments and memorials are clear testament to how the legacy of liberation lives on to this day. A good place to start any tour is the battlefield itself. There are five key beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – all with memorials and museums.
Several local towns tell remarkable tales of D-Day heroism. Head to Sainte-Mère-Église to see the famous memorial to the parachutist who became tangled up on the church’s spire. Inside the church, fine stained glass windows celebrate the paratroopers who reclaimed the town from its occupiers.
At the nearby town of Arromanches-les-Bains, Allied troops built an artificial Mulberry harbour, which allowed a flow of essential equipment and ammunition during the months after the D-Day landings. Some of the Mulberry’s concrete blocks remain on the beaches. And at the celebrated Musée du Débarquement – adults €8.20 (£6.90), children €6 (£5.50) – you can learn more about the logistics of building these vital harbours.
Further along the coastline, don’t miss the remarkable German Battery at Longues-sur-Mer. It retains all of its guns, most in quite exceptional condition. The site is well preserved and is free to wander around.
If you are planning to visit the war cemeteries, the most imposing has to be the Normandy American Cemetery, at Colleville-sur-Mer, with its panoramic views of the beaches.
In Bayeux, you’ll find the British and Commonwealth cemetery, a remarkably peaceful setting despite its location next to a main road.
Both are deeply moving, but perhaps the most poignant of all is the German War Cemetery at La Cambe. An essential stop, these perfectly maintained graves for German soldiers remind us that in death, we are all equal.
No trip to Bayeux would be complete without seeing the famous tapestry. For €9.50 (£8.50), you can see the story of the Conquest depicted in the spectacular embroidery. And just around the corner from the museum is Bayeux’s incredible Norman cathedral, which remained remarkably untouched by the dramatic events of 1944.
You could end your road trip here in Bayeux – after all, we’ve barely scratched the surface of D-Day locations to visit! However, to do so would be to miss out on one of Normandy’s most exceptional historic sites: Mont Saint-Michel. This incredible medieval commune was once an abbey, but intermittently served as a prison, because the tidal island offered natural barriers. Now one of France’s most popular tourist spots, it’s well worth a visit.
Feasting in France
As well as being a great destination for historians, Normandy is perfect for gourmets, with a range of delicacies and specialities exclusive to the region.
Isigny-sur-Mer is famous for its butter and cream, while inland, the town of Camembert is celebrated as the birthplace of the great cheese.
Wine might be the alcoholic beverage most closely associated with France, but Normandy, where the milder climate is better suited to growing apples, is definitely the destination for cider.
If you’re looking for something with a little more kick, pick up a bottle of Calvados. This apple brandy is the tipple of choice for locals and tourists alike.
Normandy really does offer its visitors the best of everything – from historic sites and the finest gourmet food, to lush landscapes and charming towns, there’s something for all in this beautiful rural region of northern France.
WHERE TO STAY
Camping Loisirs des Groux
- 1 Chemin de L’Ile, 78270 Mousseaux-sur-Seine
- Tel +33 (0)1 34 79 33 86
- Web www.campingdesgroux.com/fr/
Camping Ile des Trois Rois
- 1 Rue Gilles Nicole, 27700 Les Andelys
- Tel +33 (0)2 32 54 23 79
- Web www.camping-troisrois.com
Camping Utah Beach
- La Madeleine, 50480 Sainte Marie du Mont
- Tel +33 (0)2 33 71 53 69
- Web www.camping-utahbeach.com
Camping Omaha Beach
- Rue de la Hérode, 14710 Vierville-sur-Mer
- Tel +33 (0)2 31 22 41 73
- Web www.camping-omaha-beach.fr
Camping de la Seine
- 2699 Route du Conihout, 76480 Jumièges
- Tel +33 (0)6 60 22 84 22
- Web www.campingdelaseine.com
Camping de la Forêt
- Rue Mainberte, 76480 Jumièges
- Tel +33 (0)2 35 37 93 43
- Web www.campinglaforet.com
Camping Le Parc
- Rue Victor Hugo, La Mailleraye-sur-Seine, 76940 Arelaune-en-Seine
- Tel +33 (0)2 35 37 12 04
- Web www.seine-maritime-tourisme.com
Camping Les Peupliers
- Allée des Pins, 14810 Merville-Franceville
- Tel +33 (0)2 31 24 05 07
- Web www.camping-peupliers.com
Camping Riva Bella
- 1 Rue de la Haie Breton, 14150 Ouistreham
- Web vacances-seasonova.com/fr/camping/riva-bella
Camping Hautes Coutures
- Avenue de la Côte de Nacre, 14970 Bénouville, Basse-Normandie
- Tel +33 (0)2 31 44 73 08
- Web camp fun.com/camping-france-basse_normandie-hautes_coutures.fr.html
- Camping des Bords de l’Aure, Boulevard d’Eindhoven, 14400 Bayeux
- Tel +33 (0)2 31 92 08 43
- Web camping-bayeux.fr/fr/accueil-sp1.php
Camping Château de Martragny
- 52 Hameau St Léger, 14740 Martragny
- Tel +33 (0)2 31 80 21 40
- Web www.chateau-martragny.com
Camping Reine Mathilde
- Route de Sainte Honorine, 14400 Etréham
- Web camping-normandie-reinemathilde.com
Camping Le Point du Hable
- Grandcamp-Maisy, 14450 France
- Web www.campinglepontduhable.fr
Camping Le Fanal
- Rue du Fanal, 14230 Isigny-sur-Mer, Calvados
- Web www.camping-normandie-fanal.fr
Camping Le Haut Dick
- 30 Chemin du Grand Bas Pays, 50500 Carentan Les Marais
- Web www.camping-lehautdick.com
Chateau de Lez-Eaux
- 240 Avenue de Lez-Eaux, 50380 St Aubin des Préaux
- Web www.lez-eaux.com
- Boulevard Patton, 50170 Pontorson
- Web www.camping-haliotis-mont-saint-michel.com
Camping La Baie du Mont St Michel
- 1 La Mottaiserie, 50220 Ceaux (Manche)
- Web camping-baiemontsaintmichel.com
Camping Saint Michel (reopens March 2021)
- 35 Route du Mont Saint Michel, 50220 Courtils
- Web www.campingsaintmichel.com
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Bayeux, a largely medieval city, is the real nerve centre of the region's D-Day story, so it's worth setting up base here for a few days