At the end of May, I spent a week travelling around Normandy with my husband, Mum and Dad. Now, at first glance it might not seem to be a dream holiday, but for anyone who enjoys fine food, even finer wine, beautiful countryside and lots of history, Normandy is a fantastic holiday destination. And at under £1000 for 2 people for a week all-in, it’s not expensive either.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, so for any of you considering taking a trip to France, below are my top 5 places to visit in Normandy.
As I’ve mentioned above, Normandy is well known for its food produce – cider, milk, butter, cheese, apples, seafood to name but a few. Isigny-sur-mer specifically is famous for its milk, a source that is then turned into butter, cheese, ice cream and – best of all – caramels. You can’t visit the creamery any longer, but there is a huge shop dedicated to the Caramels D’Isigny called Les Halles D’Isigny. Blackberry, apple, vanilla, chocolate, Calvados, hazelnut – you name it, they have it. Buerre salé (salted caramel) is my personal favourite.
Whilst the shop specialises in all things caramel, it also has a wide variety of other local produce such as Calvados, cider, preserves, paté, cheeses, biscuits and many other things that make great gifts for people. However, though the shop itself is interesting and well worth a half an hour browse, there is also the ‘museum’ next door. Not enormous, it outlines the history of the caramels, but what is special is that if you time it right, you can see some of the caramels being made.
Beware though, this is one of the highlights of the Normandy tourism trail and you know what that means. Coaches. Lots of them.
The middle stretch of the northern Norman coastline boasts multiple historic old-world seaside resorts within train’s reach of Paris, including the town of Deauville, the site of Coco Chanel’s first fashion boutique and inspiration for her Deauville tote.
About half an hour along the coast from Deauville is Honfleur. A beautiful port town, Honfleur sits just across the mouth of the Seine from Le Havre. Once a key commercial centre, Honfleur is now more of a tourist destination than a bustling port like Le Havre across the mouth of the river. It’s beautiful charm is demonstrated in the high-rise buildings lining the Vieux Bassin which you can admire whilst you browse the numerous independent shops and restaurants that line the central docks.
Nowadays, Honfleur is more famous for its links to art and maritime history. Its lovely cobbled streets hide many treasures such as the Musée de la Marine and the Maisons Satie museum, and once you’re done exploring, the restaurants lining the Vieux Bassin have a wide range of fresh French fare, particularly local seafood.
3. Omaha Beach
This is a difficult one. The location of one of the famous D-Day landings, Omaha beach is one of the five landing sites used during the Norman invasion in the Second World War. Due to German preparation, the American landing on June 6th 1944 at Omaha was one of the most brutal with American forces taking 2,400 casualties on the day. As a result, it’s hard to think of Omaha beach without considering the number of American – and German – lives lost along this particular piece of coastline, especially when you notice the multitude of abandoned German gun batteries and strongholds hidden amongst the cliffs and dunes.
Despite this, Omaha is still a beautiful stretch of beach and if you are able to look past the history of the area, it’s fine sand and clear sea make the beach a wonderful spot to build a sand castle and have a picnic.
And for you historians out there, Omaha beach and the surrounding fields are full of wartime relics like concrete bunkers to spend a few hours exploring. Or a few days. Or weeks. There are a lot of them.
One of the most historic towns in the area, Bayeux somehow managed to avoid much of the damage wrought on the rest of northern Normandy during the war. Narrow cobbled streets and winding canals make Bayeux a picturesque place to spend a few hours browsing the shops and eating at one of the many restaurants or cafes in the town centre.
If shopping at one of the independent shops doesn’t float your boat, then there is always the Notre-Dame Cathedral to visit, or the Overlord museum which rather than focussing on D-Day as a whole operation, centres on the French home front and some of key battles that took place in the nearby area.
Finally, I can’t talk about Bayeux without mentioning the Tapestry. Although it is (hopefully) making the journey to the UK in 2020, you just can’t beat seeing the Bayeux Tapestry in its hometown. Over 70m long, the Tapestry tells the story of William I’s conquest of England, ending in the Battle of Hastings. Although the museum provides an audio guide, the information plays out quite quickly and knowing a little bit about the history of the battle (and relying on my Dad to fill in the gaps!) I found it more enjoyable to walk the length of the Tapestry figuring out the story for myself.
I’m just going to come out and say it. Highlight of my trip.
A UNESCO world heritage site, the Mont-Saint-Michel is like something out of the Lord of the Rings. Rising out of the bay, the mount draws your eye upwards towards the impressive spires of the Benedictine abbey balanced almost precariously at the top.
Despite the weather being sunny and fresh when we left our gîte, arriving at the car park the weather was foggy, billows of mist rolling in with the tide. Usually the mount can clearly be seen on the drive along the causeway, but it was only when we pulled up at the base that it suddenly loomed out of the mist like some sort of ancient beast.
Walking in through the gates, the fog retreated enough to reveal quaint medieval buildings, crookedly lining a steep cobbled road leading up towards the abbey. Whilst the town itself is like something from a fairytale, the shops and restaurants are pretty standard, selling all manner of holiday memorabilia and over-priced French food. Yet, despite the clearly touristy vibe, the place is undeniably magical.
I’d also highly recommend visiting the Abbey itself. It’s a steep walk and might be difficult for those with mobility issues or suffering from heart problems, but there is more to see than you might first expect. By the time we had actually made it to the end of the tour, the weather had cleared up, revealing spectacular views across the bay and back in land that can be seen from all angles from the abbey grounds.
If I can give you one piece of advice here, though? As much as you might be tempted to, don’t go walking across the bay by yourself. The causeway exists for a reason people, and there are legitimate warnings about quicksand and sinkholes. Though, if you see a claddagh ring lying around down there on the sand, it’s mine. Me being me, I managed to pull it off my finger by accident and of course, dropped at precisely the point where the boards are wide enough apart that a ring could slip through the gaps. I’m sure it happens to everyone.
So there you have them. My top 5 places to visit in Normandy. In my next travel post I’ll have a look at some of the the more quirky things to do when you’re visiting so be sure to check back and take a look.
Don’t forget though, I only spent a week there and Normandy is a big place, so I am sure there will still be a lot to visit the next time. Let me know what your favourite places are in the comments!