Normandy is familiar to countless Brits. A popular holiday destination for generations, it’s easy to see why.
Normandy is familiar to countless Brits. A popular holiday destination for generations, and it’s easy to see why. With its proximity to Channel ports, lush rolling countryside, turbulent history entwined with ours and a fabulous (and rich!) cuisine, it packs a lot of holiday punch.
Popular headline acts might include the Bayeux Tapestry, the D-Day Landing Beaches, elegant Deauville or the white cliffs of Étretat on the Alabaster Coast.
And don’t forget Honfleur with its harbour-side houses, six floors or higher, crammed around the picture-perfect harbour.
But, as with many things familiar, the obvious sights and the well-trodden paths can obscure the lesser-known gems. And there are many hidden away in this fascinating region.
So look beyond these attention seekers and surprise yourself at the variety and richness to be found in Normandy.
Café Gondrée, Pegasus Bridge, Bénouville
A fascinating slice of living history, this café is adjacent to the famous bridge, captured by British airborne troops on 6th June 1944 at the start of the Normandy invasion. Actually, to be strictly true, the original bridge has been decommissioned and lies across the canal. Today the café’s owner, Mme Gondrée (a young girl in 1944), can still bring to life stories and experiences that a museum cannot. It’s no ‘secret’ but is a truly unique place for breakfast on disembarking at Caen.
Suisse Normande is a region located in southern Normandy, France, and although it may not have the grand scale of the Swiss Alps, it still boasts breathtaking scenery and an abundance of outdoor activities. The region's terrain is characterized by craggy gorges and rocky outcrops, making it a haven for climbers and canoeists. The area is also home to a network of rivers that flow through endless verdant valleys and hillsides, linking picturesque villages.
In addition to its natural beauty, Suisse Normande boasts a rich cultural heritage. The region is dotted with charming stone bridges, traditional watermills, and quaint villages that have retained their timeless charm. One of the region's highlights is Thury-Harcourt, a historic town with a ruined castle and delightful gardens. It serves as the gateway to the Suisse Normande, and is a great starting point for exploring the area.
Overall, Suisse Normande is a hidden gem in France, offering visitors the opportunity to enjoy stunning landscapes, indulge in outdoor activities, and immerse themselves in the local culture.
Monet’s Garden, Giverny
Just inside the Normandy border, Giverny was made famous as Monet’s home. Lying northwest of Paris, it is neither close to the holiday beaches nor is a convenient stopover for most tourists heading north or south, and so a visit requires some commitment. But you are well rewarded with a real sense of history, familiar vistas and, of course, the lily pond. To avoid the coaches arriving from Paris, try to get there early.
Set on the English Channel at the southern end of the Cotentin peninsular, this is traditionally something of a seaside resort and is not far from Mont Saint-Michel. But stroll the cobbled streets of the old town and enjoy an excellent seafood lunch before visiting the Christian Dior Museum, located in the famous designer’s childhood home Villa Les Rhumbs.
This is a small town at the foot of the Normandy peninsular and can be a handy stop for refreshment and to stretch the legs. But there is more to it than a baguette break. The central square is typically pretty with cafes and shops and comes complete with the requisite central hotel.
Traditionally the town was a centre for manufacturing copper pans (the town name means, literally, ‘God’s town of the frying pans’), and today many shops still offer gleaming pans of every description. Such was the extent of metalworking that many inhabitants were deaf due to the incessant hammering involved.
The town was also renowned for bell-making, which probably didn’t help the deafness. The crafts continue, so wander the town and visit some of the workshops and buy at factory prices.
Dating from 654, the abbey has witnessed a procession of colourful and turbulent events involving Vikings, William the Conqueror, Huguenots, and an Archbishop of Canterbury.
The abbey was home to the Benedictines, who were a monastic order that played a significant role in the religious and cultural life of Normandy. The imposing ruins of the abbey are a testament to the power and influence that the Benedictines once held over the land.
During the Reformation, the abbey faced further turmoil. The Huguenots, who were Protestant reformers, targeted the abbey and caused extensive damage to its buildings and properties.
Jumièges Abbey ceased to function as a monastery during the French Revolution, resulting in its transformation into a set of striking ruins. These ruins include the church, which features stunning twin towers and a western façade, as well as fragments of the cloisters and library. The contents of the library were relocated to Rouen after the abbey's dissolution in 1792.
The setting of the abbey, amid rolling countryside west of Rouen, is quintessential Normandy. It's an area known for its scenic beauty, rich history, and cultural significance. Today the abbey's imposing ruins are a popular tourist attraction.
Think of Bayeux, and the first thing that comes to mind tends to be the famous tapestry. There’s also the stunning cathedral, the immaculate and moving American Cemetery and, further afield, the iconic orchards.
But get to Place Saint Patrice early on a Saturday morning, and you can witness one of France’s great and most authentic markets. It’s an assault on the senses, with the scent of cut flowers and herbs filling the air and traders proffering cider and Calvados, fruit and vegetables. Larger stalls are packed out with a range of fresh fish on ice; smaller stalls offer local mussels, crabs, and grey shrimps, as well as live poultry, rabbits and game.
You can pick up wines, of course, as well as bread of every shape and size, charcuterie and local cheeses – an irresistible picnic. In addition, browse past street food stalls offering pizza, paella, crêpes and more.
Château de Crèvecoeur-en-Auge
Located east of Caen, this is a perfectly preserved medieval site – a fortified castle surrounded by a moat. The original layout is intact, with the manor house set on a mound, a lower courtyard, a chapel and timbered outbuildings of real character. The oldest parts date back to the 12th century and are astonishingly well-maintained. Yet perversely, this castle is often overlooked in tourist itineraries.
Cap de la Hague
This is a wild spot on a rugged stretch of coastline at the tip of the Cotentin peninsula. Popular with poets and artists, it has scarcely changed over the years but venture here and you will be rewarded with epic seascapes and dramatic scenery, as well as a riot of colourful flora and wildlife.