The Road to Rouen is one of two things for most people. For those who are into their English rock bands, it is the title of Supergrass’s fifth studio album (2005). For those who travel to France by ferry via Calais and then on to Normandy, Brittany, or further down to the Atlantic seaboard, it is that seemingly interminable stretch of motorway that needs to be got out of the way before your holiday can really begin.
Supergrass recorded their album in a converted barn near the city of Rouen, and used a photograph of one of the bridges on the motorway for album’s cover (left); the image certainly attests to the monotony of the road. The impression one gets from the motorway, however, does not do justice to this part of Normandy. The ‘road to Rouen’ is in fact the A28, as it slices its way through Seine Maritime, one of two administrative Departments that make up Upper Normandy, from the border with Picardy to Rouen. This part of Normandy, like the other more well-trodden regions of France is rich in culture and tradition, with so much to do and see for all ages – but without hoards of tourists.
Most of us already know this area quite well – through the paintings of the Impressionist artists. Seine Maritime was their open air studio, where they chose to paint the stunning features of its landscapes at different times of the day in different light. One of the subjects frequently painted was the chalky cliffs, from Dieppe to Le Havre – the arch at the seaside town of Ã‰tretat (below) is perhaps the most well known. Giverney, the small village where Monet lived, is itself not far from Rouen. And 2010 is the year of the Impressionists for Upper Normandy – watch this space for future posts about the various events planned.
The history of this area stretches right back to the very beginnings of humankind. The earliest stone tools made by people, the so-called hand axes, were first discovered on the Normandy/Picardy border. To the southern border of this part of Normandy, along the river Seine, is a remarkable concentration of Medieval Monasteries and Abbeys. Anyone who has enjoyed the liqueur BÃ©nÃ©dictine may also enjoy a visit to distillery in the Abbey of FÃ©camp where the liqueur is still made to that secret recipe. But of course the whole area is dotted with churches and cathedrals from all periods. Simply driving around the area one can stumble upon some amazing religious architecture, for example the Cathedral at Eu (below) – the town where William the Conqueror married Mathilde of Flanders.
Seine Maritime has a stunning coastline, as the Impressionists already discovered. Whether it is beaches for the family or great restaurants and seafood platters for two you are after, you will all not be disappointed. Many of the towns and cities along the coast have been favourite haunts for Parisians for centuries. Dieppe was once where the rich and famous liked to hang out. Now it is the fishing village of Le Treport that is frequented by Parisians for their seafood fix.
Inland Seine Maritime is still quite rural, cattle farming and apple orchards aplenty. Cream, cheese and apples: the typical ingredients of great cuisine Normande. Converted barns and farmhouses in rustic settings make for relaxing and peaceful self-catering holidays – you could even record your own album.
When we think of Normandy it is usually the D-Day beaches, Mont Saint Michel, and the Bayeaux Tapestry that spring to mind. As spectacular and important as these sites are, there is a whole side of Normandy that is largely overlooked by visitors to France: Normandy north of the river Seine.