Normandy is well known for fresh seafood.

Exploring Normandy in Northern France

Normandy is one of the most popular tourist destinations in France. There is the Medieval abbey of Mont Saint Michel and Claude Monet’s gardens with the water lily ponds he created – with strong, initial objections from the local residents of Giverny. And then there are also the ruins of Jumièges Abbey, said by many to be the most beautiful ruins in France, and the amazing Bayeux Tapestry. Normandy’s beaches have also played host to numerous armies over the last two thousand or so years, from the Romans who invaded Britain in the first century AD, and more recently the Allied forces who invaded Nazi occupied France in June of 1944.

The American Cemetry at Omaha Beach

The American WW2 Cemetery above Omaha Beach.

It’s not surprising with this concentration of historically and culturally significant sites – many of which have been added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites – that Normandy attracts a lot of visitors each year. Monet’s garden in Giverny and Mont Saint Michel, are the most visited attractions outside of Paris.

Unless you are only interested in exploring the big cities, and why not – Rouen, Caen and Le Havre have much to offer, a car is essential in Normandy, enabling you to get off the beaten track and away from the popular sites. Public transport to cities and larger towns can be very good, but having your own transport allows you to see and do so much more, going from village to village exploring at leisure.

Beautifully restored Medieval streets of Rouen

Rouen

If you bring your own car from the UK, you can cross the Channel through the Tunnel or by one of many ferry routes. You can bring as much luggage as you can fit in your car, instead of trying to cram everything into a couple of cases.. Check that your motor insurance is valid in France. Make sure that you take your driving licence and have a GB sticker, a warning triangle, a fluorescent vest and a couple of breathalysers in your car. It’s a good idea to make sure you’re covered for a breakdown to save hassle and expense if you have car problems.

I’d recommend avoiding being on the main roads in Normandy on a Saturday. This is the day that most self-catering gîtes and vacation rentals have their change-over, where the previous week’s guests depart and new guests arrive. As many routes from further south in France to the ferry ports of the north pass through Normandy, major roads and auto-routes are very busy, particularly during the peak summer months of July and August. A great excuse then to get off the main roads and explore the largely unvisited treasures of Normandy.

The Normandy we all know and love is made up of two different administrative regions: originally enough, Upper and Lower Normandy. It is Lower Normandy that is the more popular of the two, but do not overlook Upper Normandy. Upper Normandy may not have the well known places people visit, but for those searching for a less crowded destination that retains the Norman rural and cultural charm will not be disappointed here. The coastline from Dieppe to Le Havre with its stunning chalky cliffs attracted the Impressionists, and Monet produced more canvases of this coastline than of any other single theme. It was in the small town of Eu that William the conqueror married Mathilda, and centuries later in the Château d’Eu that King Louis Philippe welcomed Queen Victoria to his summer palace for the first Entente Cordiale between the French and English.

The chalk cliffs at Varengeville-sur-Mer
The chalky cliffs at Varengeville-sur-Mer, along the Normandy coast.

Just a few days ago I was driving from Jumièges Abbey towards Le Havre along the northern banks of the Seine River. Coming into the town of Caudebec-en-Caux I could not help but notice the church. Something made me stop and explore, and given my penchant for archaeology (prehistory to the Middle Ages), I am glad I did. Here on the front portal of the church I found some of the most exquisite stone carvings I have ever seen on a church. As Normandy has been a relatively prosperous region since early on the Middle Ages, there is a vast architectural and religious heritage across the region.

Carvings on the church in Caudebec-en-Caux
These detailed stone carvings on the church in Caudebec-en-Caux are only about 8 cm in height.

Besides churches and castles, Normandy is also well known for cheese and cider. Although there is considerable industry in the region, the vast, rolling green countryside supports numerous cattle farms and apple orchards.. We all know of Camembert, but there are many others that are older, and just as delicious Рsuch as a Coeur du Neufch̢tel. At the market, you will find one near you every day of the week, get yourself some fresh cheese, a bottle of cider and you are all set for a picnic Рall you need is a crusty baguette from the boulangerie.

A village market in the town of Aumale.
Morning market in Aumale, Upper Normandy.

Given Normandy’s extensive coastline, a number of the quaint, seaside towns and villages are fishing ports. Normandy is the place to have one of those mouth watering plateau de fruits de mer (seafood platter). Two picturesque, seaside towns I recommend for their great restaurants, to suit all budgets, are Le Treport and Honfleur.

Normandy is well known for fresh seafood.

All the seafood you can eat in Normandy

Have a great time exploring Normandy.

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About Thomas Dowson

Hello, I am Thomas Dowson - a freelance writer and archaeologist living in Normandy, France. My field of expertise is prehistoric art - such as the cave paintings in the Dordogne and South Africa. But I am becoming passionately interested in France more generally, and Normandy in particular, and what this country and one of its very well known regions has to offer people with all sorts of tastes and desires. In 2005 I exchanged a university archaeology lecture room for a Bed & Breakfast in Normandy. More recently I started the Archaeology Travel website; sharing my expertise and love of archaeology and travel with others who also want to explore the many different pasts around the World.