France

Around the region

Normandy is large, and varies hugely across its range. Indeed, the old Duchy is big enough that administratively it is not one region, but two: Haute Normandie (Upper Normandy) and Basse Normandie (Lower Normandy).

Upper Normandy reaches the Channel in spectacular white cliffs, sedate beach resorts and busy harbours, such as Dieppe, Etretat and Fécamp. The meandering River Seine twists through Upper Normandy between forests and cliffs, abbeys and hilltop castles. Astride the river sits the city of Rouen, once capital of the whole Duchy, now the chef-lieu of Haute Normandie.Lower Normandy reaches from its capital, the Conqueror’s city of Caen, down the maritime Cotentin Peninsula, to dramatic Mont-St-Michel abbey rising pyramid-like from sea-washed sands. The heart of Lower Normandy is the Pays d’Auge, a world of half-timbered cottages and manoirs, apple orchards and grazing cows. This is the classic Normandy of crème fraîche, apple tart, dry cider, Camembert cheese and Calvados apple brandy.

Whether you arrive in Normandy from the sea at Dieppe, Le Havre or Cherbourg-Octeville, or by road from Paris or the Channel Tunnel, you will experience contrasting faces of the region. Upper Normandy is high plateau country with a patchwork of fields under wide skies. The Cotentin Peninsula in Lower Normandy presents a wilder and more rustic face, with wooded hills, tiny villages and fishing harbours, and cliffs rising from Normandy’s rocky western coastline. And on the shores of the Seine Bay, extending west of Le Havre to Caen, are chic beach resorts and bustling ports that have attracted visitors for over a century.



Rouen

Normandy’s historic capital Rouen is one of the most attractive places in Northern France. In the old heart of the city, on the river Seine’s north bank, cobbled lanes ramble among exquisite houses of timber, stone, and a dozen lace-delicate Gothic churches. From the exuberant Flamboyant cathedral – which was painted again and again by Claude Monet – the old quarter’s narrow main street, rue du Gros Horloge, straddled by a gilded medieval clock tower, runs into place du Vieux Marché, where Joan of Arc was burnt alive in 1431. The city makes much of its connection to St Joan and has a remarkable modern church dedicated to her. With an array of good museums, public gardens and remnants of its long history, there’s a tremendous amount to do and see in the city, from the Fine Arts Museum where a string of rooms is devoted to the Impressionists who loved this area so much and a world-class collection of Flemish art is sited, to Rouen’s other great pleasures – strolling, shopping and sampling local specialities.



Upper Normandy

Upper Normandy is made up of the départements of Seine-Maritime, which climbs from the right bank of the River Seine, and Eure, most of which lies on the left bank. Through the middle of the region flows the wide River Seine, making its way to the sea in great meandering twists and turns, along which the Vikings rowed deep into the territory of the Franks. On its banks stand the cities of Rouen and Le Havre, and other long-established towns, ancient abbeys, medieval castles, forests and some of the greatest landmarks of Normandy’s cultural heritage, like Monet’s house and garden at Giverny. Apart from the more populous Seine Valley, though, much of Upper Normandy is high chalk-plateau country, broad and open, clothed in big grain fields and sparsely dotted with villages. There are some surprises, like the fertile Pays de Bray district, or the vast beech woods of the Forêt de Lyons. South of the Seine, the region is quietly rustic and resolutely traditional. North of the Seine, Upper Normandy meets the English Channel in lofty white cliffs and sandy beaches, and bustling towns like the popular port and market-town of Dieppe and the charming pre-war resorts of the Alabaster Coast.



Calvados

At the centre of Normandy’s broad spread, the département of Calvados seems to conjure all that’s most evocative of the Duchy. It extends from a long Channel coastline of wartime Landing Beaches and attractive old harbours like Honfleur or the belle epoque resorts of the Côte Fleurie, to fine historic towns like Bayeux, the thriving capital Caen, and to exquisite old-fashioned countryside like the apples-and-cream Pays d’Auge with its half-timbered manor houses. Calvados produces some of Normandy’s most famous products, and gives its own name to a refined but fiery apple brandy drunk as a digestif. The farms and dairies of southern Calvados put several other familiar names on the gourmet table, such as the strong, creamy cheeses of Pont l’Evêque and Livarot, while the area around Isigny-sur-Mer in western Calvados is famed for its high-quality milk, cream and butter.



Cotentin

Despite the ferry traffic passing through its largest town, the busy port of Cherbourg-Octeville, Normandy’s westerly département of Manche remains probably the least known region in Normandy. It is dominated by the distinctive character of the Cotentin Peninsula, projecting granite headlands far into the English Channel (La Manche in French), but this is no wilderness. The region was densely populated in ancient times, and put up the strongest resistance to Roman rule. It was the first part of Normandy to be settled by the invading Norsemen. In the Middle Ages, too, it prospered. Today it preserves a powerful sense of history, with some of the finest Norman churches, a rustic hinterland of fields, woodland and hedges and many distinctive Viking place names. There are appealing working towns like Villedieu-les-Poêles, and a small cathedral city, Coutances. Heading south, the steep, wild and rocky coast gives way to many little harbours and long sandy beaches, with a string of traditional family resorts like Carteret and Granville. At its foot, the Cotentin Peninsula skirts the edge of evocative Mont-St-Michel Bay.



Southern Normandy

In a southern corner of Normandy is one of the most visited places in France – the abbey of Le Mont-St-Michel, rising spectacularly from the seawaters and tidal marshes where Normandy touches Brittany. Travel in a gentle curve from Le Mont-St-Michel towards Paris and the Seine, and you will pass through the beautiful natural landscapes of Southern Normandy, encompassing the département of Orne and extending a little beyond to include la Suisse Normande. Here is a world of cool rivers and streams and steep green hills, thickly wooded in places. A large part of the region falls within the Parc Naturel Régional Normandie Maine, which includes woods, countless small farms, a mosaic of tiny fields and orchards, delightful villages and quiet country towns among its charms. Of them, St-Céneri-le-Gérei is one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (the most beautiful French villages), while Bagnoles-de-l’Orne is an elegant spa resort in the midst of woodland. In Alençon, the region’s capital – once synonymous with high-quality needlepoint lace – the impressive historic architecture luckily survived the Second World War almost intact. Further east, the Perche region is a place of quiet, unspoiled villages, rolling hills, forests and farms and paddocks where Percheron horses graze.


This except is taken straight from our Normandy Colour Travel Guide by Andrew Sanger. 
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