Powerful and independent, Normandy has a long and glorious history. Its long coastline of sweeping sandy beaches and its major ports have turned its people outwards to trans-Atlantic trade with settlers going as far afield as Canada. Its rich and fertile countryside has brought it wealth from agriculture while its monasteries, from Mont-St-Michel to romantic Jumièges made Normandy one of the centers of learning and scholarship.
Geography and Facts about Normandy
Where is Normandy?
From the resort of Le Tréport in the north eastern corner, Normandy runs west along the English Channel coast past Dieppe, Etratat, Le Havre and the famous D-Day Landing Beaches to the Cotentin Peninsula, then south along the English Channel past charming Granville to Mont-St-Michel. From here the border runs east, taking in Domfront, Alençon and Mortagne-au-Perche, then going north past Giverny up back to Le Tréport.
Normandy as a Region
Normandy was originally divided into Haute- and Basse-Normandie (Upper and Lower Normandy). The reorganisation of France’s regions in January 2016 has united the two into just Normandie. The capital remains Rouen.
Normandy has 5 departments: Calvados (14), Eure (27), Manche (50), Orne (61) and Seine-Maritime (76).
A Few Facts about Normandy
- The name Normandy comes from ‘Northmen’, from the Danish and Norwegian Vikings who raided and inhabited the region from the 9th century onwards.
- There are 14,500 kms (9,010 miles) of rivers and streams
- The longest river is the Seine (the 2nd longest river in France from source to sea at 482 miles (776 kms)
- There are 600 kms (370 miles) of coastline
- Major ferry ports are Cherbourg, Dieppe, Le Havre and Ouistreham (for Caen)
- Main bridges across the Seine are Pont de Normandie, Pont de Tancarville, Pont de Brotonne
- Normandy Tourist Office Website
Brief History of Normandy
Who doesn’t know the story of William (‘the Bastard’, a less well-known label), 1066 and the battle of Hastings? It’s a stirring tale of cousin against cousin, claims and counterclaims, in fact all in a day’s work for medieval folk. Many of the sites are still there, so you can plan a great visit to Normandy around the knights of old.
- Check out William the Conqueror and the 1066 Trail
- Check out the English side and the trails around 1066
But Normandy didn’t spring fully grown at that time. It had been the focus of Viking attacks from the 9th century onwards, an easy and rich target for the land-hungry Norsemen. It continued to be strategically important; it guarded the Seine and the approaches to Paris. It was also the place for feudal culture, cavalry warfare and the ideals of knighthood with their courtly ways. All these ideas they took to England after 1066.
Normandy’s other world-famous date is June 1944, when the Allies launched their attack on the Landing Beaches. The events are commemorated today and the area around that particular piece of coast is full of museums and memorials, telling the story.
The Normandy Coastline
Normandy’s coastline is varied and gorgeous. In the northeast, the Alabaster Coast (Côte d’Albâtre) is 80 kms (50 miles) long, with rocky cliffs and miniature gorges cutting down onto small pebble beaches. Etretat is the best known, painted endless times by the Impressionists and picture-postcard pretty.
Make your way to the Côte Fleurie and the landscape changes; golden sands sweep as far as the eye can see and the waves move lazily against the shoreline. It’s not the place for surfing but it is the place for long walks along the dunes, picnics in the sun and endless water sports.
If you like charming, small resorts don't miss Deauville for its very British atmosphere, its polo, racing, museums, restaurants and sailing.
In June 1944 it was a very different place and the scenes from the D-Day landings still live on – in memorials, in intensely sad but beautiful cemeteries full of the soldiers, sailors and airmen lost in the conflict, in films and in commemorations.
This year the Normandy Landing Events will take place from May 28 to June 12, 2016.
The Cotentin Peninsula juts out into the sea, cut off from the rest of Normandy by marshy lands. Its little ports such as Barfleur and St Vaast, and resorts like Granville, where Christian Dior lived in a charming villa – now the Christian Dior Museum – and Avranches with its World War II connections, are all delightful.
Then you reach the border between Normandy and Brittany, and one last great site, Mont-St-Michel. Once again, waves dash against this tiny rocky outcrop that holds one of the most important sites in Christendom. In 2015 a bridge was built, replacing the causeway and taking you on a shuttle across to the Abbey.
Major Cities and Charming Towns in Normandy
Rouen, the Capital
Rouen has been the capital and the major city since the beginning of the region in the Roman era. It’s a beautiful place, full of old brown-and-white half-timbered houses, a great clock, museums (including a splendid ceramic museum) and a very grand cathedral, the Gothic masterpiece painted and sketched by Monet over 30 times. But to the French, it’s most famous as the place where Joan of Arc, the Fair Maid, was tried and finally burnt at the stake in 1431. May 30th is always marked by ceremonies in the town.
Caen in Calvados was badly damaged in World War but the city that was transformed by William the Conqueror has some great sites. The Conqueror had two abbeys built (which secured the Pope’s blessing on his slightly dubious marriage with a cousin) and the Château is surrounded by its ancient ramparts.
One of the main reasons people visit Caen is for the impressive Caen Memorial, a museum that puts World War II in perspective by tracing the origins back to World War I.
Bayeux in Calvados is rightly famous for the magnificent Bayeux Tapestry, a vast medieval comic strip telling the story of William, 1066 and the Battle of Hastings. Its Museum of the Battle of Normandy gives a very real overview of the Battle of Normandy in World War II.
Inland Normandy - Pays d'Auge
This is where you get the real flavour of rural Normandy, an agriculturally rich area of fields, forests and orchards. Don’t miss the Pays d’Auge south of Lisieux for its lovely manor houses, and the chance to sample proper Normandy cheeses.
Crévecoeur-en-Auge, west of Lisieux, has a delightful château with restored half-timbered houses around a recreated village green.
And finally, take a trip to Falaise where the castle of William the Conqueror has been imaginatively restored.
Food and Drink of Normandy
The rich pastures have produced a rich cuisine, with cooking based on butter and cream rather than the olive oil of southern France. The cheeses are well-known, from Camembert to Pont-l’Éveque, smelly Livarot to the cream cheese Neufchâtel.
Meat eaters will have a time to remember; there’s excellent beef and veal while rabbit and duck are also the best. Sausages (andouilles or chitterlings) might not appeal to the squeamish, nor will tripes which are stewed for hours à la mode de Caen.
But Normandy’s long coastline means superb seafood, so choose a waterside restaurant in the seaside ports and resorts for flappingly fresh fish and mountains of seafood in plateaux de fruits de mer.
Normandy produces cider from its wonderful apple orchards, not wine. Another of its great drinks is Calvados, brandy made from fermented and distilled apples. If you’re having a long and rich meal, make sure you knock back a trou normand in the middle (usually between the fish and meat course) to help the digestion. Originally a glass of neat Calvados, most restaurants now serve the Calvados in a sorbet.
The D-Day Landing Beaches are one of Normandy's great attractions. They're interesting and well organised with museums and memorials from the small and poignant to the large and internationally important. The famous beaches run along the Baie de la Seine and are known as the Plages du Débarquement.
Medieval Normandy and William the Conqueror. There's a lot to see still of medieval Normandy that has connections to William, the great Conqueror of England at the Battle of Hasings in 1066. Follow this trail for the events leading up to 1066.
Don’t miss Giverny, one of France’s top gardens. The gardens that the owner of the house, Claude Monet, laid out when he lived here from 1883 to his death in 1926 are delightful. You can also visit his studio in the house which is full of Monet’s collections of Japanese prints.
Abbey of Jumièges in Seine-Maritime 23 kms (14.5 miles) west of Rouen, is one of France’s romantic abbey ruins. Its setting is superb, on a bend of the Seine river and its history just as exciting. Founded in 654 AD, it was sacked by the Vikings in 841, rebuilt and re-consecrated by William the Conqueror in 1067.
Château Gaillard is perched high above Les Andeleys in Seine-Maritime. It was Richard the Lionheart’s castle, built in a year from 1196-7 on a position high above the river. Much of it was destroyed in 1603 but you can walk to it and see the ruins.
How to get to Normandy's Cities and Towns
Normandy is within very easy reach of London, Paris and the UK.