ABC’s of Normandie, France

Touring Normandie France in alphabetical order was unplanned, we began with Arromanches, Bayeux & Caen.

Our dear long time friends from Vancouver, Canada joined forces with us on our exploratory trek through Normandie. Our Airbnb base was in Caen and each day we took trips to explore as many World War II sites and French villages, communes and towns as we could. The last week of August, we were told, was the final week of summer before school began and many residents headed to the beaches for one last summer celebration, so we found the city to be fairly quiet.  Regardless we did get out a couple of evenings for a stroll through the old town. One evening we had a lovely french-mexican dinner and another evening we enjoyed a glass of calvados in the center of the square and people watched. 

In this blog, before we talk about the charming Normandie villages we visited, we begin by sharing a smattering of our World War II images and experiences.

Normandie France: World War II

Omaha, Juno, Sword, Utah, and Gold Beach were the Allied code names for the Normandie beaches in France where the Allies landed on D-Day, June 6, 1944 during World War II. We visited many museums, cemeteries and monuments in each of the landing sites and every stop told a different and moving part of the horrific D-Day events. We have included the French names for these beaches as well in our photo links. 

We visited Longues-sur-Mer, where a German Gun Battery was placed midway between Omaha and Gold Beach and able to fire on both beaches during the landing.   We walked through the four bunkers that remain and could easily imagine the devastation they caused.

German Gun Emplacement

Cemeteries are where we pay respect to the fallen, and these solemn places in France are immaculate, melancholic and quite beautiful. At each site we found books that had lists of those buried within to aid in anyone’s search for family members. There are approximately three dozen World War II cemeteries in and around Normandie France alone where well in excess of 100,000 gravestones mark those terrible days and the horrific number of lives lost of both allied and axis soldiers, many in the first weeks of the D-Day landing.

American World War II cemetery

Although we personally do not have ancestors who fought on D-Day at Normandie Beach, these museums are meant for every generation to visit and explore both our past and reflect on our future. There has been so much written and so many movies made about World War II we will let our photos in the links at the bottom of this blog speak for us.

Canadian World War II cemetery

Normandie France: ABC Villages

Arromanches or Arromanches-les-Bains 

Arromanches is a pleasant little town with a population of only 515 Arromanchais living there, although it looks and feels like it is much larger. We arrived late in the day so we weren’t able to explore more than a few streets. This town shows its pride with dozens of hanging baskets and a plethora of planters lining the streets filled to overflowing with gorgeous flowers as well as gift shops, a large museum and plenty of cafés. Clearly tourism is the primary source of income. 

During World War II however the beach of Arromanches was the site where, within an extremely short time after the D-Day landing on June 6 1944, the Allies had installed an operational artificial port which they named Mulberry B Harbour “Port Winston”. Within a week they had landed more than 300,000 men, 54,000 vehicles and 104,000 tons of supplies via the floating port connected to a floating roadway.  2.5 million men, half a million vehicles and 4 million tons of material would eventually be landed through Arromanches using the port. 

Even today, 75 years later, there are large sections of massive concrete blocks of the Mulberry Harbour still sitting on the sand on the beach and others out in the bay at Arromanches.

The ruins of the Mulberry B Harbour “Port Winston”

Bayeux

Bayeux may be the quintessential French village with a river running through its center (the Aure), flower boxes bursting with color, a lazy waterwheel providing photo opportunities, a medieval center with cobbled streets, half-timbered houses and a beautiful towering church (Cathédrale Notre-Dame). As appealing as all that was and is, it is the famous Bayeux Tapestry, that should not be missed. 

Before writing this paragraph we spent many enjoyable hours researching the Bayeux tapestry, King Edward the Confessor, Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England and William the Conqueror, later King William I, the first Norman King of England. It is easy to get lost in the fascinating details of history, battles and events and extremely challenging to condense the information into a few paragraphs.

The 230 foot long x 20 inch tall (68mx50cm) Bayeux Tapestry is in fact an embroidered cloth, rather than a woven tapestry. It has a UNESCO Memory of the World award. The tapestry depicts the story of the events leading up to William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy’s successful conquest of England in 1066. Not surprisingly with a millennia year old piece of historical art, controversy surrounds its many details. For example, Who made it? When was it made? Where was it made? 

The tapestry is believed to have been created in the 11th century, most likely in England and within a few years after the Battle of Hastings. It has Latin text that provides details of some of the story. The work consists of 70 scenes with 623 humans, 202 horses, 41 ships, 2000 Latin words and 8 colors of woolen yarn embroidered on an off-white linen fabric.

It is a priceless, almost intact, piece of art that has survived 950+ years since the Medieval Ages. Valuable in part because it covers a crucial event in Western history, The Norman Conquest of Britain and in part because this one of a kind tapestry is a visual record of medieval arms, apparel, and other objects unlike any other artifact surviving from that period. There are so many interesting details within. Halley’s Comet, which appears in the upper border mid way through the tapestry, is the first known picture of the comet. Additionally a harrow, a newly invented farming implement, is embroidered on the cloth and this is the earliest known depiction of a harrow.

There is a handful of replicas of the Bayeux tapestry that can be viewed around the world today, each recreating the tapestry in a unique way. There is an embroidered 19th century version in Reading, Berkshire, England. We would love to see the mosaic version, using tiny metal off-cuts from a large industrial knitting machine in Geraldine, New Zealand; or the painted replica at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega GA, USA and definitely the carved and painted wooden version in North Creake, Norfolk, England. 

Did you know the Bayeux tapestry was the inspiration behind the 2017 Game of Thrones Tapestry. (YouTube has videos of both the Bayeux and Game of Thrones Tapestries) Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks and a number of other movies have used sections of the Bayeux tapestry in either their opening or closing credits.

The Bayeux tapestry

Side note: Ever heard of the Domesday Book? (Middle English for “Doomsday Book”)

Within a few years after William the Conqueror was crowned William I of England, he needed to raise money in his new kingdom. In 1086 he ordered a detailed survey of precisely what everyone owned in land, cattle, crops and tools so that he could collect taxes accordingly.  When all the information had been collected, it was written into two large tomes, called the Book of Winchester and very quickly became known as the Domesday Book. 

Caen

Caen was a wonderful city to stay in and with a population of just over the 100,000 mark, it offered a number of worthwhile sites to visit. 

Château de Caen was built by William the Conqueror around 1060 and it covers more than 12 acres (5-hectares) in the middle of the city today. We climbed up to the top of the ramparts for a panoramic view of the city. There is an interesting sculpture park at one corner of the grounds and both the Musée of Normandie and the Musée des Beaux-Arts are housed inside the ancient castle. Before the Norman Conquest of England, we were surprised to discover the Château was home to William, Duke of Normandy and his wife, Mathilde de Flandre.

Abbaye-aux-Dames, also known as Abbey of Sainte-Trinité, was founded in 1060 by Mathilde, and she is buried there. The magnificent Romanesque style Abbaye-aux-Hommes, also known as the Abbey of Saint-Étienne, was founded in 1063 by William the Conqueror. After his death in 1087 in Rouen, the body of King William was sent to Caen to be buried in Saint-Étienne per his wishes.

The Abbaye-aux-Hommes

La Route du Cidre

France is divided into Regions (similar to States or Provinces in North America) and each region is then divided into departments.

Driving through the Calvados department, we connected with the Cider Route, a 25 mile (40 km) route that follows picturesque roads and villages encouraging you to stop and taste the apple and/or pear ciders and apple and/or pear brandies, called Calvados. We stopped at Saint-Ouen-le-Pin and a second smaller spot that had a Cider House that attracted our attention, and sampled ciders and calvados. Like wine tasting, the flavors were slightly different at each offering. Our consensus was we preferred the pear cider.

In France there is an association called Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (the most beautiful villages of France), and they promote small, picturesque French villages that are worth visiting. Unbeknownst to us, Beuvron-en-Auge, the most delightful and irresistible village we visited in Normandie was a classified village of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France and on theRoute du Cidre’.

Beuvron-en-Auge along the ‘Route du Cidre’

Since the end of WWII, the population of Beuvron-en-Ange has halved to less than 200 people today. We strolled through this lovely village visiting the church, cemetery and shops. We will remember this village as our ‘rhubarb heaven’ finding locally made rhubarb jams – rhubarb & calvados, rhubarb & cider, rhubarb & raspberry, rhubarb & lemon, rhubarb & blackcurrant (the best!) and 750 ml bottles filled with an intensely flavored non-alcoholic rhubarb nectar. Delicious!

Rhubarb Heaven

Honfleur

We did not stay in Honfleur long enough to be called Honfleurais but the dozens of tempting art galleries, boutiques, traditional craft shops, cafes and boulangeries lining the narrow cobbled streets certainly made us want to extend our day. 

This tiny seaside village, located at the mouth of the Seine River, has a population of around 8,000 inhabitants and the population numbers have virtually remained unchanged since 1793. The port of Honfleur was the departure site of a number of explorers in the early 1500 and 1600’s, notably in 1608, the expedition of Samuel de Champlain, who founded Quebec City in Canada.

Honfleur is known for its old port, its striking 16th-18th century houses with their slate-covered fronts and as a favorite painting location for artists Gustave Courbet, Johan Jongkind, Claude Monet and local artist, Eugène Boudin. (Boudin was one of the first French landscape painters to paint outdoors – and we think his work is amazing, especially his clouds. Fellow artists nicknamed Boudin “king of the skies”.)

Honfleur, France

We did see inside the captivating Saint-Catherine’s Church, the oldest part being built in the mid 1400’s. Saint-Catherine’s is the largest church made out of wood in France. The “Axe Masters” of the local naval yards built this unusual church without using any saws. It is a handsome Church inside as well and the dozen or more sailboats decorating the altar certainly was a surprise.

Saint-Catherine’s Church

Houlgate

Houlgate, current population less than 2,000 people, is a small seaside resort town where we ambled along the promenade before finding a sunny outdoor corner at a cafe for a late afternoon refreshment.  The stylish architecture of the buildings was, once again, incredible. In the mid 19th century, the town experienced a building boom when most of the beautiful villas and chalets were built. The varied finishing and decorative details, especially on the roofs were something we were seeing for the first time.

Roof decorations in Houlgate

In WWII, Houlgate was under German occupation and the Germans focused on the construction of the ‘Atlantic Wall’ which included laying barbed wire, hiding explosive in the sand, building concrete bunkers and anti-tank obstacles. In August 1944 the Germans abandoned the town and in October that year the task of demining the beach began. Fifteen deminers would lose their lives during the demining process and they are still remembered, honored and celebrated each year.

Lisieux

The attractive town of Lisieux, population 21k, is surrounded by a mix of livestock farming-primarily used for cheese production and apple cultivation-primarily grown for cider and calvados production.

The earliest written proof of the town is in Roman writings and Lisieux today, sits atop an ancient Roman settlement. During medieval times Lisieux was an important center of power but multiple wars and a series of plagues eventually devastated both the cities population and its importance. 

In 1907, local Lisieux engineer and bicycle maker, Paul Cornu, made history by becoming the first man to successfully fly a rotary aircraft. He ‘flew’ his own primitive helicopter by lifting about a foot off the ground, hovering for 20 seconds before landing on all 4 bicycle wheels. Cornu’s invention was known as his “Flying Bicycle”. In June 1944, allied bombing killed 800 victims, including Paul Cornu, and destroyed two thirds of the town.

There are two magnificent churches in town that we visited. Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Lisieux, referred to as the Lisieux Cathedral, was built in the year 1170 in a Norman Gothic style.

The second, the Basilica of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, is truly beautiful and it has a wonderful story.

On January 2nd, 1873, Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin was born. Her family called her Thérèse and at the age of 9, Thérèse asked the Carmelite authorities for permission to enter the convent. She was refused. At the age of 15 she made her second request and again refused. However the Carmelite priest offhandedly suggested Thérèse could ask the bishop. At her meeting with the Bishop, he told her he would consider her request and would send a letter about his decision. The determined young lady, expected another delay, so she and her father next traveled directly to see the Pope in the Eternal City in November 1887. The Holy Father would not intercede on her behalf and suggested to her that if God willed it, she would enter. The papal guards had to carry her out. 

Two months later in January 1988 the prioress of the Lisieux Carmel advised Thérèse she was accepted and would be received into the monastery in Lisieux. She was fifteen years and three months old when she entered in April and began her journey to becoming a Catholic Discalced Carmelite nun. She became popularly known as Thérèse, “The Little Flower”. Thérèse died tragically at the age of 24 from tuberculosis and she is buried in the Basilica.

Pope Pius XI canonised Saint Thérèse of Lisieux in 1925. The Pope wanted a huge basilica built in Lisieux in her name and by 1929 the first foundations were laid. World War II slowed progression but by 1954 this magnificent Basilica was consecrated. 

It is a beautiful large Basilica with room enough to easily seat 3000+ parishioners. We thought the altar, the abstract art mosaics and the stained glass work to be particularly stunning. The crypt below holds the reliquary of Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, Saint Thérèse’s parents and it is decorated with five mosaics representing stages in Thérèse’s life. Added in the 1960s, the bell tower is separated from the Basilica and it contains 51 bells which were donated by Belgium and Holland. The chimes of the Basilica of Lisieux are ranked among the most beautiful sounds in Europe.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Lisieux

A church well worth visiting. 

Mont Saint-Michel

On a rocky outcrop rising out of the bay, the silhouette of Mont Saint-Michel is breathtaking. This site has been honoured with a double UNESCO World Heritage status, one is Mont Saint-Michel and the other is the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel.

It is also part of the french route to Camino de Santiago and as such, received a UNESCO Outstanding Universal Value classification. 

Mont Saint-Michel dates back to 708 when the Bishop Aubert had a sanctuary built on the Mount in honor of the archangel, Saint Michael. By the 10th century the Benedictines had settled into the abbey and on the winding streets below its walls, a tiny medieval town with elaborate architecture began to grow. By the 14th century it was an impregnable stronghold and was able to resist every assault made by the English during the Hundred Years War. 

Mont Saint-Michel

Considered one of France’s top five tourist attractions today, there are only 43 living on Mont Saint-Michel, half of those being monks.

During the Middle Ages people regarded Mont Saint-Michel as an image of Paradise. They may have been correct.

Santé from these Caennais,

Ted and Julia

View the Villages of Normandy photo galleries here:

View the Museum of the Bayeux Tapestry photo gallery here

View the Memorials and Cemeteries of Normandy photo galleries here:

View The Churches of Normandy photo gallery here

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