When you think of Normandy attractions – immediately you are thrust into WWII and images of D Day. There is no shortage of tour buses and tours focused on WWII sites in the area. However if you look beyond the cemeteries, memorials, American flags, plaques, and gift shops you’ll find that Normandy is much more than just D Day sights.
With its 350 miles of coastline and richly varied landscapes, Normandy gives you a wonderful choice of scenery and culture which is why it ended up being a big surprise for me. I expected my interest in the WWII sights, but I didn’t expect to fall in love with the landscape and culture of the area. From UNESCO sights, to architecture, to churches, to stinky cheese, and apple brandy – there’s plenty to see and do around the area. If you go, then make sure you stay an extra couple of days to explore some of these non-war sites and the bliss of the French countryside.
Not only was Joan of Arc burned at the stake in Rouen, but it also has a fascinating architectural history. It’s deemed the “Town with a Thousand Spires”. The ornate Notre-Dame Cathedral inspired Monet to paint his Cathedral series – a series of 28 paintings to show the different effects of light at varying times of the day. The facade of the cathedral is mesmerizing with it’s abundance of pinnacles and carvings – you can stand and stare at it for hours.
Drive through the countryside enjoying the green rolling hills of Normandy along the Cider Route. You’ll be able to stop and do plenty of Calvados tasting. Calvados (apple brandy) is made when apples are harvested and pressed into a juice that is fermented into a dry cider. It is then distilled into brandy. After two years aging in oak casks, it can be sold as Calvados. The longer it is aged, the smoother the drink becomes.
A UNESCO sight, the island has held strategic fortifications since ancient times. Le Mont Saint Michel looks like a wedding cake from a distance – but the top down design was for religious purposes. On top God/church, the abbey and monastery, below this the Great halls, then stores and housing, and at the bottom, outside the walls, fishermen and farmers’ housing. This is one of the most visited sights in France and also probably one of the most photographed. Unfortunately – they are doing a great deal of construction around the pathway leading to Mont Saint Michel which left it a little less picturesque, and to top it off we had a some pretty gray weather, but we made the most of it by touring through the indoor abbey and monastery buildings.
The countryside is peppered with old chateaus and castles. In fact my friends and I actually stayed in this lovely chateau in Sainte Marie du Mont – a small village near Utah Beach. Each morning I would get up and walk from the chateau to the local bakery and use my best French to get a bag of fresh croissants and pain au chocolat. Then I would walk around the town square saying “Bonjour” to other locals as they were out running their morning errands.
Make sure that your itinerary includes crossing the Pont de Normandie cable bridge. Completed in 1995 this bridge spans the river Seine linking Le Havre to Honfleur in Normandy. Not only is it fun to drive over, but there’s also a pedestrian and biking lane for those who aren’t scared of heights!
Looking for more ideas? Check out the Normandy tourist board website!