Most Francophile tourists may dream of Parisian adventures or sunny Bordeaux beaches, but France is a treasure trove of culture and the holiday hotspots are just the tip of the baguette. A gem that I discovered this year is Normandy. Scarred by war and blessed by miracles, history seeps from every crevice of this northern French region and with sprawling fields, overflowing flower pots, and French flags wherever they’ll fit, it’s also postcard-pretty. There’s nowhere better to experience a slice of life à la française.
The road to Rouen
As the capital city of Normandy, Rouen may be small, but it is brimming with cultural must-sees, stunning churches, and enough shops to give the Champs-Élysées a run for its money. However, it’s perhaps most famous for its role in the life and death of Joan of Arc (or Jeanne d’Arc as the French call her), providing the backdrop for her trial and execution at the stake. From the surprisingly modern Joan of Arc church to the very spot where she was burnt, snippets of her story are scattered around the city, making it a must-see for anybody interested in the life of France’s greatest heroine.
Like all French cities, there’s also a beautiful cathedral, but the Gros-Horlage is unique to Rouen. French for Great-Clock, the Gros-Horlage is a large astronomical clock on a renaissance arch in the city centre. A stunning sight, and a great photo opportunity, the Gros-Horlage wouldn’t be out of place in a Terry Pratchett novel.
Handily, the clock is just a stone’s throw away from the cathedral and Joan of Arc sights, nestled amongst Rouen’s array of shops, which are also essential tourist destinations. If there’s one thing the French are famous for it’s their style, and this is especially true when it comes to what’s in their make-up bags. It is thus little surprise that shops lining Rouen’s streets include French beauty sanctums Sephora and Yves Rocher as well as a HEMA, an Undiz, and one of the rare New Look stores in France. With historical and modern France so beautifully and conveniently
interwoven, Rouen is the perfect place to spend a day in Normandy.
Second only to Lourdes, Lisieux is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in France. People travel from far and wide to visit due to its links with Saint Thérèse, one of France’s most beloved saints. Thérèse spent a portion of her childhood, became a nun, and passed away in this quaint French town, making it a hugely significant location on her religious journey. To commemorate her life, the construction of a basilica, Basilique Sainte-Thérèse de Lisieux, commenced in 1929 and was completed in 1954. Inspired by the Sacred Heart Basilica in Paris, it is bright white and spectacular. However, the inside is perhaps even more impressive, with a ceiling emblazoned with colourful mosaics depicting Thérèse’s life and much of the interior made from white marble.
It is one of the most awe-inspiring constructions in France, and no trip to Normandy would be complete without it.
Catch me if you Caen
With almost 70% of its buildings destroyed in the Second World War, Caen’s rebuilt appearance brings a touch of modernity to Normandy’s otherwise bucolic landscape. However, although badly damaged by World War Two bombings, Caen Castle remains a breath-taking portal to history. Built by William the Conqueror in 1060, it’s a thousand years old and Caen’s major tourist attraction. Entrance is free, so tourists can wander the old stone steps to their hearts’ content, absorb the views of the city from the turrets, and enjoy the stretches of greenery that surrounds it. There’s no better location for a pique-nique with a view.
Much like Rouen, Caen’s city centre is also a gem. There is an assortment of shops including Pull and Bear and an even bigger Sephora – such treats for British shoppers! The cafes are also great, with a large Columbus Café (France’s answer to Costa which specialises in muffins filled with chocolate and biscuit spread) and even a cute little vegan café called Greedy Guts. Any vegan tourists know that finding vegan eateries in France is like finding gold dust, so if you’re vegan, Caen is almost worth a visit just for the food.
Picture a French Barry Island with a tad more elegance and you’ve captured Honfleur, a delightful seaside town on Normandy’s coast. With a pretty port, the waft of fresh nougat in the air, and even a jingling carousel, it’s like stepping into a postcard.
Venture a little further into the town, and you will be spoilt for choice by the adorable shops tucked amongst its quaint cobbled streets. The Calvados department of Normandy is famous for its apples and this couldn’t be more apparent when you stroll through Honfleur. Sweet shops and biscuiteries are a-plenty and apple flavours take centre stage. There’s even a shop which exclusively sells products made from apples. From Calvados’s famous cider to apple jam, it’s the perfect place to quite literally taste the treasures of Normandy.
So, if you’ve set your sights on France as your next holiday destination, I hope you’ll make a beeline for the Normandy region and experience the amazing sights and history and food that it had to offer. Vous ne regretterez rien !