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ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
This itinerary heads north from Paris to Monet’s wonderful gardens at Giverny, includes a detour to the historic city of Rouen, continues on to the coast with the picturesque port of Honfleur, and to the world-famous D-Day beaches and the Normandy coastline where on June 6, 1944 the Allies made their major offensive, reinforcing the turnaround in World War II. Decades have passed but abandoned pillboxes remain, the floating harbor endures, and museums document the events of the war. Turning inland, you visit historic Bayeux to marvel at its almost-thousand-year-old tapestry and the hinterland of Normandy with rolling farmland and villages of half-timbered houses-an area famous for its cheese. We conclude this itinerary, and begin the Brittany itinerary, with Normandy’s famous Mont Saint Michel, a sightseeing venue that has attracted legions of visitors for hundreds of years.
Recommended Pacing: While you can use the heart of Normandy as a base for this itinerary (except for visiting Mont Saint Michel), our preference is to spend at least one night near Giverny, possibly a night near Rouen, a night near Honfleur, and a minimum of two nights at the heart of Normandy to visit Bayeux, explore the D-Day beaches, and allow a day to follow the scenic roads through the lush countryside.
Follow the Seine north out of Paris (Porte d’Auteuil) on the A13 and exit at Bonnières sur Seine. Travel a scenic route following the N15 north along the Seine to Vernon. As you cross the Seine with the village of Vernonette sitting at the crossroads, you see the remains of a picturesque 12th-century bridge and an ancient timbered dungeon (a great picnic spot!). Just a few kilometers upstream lies the village of Giverny, a name synonymous worldwide with artist Claude Monet who came to live in the village in 1883.
Monet converted the barn into his studio, where he loved to paint, smoke, and reflect on his work. Now it’s a visitors’ center and gift shop selling all things Monet from posters of his masterpieces to key-rings. The walls are hung with reproductions of some of his larger canvases and photos of the famous artist at work. Monet’s sun-washed peach stucco home with green shutters is decorated much as it was when he lived there-the walls hung with Japanese-style paintings and family pictures. From the striking blue-and-yellow dining room with its matching china, through his bedroom, to the cozy tiled kitchen, you get a feeling for the home life of this famous artist.
The magic of a visit to Giverny is the gardens, a multicolored tapestry of flowers, meandering paths shaded by trellises of roses, and the enchanting oasis of the water garden, whose green waters are covered with lily pads and crossed by Japanese bridges hung with white and mauve wisteria. Monet loved to paint outdoors and it is memorable to search out just the spot where he stood and painted a masterpiece. There is only one problem: you are not alone in your endeavors-Giverny attracts a multitude of pilgrims. However, the influx of tourists also means that this tiny village has a surprising number of facilities, including cafés, restaurants, and gift stores. (Open Apr to Oct, closed Mon.)
Another wonderful highlight and attraction, just a couple of hundred yards from Giverny, is the Musée d’Art Américan, which is dedicated to the appreciation of American art, focusing on the historical connection between French and American artists throughout the Impressionist and other 19th- and 20th-century periods. During the time of Claude Monet many American artists made pilgrimages to France to partake of the cultural and artistic fever of the time and be inspired by the beauty of the French countryside. If you desire a private tour, it can be scheduled directly through the museum: Musée d’Art Américan, 99, Rue Claude Monet, 27620 Giverny, tel: 02.32.51.94.65, fax: 02.32.51.94.67. (Open Apr to Oct, closed Mon.)
From Giverny, we recommend venturing farther on in the direction of Rouen and the coast. You can either go directly to Rouen by first returning to Vernon from Giverny and from there following signposts for that historic city, or consider a short detour to the scenic town of Les Andelys. Les Andelys is located on the banks of the Seine. It was once the hub of Franco-English relations during the Middle Ages and one can visit the ruins of the Château Gaillard whose hillside location affords a wonderful view of the path of the Seine as it loops north in the direction of Rouen. To reach Les Andelys, from Giverny, return to Vernonette and then follow the D313 (approximately 22 km) as it makes a scenic journey along the banks of the Seine. To continue on to Rouen from Les Andelys, cross the river to the south of town and follow the D135 to intersect with Autoroute and follow direction Rouen.
Rich in history, Rouen is termed the “museum city,” but it is also famous for its magnificent cathedral and its connection with Joan of Arc and the Dauphin. Don’t let the size of the city or its industrial outskirts intimidate you-it is easy to navigate to the charming heart of the old city and parking garages are well signed and convenient for exploring the historic pedestrian district.
Captured near Compiègne, Joan of Arc was brought to Rouen for judgment, charged with heresy, and sentenced to be burned at the stake. Before English authorities, church officials, and the masses, on May 30, 1431, she was burned alive at the Old Market Square. You can walk the square; visit the Tour de la Purcelle, the tower of the fortress where she was held prisoner; visit the neighboring Tour Jeanne d’Arc, the tower where she was threatened with torture before officials backed down, fearful of her religious demeanor; visit the Saint Ouén cemetery behind the town hall, where she was taken to renounce her sins; tour the Archevéché, the ecclesiastical court where the verdict was cast; and walk across the Pont Jeanne d’Arc which spans the river where her ashes and unburnt heart were cast into the water.
Rouen is also famous for its 11th-century Rouen Cathedral with its striking Norman tower and 14th-century embellishments which was captured on canvas in every mood and light by Monet. Monet moved here to be with his brother in 1872 and at the peak of the Impressionist period painted the cathedral, the river, the factories-all acclaimed paintings, many of which now hang in the Musée Marmottan in Paris. Many other masters (Caravaggio, Velasquez, Fragonard, Géricault, and Sisley) were also inspired by the city and Rouen’s Musée des Beaux-Arts has a wealth of their art on display. Rouen’s many attractions include two 15th-century churches, a palace of justice, a big clock, and the 16th-century Bourgtheroulde Mansion.
From Rouen, continue the journey on to the coast by following signs to Caen along the A13. Exit the autoroute at Beuzeville and travel north on the D22 and then west on the D180 to Honfleur. Honfleur is a gem, its narrow, 17th-century harbor filled with tall-masted boats and lined with tall, slender, pastel-washed houses. Narrow cobbled streets lined with ancient timbered houses lead up from the harbor. Cafés and restaurants set up tables and umbrellas outside so that customers can enjoy the sun and the picturesque location. It is a small wonder that this pretty port has inspired artists, writers, and musicians. Markets are held every Saturday on Saint Catherine’s Square with its unusual wooden belfry, a tall bell-tower and bell-ringer’s home, standing apart from the nearby church. Just off the square, farther up the hillside, on Rue de l’Homme de Bois, is the interesting Eugène Boudin Museum with its impressive collection of pre-Impressionist and contemporary paintings by Norman artists: Boudin, Dubourg, Dufy, Monet, Friesz, and Gernez. There are also displays of Norman costumes and paintings depicting life in 18th- and 19th-century Normandy. (Closed Tues, tel: 02.31.89.54.00.)
Just by the harbor, in a former church, the Musée Marine traces the history of the port of Honfleur. Nearby, the ancient timbered prison is now the Musée d’Art Populaire, consisting of 12 rooms depicting the interiors of Norman houses including a weaver’s workshop and a manor-house dining room. (Closed Mondays, tel: 02.31.89.14.12.) In addition to having quaint shops and inviting fish restaurants, Honfleur is a haven for artists and there are a number of galleries to visit.
Our advice is that if you visit Honfleur, stay for the night because this will give you the opportunity to enjoy this scenic town without the hordes of daytime visitors.
For a contrast to the quaintness of Honfleur you may choose to visit her two famous neighbors, Trouville and Deauville. Trouville has set the pace on the Côte Fleurie since 1852. A stretch of water divides it from its very close neighbor, Deauville, a much ritzier resort where row upon row of beach cabanas line the sands and well-heeled folks parade the streets. The casinos are a hub of activity, and if you visit in the late summer, you will experience the excitement and sophistication of a major summer playground for the rich and famous. For a few weeks each August there is the allure of the racetracks, polo fields, glamorous luncheons, and black-tie dinners. Celebrities and the wealthy international set come here to cheer on their prize thoroughbreds.
From Honfleur dip south into a region of Normandy referred to as the Pays d’Auge, a lush region sandwiched between the Risle and Dives rivers. Here quaint villages of timbered and some thatched houses cluster on rolling green hillsides grazed by cows or planted with apple orchards. It is a region to experience by driving along its quiet country roads. The drive we suggest is a leisurely half-day outing beginning at Lisieux, the region’s commercial center. If you are fortunate enough to arrive on Saturday, enjoy the town’s colorful farmers’ market where stalls offer everything from live chickens, vegetables, and cheese to underwear and shoes.
Leave Lisieux in the direction of Vimoutiers (D579), travel for just a few kilometers, and take a left turn down a country lane to Saint Germain de Livet, a hamlet at the bottom of the valley. Here you see a picture-postcard timbered farm, a couple of cottages, a church, and the adorable 15th-century Château Saint Germain de Livet. This whimsical little château with pepper-pot turrets and pretty pink-and-white-checkerboard façade sits in geometric gardens behind a high wall. The interior contains some attractive furniture and some paintings and frescoes. (Closed Tues, tel: 02.31.31.00.03.) Leaving the château, follow signposts for Vimoutiers (D268) till you reach the D47, which you follow into Fervaques, a picturesque village in a green valley. Drive past its château, a vast 16th-century stone building, to the village with its timbered cottages set round a quiet square. Here you pick up signposts for Route de Fromage, a tourist route that guides you through this lush and scenic cheese-producing region.
Follow the well-signposted Route de Fromage into Les Moutiers Hubert, a hamlet of farms along the road, up to Bellou with its large brown timbered manor house, and on to Lisores with its little church, ivy-covered houses, and farms in the valley. Regain the main road heading towards Livarot (D579) and travel for a few kilometers before being directed right by the Route de Fromage onto a back road that brings you by a more scenic route into the heart of the attractive old town of Livarot, home of the cheese that bears the same name. On the edge of town (driving in the direction of Caen), it is worth a stop to see the Musée du Fromage in the basement of one of the town’s grand old homes. Here you watch a video on the production of Livarot, Pont l’Évêque, and Camembert cheeses, and tour a replica of an old dairy farm with its traditional cheese-making shop and old-fashioned dairy. (Open all year, tel: 02.31.48.20.10.)
As you continue on to Caen (40 kilometers), the countryside is pancake-flat. Caen, a large port situated on the banks of the Orne and one of Normandy’s largest cities, lost nearly all of its 10,000 buildings in the Allied invasion of 1944. It is also the city that William the Conqueror made his seat of government. Your destination is the Caen Memorial (Memorial to Peace). The museum is well signposted and has its own exit off the autoroute (exit 7 off the Caen ring road). Displays, films, tapes, and photos cover the events that led up to the outbreak of World War II, the invasion of France, total war, D-Day, the Battle of Normandy, and hope for lasting world peace. A good look round takes several hours, an in-depth visit all day. (Closed Dec 25, Jan 1 to 15, tel: 02.31.06.06.44.)
A 15-minute drive down the N13 brings you to Bayeux, a lovely old town where inviting shops and honey-colored stone houses line narrow streets. Saint Patrice Square & Cathedral is filled with colorful market stalls on Saturday and Wednesday mornings. There has been a town on this site since Roman times: it was invaded by the Bretons, the Saxons, and the Vikings, but thankfully escaped the Allied bombers. It’s a great place for shopping and serves as a convenient base for visiting the landing beaches.
Apart from the town itself, your premier destination in Bayeux is the Musée de la Tapisserie, which displays the famous tapestry that Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, had the English embroider following the conquest of England by his half-brother William the Conqueror in 1066. The color and richness of the tapestry make the little stick figures look as if they were stitched just yesterday, not over 900 years ago. With the aid of earphones the intricately embroidered scenes come alive. We found we needed to go past it twice-once quickly to appreciate its enormous proportions and the second time to hear the story it tells. (Open all year, tel: 02.31.51.25.50.)
Next to the cathedral, the Musée Baron Gérard has some lovely examples of porcelain and lace manufactured in Bayeux. (Open all year, tel: 02.31.92.14.21.)
With World War II still recent history, for those who witnessed and experienced the Normandy Invasion, a trip to this region is a sentimental and poignant journey. Towns have been restored; but abandoned fortifications on the beaches as well as in the water, numerous museums, memorials, and cemeteries hauntingly remain as testaments and reminders of that heroic and tragic battle. There are eight itineraries that are well signposted and offer the traveler a trail based on the chronological sequence of events of this incredible battle. One could easily spend weeks here following the individual itineraries and the historical trail of each military force and mission. (The eight itineraries are signed on the roadways as follows: Overlord-The Assault or Overlord-L’Assaut; D-Day-The Onslaught or D-Day-LeChoc; Objective-A Port or Objectif-Un Port; The Confrontation or L’Affrontement; Cobra-The Breakout or Cobra-La Percée; The Counter Attack or La Contre-Attaque; The Encirclement or L’Encerclement; The Outcome or Le Denouement.) However, for the purposes of this itinerary, we propose a route that serves as an introduction to the major events and battles that so greatly influenced the outcome of the Second World War.
Bayeux was the first French town to be liberated and it seems appropriate to begin our D-Day journey here. On the main ring road around the old town is the 1944 Battle of Normandy Museum with its exhibitions of tanks, guns, and armored vehicles used in the battle. (Open all year, tel: 02.31.30.47.60.) On the other side of the ring road, opposite the museum, is the British Cemetery and Memorial, honoring the memory of 1,837 missing servicemen.
From Bayeux, in search of the D-Day landmarks and beaches you will travel a scenic route that follows the coast, through the seaside villages that lay exposed to the battle, which took place on five principal landing beaches-Sword (farthest to the east), Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah (to the northwest). You will also weave through little gray-stone villages whose tall walled farmhouses and barns form their own little fortifications scattered around the fields. Although different route numbers identify various segments, there is basically one road that hugs the coastline.
To reach the coast, travel approximately 10 kilometers northeast of Bayeux to Gold Beach and Arromanches. Arromanches is a lively seaside town whose broad crescent of golden sand was one of the D-Day landing beaches dominated by the British troops. In June, 1944 a huge floating harbor was erected in a gigantic U in the bay. Designed by British engineers, the harbor was comprised of massive concrete blocks, floating pier-heads, and 10 kilometers of floating pier “roads.” It was towed across the Channel and erected here, enabling the Allies to unload half-a-million tons of materials in a three-month period. After nearly 60 years of Atlantic storms much of the harbor is still in place and you can get an up-close look at several enormous sections marooned on the beach. Beside the beach is the D-Day Museum with its displays of models, photographs, and films of the military operations of June, 1944. (Closed Jan, tel: 02.31.22.34.31.) On the hillside above town is Arromanches 360, where an 18-minute production, The Price of Freedom, is dramatically shown on nine screens of this theater in the round. (Closed Jan, tel: 02.31.22.30.30.)
If time allows, you might want to continue east to explore the beaches of Juno and Sword, but for the purposes of this itinerary we direct you west along the coast from Arromanches to the village of Longues sur Mer. A country road from Longues sur Mer dead-ends on the bluffs at an open-air museum where you can walk along a path that weaves through the wheat fields to abandoned gun emplacements, overlooking the stretch of coastline that the German artillery so fiercely guarded. Longues sur Mer is the only naval artillery battery on the Normandy coast that still has its guns. (Open all year, tel: 02.31.06.06.44)
On the coast just 5 kilometers away, tucked on an inlet, is the small, charming port and fishing village of Port en Bessin, not far from our starting point, Bayeux. Port en Bessin has a museum with a collection of remains found on the sunken warships. (Open Apr to Oct, tel: 02.31.21.17.06.)
The road travels inland from the water’s edge from Port en Bessin to Colleville sur Mer, where a road takes you out to the American Cemetery and an expansive 170-acre plot overlooking Omaha Beach. A dignified tribute to those who gave their lives in battle, 9,387 white crosses stand in perfect alignment on acreage that looks out to a backdrop of sand and ocean. The memory of this gorgeous setting, the beautiful paths that weave along the bluffs, the chapel, and the dramatic memorial will linger. (Open all year, tel: 02.31.51.62.00.)
Continue along the length of Omaha Beach to the town of Saint Laurent sur Mer. This town hosts a museum just yards from the sand, Musée Omaha, which boasts a collection of vehicles, weapons, uniforms, and insignia found on the sandy battlefield. (Open Feb 15 to Nov 20, tel: 02.31.21.97.44.) Both Omaha Beach and Utah Beach to the northwest are where the American army landed under the direction of General Bradley.
Follow the coast around Pointe et Raz de la Percée to the dramatic vantage point of Pointe du Hoc. As you stand on this rugged stretch of coastline, pockmarked by bombs, on the ruins of the German fortifications, it is hard to comprehend the courage of the American soldiers who braved the cliffs and blindly stormed the enemy believing this was a strategic stronghold. From here it is approximately 5 kilometers on to Grandcamp Maisy. Here the Musée des Rangers focuses on the specially-trained American unit and the capture of Pointe du Hoc.
From here you can easily travel the stretch north along the coast to Utah Beach or leave the coast and travel south via St. Lô to Mont Saint Michel where this itinerary concludes. Straddling the border of Brittany and Normandy, Mont Saint Michel is France’s most visited tourist attraction. Joined to the mainland by a narrow strip of roadway, Mont Saint Michel, initially a place of pilgrimage, then a fortress, and in the 19th century a prison, clings to a rock island and towers 150 meters above sea level. Depending on the tide, it is either almost surrounded by water or by marshes and quicksand. Wander up the narrow cobblestoned streets to the crowning 12th-century abbey and visit the remarkable Gothic and Romanesque complex, culminating in the glories of the Merveille (Marvel)-the group of buildings on the north side of the mount. Saint Michael, the militant archangel, is the saint for the beaches you have just seen.
From Mont Saint Michel you can return to Paris, join the Châteaux Country itinerary, or continue on the following itinerary into Brittany.