Stormin’ Normans: Travels through Normandy Part I!

10341740_979152065444012_2283066068766871828_nAh Normandie, home to quality cider, lots of cathedrals, and of course a whole heap of history. From conquests, revolutions, and total desolation in the last 70-something years, this French province has seen more history than most countries. Since December 2013, I’ve been travelling back and forth from London to Normandy (English spelling) in hopes of learning more about Henry II’s favourite territory and, more importantly, the birthplace of early English culture…and believe me the French are proud of this!
Travelling solo around Normandy is hard because it is absolutely HUGE-when I say huge I mean it houses roughly 5% of the French population. Stationed on the coast of the Channel, and almost opposite England, Normandy is divided into two separate regions: Haute-Normandie (upper) and Basse-Normandy (lower). Because of transport issues (I don’t drive) and also a budget, I split my various visits to Normandy into two, one exploring Haute and the other exploring Basse. For my trip to the upper region, I based myself in the largest city, the medieval capital of Rouen and for my later trip down under, I stayed in William I’s favourite city of Caen. At 30,627 km, it is exceedingly hard to get around Normandy without the use of a car and the regional TER trains can be a little unreliable to say the least! That said, unlike almost any other region in France, the Norman bus and coach service is surprisingly efficient given the fact the French don’t seem to rate them as means of public transport. Providing you follow its schedule to the very second, The Verte Bus is speedy, cheap and will ferry you from the large cities to the wee medieval villages that guide books gush over. But enough about buses and trains, let’s talk about history and various touristy things.
Normandy and its neighbouring region of Brittany are products of immigration from overseas, unlike other areas which were slowly occupied by the Romans and later the Gallic Romans. Bretagne/Brittany was originally colonised by-you guessed it-the British! Well…the original Brits driven out by those pesky Germanic and Saxon occupiers (something I discussed earlier in: who then sailed across the Channel in search of new land. Over time, the Britons became the Bretons and an entirely new culture was set up in Brittany. Normandy on the other hand, was the victim of Viking attacks (9th century) and eventual occupation (10th century). These ‘Norse Men’ eventually became ‘North Men’ which is where the term Normandy comes from. Both provinces would soon become desirable territory for the warring French Dukes, and Normandy in particular, was often caught up in rebellions from its formation right up until the late Middle Ages.

William I: The symbol of Norman history
William I: The symbol of Norman history

Viking Normandy eventually dwindled down, and come the 11th century, we get the first mention of Normandy’s most famous resident: Duke William or, as you and I remember him, William the Conqueror. Born in the sleepy village of Falaise, William was the result of an affair between the eventual Duke of Normandy, Robert the Magnificent and a woman most likely named ‘Herleva’. As the product of such as clandestine union, William was referred to as William the Bastard, a title which I’m sure played a huge part in his anger issues and desire to step on anyone who got in his way. As the only son of Robert, William was made Duke of Normandy aged eight and faced rebellions from various nobles until the 1060s. Consolidation came with William’s marriage to his sort-of cousin Matilda of Flanders and becoming heir to the throne of England (sort-of). We all know where this story goes from here, somehow in 1065, things go very wrong in England and the powerful Anglo Saxon noble Harold Godwinson convinces the king old Eddie the Confessor to make him his heir. Despite Edward’s close ties with Normandy, he forgoes his promise to William and makes Harold his new heir.
This is seen by William-quite rightly-as an unforgivable betrayal on Edward’s part but also on the side of Harold which is handily explained in the Bayeux Tapestry. Firstly, the relationship between Edward and William was a close one, borne out of Edward’s dismal start in life. Edward was the product of a marriage between Emma of Normandy and of the infamous Æthelred the Unready.

Emma and Æthelred’s marriage trundled along for awhile but after several disastrous feuds with the Viking Kings Sweyn and later Cnut, things went drastically wrong. 1013, Æthelred was deposed by Sweyn and sent to France in exile with Emma and their sons. However, in 1014, Sweyn died and, for a brief two years Æthelred sat on the English throne again. It is in the period between 1014-16 that he would earn the unfortunate nickname Æþelræd Unræd or ‘unready’- is one of the few royal nicknames that have stood the test of time (seriously how many of you knew Henry II was Henry Curtmantle?) Interestingly enough, ‘unready’ is a mistranslation by later historians, the original term a rather nasty spin on the name Æthelred which usually means as ‘noble counsel.’ What reads as ‘unready’ should really be ‘ill-advised’ chroniclers implying Æthelred’s inability to pick the right advisors, led to his demise. Prince Edward (later the Confessor) faced further bad luck when Emma defected from her Saxon marriage and sailed back to England to marry Cnut (WTF EMMA?) with whom she had two sons. Ouch. Edward was given sanctuary in Normandy by the young duke-you guessed it-William. The two developed an understanding and kinship, probably bonding over mutual betrayals and crappy parents. After several deaths, and the crushing end to Viking presence in England, Edward was offered the throne and, despite leaving Normandy, he clearly didn’t forget his buddy William. Can you see just why William was so very angry when Edward went back on his promise now? However, things were made worse when Harold, who had sworn to protect William’s claim in an early treaty, recommended himself as king.
The Godwinsons/Godwin family were essentially the Kardashians of Anglo Saxon England, I know that’s a horribly crass comparison but hear me out guys. In the late Saxon Age, England was dominated by a select few families and non was more powerful than the Godwins. Like the world’s least popular socialites, the Godwinsons appeared to have influence in every social sphere and, no matter how unpopular they got, they managed to bounce back. With the fall of Æthelred, the Kardash-I mean Godwins defected to the Viking side almost immediately quickly winning influence with Queen Emma. This, understandably, pissed Edward off, who felt that the Godwins abandoned their Saxon heritage to gain power. Yet somehow, through enough grovelling, Harold Godwinson managed to get back into Edward’s good books. It was Harold who was sent to Normandy to tell William of his appointment to heir, and it was Harold who swore holy oath to William after William bailed his army out after attacks by the Burgundians. Double ouch. So, come 1066 William was not too happy with his Anglo Saxon neighbours. Now, due to laziness I don’t need to tell you guys what happened later in 1066 (I did write about it here needless to say the French are pretty proud of the eventual Norman conquest of England. This pride shows throughout the region (particularly lower Normandy)the French-whenever they can-mentioning William’s name and trying their hardest to link every landmark back to him. This is particularly prevalent in the lower capital of Caen (not to be confused with Cannes) the first place I’ll touch on.

Keeping up with the (K)Godwins
Keeping up with the (K)Godwins

During the late 11th century, the city of Caen became a favourite of William the Conqueror who spent a great deal of money and time on the city. Together with his wife Mathilde of Flanders, William made Caen is base in Normandy setting up a city that would be continually improved and built upon by the later Dukes of Normandy. Firstly, I’ll touch upon the historical sites such as museums etc and then give you some general advice about food, transport etc…you know all the stuff you think about once the holiday is booked!

Caen's varied high street
Caen’s varied high street

Caen has three must see medieval sites, one of which holds two separate museums inside its structures. The first two are real throwbacks from William and Mathilde: the twin churches Abbaye aux Dames and the Abbaye aux Hommes. Translated in to the Women’s and Men’s abbeys, William and Mathilde had these built as an act of penance for their marriage which had been effectively vetoed by the Pope. You see, William and Mathilde were cousins, not first cousins, but cousins all the same. Well aware of the political ramifications that come with marrying a relative, William decided to ask the Pope for advice and ultimately permission to marry a chick he supposedly dragged about by the hair (chroniclers can be bitches right?) Unsurprisingly, the request was immediately declined and even more predictably, William didn’t listen. The marriage was a happy one, but the couple were aware that some act of contrition needed to happy…hence the two abbeys. The construction of these buildings and the beginnings of Caen Castle (we’ll get to that later) mark the beginning of William’s effort to build Caen into a thriving city as Rouen was really Normandy’s only big city. The two abbeys sit across town, on either side of Caen castle, and are now home to William and Mathilde’s respective tombs.

Abbaye aux Dames: home to Queen Mathilde
Abbaye aux Dames: home to Queen Mathilde
Abbaye aux Hommes: Big Billy I's monument
Abbaye aux Hommes: Big Billy I’s monument


Big Billy's tomb
Big Billy’s tomb

The Abbaye aux Hommes is a gothic masterpiece, a mass of high Romanesque towers and lofty Norman ceilings. It’s nestled on a side road five minutes off a bustling high street complete with antique shops, gorgeous cafes, pubs and book shops (nerd squeal). The abbey is not hard to find, as it’s essentially a straight line left of the castle, next door the abbey is the Hotel de Ville which offers guided tours of the abbey in various languages, but to be honest feel free to give these a miss. Having been twice, (December/June) I’ve done the tour solo and in a group and had more fun on my lonesome as I’m an anti-social jerk. Like all French cathedrals, both Dames and Hommes are still very much in use and you won’t find any touristy shops in either. Correct etiquette is a must, wear respectful clothing, don’t chat and also be respectful of the people there who are actually worshipping-there is nothing worse than a loudmouth in a cathedral, a bad experience at Canterbury has scarred me for life. If you are like me and you horde touristy things like postcards-my record buy is 50-then do not fear the Office d’Tourisme is mercifully close to the castle and has more than enough goodies to satisfy the biggest shopaholic.

Gloomy & Gothic
Gloomy & Gothic


Hommes’  lady counterpart the Abbaye aux Dames is slightly more isolated, tucked away at the top of a hill, past the city’s old town and near many of traditional French restaurants and taverns. Architecturally, Mathilde’s abbey is markedly different in structure. The cathedral is no less beautiful but it does not look stereotypically Norman or Romanesque due to the absence of the tall spires we commonly associate with buildings of the time. If anything the cathedral is more reminiscent of Paris’ Notre Dame which is built in the later Gothic style with circular arches inside. The interior of is entirely white, very feminine and a far cry from the masculine darkness of William’s abbey.

Mathilde's Tomb
Mathilde’s Tomb
The graceful arches of Mathilde's abbey
The graceful arches of Mathilde’s abbey
Fresco and stain glass
Fresco and stain glass

Visiting both is almost like an insight into the King and Queen’s respective personalities. We have the tall intimidating men’s abbey that looms over the small streets around it, very much a statement of strength and William’s intent to rule over all he surveyed. On the flip side we have the graceful women’s abbey, a tranquil spot overlooking the city but removed from the busy streets. It’s is as if William wanted to remind the city who was in charge, while Mathilde’s isolated abbey is a haven from the chaos that came with living in a medieval city. Of course this is all supposition, as not only was the medieval city expanded upon throughout the century, it was also bombed extensively in WWII and was reconstructed in the 1960s. Poignantly, the local government made a point of rebuilding the city in a way that would pay homage to it’s medieval heritage. Some guides have described this  mish mash of modern and medieval as jarring, but I think it’s charming as much of the old city has been painstakingly preserved and/or reconstructed faithfully.

Speaking of faithful preservation, Caen Castle is one of last standing Norman castles we have in either France or England. Sadly (but unsurprisingly) many of the forts that were built by William I, William II and Henry I, have fallen into disrepair in England and we’re left with a few mounds here and there in the countryside, along with Norfolk and Rochester both of which were in use far into the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. Not much of the the inside of Caen castle survives, but the great battlements which offer a 360 view of  the city are still open to the public and warrant at least 45 mins to walk around. Like the castles of yesteryear (which I lovingly spoke about in this here post: the battlements protect a huge enclosure which is more like a mini village than one keep. Inside the original site there would have been quarters for the servants, stables, lodgings, and, in Caen’s case a treasury, a chapel and the keep itself which housed the nobles who owned it. What is left of William’s chateau is the outline of his original building which you can look down on from the battlements and also walk around. The castle was greatly built upon by Henry II and Richard I who both frequented the chateau, Richard using it as a stop off point for feasting when on Crusade.  What remains now are an old chapel in which you can learn about the history of Caen through a series of medieval style banners hanging from the vaulted ceilings and two museums, the Musee des Beaux Arts and the Musee de Normandie which, you guessed it, is about the history of Normandy. In my humble/nerdy opinion both warrant a visit as they are  either free (senior, child, under 26 and from an EU country) or €4 which is a good deal for what you’ll see!

The high walls of Caen Castle
The high walls of Caen Castle
The foundations of Caen Castle's battlements
The foundations of Caen Castle’s battlements


The view from Caen Castle, here you can see St Pierre, a beautiful church in the city centre
The view from Caen Castle, here you can see St Pierre, a beautiful church in the city centre

If you’re short on time and can only visit one museum, I would suggest going to the museum of Normandy as you will get a lot more for your time. The museum charts prehistoric Normandy up until the 1940s through artifacts, exhibitions and reconstructions of the early cities. Due to France’s intrinsic links with the Romans-see Asterix and Obelix for a detailed history-the country, from North to South, is littered with Roman remains from simple pottery to entire ruins. The museum dedicate an entire floor to this era of French history and you will see entire rooms full of pillars, busts of Roman-Gauls and various works off prehistoric and classical pottery. While the finds aren’t as impressive as those in Le Mans’ Carre Plantagenet, it’s still damn impressive. Of course much of the museum is dedicated to the medieval Normans, as Caen is William’s city and, bar the horrors of the two World Wars, this early medieval period is probably the most iconic era in the province’s history.

Once you’re done with all the medieval sightseeing I recommend getting dinner at Caen’s iconic Pleasure Port, where you can watch the sunset over the ancient ports and the Channel. Obviously it’s important to remember the French meal timetable which I’ve realised is relatively strict! Unlike us Brits the French have a MASSIVE breakfast (7-10 am NO LATER EVER) a medium sized lunch at about midday and a smallish dinner which begins at about 6:30 pm. Be warned, that between around 2:30-6 not many kitchens in French restaurants are fully running because of the traditional meal times, you can pick up a quick crepe but don’t expect a hearty meal. While I’m a vegetarian I naturally struggle with eating in France, but I can vouch that the food for you carnivores in Normandy is supposed to be spectacular, especially on the *gag* seafood front. If you’re in a small village ask for the local delicacy-be warned these sound gross, I once stayed somewhere that served ‘strangled duck’- but avoid any ‘tourist menus’ as these are more often than not, a bit of a rip off price wise. From what I could eat, and I ate a lot, the food was fantastic, the Normans do amazing things with apples…seriously I am addicted. Apple tartes (Tarte Tatin), apple liqueur, apple crepes, apple salads and of course cider all await you in Normandy! Of course it wouldn’t be a France blog without me obviously stating the sheer awesomeness of French cheese which will make you weep with joy. If you can, try and stop by the local boulangeries and brasseries for freshly baked and made food, trust me, you’ll get more for your money than stopping at a local French supermarket.

I'll have one of everything
I’ll have one of everything

Oh dear…I’ve just realised I’ve spent an entire paragraph talking about food and not the Pleasure Ports…whoops! Finally I’ll talk about accommodation and nearby touristy things for you to see and do. Now I won’t mince words, I stayed in a relatively shitty hotel, an Ibis, as it was directly opposite the main train station as I spent a large amount of time communicating between cities. The upside of this was that it was €120 in high summer to stay in a popular city, the hotel was clean and easy to find. The bad news was that it was noisy, not particularly nice, and won’t offer a unique experience. If you’re not a crazed SNCF addicted loon like me,I’d suggest you pay a little more and stay further in town but, if you’re on a budget, it’s a 5 minute tram ride and 10 minute walk from the outskirts into the centre. While staying in Caen won’t bankrupt you, it is expensive as it’s home to the Memorial de Caen,  a sensitive monument to those who lost their lives in WWII which is popular with Brits and the French alike.

All in all, Caen is a glorious city to visit for a few days, I don’t think it’s wise to spend more than 3-4 days there as you may run out of things to do, but, if you’re interested in history medieval or modern, you’ll love Caen. The ghosts of WWII are impossible to escape but the Normans have marked this bloody era in history reverently. In 2014, there is a 70 year anniversary to mark a particularly bleak time in the war and you can easily stumble among several church services dedicated to it. On a practical note, if you can barely sit still (like me) Caen is an hour away from the beautiful city of Rouen, a coach ride from Falaise (the village William I was born in) and a mere 20 minutes away from Bayeux which is home to some tapestry you may have heard of….

It's off to war we go!
It’s off to war we go!

PHEW!! That was quite a lengthy post, I’m glad I’ve covered the overall history Normandy so I can focus on the remaining Normandy cities we’ll be covering in detail. So with that in mind, keep your peepers open for some posts on Rouen, Bayeux and Falaise…some may be longer than others. Feel free to ask questions, leave comments and follow this blog!

Over and out!

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