My latest escapade away from the city last weekend was a trip to Normandie, a region in the Northwest of France famous for its gastronomic richness including its cider, calvados (apple brandy), dairy produce and seafood. After an early rendez-vous at 8am, our first stop was Rouen, the capital of Haute-Normandie, a city known for its artistic and historic background situated on both sides of the Seine. Abundant in historical monuments showing off France’s rich antique heritage, the city is rather unique due to its intriguing mix of modern and old architecture. Although its gothic structure was considerably damaged during the Second World War, a lot of the religious and civil buildings have been restored or rebuilt. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame is one of Rouen’s most prestigious monuments, which was the subject of a series of paintings by Monet, some of which can be found in the Musée d’Orsay. Other sites include the Gros Horloge, an astronomical clock dating back to the sixteenth century and the Place du Vieux Marché, the site of Joan of Arc’s (Jeanne d’Arc) pyre, now dominated by a large modern church paying tribute to the famous folk heroine. As the trip’s organiser Jeff readily pointed out, she was burned at the stake for heresy by the English (it’s not hard to wonder sometimes why the French and English have such a love-hate relationship…)
Our next stop was Honfleur, a small seaside town particularly known for its picturesque port which was a key departure point for expeditions to the New World. Like Rouen, its charm and scenic splendour has inspired many painters, writers and musicians. During the nineteenth century, this miniscule yet quaint town became an exceptional artistic centre, visited and captured by artists such as Eugène Boudin, Claude Monet and Johan Jongkind, forming the Ecole de Honfleur, which contributed to the appearance of the Impressionist movement. Honfleur is also home to Sainte-Catherine church, which is the largest church made out of wood in France. Whilst I am a city rat at heart, I have to admit that taking in the fresh coolness of the coastal air whilst promenading along the quiet cobbled paths made a nice change from the comparatively chaotic and smoggy streets of Paris. Whilst ambling along and admiring shops’ window displays of various sweet treats and Norman specialities, we were offered a degustation (taster) of Cidre rosé. French cider is very sweet and light, with its strength usually ranging below 4%. Though with a mere price at 3 euros a bottle, me and my friend Kangha decided we couldn’t leave without taking a sample back with us to Paris.
Our jam-packed day continued in Deauville, one of the most prestigious seaside resorts in France which attracts thousands of tourists every summer, notably Parisians, with its Grand Casino, race course, harbour, marina and sumptuous hotels. Known as ‘the queen of the Norman beaches’, the area is a fashionable destination for the rich and famous, and is known above all in France for its role in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). Also a centre for an annual international film festival, Deauville’s planches along the beach are star-studded with the names of famous actors and directors who have visited the town on holiday. Although the weather had taken a turn for the worst, we couldn’t help but take a stroll along the beach. This instantly transported a group of twenty-something year olds back to our childhood days, throwing sand at each other, collecting seashells and threatening to push each other into the sea! Our final stop was Caen, which is where we were to stay Saturday evening. Having arrived at around 7.30pm , we did not get a chance to see much of the town other than its restaurants and nightlife. Though I was assured not to worry about this, as the French joked about how it is one of the ugliest cities in France! Having seen little of the city, I cannot pass a judgement – though much of the city was destroyed during the Second World War. We were due to eat in what was essentially a French steakhouse, which, being a vegetarian, made me nervous to say the least! However, I was actually pleasantly surprised at what they managed to rustle up for the vegetarian option. – Ok, it was essentially a baked potato and vegetables, but the French tend to think that vegetarians eat chicken so they did well in my books. Content and stomachs full, we made our way to an Irish pub just opposite to sample some of Normandy’s famous cider. The French certainly have a liking for Irish pubs – there are a fair few in Paris too, which are always heaving and buzzing.
Having got back to the hotel at gone 3 in the morning, we (myself especially…) really did not appreciate waking up for breakfast and the 9am departure. Though the thought of visiting a biscuiterie soon propelled us all out of bed and onto the coach! The brand St Michel is particularly well-known for its galettes (which was one of the tasters offered at the entrance – which we revisited several times naturally.) Nobody left empty handed – it was impossible to resist the vast selection of biscuits, cakes and cider. Our final and arguably most anticipated destination was Le Mont Saint-Michel, a little rocky tidal island at the mouth of the Couesnon River. Whilst the island is a massively popular tourist site, apparently the second most visited in France after the Eiffel Tower, it is home to a mere 40 residents. Hidden in the depths of the north-western countryside, this tiny yet beautiful island is home to a quaint medieval town with winding cobbled streets leading to its peak where one can find the well-preserved Norman Benedictine Abbey of St Michel. Apparently Mont Saint-Michel is also well-known for its L’omelette de la mère Poulard, however I did not get the chance to give it a go!
Having adventured away from Paris for the second time since so far, I am starting to see that France’s cultural, historical, artistic and gastronomic richness definitely goes far beyond Paris. For anyone wanting to discover a truly French province and take a break from the city, I definitely recommend paying Normandy a visit.