238km (148 miles) NW of Paris; 119km (74 miles) SE of Cherbourg
Situated on the banks of the Orne, the port of Caen suffered great damage in the 1944 invasion of Normandy. Mercifully, though, the twin abbeys founded by William the Conqueror and his wife, Mathilda, were spared. Today much of Caen is both cosmopolitan and commercial, with a vibrant, welcoming vibe. The capital of Lower Normandy, it’s home to a student population of 30,000 and several great museums, and serves as a convenient base for exploring the surrounding coast.
A Proustian Remembrance of “Balbec”
If you read Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” you’ll discover that the resort of “Balbec” was really Cabourg, 24km (15 miles) northeast of Caen. Guests can check into the Grand Hôtel, Les Jardins du Casino, promenade Marcel Proust, 14390 Cabourg (www.grand-hotel-cabourg.com; tel. 02-31-91-01-79; doubles from 155€–470€), a holdover from the opulent days when it was first built in 1855. What used to be Marcel Proust’s favorite room has been restored from a description in his novel. Film buffs will also recognize the Grand Hotel’s dining room from the 2011 French hit comedy-drama “The Untouchables,” with its majestic floor-length windows overlooking the sea.
The town of Cabourg (www.cabourg.net) is just as charming, its Victorian streets fanning out from the grand circle where the hotel stands. Beneath the hotel is the indoor municipal swimming pool, where locals flock when it’s too cold to take to the huge stretch of sands in front of Promenade Marcel Proust. Every June, the beach becomes the setting for the Romantic Film Festival, when a giant screen shows dozens of romance-themed films over 5 days. The large covered market is worth a visit, too, on Wednesdays, Fridays, and weekends (daily in July and August), when farmers bring their fresh Normandy produce.