Normandy Towns for Magnifique Side Trips from Paris
In Normandy, climate is destiny. Okay, maybe that’s true of every region on earth. But the fortunes of northwestern France seem to have been especially shaped by its strong winds, ever-shifting light, heavy rainfall, and mild temperatures. That combo has helped bring about such disparate outcomes as French Impressionism (born of attempts to capture in paint a single Norman moment before the light changes again), Calvados brandy (born of the region’s apple orchards planted to soak up all that rain), and even World War II’s D-Day operation, which the Allies planned in large degree around a weather forecast.
The only factor that rivals climate in importance is the region’s location between the English Channel to the west and, to the east, Paris—reachable by a short drive, train trip, or boat ride on the Seine. That puts much of Normandy’s art, history, scenery, and brandy within easy day-trip distance for travelers staying in the French capital. Some ideas for planning a Norman excursion of your own follow.
Traveling time from Paris: less than an hour by train or car
Our first stop isn’t technically in Normandy, but it’s on the way. Located about 30km (19 miles) from the center of Paris, Auvers-sur-Oise supplied pastoral subject matter to several 19th-century artists—Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro among them. But the one who sucks up all the attention nowadays is Vincent van Gogh. The troubled Dutch painter spent the last two months of his life here, starting in May 1890. Pilgrims can pay visits to the peaceful house and garden of van Gogh’s homeopathic doctor, the wheat fields that the artist found so entrancing, and the tiny, bare attic room under a skylight at the Auberge Ravoux (now the House of van Gogh) where he lived, churning out at least one painting a day as well as letters to his brother, Theo, that contain heart-piercing statements such as, “Someday or other, I believe I will find a way to have my own exhibition in a café.” Van Gogh shot himself in Auvers before that could happen. He and his brother are buried side by side in the town’s cemetery.
Traveling time from Paris: about an hour by train or car
Admittedly, dwelling on the biography of Vincent van Gogh can be a bummer. For a sensory pick-me-up, head further west to the house and gardens of Claude Monet in Giverny. With its floating water lilies, weeping willows, and wisteria-draped bridges spanning a tranquil pond, the estate’s water garden (pictured) is as close as you’ll ever come to walking into an Impressionist painting without getting tackled by a museum security guard. In spring and summer, the artist’s green-shuttered home sits amid a riot of blooms—expect to see and smell some combination of tulips, daffodils, roses, irises, nasturtiums, dahlias, and sunflowers, depending on the month. Inside, large crowds file through Monet’s spacious studio, bedroom, lemon-yellow dining room, and blue-tiled kitchen. While you’re in the area, consider taking a river cruise from Liberté Seine or renting a kayak or canoe. An elegant option for dinner or an overnight stay (if you've got the time) is Le Moulin de Connelles, housed in a 17th-century flour mill that straddles the water. Use one of the hotel’s boats to paddle around a small island and discover an appreciation for the natural peace that inspired the masterpieces.
Travel time from Paris: about 90 minutes by train, 2 hours by car
The showpiece of Normandy’s capital is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen, a Gothic stunner begun in the 12th century and topped with the tallest spire in France. The church already had a strong claim to artistic immortality even before Monet showed up in the 1890s to paint 30-something canvases depicting the facade at various times of day, from murky dawn to rosy sunset. One of the installments in that landmark Impressionist series hangs in the city’s noteworthy (and free) Musée des Beaux-Arts. From the cathedral, follow winding medieval streets past colorful half-timbered houses to reach Place du Vieux-Marché, the old market square where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy in 1431. A bronze cross marks the spot. Nearby, the renowned Auzou chocolate shop sells Joan of Arc’s tears, which are chocolate-covered almonds. Seems like they should be saltier.
Pictured: stained glass depicting Joan of Arc at Rouen's cathedral
Travel time from Paris: about 2 hours by train or car
When you’re scanning the menu at lunch or dinner in Normandy, be sure to keep an eye out for gastronomic specialties such as locally made cheeses and apple-centric creations like ciders and tarts. You probably already know about Camembert’s much-lauded soft cheese, but Pont-l’Évêque’s similar but more pungent take is another good excuse for putting your lactose tolerance to the test. The village is also home to the Calvados Experience, a slick multimedia museum that relates the history and process of creating Normandy’s quintessential spirit, an amber-colored brandy (pictured) made from twice-distilled cider. For a less polished look at things, hit the Cider Trail, a signposted route connecting 20 orchards and distilleries in the cow-dotted countryside of the Pays d’Auge (you’ll need to take a car or book a guided tour).
Travel time from Paris: about 2.5 hours by train or car
In marked contrast to the medieval, half-timbered houses you’ll find in other parts of Normandy, the predominant architectural feature in the city center of Le Havre is reinforced concrete. After Allied bombs destroyed about 80% of the vital port town during World War II, the rebuilding was handed over to Belgian-born architect Auguste Perret, who devised a monumentally solid and symmetrical grid of concrete blocks for apartments and offices—a big wedge of functional Modernism that makes 500-year-old Le Havre look about one-tenth of its age. If you book ahead, you can still tour one of the model apartments, outfitted with smart mid-century furnishings, where Le Havre residents of the 1950s were invited to imagine the future. And lest you think concrete structures have to look like parking garages, step inside the Perret-designed St. Joseph's Church, where imposing columns, a soaring 107m (350-ft.) central tower, and Marguerite Huré’s kaleidoscopic stained-glass windows combine in a way that feels at once delicate and full of grandeur.
Pictured: Le Havre's colorful beach huts
Travel time from Paris: about 2.5 hours by car, 3 hours by train
Honfleur is separated from Le Havre by the Seine-spanning Pont de Normandie. Judging from the looks of the two towns, you’d guess that several centuries separate them as well. While Le Havre is a mix of postwar Modernism and industrial port activity, Honfleur is small, old-world, and picturesque—quite literally, given that it’s been painted too many times to count by artists drawn to its inner harbor, where colorful boats bob against a backdrop of 400-year-old townhouses along the water. Wander the often tourist-clogged cobblestone lanes and you’ll encounter inviting cafes, scores of galleries, and St. Catherine’s, the country’s biggest wooden church. Dating from the 15th century, it was built by sailors. That’s why the place looks like an overturned ship’s hull.
Travel time from Paris: about 2.5 hours by train, 2 hours by car
Yet another side of Normandy is on display in Deauville, a stylish resort city on the Côte Fleurie (Flower Coast). Some call this area the “Parisian Riviera” because of its popularity with posh weekenders from the capital. If you need a U.S. analogue, the Hamptons will do. Deauville’s sandy beach abuts ritzy hotels, a Belle Époque casino, and upscale boutiques. Though gone now, the most famous of the latter was opened in 1913 by Coco Chanel, who managed to kill off corsets for good from her shop on Deauville’s rue Gontaut-Biron. On the seaside boardwalk, bathing cabins bear the names of past and present movie stars who have attended the American Film Festival held here each September. If you prefer a more relaxed, family-friendly alternative to Deauville, try its nearby rival, Trouville.
Travel time from Paris: about 2 hours by train or car
Despite the monuments, memorials, and leftover bunkers on the coast of Normandy near Caen, it’s impossible to imagine the bullets, bravery, fear, and ferocity experienced on the five D-Day beaches on June 6, 1944, when Allied forces kicked off the liberation of France with the biggest amphibious military operation in history. To get the whole story—not only of D-Day but the events leading up to World War II as well as the conflict itself and the Cold War that followed—walk through the Mémorial de Caen. To see one or more of the D-Day beaches (they’re further apart than you’d think, so don’t expect to see all five in one afternoon), you’ll need to drive or book an excursion such as the ones offered by the Caen museum or Normandy Sightseeing Tours. An especially moving sight is the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. On a green clifftop overlooking Omaha Beach, white grave markers (mostly crosses with an occasional Star of David) represent 9,388 U.S. service members who didn't make it back home. At the end of each day, two U.S. flags are lowered and “Taps” is played.
Pictured: the Higgins Boat Monument near Utah Beach
For visitors with more time to explore than a side trip allows, Normandy offers plenty of additional things to see and do—from the steep, chalky cliffs of the Alabaster Coast in the north to the woodlands laced with hiking trails near the region’s southern border. And there are at least two more medieval sights to goggle at. One is Bayeux’s 11th-century tapestry depicting the Norman conquest of England. The other is the showstopping Mont-St.-Michel (pictured), the monastery-capped rocky islet that seems to hover as if by magic over the English Channel near Brittany. By the way, we’ve been using “English Channel” for the sake of convenience, but in France you should call it La Manche or simply the Channel, unless you want to get a lecture about William the Conqueror.