When it comes to travel, I always take the places closest to home for granted. I’ve spent a lot of this year traveling long-haul, from Asia to Central America and the Caribbean. But sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that places nearer my shores are just as worthy of visiting. Today I’m getting that reminder as I start the first leg of my twin-city visit to Normandy in Caen.
I’m traveling as a guest of Normandy Tourism, the sponsor of my trip. I’m going to spend 3 days in Caen before returning in September to do the same in Rouen. I’m excited to experience both cities and see how they compare.
After a 45-minute Flybe flight from London Southend to Caen-Carpiquet Airport, I land in Normandy ready to see the sights. The airport is only 10 minutes from the city, so it’s not long until I’m in the heart of it.
Sightseeing in Caen
My trip starts with a tour of Caen, which is famous for its links with William the Conqueror and its strategic position in the liberation of Normandy after D-Day. Layers of history from the 900 years between are evident everywhere I look. While Caen suffered extensive bombing during World War II, the city still has a lot of historic streets and atmosphere.
Abbaye aux Hommes
Starting with William the Conqueror. The king wanted to marry a cousin who was slightly too near a relation for the church’s comfort, so he had abbeys built in Caen to appease the opposition and smooth the path to his nuptials. The Abbaye aux Hommes (Men’s Abbey) and Abbaye aux Dames (Women’s Abbey) are still two of the most stunning sights in the city.
I tour the Abbaye aux Hommes and adjacent Église Saint-Étienne church, taking in the 11th-century architecture and tomb of William the Conqueror before moving over to the cloisters, chapter room, and refectory.
The last of these has an 18th-century painting of the king triumphant at the Battle of Hastings, which began the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
I also learn that legend has it that when the towers of the abbey church fall, it will signal the collapse of the English monarchy. It’s such a strongly held belief that when one of the towers suffered damage in 1987 Queen Elizabeth II reportedly paid for the repairs.
Château de Caen
My tour continues at the Château de Caen, one of the largest fortresses in Europe. This massive castle dominates the city center and has great views of the many church spires dotted throughout. Inside I find everything from museums to gardens and exhibition spaces.
Markets in Caen
But there’s more to Caen than just the sights, and during my stay I have the opportunity to explore two of the main markets. The Friday market starts in the stunning Place Saint-Sauveur and continues up onto Rue Pémagnie and Fossés Saint Julien. It’s mainly a food market, and as I walk by the stalls I take in the scents of ripe cheese, sweet peas, and fresh fish.
Plump radishes, globe artichokes, bell peppers, crusty bread, juicy melons, and sun-kissed cherries fill my eyes with color, and everywhere I go I hear the sound of traders shouting “bonjour” with live accordion music in the background.
On Sunday I explore an even bigger market in Caen. This one runs from Avenue de la Libération past the 15th-century Guillaume-le-Roy Tower to the port. It has all the fresh produce of its Friday counterpart, plus everything from shoes to mattresses for sale.
Restaurants in Caen
But the markets aren’t the only places with good food in Caen. I have several memorable meals during my visit, from a Michelin-starred dinner at A Contre Sens to a laid-back one at Le Clou de Girofle (after which I get to enjoy al fresco concerts during the annual Fête de la Musique festival).
Two meals in particular stand out: brunch at the Ferme de Billy and dinner at Le Casier. The first is a huge buffet spread at a farm outside the city.
Before I eat I tour the grounds, taking in the 17th-century manor house, 13th-century chapel, and rows of apple trees from which they make cider. I even get to tour the cellars and taste the drinks. The farm itself is beautiful, with art dotted around and stylish interiors everywhere.
After the tour I settle in for a feast of everything from tortillas to tapenade. The Chantilly cream desserts are so good I take two.
Back in Caen, I have a seafood dinner at a little bar called Le Casier. Its enthusiastic proprietor tells me that the salmon recipe is his grandmother’s, so I can’t help ordering the open-face salmon tartine. It’s every bit as flavorful as I hoped, and makes for a memorable meal.
Cycling to Ouistreham
After all the food I’m in need of some exercise. One day I pick up an electric bicycle at ELECTROBIKE and ride to Ouistreham on the Normandy coast. The journey takes around an hour on a cycle path along the Caen Canal.
On the way I pass two D-Day landmarks: Pegasus Bridge and Café Gondrée. Liberated the night before the D-Day landings, they’re famous for being the first bridge and house freed by the Allies in Normandy.
The original bridge is now in a nearby museum, and the house has been converted into the aforementioned cafe, but it’s great to see the new bridge and dining establishment side-by-side.
Once in Ouistreham, I stop for lunch at La Villa Andry then continue cycling along the beach. The waterfront is lined with historic villas, and in Lion-sur-Mer I pick up an umbrella with an audio guide at the tourist information center.
The tour lasts around an hour and 15 minutes, and takes me on a walk through the villages and along the coast. I learn all about the history of the villas, hear locals speaking about their childhood memories, and begin to understand the culture and connection to the beach.
A highlight is seeing a villa by Hector Guimard, the architect who designed the Art Nouveau metro station entrances in Paris.
Caen Memorial Museum
But the beaches have military history, too, and back in the city I spend an afternoon at the Caen Memorial Museum. Built on top of a German bunker, it has extensive exhibits about World War II, D-Day, and the Battle of Normandy in 1944.
I spend hours taking in the history and learning as much as I can about the events surrounding D-Day. I knew a bit about it before, but the museum helps me put the pieces together and get a clearer picture of what happened. It’s an emotional experience, and goosebumps and tears swell in tandem.
Afterwards I tour the bunker and visit the American Garden, which has a fountain symbolizing life and plaques for each of the 50 states.
Accommodation in Caen
Following all the activity and emotion, I’m grateful to have a haven to call home while I’m in Caen. Chez Laurence du Tilly is right in the heart of the city and my apartment looks straight out of a design magazine (I’m told the owner is an interior decorator, and I’m not surprised).
The walls are a bit thin and the wrinkled apple at breakfast is surprising given all the fresh fruit at the market just outside, but apart from that I love the place.
I fly back to London full of great memories and excited to see how Rouen compares when I return in September. The bar is set high, but I’m confident it will impresses as much as Caen.
This post is sponsored by Normandy Tourism.
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