Before we talk about why you should visit Normandy and how it’s more than just World War II history, let’s do a little word association exercise to see if you’re anything like me. Ready?
France. Paris. The Eiffel Tower. Berets (I got one as a kid and some things just stick).
Paris. Terrifying language barrier. Hipster Instagram girls. $7 lattes.
French countryside. Lavender fields of Provence. Freshly baked bread from farmers markets. French people on bikes.
Normandy. World War II. Normandy invasion. Lots of horrible death.
As you can probably tell, a trip to Normandy did not top my list of ‘must-go’ places. In fact, it was pretty far from my mind. So how did it happen?
My globe-trotting aunt recently confirmed that she/we are 60% Norman, and an ancestral homage on a cruise up the Seine was organized. I hadn’t been to Paris since I was fourteen, and I was excited to experience the country as an adult – and, as an added bonus, with my family. So I made the jump from Belgrade to Paris, taking a few extra days to soak up the city, then met my family abroad our river cruise boat for our little adventure.
(Side note: Nothing screams “I don’t belong here” like showing up on a fancy river cruise boat with your 70L backpack, fresh off the metro, while all the other guests are over 55 and neatly pulled together after their transatlantic flights. The boat staff were warm and welcoming but I could see they were trying to process how exactly I fit into the retiree river cruise scene. Was I wearing a $5 Nirvana t-shirt bought in a clothing market in Istanbul? Did I also spill coffee all over the counter while trying to make a smooth entrance into the lounge where a hundred cruisers were chilling? Answers you will never know, dear readers.)
Ok, back to Normandy. Before the trip was over (to be honest, about 48 hours into it), Normandy had leapt over half of the continent to become one of my favorite underrated regions in Europe. I started planning my return before we were even halfway done with our trip. And even though I hate to give away a good secret, if you’re looking to ‘discover’ France, it’s time you start planning your vacation to Normandy. Here’s why–
Normandy is rich in history.
Floating up the Seine was like cruising through history. We toured the ruins of Chateau Gaillard, built by Richard the Lionheart in his wars against France. There was even a reenactment festival going on while we were there, and my brother and I were put in the stocks and given to the mercy of our dad. At the Chateau de La Roche-Guyon I learned about the total badass women who maneuvered the family through wars and revolutions.
Learning more about World War II and the landing on Normandy’s beaches was eye-opening and heartbreaking. Before visiting the American Cemetery we listened to a lecture about the Invasion of Normandy, which took over six weeks and cost around 120,000 Allied lives.
As part of a generation that is very far removed from our wars, it was sobering but important to visit the cemetery and beaches – where people now vacation and relax in freedom.
There are far fewer tourists visiting Normandy than Paris.
Not that there weren’t any tourists, especially in Honfleur and Rouen. But in Normandy it was possible to be the only tour group in town for the day, like in smaller towns like Les Andelys and Vernon. Without a mass of other tourists, you have more opportunities to interact with the French people and get closer to authentic French culture.
Normandy’s art legacy continues into today.
As the birthplace of Impressionism, Normandy’s importance to art cannot be underscored. It’s not hard to see why so many artists were drawn to this region of France, with its casual beauty. And that culture of art and craftsmanship continues today. From the artist enclave in Les Andeyls to the stonemason apprenticeship program in Rouen, there’s a high respect for the arts in Normandy.
Normandy has movie-set ruins.
As France started to rescue its ruins from destruction and decay, it was faced with a question. Do we restore the ruins completely or simply preserve them?
French historians decided not to attempt to reconstruct the visions of past glory. Instead, they’ve focused their attention on preserving ancient architecture in its current form, so as not to make any false assumptions about its original state. The result is some of the most fairytale-like ruins I’ve seen in Europe. The ruins of Jumièges Abbey are straight out of Lord of the Rings.
Every town in Normandy is more adorable than the next.
Normandy will present you with a conundrum. “Vernon is adorable… But maybe Les Andelys is cuter… No, Honfleur is my favorite!”
When you visit Normandy, every single town is so enchanting there’s the serious danger of cuteness overload. With timbered houses and bright colors, the French towns of Normandy invite you to take long strolls and forget about checking Facebook.
Honfleur did finally win out to be my favorite town of our trip. It was picturesque from every angle, complete with a tiny harbor, a mini carousel, and a mime act (that we actually stopped and watched for a good ten minutes. The things we do on vacation that we never do at home!). Since the moment I got my first glimpse of Honfleur’s charming houses, I started plotting my return.
Normandy’s local products are my favorite indulgences.
Normandy is famous for their apples – and also their apple products. Calvados, an apple brandy, is sipped, mixed, and poured over ice cream. The apples are also used to make a variety of ciders, which pair well with Normandy caramels.
Also, Normandy’s signature cheese, Neufchatel, is typically made in the shape of a heart. Because if you haven’t realized it by now, Normandy is freaking-adorable.
Normandy locals might be the most welcoming in France.
The only French phrase I really know is “fermer la bouche” which literally translates as “shut the mouth.” I learned it from our middle school French teacher when we were being too rambunctious.
Despite the reputation of French speakers and their fierce attitude towards tourists, I found nothing but hospitality and compassion from Paris to Honfleur and back. I stumbled along with “bonjour” and “merci” and I was, at the very least, tolerated – and sometimes even indulged.
Normandy has all the pastries.
We might have had a personal quest to find the best éclairs in Normandy. We did our best, but our mission remains unfinished. I guess I’ll just have to visit Normandy again soon to continue the inconclusive research.
Think it’s too difficult to visit Normandy? Think again! You can take a train from Paris to Rouen, the region’s capital, and be there in about an hour! Visiting Normandy from Paris is a great way to add an extra dimension to a trip to France!