Normandy: 5 French towns to explore on foot

NormandyNormandy is a favourite holiday spot for the over-50s – and it’s easy to see why. The region, famed for its unique cheeses and seasonal apple orchards, is steeped in rich history and is intrinsically linked to the English Isle as a staging point for wars old and new.

Standing at the very northern tip of France, the land juts out into the English Channel, forming both idyllic bays with sandy dunes and sheer limestone cliffs. Given the variation in natural topography, coupled with the regions authentic coastal culture, it’s no surprise to see the growing number of active, self-guided holidays springing up in the area. The walking holidays from Belle France for example help showcase the areas leafy villages, bucolic countryside and medieval architecture.

It is an undeniably beautiful and tranquil region, making it an ideal place to explore on foot.

Where to go

Mont Saint-Michel

A small island commune with a population of just over 40 people, Mont St-Michel lies at the site of the Couesnon River delta. Classed as a World Heritage Site, the monastery of Mont St-Michel, which marks the boundary with Brittany, is one of the main attractions in Normandy. Mont Saint MichelWith the first foundations being set sometime in the 8th century, the building is rumoured to be a product of divine intervention by Archangel Michael himself and has since been used as a fortified stronghold by royal and military factions alike.

Due to its remote location and narrow streets, walking is by far the best way to explore the site. There are three main routes, all winding to the abbey once you enter the outer walls of the commune. Following the Grande Rue will take you directly through the tourist hotspot but, should you persevere, you will be rewarded with traditional French crepe shops and cafes serving warm Calvados. An alternate route is up the masonry ramparts, which lead to an impressive view of the mudflats surrounding the town, while those of a more investigative nature may sniff out the Porte Eschaugette, generally the quietest path to the top.

East of this island you may spot the infamous low-lying D-Day beaches, each of which has a number of moving memorials, fascinating museums and cemeteries. For incredible views of the bay, walk along from the North Tower at Tour du Nord all the way to the Porte du Roy.

Bayeux

In the past, Bayeux had grand views of many battles, such as the Norman invasion of England and the Allied landings at Mulberry March during World War II, but now, Bayeux has changed. It’s a spectacular city to visit to soak up the peaceful Norman atmosphere. Buildings built between the 13th to 18th century still stand strong in the city centre, alongside a towering gothic cathedral from 1077.

BayeuxMany tourists visit Bayeux to see its famous tapestry, which depicts events during the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Although often busy, The Bayeux Tapestry Museum is worth visiting if only to take the audio self-guided tour. Meandering at your own pace along this 230-ft medieval embroidery is a fascinating (and relatively less time-consuming!) way to learn about the rich history of Normandy.

War memorabilia is found throughout Bayeux, as the town was the first to be liberated by allies during the war. There is a fascinating war museum dedicated to the Battle of Normandy, as well as a British War Cemetery and historical war tours – all perfect to visit on foot. In addition, there is the Jardin Public de Bayeux, a peaceful botanical garden, which is the perfect place to take a relaxing stroll and relish in the calm atmosphere.  In the heart of the city, this peaceful oasis serves as the perfect break from looking at historical and archaic structures and settings.

Giverny

Located less than 50 miles northwest of Paris, Giverny sits right on the banks of the Seine and is famous for highlighting the Impressionist art movement. The water lilies and vast greenery that grows in Giverny inspired Monet’s revered ‘Water Lily’ painting, one of his most famous. Monet’s house and gardens now form a museum dedicated to their famous owner. The gardens are beautiful, yet the house is even more awe-inspiring with the stunning display of original artwork.

Claude Monet HouseThe Musee des Impressionnismes is another favourite for art lovers, housing a collection of special exhibitions and paintings displaying the impressionist movement. As well as the fantastic art, the Musee des Impressionnismes has lush gardens with flowers blooming and multiple-textured plants climbing up the arches – an ideal place to stretch your legs and get outdoors.

Giverny is a glorious place to walk around, with historical features appearing throughout the town. Wander through the beautiful stone village and expect to see flowers in every direction you look, not only are they delightful to look at, but also make the whole place smell heavenly. Local, friendly artists are dotted along the street who welcome you to sit and observe their paintings, which, of course, are also available to purchase.

Etretat

This tourist and farming town is a commune situated on the coast of Pays de Caux area. Etretat is best known for its white alabaster cliffs. These include the three natural arches and the pointed ‘needle’; supposedly these cliffs and the associated beach resort were the factors that originally attracted artists like Boudin, Monet and Courbet. The charming cliff tops, sandy beaches and wide open spaces are perfect for hiking and walking around, looking especially lovely at sunrise or sunset.

EtretatBeing situated next to the sea has multiple benefits, as well as the excellent view. The freshly caught seafood in the restaurants in Etretat is phenomenal, where locals and tourists can feast on fish that cannot be beaten for taste and quality.

Hike up to the top of the cliffs to find the Chapelle Notre Dame de la Garde which looks out over the sea. The jaw dropping view provides the perfect setting for a picnic at the end of your hike, allowing you to enjoy the cliff top breeze and the view of the ocean.

Etretat is famous for being the last place in France where the 1927 biplane ‘The White Bird’ was seen. This plane disappeared somewhere over the Atlantic when attempting to make the first non-stop flight from Paris to New York.

Rouen

Rouen CathedralRouen is one of those rare gems where two worlds seem to collide – the old and the new. It has historical links to the Roman era and the Middle Ages, yet is also packed full of exciting activities and modern buildings. Joan of Arc’s History Museum tells her story with cutting-edge multimedia technology; join the educational and fun tour to learn about the history of Joan and her heroic acts.

Delve into France’s culture and history in the heart of the city at the Notre Dame, the stunning gothic cathedral which was built between the late 12th and 16th centuries.Gros Horloge, Rouen The different array of Gothic churches and cobblestoned pedestrian centre with medieval houses create an antiquated atmosphere around Rouen.  

Panorama XXL is an exhibition that combines historic art with modern technology. The giant panoramic facility showcases the work of German artist, Yadegar Asisi. It’s presented in a realistic and huge room, creating an almost 3D effect as the audience can view it from a panoramic 360 degrees.

Le Gros-Horloge, the famous Great Clock, is an architectural ensemble which was originally built in the 14th century, but was fully restored in 2006. With inspiration from Gothic and Renaissance themes, it is one of the oldest clock mechanisms in Europe. As one of the most prosperous cities of medieval Europe, Rouen is the perfect walking destination to explore the historical sites and modern quirks.

When to go

Much like the climate in England, that in Normandy can be a little erratic. For example, the people of Normandy are just as likely to experience a hot sunny March as they are a miserably wet July. The prime time for visitors is August; ironically, the only time of year you are likely to have any trouble finding somewhere to stay!

The tourist season occurs between May and mid-October, yet it’s open for business all year round. If your wish is to visit and/or tour the D-Day beaches, I recommend coming over outside of July and August. This is because you’ll find it quieter and the sand beaches more accessible – two things that definitely help give a more memorable and evocative experience.

How to get around

The easiest way to make your way around Normandy is to bring your own car, either via ferry or by Eurotunnel. You also have easy access to an efficient rail network in the region; this doesn’t run along the coast, but still connects with major towns.

The train-line between Cherbourg and Paris calls at Bayeux and Caen. There are also a number of buses from both Rouen and Caen. A private company serves most of these routes, but a special service operates for D-Day beach tours.

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