If you have clients wishing to get a taste of the French countryside not far from Paris, Normandy is an easy sell. From cow-dotted pastures and wide sandy beaches to historic sites and local libations, William the Conqueror’s native land quickly conquers visitors’ hearts. Travel Agent recently traveled with Atout France and the Normandy Tourism Office to glean insider tips about the historic region, celebrating 1,100 years in 2011.
One of our favorite discoveries is perched on a hilltop above Normandy’s coast. The Domaine Saint Clair is a closely guarded secret among the Parisian weekenders, who pack its restaurant for garden-fresh Norman cuisine and views of Étretat’s dramatic rock formations, famously painted by Claude Monet. Outside by the turquoise pool, a fashionable crowd sprawls across daybeds and in wicker lounges shaped like giant apples. Inside, the 21 guest rooms—designed with flair and a real joie de vivre—are named for the personalities who flocked here in the Belle Époque (Marcel Proust, Gustave Flaubert, and yes, Monet). Our favorite? The Sarah Bernhardt, with its own hammam, Jacuzzi, and windows opening on to glorious vistas.
Deauville and Parisian Riviera
We arrived in Deauville hot on the heels of the G8 summit when the world’s leaders were photographed strolling on the beachfront promenade. Deauville is hardly new to the spotlight; the glam seaside resort draws Hollywood A-listers for its annual American Film festival in September and their portraits adorn the walls of the five-star Normandy Barrière and The Royal Barrière. The family-owned Lucien Barrière Hotels Group is part and parcel of the Deauville scene and a frequent sponsor of cultural and equestrian events. In fact, with the construction of its three iconic Tudor-style hotels in the early 20th century, the luxury hotelier really helped develop Deauville as a destination.
|Signature beach umbrellas dot the Deauville beach.|
This is where Coco Chanel first opened her fashion-forward shop, and luxury boutiques abound. Just after dawn, the racehorses stomp through the surf to cool down after workouts on the Hippodrome track. When not frolicking on the beach (or taking shade under the signature beach umbrellas), visitors head to the thalasso spa pools or glittering Barrière casino.
To book your VIPs at the Barrière hotels, contact Nathalie Matter (011-33-2-31-143-959, [email protected]). For golfers, consider reserving a getaway at the four-star Hotel du Golf Barrière; its 18-hole golf course has splendid views of the sea.
|One of the 21 guest rooms at the Domaine Saint Clair.|
Not to miss: Less than 30 minutes from Deauville by car, the picturesque port town of Honfleur was a favorite with 19th-century painters. Les Maisons de Léa has elegant digs and a spa just a quick stroll from the harbor, where colorful fishing boats bob at anchor.
Caen, Bayeux, D-Day Beaches
Normandy is full of history. From here, William the Conqueror launched his invasion of England in 1066, and nearly 900 years later, the Allies landed on its beaches on D-Day to liberate Europe from Nazi control. In the cemetery for Commonwealth soldiers, a Latin epitaph thus resonates with meaning, “We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s homeland.” For a comprehensive look at World War II history, the Caen Memorial for History and Peace is one of the finest museums we’ve ever seen.
Many Americans make trips to the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. It’s impossible not to be moved by the sea of white crosses, interspersed with stars of David, dotting a windswept hilltop above Omaha Beach. Nearby, at Pointe du Hoc, the strategic point of attack by the U.S. Army Rangers on D-Day, the memorial has been reopened after extensive U.S. restoration efforts. And the Utah Beach Museum in the town of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont has just unveiled a dramatic renovation, including the construction of a new wing.
The medieval town of Bayeux makes a good base for touring the D-Day beaches. Stop by the Bayeux Tapestry Museum to see the UNESCO-listed relic that recounts the Norman Conquest and William the Bastard’s rise to William the Conqueror. An exhibit running until December 30—the first ever involving national treasures from both Europe and Asia—juxtaposes the 225-foot tapestry with a 12th-century Japanese scroll. Cap off the day with a delicious dinner at the Lion d’Or, an 18th-century coach stop that served as headquarters for the Allies after the D-Day landings. The bar is filled with photographs of the famous folks who’ve dined there, including Steven Spielberg and Prince Charles.
|Caen is famous for its abbeys.|
Pilgrimage to Mont Saint Michel
The first sight of the monastery island of Mont Saint Michel takes your breath away. Across the sheep-dotted tidal marshes, the abbey spire rises majestically from the sea. For more than a millennium, pilgrims have braved quicksand and sweeping tides to reach one of Christianity’s holiest pilgrimage sites. Today, Mont Saint Michel is the second-most visited tourist site in France after the Eiffel Tower, attracting 3.5 million visitors per year. The main street, lined with kitschy souvenir shops, gets clogged with tourists ascending to the monastery, so duck to the left for the side street bypassing the main artery. You’ll climb steps overlooking gardens and courtyards, far from the crowds. For those with more time, guides take groups on barefoot treks, just like the pilgrims, across the sand at low tide to the island.
|There is no shortage of fine restaurants in historic Rouen.|
Note: Mont Saint Michel has embarked on a massive engineering project to de-silt the bay around the island and return it to its natural state. Once surrounded entirely by water, the geography has changed because of the build-up of sediment. This innovative project, including a revolutionary hydraulic dam that uses the river’s currents to slowly sweep the sediment out to sea, has the world take note.
From Rouen to Giverny
There’s a lot to love about Rouen, just an hour-and-a-half drive from Paris. This is where Claude Monet painted his Rouen Cathedral series, capturing the light on the cathedral’s façade in more than 30 different paintings. “It is quite as bewitching as Venice, my dear—it has amazing character and is truly magnificent!” artist Camille Pissarro said about Rouen.
|The Spa du Drap d’Or.|
For a close look at the works of painters who adored the region, check out the Impressionist Art Gallery at Musée des Beaux-Arts de Roeun. Monet’s House and Garden at Giverny, an hour outside of Paris, also opens a window into the artist’s marvelous life and work. The garden itself is a self-conscious floral composition, planted in order to be painted.)
Before it became a stomping ground for the Impressionists, Rouen was a thriving medieval city and ancient capital of the dukedom. It was also where Joan of Arc, the saint and French national heroine, was burned at the stake in 1431.
On a walking tour of historic Rouen, organized by the Tourism Office, you’ll pass by the Hotel de Bourgtheroulde, a new five-star hotel housed in a 15th-century mansion boasting an elaborate façade decorated in the Renaissance and Gothic styles. While the outside is historic-listed, the inside is decidedly contemporary, with a happening bar that has a windowed floor peering down into the gorgeous swimming pool.
|Prestige Junior Suite at the Hotel de Bourgtheroulde, which is housed in a 15th-century mansion.|
And for foodies hot on the trail of Julia Child, Rouen is where the chef had her first meal in France. Of this transformative epicurean experience, Child later wrote, it “was an opening up of the soul and spirit for me. I was hooked, and for life, as it turned out.” La Couronne is France’s oldest restaurant, and it’s still possible to order Julia Child’s menu: oysters on the half shell, fresh-caught sole swimming in butter, a green salad, and strawberries and cream.
Calvados and Camembert
There’s a reason Julia Child fell in love with French food for the first time while visiting Normandy. It’s a generous and authentic cuisine, says Chef Patrick Mouilleau at the Lion d’Or. The region sources its products straight from the terroir: the nearby sea where the best scallops in France are fished in autumn and pastures where cows produce the milk for four legendary cheeses (Camembert, Livarot, Neufchatel and Pont l’Eveque).
|The Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer is popular with U.S travelers.|
A trip to Normandy isn’t complete without a Calvados tasting, and one of the most picturesque spots to toss back the famous apple brandy is the Chateau du Breuil. The prestigious distillery is housed in a classified chateau, in the middle of a park filled with trees that are hundreds of years old. A good place to soak in the splendor of the surrounding Pays d’Auge countryside is the Auberge des Deux Tonneaux in the village of Pierrefitte-en-Auge. And for local cider, visit the Norman manor farm of Le Gars Normand (011-33-2-31-646-179, [email protected]).