By: Paul Shoul
My travel buddy Max Hartshorne, the editor of GoNOMAD.com, and I sat down at Le Rocher, (5 Rue du Rocher 7508 Paris) a small cafe in Paris just across from the Gare Saint-Lazare train station. We had an hour to kill before our train left, beginning of our road trip to Normandy. Paris is one of the world’s great cultural centers. Beautiful old and dignified yet peppered with ultra modern accents, it buzzes with a diverse international crowd. The coffee (2.00€) was dark and strong. The sandwich I ordered (5.50€) was simple perfection. A fresh baguette with butter, ham, and Camembert cheese. I’ve been disappointed a thousand times by ham and cheese sandwiches all over the world, but we had come to the source, the promised land of food. This was a glorious, delicious thing.
France is the most visited country in the world, but most tourists flock to the same places. Believe it or not Disneyland Resort Paris gets more visitors than the Eiffel tower. If tourists do go to Normandy it is often just for a trip to the D-day beaches or to Le Mont St Michel, France’s second-most visited monument. But there is another Normandy that is revered by the French and less traveled by American tourists. It is a place of beautiful countryside, rolling hills and spectacular cliffs and coastline.There are small towns rich with history and castles and chateaus that you can stay in. Wonderful people, delectable food and a pace of life that begs you to savor every moment. Normandy has been fought over for a thousand years, it is a treasure worth coveting. Max and I had come to discover and take some of it for ourselves.
The train to Normandy
After an uneventful seven hour flight on Air France, the kind I like with a comfortable aisle seat, good food, an easy customs check and no delays, we arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport and grabbed the Paris Opera Roissybus (about, 8.5€ to 11.5€ for a 45 min ride) to the St Lazare Station to catch one of the many daily trains to Rouen . We got stuck in traffic and missed our first connection so leave extra time. What ever stereotypes that I had heard of the French people being too cool for school and not friendly were immediately disproved when an overwhelmingly beautiful woman came out of nowhere trotting over in high heels to help me haul one of my bags of camera equipment up the long flight of stairs into the station. Disappearing into the crowd, she glanced back with a coy smile over the shoulder of her fashionable high collar black coat. I had only been here an hour but I was already in love with the French. The 1.5 hour train ride costs about 20 euros. The trains are clean, quiet, and efficient. It’s a delightful trip through beautiful countryside that would be worth taking even if you did not have a destination.
Rouen and the oldest Inn of France
The largest city and capital of the upper Normandy region (Haute-Normandie), Rouen is situated strategically on the river Seine, connecting it with Paris and the coast. It is the third-largest port in France.
Steeped in history, it is probably most well known as the place where in 1431 Joan of Arc was led to the funeral pyre of her death. It’s a completely charming place with thick cobblestone streets, a pedestrian only center of town, and painstakingly well preserved Renaissance and Gothic Architecture. This is a city to walk and there is a lot to see. Of note the Notre Dame Cathedral, a huge structure with the highest spire in France, over 450ft.
We also visited the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen where I stared in awe at the paintings by Monet and other pivotal works of art. There are plenty of Hotels in Rouen. We stayed at the Hôtel du Vieux Marché.
This is a three star hotel and part of the Best Western Hotel chain that I have come to respect. For about 100 euros a night it has the essentials of what you need to be a happy traveler the most important of which is Location! It was right off the main square of town in the middle of everything you want to do in Rouen. My room was comfortable with a nice view. There is a locked parking garage and the complimentary breakfast was not fancy but delicious and endless. Speaking of food, that evening Max and I had our introduction to Norman Cuisine and the pleasure of dining at the oldest Inn of France, La Couronne.
Established in 1345, these guys have had a little time to get their act together. I am a food nut and one of my favorite things about travel is getting to eat the real deal. Norman cuisine is legendary. We had the fixed price “Normandy in a plate menu” for 33€. The restaurant was beautifully lighted with dark wood and you felt every second of how old as it was. The walls were adorned with autographed photographs of famous celebrities and politicians from the world over.
We sat out on the patio right on the main square of the town. I started with a half dozen of the famous buttery local oysters served on ice with red wine vinegar and shallots. My main course was Medallions of Veal with new potatoes in a cream sauce. Then came the cheese course. As a rule I try to eat healthy, very low fat, low carbohydrates, and lots of protein. It was during this first meal that I quickly realized that I would be defenseless against the cheese course. As I savored one of the eight offerings on my plate each slice more than I would normally eat in a week I began to rationalize that it would irresponsible, a sacrilege not to try them all. By the last bite of pungent Roquefort, the strongest I had ever had I was conquered. Man, this was good stuff. I knew that I was going to have to pay for this all at the gym later but decided it was going to be worth the price. Dessert was an apple tart with ice cream and we washed it all down with a bottle of superb 2005 chateau Maine Pascaud Bordeaux. Wow.
Renting a car
The next day we picked up our rental car at the Avis office located at the Rouen train station. We had a reservation and it was a relatively painless process. We chose a VW Golf diesel that was flawless during the trip and very economical on gas. Our total bill for nine days including collision insurance and the hefty 19% Gov tax was 432€. Driving in France is easy. People are generally polite and the highways are well marked if you can speak French! Which, we essentially could not.
We were lost the first two days but between asking directions and honing and studying some basic words by the end of time we had it down. In the small towns and older cities it gets a little dicey, a friend of mine from Paris said to me that even the French don’t drive in Normandy without a GPS system. Next time I am bringing one. The advantages of traveling by car are enormous. It allows you to explore and after so many trips of being bound to the routes of trains and buses this was liberating. There were countless times when one of us said “I wonder what was down that road?” and finally we could find out. The road to Fecamp, Etretat and La Havre:
The drive from Rouen to Le Havre is only about 44 miles but we headed further up to Fecamp so we could drive back down the coast. Fecamp is a picturesque seaside town with a long history of commercial fishing. The marina is beautiful and there are a few great restaurants that have terraces right along the coast. We had a killer lunch at Le Reidroc (67, Boulevard Albert 1er 76400 Fécamp+33 2 35 28 10 55). It was my first taste of Norman Mussels, steamed simply with cider and crème freche. The most popular stop in town is the home of the famous Benedictine liqueur at The Benedictine Palace & Museum. This ornate palace will blow your mind and that’s exactly what its quirky creator Alexandre Le Grand wanted.
Originally made by monks, the secret recipe was lost in the 1500s and later discovered by Le grand, who in 1863 went on to make his fortune and create this unusual palace museum and distillery. It houses a growing collection of historic and contemporary art and an eclectic museum of objects from French history. You will need more time here than you planned on.
Of course first and foremost you’ll have to sample the final product. after viewing the distillery, in the cafe downstairs I tried all three versions one of which is aged and much dryer and can only be purchased at the Palace. It was only 10:30 am, but hey, this was research!
We only had about 90 minutes to spend here, just enough time to hike to the top of the white alabaster cliff arches that Etretat is famous for but surely not what it deserves. The light and the dramatic view from the top are well worth the climb. A photographer and painters dream, Max had a hard time dragging me away. Monet was just one of the famous painters who have immortalized Etretat on canvas.
Le Havre was devastated during German occupation in 1944. In 1945, a massive reconstruction to accommodate the 85,000 homeless left from the war was begun to build housing as uniformly and as fast as possible under the direction of architect Auguste Perret. It has a fascinating history and is a designated UNESCO world heritage site.
You can visit a model apartment that is like a time capsule as if someone locked the door to in 1951. Le Havre’s deep-water port is the second busiest in France, visited often by cruise ships, and there is a cool walkway by the sea and the marina where you can fish and watch the huge cargo ships heading out to sea. We had lunch at one of the 15 restaurants along the rocky beach, at L’Ecume des mers Boulevard Albert 1er Plate forme n°3 76600 LE HAVRE Tel. 00 33 (0)2 35 31 87 99). This is the happening part of town, there is a skate park and over 600 little beach “cabins” set up in rows with life size photographic portraits on the ends. We stayed at the Best Western Art hotel. Right in the middle of where you want to be. This is a cool hotel with some surprising accents, like an elevator that is set up to look like a shower! My room was a little small but for under a 100€ it fit the bill. A very friendly comfortable place.
Honfleur to Caen
On our way to Caen, we stopped by the must-see town of Honfleur. It was crowded and packed with tourists, but don’t let this deter you. People flock here because it is wonderful and almost too cute to be real.It’s preserved in all of its eleventh century glory, with three and four-story multicolored wooden houses right on the harborside.
Honfleur reminded me of so many movies I have seen from this time period and if I did not know that it was authentic I would have sworn that I was on a reconstructed set. It has been meticulously maintained over the ages. The enclosed harbor has a drawbridge and cafes surround the boats within. The medieval houses and cobblestone streets houses are incredibly picturesque. Known as one of the cradles of Impressionism it is the birthplace of the painter Boudin.
Caen was to be our home for two nights while we visited the D-day beaches. Like all of Normandy, I was struck by its long troubled history. Founded by William the conqueror in the 11th century, during the Battle of Normandy in WWII much of the city was destroyed, but there are still significant historic structures that survived the bombings, including the vast Chateau Ducal in the center of town. There is a long pedestrian promenade lined with shops, bakeries and cafes. We enjoyed another superb Norman meal at Boeuf &Cow (6, Boulevard des Alliés 14000 Caen, France +33 2 31 86 37 75) For my starter I had the salad with local ham, smoked sausage topped with an egg poached in cider (6.oo €) when the deep yellow egg yoke broke over the ham it was almost erotic.
For my main meal, I had the special of the evening a fillet of beef with pan-fried Foie gras and sautéed potatoes. (25.oo€) With it we drank two bottles of local cider from la Ferme de Billy. The cider is not very alcoholic, (about 4 percent) dry, a little sweet, and the perfect companion to cut through the intense flavors of the meal. There is no better food in this style anywhere. You might die if you ate it every day, but you will have not really lived until you have tried it.
Le Clos St. Martin in Caen
In Caen we stayed at Le Clos Saint Martin, 18 bis Place Saint-Martin,14000 CAEN Tél. : 02 31 50 08 71 Located 10 minutes from the center of Caen It is a fully restored 16th-century mansion complete with its own tower. Sylvie and Jean Noel Vandevivere have done an amazing job bringing every inch back to life. It is historic, beautiful, and has all the amenities a traveler needs including a great big bed, spacious rooms with desks, Internet access a really hot shower, and a healthy breakfast of wonderful local foods, many found in the market that takes place right outside their front door.
D-Day beach tour
I was not prepared for the emotional impact of visiting the D-day beaches. The invasion of Normandy becomes something much more than a historical event. It takes on a tangible form when you visit The American cemetery overlooking Omaha beach. There are 9,387 Americans buried here. The endless perfectly aligned marble white crosses and stars of David all face toward home. I found it to be an overwhelmingly sad place.
So many dead. I left feeling a great respect for all the sacrifice and confused at why humanity has been at war with itself for so long. Half-day tours (59€)can be arranged through the Caen tourist office. Our guide was a history professor by profession She took us to the villages of Arromanches and St. Mere D’ Eglise, the gun batteries embedded over the beaches at Longue-sur-mer, The American cemetery and The Caen Memorial.
Considered the best WW2 museum in France, it is a moving interactive journey using film, live actors, galleries, and exhibits that take you through the brutal darkness of the Nazi world and the devastation of the war to stop their madness. I cannot emphasize enough how thought provoking this place is. That evening we dined at the Hôtel le Dauphin. This is an outstanding restaurant featuring the gastronomy of Normandy that I highly recommend. As I said most restaurants offer a cheese plate. they have a cheese cart. It nearly killed me.
Bayeux, Villedieu Les poeles
Just about 31km from Caen is the home of the Bayeux Tapestry in the city of the same name. Registered as a “Memory of the World” by UNESCO, it is embroidery, 70 meters long, made in the 11th century to chronicle the Norman Conquest of England. In a dark room, you are led along picture by picture by a soundtrack that tells the story. it was kind of like a YouTube for the medieval masses. There is also a corresponding Museum with exhibits and life-sized models of 11th-century people and clothing.
One of the most interesting side trips we took was a visit to the Fonderie de cloches Cornille Havard a bell factory in the nearby town of Villedieu les Poeles. Known as the city of copper, it has been a center for brass and copper metalworking since 1750. In one of the many small outlet stores in town, I purchased a world-renowned Mauviel copper pan for US$100, about half its price in the States, and now the pride and joy of my kitchen. There are only three bell factories left in France. They make bells here from tiny to tremendous. There was one being worked on while we visited that weighed over six tons. This is a highly skilled art form taught by apprenticeship. They have been at it for over 900 years. If your timing is right they do a weekly casting on Fridays. They pour a mixture of molten brass and tin into a mold that has been constructed from clay, horse manure, and goat hair around a wax interior that has been melted away to leave the shape of the bell inside. Watching the burly workers pour molten metal into the form was mesmerizing!
Granville and Barneville-Carteret:
We spent an evening at the Hôtel des Isles before winding our way to Granville. This is a somewhat upscale establishment very tastefully done right on the shoreline. There are also many camping options in the area and the small back roads that we explored were almost tunnel-like with high hedges lining them. The rooms were very spacious, it felt a lot like Nantucket to me. It had a great little bar and a good breakfast buffet and a wonderful porch overlooking the Atlantic.
Granville was in some ways my favorite town in Normandy. It had an excitement about it that made me feel right at home. The largest town, with a population of about 15,000 on the coast, it’s a busy port with a protected marina fortified by gigantic sea walls and a 15-foot tide that leaves boats resting on the ocean floor and sometimes catches unaware tourists who need to be rescued from the in the center of town.
There is a beautiful stone promenade along the ocean. At the beginning of it is a casino and above that one of the walkways that leads to the old section high above the town. This was fortified and originally settled in the 12th century. The old city has high-walled cobblestone streets, a drawbridge and historic military barracks and the ancient church and museum Notre-Dame du Cap Lihou. On Saturdays there is a lively market of local products, produce and artisanal meats and cheese but the highlight for me was the fresh seafood caught right off the coast and the abundance of mussels , oysters and other shellfish farmed in the area. They are also famous for “Bullots” a small conical shellfish served cold with mayonnaise that had the ultimate fresh from the sea flavor.
That day we ate only fresh shellfish. It was a pleasure. We stayed right on the marina in a very reasonably priced hotel that I thought was a real deal, The IBIS Hotel.
For under 100€ you can get one of the rooms that has a small balcony over looking the harbor. I stayed in #124. If you are making reservations make sure that you get one these rooms!
We stayed at theIbis twice but on my second time I forgot to secure my balcony room. Being able to sit outside and watch the ships roll in made all the difference. The rooms are clean modern and adequate with a pretty good bed but the real charm is the location just a 5 min stroll from downtown and a fantastic view. Breakfast is served on first-floor terrace just outside of the restaurant that served up a fine rendition of steamed mussels Normandy. I really like this place. Before leaving town we stopped by the Christian Dior Museum. This was Dior’s childhood home. The Pink House is now a museum of his life and a pilgrimage for many a fashionista. There are exhibits of the Dior legend of perfumes and fashion and an extensive garden to walk and ponder your own beauty.
To the Chateau in Brix
After driving for days through ancient stone towns past castles and chateaus it was our pleasure to actually have the chance to spend a few days living in one. Just off a small road 5 minutes from the center of the small hamlet of Brix, we turned down a long tree-lined driveway that leads through the gates to the Chateau Le Val.
I just could not believe we were going to stay there. It is incredible. Frans Tijssen and co-owner Karin Twijnstra have spent 12 years restoring it. Frans told me that at times he felt like his arm would fall off after years of pounding the massive stone walls back into shape. Located on 12 private acres with gardens, horses and a small fishing pond, the chateau dates back to the 16th century. Lovingly restored and furnished with period antiques it sleeps up to 25 people. You can rent the whole place for around US$4,500 or single bedrooms 72€ for two people per night. Two large suites come complete with a private kitchen and with a kitchen for 760€ per week. With your own kitchen comes great culinary possibilities what I learned about Norman food is that it is all about freshness, Quality and craftsmanship. From local markets we brought home artisanal sausages, Ham, cheeses, duck pates, local cider and vegetables. We also had the honor of meeting Karin’s friend Alan Travert. Retired, he devotes his ample skills to his garden and the wood oven he constructed by hand where he bakes peasant bread just for the pleasure of giving it away.
Before we left his home we sampled some of his personal concoction “44” Made from 100 proof locally distilled calvados “Apple brandy” infused with oranges and 44 coffee beans and steeps for three years. It’s stingingly tasty and harsh. Breakfast is served daily at the chateau but these homemade meals with new friends in the ambiance of your own chateau is French living at its best.
The Trip Home
Leaving Normandy was not easy, We had just scratched the surface. Driving back to Paris, the frantic roads of the city were a rude awakening after the slow-paced crawl through the back roads of the countryside. Traffic charges ahead as you approach the airport while motorcycles whip in between the lanes at incredible speeds. The Avis drop off was very convenient right on the ground floor the floor a two minute walk and a quick trip up the elevator to the departure counters. Business class on Air France is spacious and comfortable. The wine and aperitifs list matches many great restaurants in quality and the food was exceptional for an airline. Not a bad way to travel but honestly I woke up mid flight wishing I was back at the Chateau.
Paul Shoul is a staff photographer writer with GoNOMAD.com. He lives and works in Northampton MA.
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Note: This trip was sponsored in part by Maison de la France .
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