The coastal region in the northwest of France offers high drama…in landscape, legends and on the plate
Normandy, a coastal region in the northwest of France, has seen more than its fair share of drama over the centuries. Two ultimately successful cross-Channel invasions – the Norman conquest of England in 1066 and D-Day in 1945 – passed through here, but thankfully, all we experienced were stunning vistas, friendly natives and outstanding food, according to The Hindustan Times.
Guns and roses
We arrived in Rouen, the regional capital, following a two-hour drive from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport. The highlight of this city on the Seine is its historical centre, a small district of pedestrianised streets lined with old buildings and filled with cafés, restaurants and shops. Attractions include weekly markets, splendid spires, the clock tower and main cathedral, Notre Dame (it might be a law in France that every sizeable town has at least one church named for Notre Dame – Our Lady). This particular Notre Dame flirted briefly with stardom when it became the tallest building in the world (for four years from 1876), but it is now the backdrop for a beautiful sound and light show held every summer night at 10pm.
Dinner that first night was an excellent meal at Un Grain de, which focuses on traditional French dishes with contemporary surprises. Prix fixe meals offer various choices of appetiser, entrée and dessert. It was hard to go wrong, but if you see the curried fish on the menu when you visit, we’d highly recommend it.
We stayed at the beautiful Hotel de Bourgtheroulde housed in a mansion that dates from the 15th century and only steps from where Joan of Arc was tried and burnt at the stake. The hotel, replete with a stunning façade of carved stone, a garden of yellow roses, and rooms with breathtaking views through enormous, mullioned windows, served as a perfect base from which one can embark on trips around Normandy.
The next day we headed to Veules-les-Roses on the Alabaster Coast (Côte d’Albâtre), a tiny village with a beach between white cliffs. The local tourist office will hand you a map of a walking trail – along a stream of the clearest water imaginable – that you’re well advised to follow. With flowers blooming everywhere you glance, working watermills, watercress beds, centuries-old wooden houses with thatched roofs, and narrow winding streets, you can be forgiven for thinking you’re in wonderland.
Next up, we drove to Étretat, justifiably compared by many to the white cliffs of Dover in England. The cliffs on either side of the beach here were much higher and the view from the top is well worth the effort. We started our hike on the pebble beach, and passed a German machine gun bunker built into the cliff wall, a stark reminder of the area’s history. We also crossed a beautiful golf course (that given the stiff breeze and undulating landscape, must be quite challenging) just before the top from where we were offered grand views of an open ocean and dramatic cliffs. We ended our visit to Étretat with a stroll along the ocean boardwalk, before rewarding ourselves for the hour-long hike with a bag of caramel candy at the biscuiterie Jacques Delaunay.
The day’s driving took us over narrow back roads past fields and pastures guarded by towering windmills facing the sea. After the third pasture we passed, we realised that each of them contained cows of the same colour scheme (white, brown, black or patches). Just when we began to suspect some dastardly plot to maintain the racial purity of the herds, we rounded a corner and came upon a delightfully-blended herd thereby restoring our faith in bovinity.
Our final stop for the day was at Honfleur, an enchanting, historic port on the Seine. At one time, it was one of the largest and busiest ports in France, however silting of the harbour pushed traffic across the river to Le Havre. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the town’s historic centre is a well-preserved warren of medieval streets while the Vieux Bassin, the heart of the port, is dotted with yachts and colourful, picturesque buildings.
Normandy is known for its apples and has made extensive use of them in the production of cider and calvados (apple brandy). Both are widely available and the refreshing cider we had at La Cidrerie paired well with the seafood galettes (a regional specialty similar to wheat pancakes) we devoured. Once back at our hotel, a cocktail at Bar L’Atrium against the backdrop of accomplished piano chords was how we called it a night.
The next day involved a drive to St. Malo with stops at Caen, Omaha Beach and Mont-Saint-Michel. Caen was more a bathroom break enroute to Omaha Beach than a full-fledged stop, but we still managed to tuck into a chocolate croissant, drop in at the Abbaye Aux Hommes – William the Conqueror’s final resting place, and (most importantly) buy a pair of shoes in the historic centre.
Omaha Beach is awe-inspiring and unsettling at the same time. It is a nice, broad and open beach, with golden sand and nothing to obstruct your view for miles around. One can only imagine the sheer terror of having to traverse such an expanse while weighed down by a heavy pack under withering enemy fire. The row upon row of crosses in the immaculately-maintained cemetery is a stark reminder of the lives lost on one of the bloodiest days in recorded history.
The drive from Omaha Beach to Mont-Saint-Michel started out under clear skies, which turned cloudier the closer we got to our destination. You can see the Mont as a vaguely pyramidal shape from quite a way out as you approach on the highway.
The closer you get, the more details you see and the more you stare at this dramatic Gothic structure in sheer wonderment. The final stretch, where the Mont appears to rise from fields of yellow, is guaranteed to stop you in your tracks.
Mont-Saint-Michel is a tiny, fortified island at the mouth of a river that has housed an abbey and homes for many centuries. At low tide, you can walk up to the walls and at high tide, unfortunate invaders would find themselves desperately swimming to safety. Thankfully, today there’s a highly organised operation to shuttle the millions of annual visitors by road to the gates of the island.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But not even a thousand pictures can do Mont-Saint-Michel justice. Take your time exploring the narrow streets as they wind their way up to the abbey. Once you’re done with the climb, grab an omelette (or crepes or pancakes if you so prefer) and enjoy a picnic in the grounds of this riveting place of pilgrimage. Feed the crumbs to the seagulls that are perched permanently on the ramparts and add a final flair of drama to the landscape.
We arrived in St. Malo just in time for dinner, which we had at the highly recommended Breizh Café. The chef trained in Japan and the restaurant’s innovative food is a unique fusion of the two cuisines such as galletes served in a form similar to sushi. After dinner, we grabbed a gelato and walked around the historic centre, which lies within ramparts (intramuros) no more than a mile long on any wall. Outside the walls, you’ll find beaches, islands and plenty of boats. St. Malo is considered one of the prettiest towns in the country, which, for France, is saying a lot. Apparently, most of the walled city was destroyed during World War II, however, you’d be hard-pressed to tell as it was lovingly rebuilt to retain its charm.
We returned the following day to continue our exploration of this exquisite town by walking on the ramparts to soak in the views of the vibrant marina, and every once in a while, taking the stairs down to explore its pristine beaches, forts and cobblestone labyrinths. Having worked up an appetite, we then had the highlight meal of the trip at local institution, Bistro Autour du Beurre. The owner, Jean-Yves Bordier, is a world-renowned producer of cheese and butter, which he supplies from his store next to the restaurant. The meal starts with bread accompanied with eight (eight!) different cubes of flavoured butters – raspberry, yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit), fennel, buckwheat, spicy, olive and lemon, seaweed and finally, salt.
All of them are beautifully textured with flavours as advertised. We selected the prix fixe menu, which started with an incredibly thin pasta served with mussels and mushrooms in a frothy, buckwheat butter sauce. This was followed by a white fish fillet in langoustine cream sauce with shallots, strange looking radish and eggplant caviar (yes, such a thing exists). All told, this exquisite meal set us back €23 a head and provided way more satisfaction than the €40+ we spent on highway tolls during the drive back to Paris. We concluded that Paris may well have its sizzling fashion, but Normandy has something better – Beurre (butter)!