Upper Normandy living
Whether you’re looking to settle or just passing through, the region of Upper Normandy offers a picturesque and pastoral escape as Alison Weeks discovers
With its rolling emerald hills, white cliffs and pretty half-timbered houses, there is something so familiar about the landscape of Upper Normandy. And although the scenery and climate isn’t altogether foreign, this rich and beautiful region boasts a unique culture of its own. Nestled between the English Channel and the outskirts of Paris, Upper Normandy encompasses the expanse of northern coastline from Le Havre to Le Tr�port and the fertile farmlands of the Seine Valley leading inland to Paris.
Immortalised in the works of the great Impressionist painters, this bucolic region comprises the departments of Seine-Maritime and Eure. Upper Normandy is the northern half of the historic province of Normandy, an area named for the Vikings, or ‘north men’, who conquered it in the 9th century. From here, William the Conqueror, a descendant of the Viking rulers, led the Norman conquest of England in 1066, ultimately uniting the region with England under Norman rule.
Under the patronage of the Dukes of Normandy, the region saw the creation of numerous abbeys. One of the most famous examples of a Norman abbey can be found at Jumi�ges in the heart of the For�t de Brotonne. A Benedictine monastery dating back to the 7th century, Jumi�ges Abbey was destroyed during the French Revolution. Now considered by some to be among France’s most beautiful ruins, the impressive remains of this once great abbey testify to the historical power of the Anglo-Norman church. Other important abbeys include the ruins of Abbaye Notre-Dame du Bec and the Abbaye de la Trinit� de F�camp.
Known as the ‘city of 100 bell towers’, Rouen is the capital of the region and the ancient capital of the Duchy. Set on the banks of the River Seine, this active river port is a bustling hive of modern industry, but venture into the vieille ville, or old town, and you’ll find a maze of cobblestone streets lined with leaning half-timbered houses and traces of medieval heritage, including the market square where Joan of Arc was martyred in 1431 as well as the castle keep where she was held prisoner. Now known as the Tour Jeanne d’Arc, this 13th-century tower is all that remains of the Ch�teau de Rouen, once the main seat of power in Normandy.
Rouen boasts more than 2,000 colombages, or half-timbered houses, a style of building that can be found across the region. While most of the half-timbered houses in the city date from the medieval period, in some places you’ll find more modern homes with faux colombage, a half-timbered effect that was popular in the 19th-century. The style’s revival was the result of a growing nationalist movement, which saw Normans trying to reaffirm their regional identity by building traditionally Norman-looking buildings.
During the Second World War, Rouen suffered significant damage in Allied bombing campaigns, but miraculously most of the city’s towering cathedral remained intact. The highest cathedral in France, this Gothic building was a favourite subject of the artist Claude Monet. Working from a studio opposite the church, Monet tried to capture the varying shades of the facade at different times of the day and year. Today you can see some of his cathedral series at the city’s Mus�e des Beaux-Arts, which houses the second most important collection of Impressionist works after the Mus�e d’Orsay in Paris.
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Not far from Rouen, Monet’s beloved home and studio at Giverny is one of the region’s biggest tourist attractions. Located 80 kilometres west of Paris, Giverny was home to the painter for more than 40 years. Here you’ll find the gardens and lily ponds that inspired some of his greatest paintings. Most of Monet’s works have some link to the local scenery. In fact, it was Monet’s painting of Le Havre, Impression, Sunrise, which first led to the term, Impressionism.
Driving through the open countryside of Upper Normandy, it’s easy to see why the Impressionists were so enamoured with the area. Monet and his contemporaries, Manet, Renoir and C�zanne, loved the quality of the light and the natural beauty of the landscape. Here, lush pastures dip in and out of forests before dropping into the sea in dramatic chalk escarpments. The coast at �tretat was particularly popular with the artists, who loved to capture the unique light bouncing off the shining sea and white cliffs.
Set on the C�te d’Alb�tre, a 130-kilometre stretch of chalky coastline, this pretty seaside town is known for its alabaster cliffs and iconic arches: the Porte d’Aval, the Porte d’Amont and the Manneporte. �tretat figures heavily in Monet’s �uvre, but it is also famed for its links with local authors Guy de Maupassant and Maurice Leblanc. The latter featured the local landscape in his novel L’Aiguille Creuse, The Hollow Needle. In the story, detective Ars�ne Lupin discovers that the jewels of the queens of France have been hidden inside the needle-shaped rock off the coast of �tretat.
Further up the coast, F�camp was also popular with writers and artists. Originally a fishing village, today this seaside town is most commonly associated with B�n�dictine, a local liqueur based on a recipe for a panacea invented by Benedictine monks from the local monastery. Created by Alexandre Le Grand in the 19th century, this famous digestif is an aromatic blend of 27 herbs and spices. Although the recipe is a heavily guarded secret, tourists can see the distilling process in the B�n�dictine Palace, which also houses Le Grand’s eclectic collection of artwork.
Of course, this being apple country, the real drink of choice in Upper Normandy is cider produced from the abundance of local apple varieties. In addition to apples, the Seine Valley is also renowned for is cherries and pears. Near Jumi�ges, the combination of chalky escarpments and the moderate temperature of the water produces a sort of microclimate. The area is slightly warmer than the rest of Upper Normandy and is spared from early frosts. Following the Route des Fruits, tourists can sample and buy apples, as well as berries and pears from the local producers.
At his family farm in Villequier, Fran�ois Craquelin produces cider � l’ancienne. Relying on traditional methods like harvesting by hand and using small-scale apple presses, he’s able to produce a purer, better-tasting drink. His farm is typical of the Pays de Caux, a historic region of Normandy with its own unique traditions. Here, apple trees are planted around pastures, not in the tight rows found in standard orchards. With fewer trees spread further apart, there’s less risk of disease and no need for pesticides. The smaller scale production also allows for hand-picking of the fruit, which means there’s less chance of bruising the apples and the possibility of a later harvest, resulting in a riper, fuller-tasting crop.
A proud Normand, Fran�ois scoffs at the Breton tradition of pairing cider with cr�pes. “A nice dry cider goes perfectly with Camembert,” he explains. Cider and cheese may seem like an odd combination, but in a region known for its apple and dairy production, it makes perfect sense. The most famous cheese in Upper Normandy is Neufch�tel, a soft, ripe cheese similar in taste to Lower Normandy’s Camembert. Produced in Neufch�tel-en-Bray, it usually comes in the shape of a heart and is one of the oldest cheeses in France.
Along with apples and dairy produce, seafood is one of the region’s major exports. Upper Normandy is renowned for its fresh fish and shellfish, especially sole and scallops. The regional cuisine is based on the abundance of locally sourced seafood, with traditional dishes like moules � la Normande (mussels cooked in cider and cream) and marmite Dieppoise (a slightly spicy fish stew).
Most of the area’s fishing industry is based in Le Havre, the second largest port in France after Marseille. This industrial city was flattened during the Battle of Normandy in 1944 and rebuilt after the war by modernist architect and urban planner, Auguste Perret. In 2005, Le Havre was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its representation of post-war planning and use of concrete buildings.
At the northern limit of the region, Le Tr�port also had its beginnings as a fishing port but by the 19th century, it had developed into a fashionable seaside resort for wealthy Parisians. With its charming promenade and casino, Le Tr�port is still a popular holiday spot.
Historically, Dieppe was the region’s most famous seaside destination. It became France’s first seaside resort after the Duchesse de Berry started the fashion for sea bathing here in 1824. It remained popular with well-to-do holidaymakers throughout the 19th century. Today, Dieppe is more commonly associated with the Dieppe Raid, a failed Allied effort to liberate the city from Nazi control in 1942.
Linking Le Havre with Paris, the River Seine flows through the heart of the region. The varying landscape of the river valley includes industrial ports like Le Havre and Rouen, as well as quaint riverside communes backing onto lush, green hills dotted with grazing livestock. In the charming village of Villequier, time seems to be standing still. Elegant mansions line the river and narrow lanes lead up into the forests.
Originally from Ascot, Sandie Morianville first moved to Villequier in 1989. She purchased a derelict hotel on the river and transformed the property into an old-fashioned English pub. Now a full-time mum, she lives here with her French husband and two children. She wouldn’t dream of moving back to the UK. For Sandie, Upper Normandy offers a slower pace of life. “It’s going back to basics,” she says looking out at the river from her kitchen window. “I love the village life without all the modern excess.” On warm summer evenings, Sandie and her husband often enjoy an ap�ritif with their neighbours by the river. “It brings people together. Everyone knows everyone here and there’s a real sense of community.” LF
Alison travelled to Upper Normandy with DFDS Seaways.
Seine-Maritime Office de Tourisme
Hameau des Coudreaux ,76490, Villequier
www.seine-maritime-tourisme.com Eure Office de Tourisme Boulevard Georges Chauvin, 27003, �vreux
WHERE TO STAY
La Maison Blanche
11 rue Jean Le Graffic 76490 Villequier
Tel: 00 33 (0)2 35 56 76 82
Mercure Rouen Centre Cathedrale
7 rue Croix de Fer 76000 Rouen
Tel: 00 33 (0)2 35 52 69 52
WHERE TO EAT
Le Clos Lupin
37 rue Alphonse Karr, 76790, �tretat
Tel: 00 33 (0)2 35 29 67 53