Mary Novakovich falls under the spell of beautiful Calvados, where a rich history intermingles with the best of nature’s bounty
There is an inescapable richness to the Calvados landscape. Perhaps it’s the thought of all that creamy butter and fragrant cheese that come from Normandy’s cows munching on luscious green grass; or the orchards bursting with ripe apples ready to be pressed into cider; or the region’s Calvados – the brandy that shares its name with the department.
Gently rolling countryside fills the interior, while the 125km coastline ranges from dramatic chalk cliffs to genteel Victorian-era resorts. Its history is a long and often turbulent one, visible on everything from the 900-year-old Bayeux Tapestry to the more recent scars left on the D-Day beaches during the Second World War – two of the biggest tourist draws in the region.
It’s impossible to visit the sites of the 1944 D-Day landings without being moved by the visual reminders of the sacrifices made by both soldiers and civilians. Begin at the western end, near Cricqueville-en-Bessin at Pointe du Hoc, where US Rangers spent two days fighting German soldiers entrenched at the beachhead. The gun emplacements and barbed wire remain – as do giant pockmarks where shells landed, giving the landscape an eerie lunar feel.
Head east to St-Laurent-sur-Mer, where a stark memorial to the dead of Omaha Beach stands at the seafront. Embedded in the sand on the beach is Anilore Banon’s evocative steel sculpture, Les Braves, which was commissioned to mark the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings (known as Jour-J in French). About 300m from the beach is the Omaha Memorial Museum, with a collection of weapons and tanks. In fact, reminders of the war are scattered all along the coast, from tiny private museums with a few memorabilia to crumbling German bunkers in overgrown hillsides.
The site that draws more than a million visitors a year is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial near Colleville-sur-Mer, where nearly 10,000 plain white crosses sit in neat rows in view of the sea. You enter via the free visitors’ centre, which gives a fascinating and gripping account of the whole operation – and is not something to be rushed through. If you happen to be there at 4.30pm, you can witness the daily ritual of the lowering of the colours, when the American flag is ceremoniously lowered and folded. Nearby is the new Overlord Museum, which opened in June 2013 and delivers another in-depth account of the battle.
At Arromanches, it’s the turn of the British forces to be commemorated, as this was the landing area known as Gold Beach. The wide bay is dotted with segments of the Mulberry harbour, the artificial harbours constructed for the landings. Like many of the towns and villages along the coast, Arromanches’ growth matched that of the railways in the 19th century. Nowadays it’s a bustling base for visiting the D-Day beaches and the Musée de Débarquement that dominates the seafront.
Carry on another 15km eastwards towards the port of Courseulles-sur-Mer, site of the Canadian forces’ landing at Juno Beach. A museum – shaped, not surprisingly, like a highly stylised maple leaf – gives an account of the often overlooked Canadian effort in the operation. A simple grey sculpture points towards the dunes; on closer inspection you can read a few lines from one of Paul Verlaine’s best-known poems, Chanson d’Automne, a code used by the BBC to alert the French Resistance to the invasion.
The Second World War has left scars on so much of this landscape; few places more comprehensively than Caen, the department’s largest city. It’s the setting for the Mémorial de Caen, a museum remembering war and celebrating peace as it explores the history of the 20th century. Several of Caen’s historical landmarks have survived, however; notably two Romanesque abbeys: Abbaye-aux-Hommes, founded by William the Conqueror, and the Abbaye-aux-Dames, founded by his wife Mathilde. And the 11th-century Château de Caen, home of the Dukes of Normandy, including William, stands tall over the town; the surrounding green spaces filled with people lounging and picnicking in the sun. The university gives Caen a lively, buzzing air as students crowd the bars and restaurants in the pedestrianised streets near the château.
A similar buzz hovers around Bayeux, another town that commemorates a battle – albeit one that happened nearly a millennium ago. The Bayeux Tapestry stretches for 70m behind protective glass as it tells the story of the Norman Conquest in intricate embroidery, helped by an excellent audio guide. Do look closely at all the panels, where some unexpected motifs are lurking in corners, and check out the museum’s well-crafted exhibits that put that whole period of history into context.
It might be the magnet for millions of tourists every year, but Bayeux has a full existence beyond the tapestry – and one that doesn’t close down completely over the winter. Because it was the first town liberated after the 1944 invasion, it was spared a great deal of the damage seen elsewhere in France. As in so much of Calvados, the architecture here is a pleasing jumble of medieval half-timbered houses, with ancient waterwheels lining the River Aure. The Wednesday and Saturday markets bring out the best of the regional produce – including Normandy’s prized cheeses and ciders.
You can easily spend a week – and many people do – travelling round at leisure visiting producers of cheese, cider, Calvados and pommeau (a mixture of apple juice and Calvados) en route. There must be something magical in the lush countryside of the Pays d’Auge in the eastern part of the department; it has its own appellation d’origine contrôlée for its cider and Calvados and appellation d’origine protégée for cheese.
In the south is Livarot, home of the delicious cheese that has been produced by the Graindorge family for more than a century. While the town itself is quite workmanlike, it’s worth a visit to the Graindorge cheese factory and free museum – plus the irresistible exit through the cheese shop. The factory also produces Pont l’Evêque cheese, named after the attractive village not far from the Channel coast. Here, half-timbered houses from the 16th and 17th centuries line the old quarter called Vaucelles, surrounded by the confluence of three rivers – Touques, Calonne and Yvie. Just below the village is the parc de loisirs, 90 hectares of parkland and a Blue Flag lake where you can swim, kayak, camp and revel in the greenery.
The depths of the Pays d’Auge countryside hide one of the department’s most exquisite villages – indeed, it’s the only member of the Plus Beaux Villages de France in the area. In Beuvron-en-Auge, colourful half-timbered houses have run riot, filling the main square and running along narrow alleys. It’s immediately obvious why it’s a popular stop on the cider trail, and every second Sunday of the month, the numbers swell further when bric-a-brac hunters meet for the antiques market.
In contrast to Calvados’s inland ancient villages – where houses range from the 13th to the 18th centuries – most of the eastern coastal resorts lodge you firmly in the 19th century. The main exception is the pretty fishing port of Honfleur, whose impossibly tall, narrow 18th-century houses are reflected in the waters of the Vieux Bassin. Art students sit with their sketchbooks by the water’s edge, trying to capture the beauty and light that inspired Honfleur-born painter Eugène Boudin and his 18-year-old friend Claude Monet. The Musée Boudin, set up in his honour, is one of the galleries taking part in this summer’s Festival Normandie Impressionniste, which, until 29 September, celebrates the movement that changed art for ever.
Honfleur does attract large numbers of tourists, but at lunchtime a certain contented hum settles over the town as seemingly the entire population sits down to a seafood blowout in one of the many waterside restaurants. Normandy’s mussels, whelks and oysters are just as difficult to resist as the cheese and cider.
Just west of Honfleur are the neighbouring resorts of Deauville and Trouville, which between them manage to offer everything you want from a seaside holiday. Deauville is the more glamorous and chic of the two, with its designer boutiques, casino, American Film Festival every September and a boardwalk lined with beach huts emblazoned with the names of Hollywood film stars. Trouville has pony rides on the beach, a genial family atmosphere, a noisy fish market every day on the quayside and a dizzying choice of seafood restaurants. It doesn’t have film stars’ names on its beachfront promenade, but the next best thing is a statue of Gustave Flaubert, who spent his childhood summers in Trouville and has a seafront hotel named in his honour.
Deauville is undeniably prettier, its centre festooned with flowers and filled with grandiose half-timbered townhouses that might have been designed by the Addams Family, if they had been to a Parisian finishing school. Trouville is considered more down to earth, while Deauville has long been nicknamed the 21st arrondissement thanks to the huge number of Parisians who visit or have second homes here. They complement each other perfectly, and it’s very easy to walk from one to the other. There’s even a little boat that shuttles between the resorts at the mouth of the River Touques at high tide.
The same railway that made Deauville and Trouville so easy for 19th-century Parisians to reach extends further west to Houlgate and Cabourg. Houlgate was a tiny fishing village called Beuzeval until the mid-19th-century craze for sea bathing led to the creation of a grand hotel, hydrotherapy baths, casino, promenade, large villas and all the must-haves of a typical seaside resort – including an enormous expanse of beach. It also has the wonderfully named Falaises des Vaches Noires (Cliffs of the Black Cows) on its eastern side, where fossils regularly turn up as the sea slowly erodes the base of the cliffs.
Cabourg is haunted by the spirit of Marcel Proust, who is everywhere: on plaques on its wide seafront, on shop windows, on street names. Anyone who managed to plough through À la Recherche du Temps Perdu will recognise Cabourg as the fictional resort of Balbec – particularly for its Grand Hôtel, where Proust was a regular guest.
This stately five-star hotel lords it over the seafront – but in an egalitarian move, the municipal swimming baths are in its lower level facing the sea. Film buffs will recognise the hotel as the setting for the closing scene of The Intouchables, the French comedy-drama that set new box-office records last year. And cinema fans already descend on Cabourg’s beach every June for its annual film festival, when a giant screen is erected on the sands.
Cabourg’s busy Les Halles opens every day during the summer – and four times a week at other times – bringing together succulent Normandy produce under one roof, with extra stalls spilling outside. You’re certain to find some of Proust’s beloved madeleines, the taste of which instantly transported him to the past.
Calvados’s past is everywhere – its rich flavours even more so… ready to hold you in the present, wishing the moment would never end. LF
Mary Novakovich travelled with DFDS Seaways (0871 574 7235; www.dfdsseaways.co.uk), which has regular ferries from Dover to Calais. The nearest airport is at Deauville, which is served by CityJet (0871 663 3777; www.cityjet.com).
Where to stay:
21 Rue Saint-Patrice
Tel: 00 33 (0)2 31 92 88 86
15 Avenue Hocquart-de-Turtot
Tel: 00 33 (0)2 31 81 13 18
19 Rue Eugène Boudin
Tel: 00 33 (0)2 31 14 43 45
Promenade Marcel Proust
Tel: 00 33 2 31 91 01 79
Where to eat:
Le Volet Qui Penche
3 Impasse de l’Islet
Tel: 00 33 (0)2 31 21 98 54
11 Rue des Bains
Tel: 00 33 (0)2 31 98 06 97
Le Bouchon du Vaugueux
12 Rue Graindorge
Tel: 00 33 (0)2 31 44 26 26