With its heart in the fertile French soil and its soul dipping and soaring over the sea, Lower Normandy is a land of rich and fascinating contrasts, says Sylvie Wheatley.
Spend any time here and it won’t be long before you fall under its spell, as the 1.5 million people who call this beautiful region home will confirm. Yet there is a curious mix here of lives deeply rooted in the rich Norman soil and those lived out on the ever-changing, unpredictable sea. Indeed, the presence of the sea has opened the region to the world beyond its shores, and resulted in a spirit of adventure, discovery and exchange – even if throughout history those exchanges were not always as friendly as they are now.
Situated in north-west France, Lower Normandy is made up of three departments: Manche (the peninsula), Orne (land-locked) and Calvados. The latter is the most populated, being home to Caen, the region’s largest town where one can find a plethora of industries and the local university. And to put it in context, although the region covers 3.2% of French soil, it only shelters 2.4% of its population, offering its inhabitants ample space to enjoy themselves. In fact 35% of Bas Normands live in a rural setting, and there are only 15 towns that count more than 10,000 people.
This opportunity to spread your wings while never being far from the sea explains why so many people – French and foreigners alike – choose not only to visit, but to settle in the region. The Norman coast is the nearest to Paris and this has meant that traditionally, many Parisian families have invested in holiday homes here, and being only a ferry crossing away from England has meant that British expats have long favoured it too.
Alison Weatherhead lives in Chaulieu, just inside Manche where the three departments meet, with her husband John Street and two children: Maddy, 13, and Ben, 10, who were born in France. She and John have lived in Normandy for 17 years. Alison works in marketing and John is an antiques dealer.
“What appeals to Brits coming over here to live, is that it is relatively close to the UK so trips back to visit friends and relatives or even to commute in some instances, are totally feasible,” she says.
“Also for people thinking of retiring here, it is possible to have a holiday home for a while to get a feel for the local way of life before taking the plunge.
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“You can also have a mega estate – well in our case three buildings on an old apple orchard – without having to take out a mortgage. Property in Normandy, especially the rural parts, is still cheaper than that south of the Loire.”
Rich heritage Lower Normandy has a distinctively rich history, and is peppered with monuments and artefacts that make today’s dwellers marvel at the ingenuity, ambition and courage of their ancestors.
Le Mont-Saint-Michel stands proudly on a rock, within a vast, treacherous bay at the foot on the Manche peninsula where the land starts turning west towards Brittany. A Unesco World Heritage Site, this impressive 80-metre-high edifice which originally would have been cut off with every high tide, is France’s most visited site. At its top reigns a splendid abbey mixing Roman and Gothic architecture that offers breathtaking panoramic views; and to reach it, you have the pleasure of wandering through the medieval village with its narrow cobbled streets and ubiquitous stairs.
For centuries pilgrims walked barefoot across the bay to the monument, only to be swallowed up by the fast-moving tide. It’s still possible to walk across the bay today; although only at low tide with the help of an experienced guide. Those who choose to walk along the coast from Cherbourg to the Mont will be rewarded with wonderful sea views and exercised by changing terrain, as the coast turns from rugged cliff-top wilderness in La Hague at the top of the peninsula, to dunes then sandy beaches further south.
Along the way, as well as natural beauty, resorts such as Barneville-Carteret and Agon- Coutainville offer beachside fun, chic boutiques and diverse entertainment, including a race-course and a casino, while the Granville harbour combines business and pleasure: trawlers and yachts. In summer, even when the holiday season brings extra visitors and the campsites are full, and even when the weather is at its best, this part of France never feels overcrowded. In seaside towns all along the coast there’s fantastic freshly caught seafood to enjoy. Mussels are farmed here, and on certain beaches at low tide, depending on the power of the tide, you can walk all the way to the mouli�res, and gather your dinner fresh from the sea.
While the western coast of Manche evokes this pious, festive and industrious past, the eastern coast and its neighbouring Calvados beaches have become known for the key part they played in the Second World War, for that is where the Allied forces landed on 6 June 1944. Much has been written on the subject and now is not the time for a military history lesson, but the legacy of what happened in places such as La Pointe du Hoc is undeniable. No one can visit the American cemetery in Coleville and not be moved by the scale of the human sacrifice that took place here a mere 70 years ago.
Tapestry tales Nearby sits the town of Bayeux, home to the famous tapestry of the same name. It is believed that the Bishop of Bayeux had it embroidered as a way of telling his mostly illiterate contemporaries the story of the 1066 Norman invasion of England, led by the daring and vengeful Guillaume, Duke of Normandy. Through simply woven tableaux, he can be seen taking his men and horses across the Channel to win the battle in which King Harold’s eye was pierced with an arrow.
In fact the whole area is rich in abbeys, castles, manors, churches, and botanical gardens, the conservation and innovative conversion of which generate employment and revenue as well as pleasure. Anyone running a catering business or offering accommodation to tourists has plenty to recommend to their guests and many reasons to make them stay another day.
Of the Brits who settle here, many will be self-employed, offering holiday lettings or providing services for the expat community, says Alison Weatherhead. “This is often because they have come here to get away from the rat race and want to work at their own pace and spend time with their families,” she explains. “However, it is important to be able to sell your services to the local French community as well.”
One of the most successful rejuvenation projects of recent years is La Cit� de la Mer in Cherbourg, a tourist attraction- cum-conservation project, dedicated to sea exploration, hosted within the walls of the old art-deco gare maritime, and home to decommissioned nuclear submarine, Le Redoutable, which offers visitors an extraordinary, unique opportunity to discover an alien world. A perfect day out to recommend to g�te guests.
Back in Calvados is the chic resort of Deauville, famous for its cinema festival, its movie-star strewn beach and its world of posh gambling; and Honfleur, the charming harbour whose wondrous light attracted painters and artists such as Boudin and Monet. Today visitors can still enjoy within its narrow streets a warm ambiance and a certain douceur de vivre. And if it is possible for anyone ever to tire of seaside wonders, aim inland towards Orne, and be transported into a land of hills and forests including la Suisse Normande and Le Parc Naturel R�gional du Perche. Everywhere in rural Lower Normandy, people take pride in the food they grow, and the way they transform basic ingredients into gastronomic delights. Indeed the main industry here remains l’agro-alimentaire, or the processing of the produce of the land; mainly apples, milk and meat in this case.
It is not an industry that generates great wealth and the average household revenue here is less than the national average, but one that is born out of tradition and passion. The main products to look out for are cider, Calvados (apple brandy), pommeau (mixture of cider and calvados) and poir� (pear cider), and the many ways apples can be used as an accompaniment to meat dishes, or in patisserie; cheeses including Camembert, Livarot and Pont l’Ev�que, which are all named after local villages/towns; teurgoule – a form of rice pudding; and cr�me fra�che and yoghurts (traditionally made in Isigny).
As milk plays such a big part in gastronomy, there are, as you would expect, a fair number of cows in Normandy. Indeed you see them in fields everywhere, enjoying the rich, green pastures. Other animals you’ll find in Lower Normandy include sheep raised on marshland salty grass – their flavoursome meat is called pr�-sal� – and horses which are bred and cherished, notably at Le Haras du Pin, near Argentan.
Another place where animals are seen in all their splendour is La Foire de Lessay, an annual fair and trade exhibition held every year in September where over 400,000 visitors come to buy and sell cattle, sheep, horses, poultry and even dogs. This is also a place where locals chat at long trestle tables in large marquees, drinking cider and eating frites and spit-roasted racks of ribs.
For this is a land of conviviality. Towns and villages are small enough to ensure that most people bump into someone they know, everywhere they go, and every opportunity to sit down and eat and drink something together is welcome. As those who have settled there will tell you: “Providing you like eating and drinking, you will fit right in.”
For Alison Weatherhead and her family, it is this strong sense of community combined with the space and freedom that is a big part of what they enjoy about life in Lower Normandy.
“My children have space to run around and make as much noise as they like without annoying the neighbours and the freedom to go off on their bikes and explore without me worrying about what they are up to.
“At night there is no sodium light to block out the stars and you feel more in touch with the seasons and nature as you are in the thick of it.”
If you look closely at all that this region and its people have to offer, you will discover a love of the land and its produce and a respect for the sea and its bounty. In this ever-changing landscape with its temperate climate there’s a commitment to celebrating and remembering the past while planning for the future, and a hospitable spirit towards travellers and newcomers. The region enjoys a proximity to Paris and a feeling of rural seclusion, all wrapped up with a rich assortment of significant historical sites and a wide range of modern amenities. How could you fail to love all that? LF