Cities: Le Havre, Caen & Rouen
The major Norman port of Le Havre, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, sits at the mouth of the Seine and was totally reconstructed following its destruction during WW2. As well as being an important cross-Channel ferry port, it offers gentler seaside pleasures in the form of a pebbly beach with pretty beach huts and a large yachting marina, plus important cultural centres such as the MuMa André Malraux Museum of Modern Art and the Volcano arts centre. Perched above the marina are swanky villas and a 19th-century fort, now public gardens with a view. The centre of town is modern and spacious, with just a handful of historic stone buildings having survived the wartime devastation. Don’t miss Le Havre’s celebrations for its 500th anniversary in 2017!
Caen’s skyline is quite a sight to behold: a mass of soaring church towers that have been in place since the time of William the Conqueror. The castle, now home to major museums, was once a key medieval Norman fort – and during the Second World War, D-Day operations kicked off just down the Orne River, with British airborne troops famously securing the vital Pegasus Bridge. Caen’s vast war museum is now also dedicated to peace, and the Orne frequented by yachts heading for Caen’s central marina (Bassin Saint-Pierre) and lively centre. Caen lies close to the D-Day Landing beaches, to its own ferry port of Ouistreham (with regular connections to Portsmouth) and to beaches and resorts where you can enjoy traditional seaside fun.
Stretching beside the Seine, Rouen is Normandy’s cultured, historic, gastronomic and vibrant capital. Monet’s canvases of the cathedral have made it the best-loved building in town but many other glories stand out, including fine museums and the church dedicated to Joan of Arc. Victor Hugo famously described Rouen as the city of “a hundred spires”. Don’t miss the Gros Horloge (a magnificent monumental town clock), the splendid Gothic law courts (Palais de Justice) and look out for the Aître Saint-Maclou, which with carved skull and crossbones counts among the most startling medieval cemeteries in Europe. Rouen’s historic quarters are packed with tempting shops and restaurants. There are also glorious weekly markets and, this being a university town, there is plenty of buzzing nightlife too.