Normandy is an unforgettable part of France. Roads wind past lush, bucolic landscapes where dairy cows graze and apple trees are laden under the weight of their bounty. Medieval villages, alabaster cliffs, and historical sites, including D-Day beaches, demand to be explored. Calvados and Norman cream are on the menu along with freshly caught seafood.
Normandy could be explored for months on end. This introduction to five towns in Normandy will give you a glimpse into a truly authentic part of France.
Varengeville-sur-Mer, situated along the Alabaster Coast in Normandy, France, has attracted artists for centuries. Claude Monet painted the soaring white cliffs and Georges Braque, the French painter and sculptor, lived in the town.
One of the highlights of visiting Varengeville-sur-Mer is discovering the 12th-century church, Saint Valery. Saint Valery, perched on the escarpment overlooking the English Channel, holds several artistic treasures inside. The modern stained-glass window by Georges Braque throws a blue light over the interior while the carved pillars with mermaids and coats of arms intrigue admirers. Gaze up at the ceiling, which is the shape of an overturned ship hull. Explore the maritime graveyard, and don’t miss Georges Braque’s tomb.
You can linger at this little church. Watch the ferries leaving from nearby Dieppe as they cross the English Channel and see how the light falls across the magnificent white cliffs in the distance.
Pro Tips: Head down the Alabaster Coast and stop at Quiberville. Here you can have the ultimate French experience of eating oysters right on the beach. The huitrerie is situated on the road by the beach. Order your oysters, have them opened, and take your plate with a cold glass of Muscadet straight to the pebbled shore. Stay at the lovely bed and breakfast, Le Manoir Shagall, in Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer and visit nearby Veules-les-Roses, one of France’s designated most beautiful villages.
When you see the white cliffs of Etretat, you will know immediately why it is a must-see destination. Sit on the pebbled beach listening to the waves roll over the stones and gaze up at the bluff to the left, the Falaise d’Aval. The naturally sculpted arch, La Porte d’Aval, with the Needle Rock rising behind is a sight to behold, one that has been painted and photographed countless times. The beauty in these rock formations is the way the light changes as it falls on the stone. As you move, your perspective shifts and the Needle Rock and La Porte d’Aval seem engaged in a natural dance, changing position in relation to one another.
The hike up to the top of this bluff is on a fairly steep trail that is natural and rather uneven. Take your time. Stop at the viewpoints for the exhilarating panorama of the English Channel.
The other cliff to climb in Etretat is the Falaise d’Amont. This steep trail takes about ten minutes to climb and is a combination of stairs and a pathway. The top of this bluff can be accessed by car or by the little visitor train that leaves from in front of the tourist office. Sitting on top of this escarpment is a lovely little church, Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Garde. Wander along the top of this windswept cliff for glorious views that include the Needle Rock and La Porte d’Aval.
With the salty breeze blowing off the water, Etretat is the perfect place to enjoy the great outdoors. Have a picnic on the beach or simply, in chic French style, a glass of champagne.
Marvel at the fact that during World War II, 1,500 mines were buried on this beach, and bunkers were built between the cliffs.
Pro Tip: If you love to play golf, there is a golf course that originated in 1908 situated right alongside the Falaise d’Aval. Some of the holes have spectacular coastal views.
3. The Historic Harbour Of Honfleur
Honfleur, one of the most visited towns in France, is truly idyllic. Plan to spend a couple of days exploring Honfleur. The most mesmerizing view in Honfleur is Le Vieux Bassin, the inner harbor. Tall, slender Norman buildings are reflected in the water amidst moored sailing boats. Bring your paintbrush, your camera, or simply sit in a cafe and watch the reflections.
Honfleur has a stunning medieval center with tiny cobbled roads lined with half-timbered houses. Honfleur’s main church, Eglise Sainte-Catherine, is the largest wooden church in France. Step inside and stand in awe at the ceiling, which resembles two upside-down ship hulls side by side. The chiming of the separate bell tower adds to the ambiance.
The shopping in Honfleur is outstanding. As an artists’ haven, there are many galleries selling unique paintings and sculptures. Shops abound sell Norman delights such as Calvados, biscuits, caramels, and tinned fish. Make sure you have some room in your suitcase!
Pro Tip: Don’t miss the church Notre-Dame de Grace, situated on a hill above Honfleur. This gem is easily accessed by car or hiking trail.
While Trouville-sur-Mer is the perfect day trip from Paris, once there you may decide that you’d like to stay longer. Trouville-sur-Mer has a sister town right beside it, Deauville. When visiting the area, you might want to visit both towns and their beaches and decide which you prefer.
In my short time there, I preferred the more village-like atmosphere of Trouville-sur-Mer. Its fishing traditions are still very much alive. Just watch the fishermen on the quai sorting their fish and getting ready to head out to sea again. Wander through the town, which is full of half-timbered houses and small shops. Although the boutiques are completely aimed at tourists, it is hard not to be swept up in the delights of Normandy, France.
Head to the beach and marvel at the multi-colored beach umbrellas stretching as far as the eye can see. Rent a beach umbrella, find your place in the sand, sit back, and relax. This is what coastal living is about. Dip your toes in the salty water, walk along the sandy shore, and take a stroll along the 19th-century boardwalk past bathing cabins and benches that bear the names of famous French artists and writers who were inspired in Trouville-sur-Mer.
Pro Tip: Have a meal at Les Vapeurs, which has been open since 1927. Devouring a steaming pot of mussels with a fresh Normandy cream sauce is a gastronomic highlight of any trip to Normandy.
Though technically not a village, the medieval center of Bayeux has a village feel. This city, which emerged from WWII unscathed, is a delightful stop on any itinerary through Normandy, France. The majestic Notre-Dame de Bayeux Cathedral was consecrated in 1077 and has been classified as a historic monument since 1862. Built in the Norman Romanesque and Gothic styles, its commanding presence demands that you visit the interior and walk around the entire exterior.
Tucked in the shadow of the Bayeux Cathedral is the restaurant L’Assiette Normande. Plan to eat lunch or dinner here and ask for a table by the window. You can gaze at the Cathedral while you savor your French meal.
The famous Bayeux Tapestry, almost 1,000 years old and 230 feet long, is a marvel to behold. It tells the story through 58 scenes of how William, the Duke of Normandy, was betrayed, crossed the English Channel, and fought the Battle of Hastings in 1066 to become William the Conqueror, King of England. The tapestry was created to tell the story to the illiterate population of the time. One can’t help being in awe of this tapestry with its handmade, artistic, and colorful representation of this historical event.
Pro Tip: Bayeux is a good base for exploring the D-Day beaches. Renting a car or taking a tour are the recommended ways to access these historic sites. The historical facts and stories from Pointe du Hoc, which was stormed on the morning of June 6, 1944, and Omaha Beach, where the Americans soldiers had the most difficult of landings, will resonate with every visitor. The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial is essential to a visit of this part of Normandy. Seeing the rows of crosses overlooking the ocean is a sobering reminder of the sacrifices that so many young people made for our freedom. Read more visiting the D-Day beaches here.
Normandy, France, is a region that is well-loved by locals and foreign travelers. These villages will give you an authentic Norman experience. You might also like to add Mont-Saint-Michel and Giverny to your Normandy vacation.