Normandy: War-Torn Yet Full of Life
In this program we explore the half-timbered charm of Rouen, reflect on Monet's lily ponds in Giverny, peek in on local artisans, and set up an easel at Honfleur's harbor. We venture into composer Erik Satie's eccentric world and feast on the finest of Normandy cuisine. After pondering sacrifice and celebrating freedom on the D-Day beaches, we hike with pilgrims to the enchanted island abbey of Mont St-Michel.
Rouen Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame)
There's been a church on this site for more than a thousand years. Charlemagne honored it with a visit in the eighth century before the Vikings sacked it a hundred years later. The building you can see today was constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries, though lightning strikes, wars (the cathedral was devastated in WWII fighting), and other destructive forces meant constant rebuilding — which explains the difference in the towers, such as the stones used at each tower's base (free, open daily until 19:00 except when closed for Mass).
Claude Monet's gardens at Giverny are like his paintings — brightly colored patches that are messy but balanced. Monet spent his last (and most creative) years cultivating his garden and his art at Giverny, the spiritual home of Impressionism. There are two gardens here, split by a busy road, plus the house, which displays Monet's prized collection of Japanese prints. The gardens are always flowering with something; they're at their most colorful April through July.
Honfleur's Ste. Catherine Church
The unusual wood-shingled exterior suggests that this church has a different story to tell than most. Its design is the legacy of a community of sailors and fishermen, with loads of talented boat-builders and nary a cathedral architect. In the last months of World War II, a bomb fell through the roof — but didn't explode (free, open daily).
This pleasing little museum has three interesting floors with many paintings of Honfleur and the surrounding countryside. The first floor displays Norman folk costumes, the second floor has the Boudin collection, and the third floor houses the Hambourg/Rachet collection and the Katia Granoff room.
If Honfleur is over-the-top cute, this museum, housed in composer Erik Satie's birthplace, is a burst of witty charm — just like the musical genius it honors. While enjoyable for Satie's fans, it can be a ho-hum experience for those unfamiliar with Satie and his music.
This enchanting bed-and-breakfast is run by the open-hearted Madame Giaglis ("call me Liliane") and her big-hearted husband, Monsieur Liliane (a.k.a. Antoine). Their six big, modern rooms — each with firm beds and a separate sitting area — surround a perfectly Norman courtyard with a small terrace, fine plantings, and a cozy lounge area ideal for cool evenings. The rooms are as cheery as the owner — ask about her coffee shop.
Made of wool embroidered onto linen cloth, this historically precious document is a mesmerizing 70-yard-long cartoon. The tapestry tells the story of William the Conqueror's rise from duke of Normandy to king of England, and shows his victory over England's King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Long and skinny, the tapestry was designed to hang in the nave of Bayeux's cathedral as a reminder for locals of their ancestor's courage. The terrific museum that houses the tapestry is an unusually good chance to teach your kids about the Middle Ages: Models, mannequins, a movie, and more make it an engaging, fun place to visit.
Crowning a bluff just above Omaha Beach and the eye of the D-Day storm, 9,387 brilliant white-marble crosses and Stars of David glow in memory of Americans who gave their lives to free Europe on the beaches below. You'll want to spend at least 1.5 hours at this stirring site.
German Military Cemetery
To ponder German losses, visit this somber, thought-provoking resting place of 21,000 German soldiers. This was originally the site for one of 15 temporary American cemeteries in Normandy. Compared to the American Cemetery at St. Laurent, this site is more about humility than hero worship. It's appropriately bleak, with two graves per simple marker (dark and lying flat against the ground instead of white crosses) and dark, basalt crosses in groups of five scattered about. Birth and death dates on the graves make clear the tragedy of the soldiers' short lives, given for a cause they couldn't understand (free, open daily).
Caen, the modern capital of lower Normandy, has the most thorough (and by far the priciest) WWII museum in France. With numerous exhibits on the lead-up to World War II, coverage of the war in both Europe and the Pacific, accounts of the Holocaust and Nazi-occupied France, the Cold War aftermath, and more, it effectively puts the Battle of Normandy into a broader context. But it lacks the sharp focus of some of the better D-Day museums at the beaches (such as my new favorite, the Utah Beach Landing Museum, which opened after this TV episode was filmed).
Mont St-Michel has been an important pilgrimage center since A.D. 708, when the bishop of Avranches heard the voice of Archangel Michael saying, "Build here and build high." With the foresight of a saint, Michael reassured the bishop, "If you build it...they will come." Today's abbey is built on the remains of a Romanesque church, which stands on the remains of a Carolingian church. St. Michael, whose gilded statue decorates the top of the spire, was the patron saint of many French kings, making this a favored site for French royalty through the ages. This abbey has 1,200 years of history, though much of its story was lost when its archives were taken to St-Lô for safety during World War II — only to be destroyed during the D-Day fighting.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi I'm Rick Steves, exploring more of the best of Europe. This time we're in the northwest of France, enjoying Normandy — friendly locals, crêpes, Camembert, water lillies, and a very big abbey. Thanks for joining us.
While it's seen more than its share of war, today Normandy is a peaceful and welcoming corner of France. With its thought-provoking sights and memorials, delicious cuisine, and idyllic nature, it's no wonder this region is such a popular get-away for nearby Parisians.
After exploring the half-timbered charm of Rouen, we'll reflect on lily pads at Monet's garden, peek in on local craftspeople, set up an easel at Honfleur, stay in what was a convent, remember D-Day (and another invasion nine centuries earlier) and take a pilgrim's hike to an enchanted abbey.
Of France's many regions, Normandy is strategically located across from England and handy to Paris. From Rouen we side-trip to Giverny, travel to Bayeux, and see the dramatic D-Day Beaches before finishing at Mont St-Michel.
Normandy's history is filled with war. Viking Norsemen settled here in the ninth century giving Normandy its name. The 7th duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, invaded England from this shore. Joan of Arc, who rallied France against the English, was burned at the stake here. And on these beaches a WWII battle changed the course of history. The stirring sights associated with each of these events turn many visitors into history buffs.
Nearly 1200 years ago, the Vikings made this town, Rouen, their capital. William the Conqueror called it home before moving to England. During the middle ages Rouen — with 40,000 residents — was France's second largest city. Only Paris was bigger.
In the 12th century, half of today's France was ruled by England. Caught in the middle, Rouen walked a political tightrope between England and France for centuries. And because this was an important English base during the Hundred Years' War, this was the place where Joan of Arc was burned.
Today Rouen mixes dazzling Gothic architecture and contemporary bustle beautifully. It's a thriving port with a pedestrian-friendly old town and a grand cathedral standing as a reminder of the town's historic importance.
This is classic Gothic with four stories of pointed arch arcades, the top one filled with windows to help light the interior. The spire was made of cast iron in the late 1800s — about the same time Eiffel was building his tower in Paris. At nearly 500 feet, it's the tallest in France. The small spire on the left is missing. A violent 1999 storm sent it crashing to the cathedral floor.
Throughout Europe you'll find black and white partially-cleaned facades. Much of this one's been cleaned with jets of water. But the most delicate of the limestone carving awaits a gentler but more expensive laser cleaning.
This finely carved tympanum — that's the area over the door — shows a graphic Last Judgment. Jesus stands between the saved and the damned. The hellish hot tub reminded all that even a bishop could find himself in eternally hot water.
Just down the street, Rouen's Plague Cemetery recalls the horrific plagues of the Middle Ages, when as many as two-thirds of local populations perished. This secluded courtyard was a mass grave and ossuary.
Just taking care of the corpses was an overwhelming task for the decimated community. Bodies would be dumped into a mass grave and covered with lime to speed decomposition.
Later the bones were exhumed and stacked, filling these alcoves. Ghoulish carvings show gravediggers' tools, skulls, crossbones, and other symbols of death. This dried black cat was buried five hundred years ago by a superstitious builder to ward off evil.
Rouen's ornate public clock has decorated the former city hall for 500 years. Back then, just having an hour hand offered ample precision. The lamb at the end of the hour hand is a reminder that wool was the source of Rouen's wealth. And the artistic highlight — stretch way back — fills the underside of the arch with the good shepherd.and lots of sheep.
The thriving wool trade stoked Rouen's medieval building boom.
Because the local stone — a chalky limestone from the cliffs of the nearby Seine River — was expensive and of poor quality (your thumbnail is stronger), and local oak was plentiful, half-timbered buildings became a Rouen forte.
The oak beams provide the structural skeleton of the building. The gaps were then filled in with a mix of clay, straw, and pebbles.and plastered over.
Wander the back lanes and peek into shops. This flowery and pastel hat shop is the last of its kind in Rouen — the hat maker is considered a treasure by her devoted clientelle.
Just around the corner, Monsieur Augy welcomes shoppers to browse through his studio and see Rouen's Faience china — being made the traditional way. First the clay is molded and carefully shaped by hand. After being fired, dipped in enamel, and dried, it's lovingly hand-painted. A second firing gives it its characteristic glaze. In the 1700s, Rouen had 18 factories churning out the popular product. Today, the Augy family carries on the Fiaence tradition.
On the market square a cross marks the spot where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake in the 15th century.
As the demoralized French were reeling under English occupation, this teenager of supreme faith, after hearing divine voices, won the confidence of the French people. Dressed as a man, she was given an army, and rallied her countrymen against their English invaders.
In 1431, 19-year-old Joan of Arc was taken by the English, convicted of heresy and burned right here. As the flames engulfed her, an English soldier said, "Oh, my God, we've killed a saint." Nearly 500 years later, Joan was made a saint.and he was proven correct.
Rouen's modern church is a tribute to Joan of Arc, who eventually became the patron saint of all France. It has a Scandinavian feel, reminding us of Normandy's Nordic roots. Its medieval stained glass — salvaged from a church destroyed in WWII — is worked into the swoopy architectural lines and ship's hull vaulting.
Mid-way between Rouen and Paris — about an hour's drive away — is Giverny. Claude Monet, the father of the Impressionist movement, spent his last 40 years here finding inspiration in these gardens.
The colors of his cottage garden are like his brushstrokes — they seem untamed and slap-dash, but are part of a carefully composed mosaic. He diverted a stream, made a pond, filled it with water lilies and built a footbridge which eventually became overgrown with wisteria.
Museums in Paris bloom with Monet's garden paintings. Impressionism was a revolutionary movement in European art — the rage in the 1870s. Many artists abandoned realism in favor of this innovative style which captured light, glimmers and reflections.
Impressionist art evokes the subtleties of nature. The artist — using short brushstrokes of different colors placed side by side — suggests shimmering light. The true subject is not really the lilies, but the changing reflections on the surface of the pond. As he grew older, Monet cropped the scene ever closer, until there was no shoreline, no horizon, no sense of what's up or down.
For dinner, I'm joining my friend and fellow tour guide Sabine Leteinturier back in Rouen. For what you'd expect to spend in a modest American restaurant, we're enjoying the full, fun-loving ritual of fine dining in France.
Our next stop is just down the road.
Honfleur escaped the bombs of World War II and feels as picturesque as it looks. Gazing at its snug harbor, it's easy to overlook the historic importance of this port.
This is where the Seine River meets the English Channel. For over a thousand years, sailors have enjoyed Honfleur's ideal location. While busy conquering England, William received supplies shipped from here. And Canadians know Honfleur for Samuel de Champlain who sailed from here in 1608, discovering the St. Lawrence Seaway and founding Quebec City.
The harbor, once fortified with a wall and two gates, is now an easy-going marina. Today's Honfleur, long eclipsed by the gargantuan port of Le Havre just across the Seine, happily uses its past as a bar stool and sits on it.
Honfleur's Church of St. Catherine is worth a visit. It seems if you flipped it, it would float. That's because it was built by a community with plenty of boat builders and no cathedral architects. When the first nave was built in the mid-1400s, it was immediately apparent they needed more space — so they built another.
Many consider Honfleur the birthplace of Impressionism. Just as Monet once did, artists still come here catch the light playing on the harborfront and reflecting in the water. It was in places like this that the battle cry of the Impressionists — "Out of the studio and into the light!" — was born.
The Boudin Museum shows off the ground breaking work of local artists — like Eugéne Boudin — who influenced the Parisian Impressionists.
And the museum's collection of local traditional costumes is also interesting.
Just down the street, visitors don headsets to explore the boyhood home of composer Erik Satie, which presents his music in a whimsical way. Wandering from room to room, you enjoy fragments of Satie's music along with his life story. Surreal images complement the music, reflecting how radical cutting edge Paris was in the 1920s. And for a musical finale, you get some exercise.
For lunch, we're harborfront at a créperie. A fun specialty both here in Normandy and in neighboring Brittany is crépes. Savory crépes are made with buckwheat and called galettes. While plain-looking, they come filled with what you'd expect on a pizza or in an omelet. Traditionally, crépes are washed down with hard and tasty cidre. You can get it sweet or dry.
We're staying in a chambre d'hôte — a French bed & breakfast. Settling into a French home rather than a hotel, saves you money while getting you closer to the culture. The home of gregarious Madame Giaglis [La cour Ste. Catherine] is just the kind of place I seek out and recommend in my guidebooks.
She and her husband Antoine offer a welcoming lounge and six rooms.each as inviting as the owners.
Distances in Normandy are short and, as long as you stick to the autoroute — well worth the tolls — you'll make very good time. Our next stop is Bayeux.
Its Saturday morning and this normally sleepy square has erupted into a busy farmers' market. The long tradition of those who grow it selling directly to those who eat it thrives throughout France. And local specialties aways abound.
Bayeux's claim to fame is the Bayeux Tapestry which hung in this cathedral. It's actually a 900-year old embroidery which tells the story of arguably the most memorable event of the Middle Ages — the pivotal Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Your tapestry visit starts with a preview explaining the basic story of the battle and the impact the invading Normans ultimately had on England.
Then you see the real thing. Headsets narrate the 230-foot long cartoon telling the story of William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings. Don't worry: If you lose your place, you'll find supertitles in Latin.
England's King Edward was about to die without an heir. The big question: Who would succeed him. Harold, his English brother-in-law, or William, his French cousin? King Edward chose William. But when Edward died, Harold grabbed the throne. William, then known as William the Bastard, thought the throne was rightfully his. So he prepared his army — gathering weapons and coats of mail and sailing from Normandy across the English channel to the south coast of England. He met Harold at the town of Hastings, where they fought a fierce 14-hour battle. The Normans had an advantage with horses with stirrups. Extra details of the battle show up below — here dead soldiers are being stripped of their valuable armor. Harold was killed — arrow in the eye.yeow — and his Saxon forces were routed.
The end of the tapestry is lost but the end of the story is well known: William — now "William the Conqueror" — marched into London and claimed his throne. Now he was both Duke of Normandy and King of England.
Bayeux, with a pleasant town center and only six miles from the D-Day beaches, makes a great home base for visiting the area's WWII sights.
Along the 75 miles of Atlantic coast nearby you'll find countless memories of the largest military operation in history. It was on these beautiful beaches, at the crack of dawn, June 6, 1944, that the Allies finally gained a foothold in France and Nazi Europe began to crumble.
During the D-Day invasion, American troops and their allied partners courageously assaulted the German-occupied cliffs using grappling hooks and ladders. While ultimately victorious, they suffered horrendous losses. Smashed German bunkers and bomb craters remain, only hinting at the unimaginable carnage and chaos of that momentous day.
The small town of Arromanches was ground zero for the D-Day invasion. Almost overnight, the allies erected an immense pre-fab port enabling them to begin their victorious push to Berlin.
Imagine the building of this port. Seventeen old ships, which crossed the English Channel under their own steam, were sunk bow to stern forming the a four mile long protective breakwater. Then massive concrete platforms and roads nearly a mile long floating on pontoons completed the harbor. Within six days over 300,000 troops with all their equipment had established a beachhead here in France. And in less than a year.the war was over.
Today, 60 years later, remnants of that heroic undertaking still seem to protect Arromanches. The town, with its beach combers, holiday trinkets, and families at play, still seems to celebrate the allied victory.
This peace came at a huge price. The invasion cost many allied lives. The American Cemetery at St. Laurent crowns a bluff just above Omaha Beach and the eye of the D-Day storm. Nearly 10,000 marble tombstones glow in memory of Americans who gave their lives here to help free Europe. The bluff overlooks the piece of Normandy beach called "the portal of freedom." While tranquil now, for those of us who weren't there, the horror of that day is impossible to imagine.
From the memorial — with a bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American's youth flanked by giant reliefs of the Battle for Normandy and the Battle for Europe — a peaceful sea of crosses invites those visiting to wander and ponder the sacrifice so many brave men made in the cause of freedom.
Immediately after the war, the dead were buried in temporary graves. In the 1950s, this cemetery was established and the families of the soldiers had to decide if the bodies should remain with their comrades or be brought home. Officers are disproportionately represented. Their families knew they'd want to be buried next to the men they commanded and with whom they fought and died.
Nearby, another military cemetery is the resting place of 21,000 German soldiers. The centerpiece features statues symbolizing German mothers and fathers who lost their children. The site — glum, with two graves per simple marker and dark crosses that huddle together in groups of five — is a somber reminder that many young Germans were victims of Hitler as well.
The best WWII museum in France is in Caen — the first big city freed by the allies. Officially named the Memorial for Peace, it puts the Battle for Normandy in a broader context.
You start with a downward spiral stroll, tracing (almost psychoanalyzing) the path Europe followed from the end of World War I to the rise of fascism to World War II.
It then gives a thorough look at how World War II was fought — from the two-ton V-I — the unmanned predecessor of today's smart bombs — to the D-Day landings.
The Cold War wing gives an overview of the bipolar world that followed WWII. It gives insights into the battle waged by the USSR and the USA for the hearts and minds of their people until the collapse of Communism in 1989.
The memorial then takes you beyond war. The Gallery of Nobel Peace Prizes celebrates the irrepressible human spirit. It honors the courageous and too-often-inconspicuous work of people like Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and many lesser known champions of justice who understand that true peace is more than just an absence of war.
The contemplative finale is a walk through the U.S. Armed Forces Memorial Garden. Plaques honor the sacrifice young American soldiers made for Europe. The sight of children enjoying this memorial as a playground captures the spirit of the quote etched in the pavement: "From the heart of our land flows the blood of our youth, given to you in the name of freedom."
Our next stop — an hour's drive away — is Mont St-Michel. For over a thousand years, the silhouette of this island abbey has sent pilgrim's weary spirits soaring. Today it does the same for tourists. Mont St-Michel, which through the ages has been among the top pilgrimage sites in Christendom, floats like a mirage on the horizon.
The vast Bay of Mont St-Michel, which turns into a mudflat at low tide, has long played a key role here. Since the sixth century, hermit monks came here in search of solitude.
The word "hermit" comes from an ancient Greek word meaning "desert." The closest thing to a desert in this part of Europe was the sea. Imagine the "desert" this bay provided as the first monk climbed that rock to get nearer to God.
The rock, capped by an abbey, was even more isolated by its mythic tides. Pilgrims crossed the mudflat quickly and carefully knowing that the sea swept in "at the speed of a galloping horse."
In the late 1800s, a road was built, connecting the island to the mainland and letting pilgrims come and go without hip boots.
The town of Mont St-Michel — with only 30 residents — entertains over 2 million tourists a year. Its main street — lined with shops and hotels leading up to the abbey — is grotesquely commercial. It's some consolation to remember that, even back in the Middle Ages, this was a retail gauntlet, with stalls selling souvenir medallions, candles, and fast food.like omelets.
An island specialty is quick, tasty, and extremely fluffy omelets. They were popular for eat-and-run pilgrims who needed to beat the tide and they remain a hit with visitors today. Enjoy the show as cooks make sure the traditional beat goes on.
You can skirt the main street crowds and enjoy Mont St-Michel's fine 15th-century fortifications by following the ramparts up to the abbey. They were built to defend against a new weapon — the cannon. Rather than tall, they were low — to make a smaller target.
While the English took all the rest of Normandy, they never took this well-fortified island. Because of its stubborn success against the English through all those years, Mont St-Michel became a symbol of French national identity.
As you climb the stairs to the abbey, imagine the pilgrims and monks who for centuries have climbed these same stone steps.
Mont St-Michel has been a holy site since the year 708, when a local bishop had a vision in which the Archangel Michael convinced him to build here.
This was an immense building project evolving over many centuries. It was a marvel — a medieval skyscraper, built upon a rock.crowned by a gilded statue of Saint Michael.
The bay stretches from Normandy to Brittany. The river marks the historic border between the two lands.
Brittany and Normandy have long vied for Mont St-Michel. In fact, the river used to pass on the other side, making the abbey part of Brittany. Today Mont St-Michel is just barely — but thoroughly — part of Normandy.
The centerpiece of this extraordinary construction is its church. While it's mostly 11th-century Romanesque (with round arches and small windows), the apse behind the altar was built later. It's Gothic with pointed arches and bigger windows.
The monks built as close to heaven as possible, on the tip of this rock. The downside: there just wasn't enough level ground to support such a big abbey and church.
The solution: Immense crypts were built under the church to create a platform supporting each of its wings.
Sitting atop all this heavy construction — like a delicate flower — is the abbey's cloister. In this peaceful zone, which connected various rooms, monks would grow vegetables and medicinal herbs. They'd meditate and read the Bible. The more secluded a monk could be, the closer he was to God. And, for thoughtful travelers today, this abbey still inspires.
So much of France's rich heritage survives, and here in Normandy perhaps better than any other part of the country, it inspires us all. Thanks for joining us. And vive la France! I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Au revoir.