Lay of the Land
“None shines more brightly than Normandy 1944. The paths of glory may lead but to the grave; yet all, even golden boys and girls, must come to dust. It is a better path to the grave than any of the others, not because glory is something to seek, but because, not once or twice in our long island story, the way of duty has been the path to glory; and duty is to be done. …Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us”~G.M.W. Wemyss
At nearly 12,000 square miles, the region of Normandy is a bit larger than the state of Massachusetts. To the north lies the English Channel and the southern coast of England. Mont St. Michel sits just west of Normandy in Brittany, though the two regions fight fiercely over ownership.
There are five ‘states’ that comprise Normandy, starting from the western-most section of Manche, the smaller finger of France that points to the UK, and Brittany, the larger finger that reaches for Newfoundland. Moving inland and east is Calvados, and to its south is Orne, then Eure and finally Siene-Maritime to the east. The area is divided into two sections for administrative reasons, with Manche, Calvados and Orne in the Lower Region, and Seine-Maritime and Eure in the Upper Region.
The Lower Region: Basse Normandie
Sitting to the north of the Le Mans, Lower Normandy is dominated by the top central area (where the best Calvados comes from) that encompasses Caen, Bayeux, Honfleur and the D-Day landing beaches.
The Manche covers the entire Cotentin peninsula to Mont San Michel. Orne is the area mostly to the south that covers all of the space to the west of the Manche and the south of Calvados, named for the river that cuts through its center.
Caen is inland from the coast by about ten miles, but the river Orne connects the city to the channel. Bayeux is closer to the water than Caen (about 12 miles from Arromanches) but because of its enclosed, Medieval vibe, it feels removed from the coast. Considering how small and minimally developed other nearby towns are, Bayeux is the perfect spot to stay in while exploring the Lower region.
There are five beaches along the Norman coast that are known by their WWII code names. The beach furthest east and closest to Caen is Sword beach, where some of the British units landed on D-day. Moving west, next to Sword is Juno Beach, the only Canadian landing site and today home to a residential retirement town. Next is Gold Beach, another British landing spot in front of the small town of Arromanches. Omaha and Utah Beaches, both American landing beaches, are the westernmost of the district.
Mont San Michel, which is one of the most incredible sites in all of France, is on the Brittany-Normandy border and sits on its own island approximately 0.6 miles off the coast. The drive from Saint Mere Eglise takes a little less than 1.5 hours.
The Upper Region: Haute-Normandie
The Upper region is closer to Paris and home to most of the dairy-producing strongholds like Camembert, as well as Normandy’s capital, Rouen and Giverny, home to Monet’s house and garden.
About 90 miles northwest of Paris, Rouen is about 60 miles southwest of Deauville and 45 miles northwest of Giverny. Its central location in the upper region makes it an ideal place for the second leg of a Normandy-surveying itinerary before heading back to Charles de Gaulle or Orly.
Giverny makes a great day trip from Paris, as it is only about 80 miles from the city, less than an hour by train or car. Like Mont St. Michel, it is a landmark that represents the symbolic boundary, beginning or end, for Normandy. Giverny can provide the perfect entry-way to this region that inspired the world famous Impressionist painters or an ideal final snapshot.
Normandy’s terrain, like the weather, is varied and unpredictable but roads are reliable, and there is helpful signage for those who can read French. Once you’re settled in your chosen town, it is easy to navigate the area by car. Each day, you’ll probably have a 30-45 minute drive to a particular area and then explore on foot, sometimes getting back in the car, for the remainder of the day. Lots of places are also accessible by bike, thanks to the recently completed 200km (about 125 mile) bike path between Port-en-Bessin and Mont St.-Michel. Contact Indagare if you would like to find out more about the trails and historical bike paths in the region.