For most Irish people, the name of Normandy is associated with two things: (a) the World War II beaches and (b) driving through it to get down to the sunnier regions to the south.
Normandy is, however, one of the most rewarding regions to visit in this great country. By way of illustrating this point, we took a trip to have a look behind the scenes of some of the highlights, avoiding the more popular spots (as best one could under the circumstances) and discovering a few things that most Irish people don’t get to see.
To begin with, arriving in Beauvais Airport (as opposed to Charles de Gaulle) is a better way to hit the ground running. It avoids having to get through a large airport and then negotiating a busy peripheral motorway network before you make your way into the Norman countryside. Beauvais has been much improved in recent years and the queue for car rental is normally not too bad.
We went with Europcar, whose offices are with all the other rental companies opposite Terminal 2, just a couple of minutes’ stroll from the main terminal.
The first place on the list was the famous Château Gaillard in Les Andelys (usually pronounced “ong-duh-leese”, although some locals say “ong-duh-lee”). This was one I was particularly looking forward to as it’s a favourite with a lot of locals but which I’d never heard of beforehand.
It was worth the detour – that’s for sure. The countryside you drive through en route to Les Andelys is uneventful but still serenely bucolic and with a wonderful characteristic light that drew a lot of impressionists to the area. All of a sudden, the previously uniform landscape plunges to a great ravine of the River Seine, with the town below you.
There aren’t many places that can draw a gasp once you arrive at them but the former stronghold of Richard the Lionheart is one such place. It is now a much smaller (and largely ruined) version of the original 12th-century Anglo-Norman stronghold so it must have been one hell of a gasp-inducing edifice in its heyday. It’s a €3.20 charge well worth spending and much of its appeal stems from its dramatic position high above the Seine atop a tall cliff.
Andelys itself is charming enough and one of the main highlights is the Musée Nicolas Poussin. Poussin (1594-1665) was a local artist who became the number one exponent of the French Baroque Style, using techniques that were well ahead of the curve. Today, his work stands out and the small museum’s masterpiece is his painting “Coriolanus” – a large symbolic piece of work that is typical of the star artist who spent most of his professional life in Rome. Aside from that, it’s worth checking out other artists from the School of Andelys, such as Eugène Clary and René Sautin. The museum also houses a mixed collection of antiquities and crafts.
This part of Normandy differs significantly in its Second World War legacy in that it was through here that the German army advanced when they invaded France, causing much destruction (as opposed to the much greater destruction caused by the invading Anglo-American forces in 1944). Les Andelys was on the receiving end of this battering, its main bridge being the principal focus of Nazi bombardments. 40km or so south-west of Les Andelys, the town of Évreux is an even starker example of the rampaging invasion force.
What was a pretty mediaeval town before the war was destroyed to almost complete perfection. Luckily, not only did most of the most important edifices survive, but the rebuilding project didn’t go for a post-modern look (such as with Le Havre) but instead for a style that was more-or-less in keeping with the architectural values of the original town.
The impression you get wandering through Évreux today, therefore, is one of being in a rebuilt but oddly old-fashioned town pocketed with many recognisable styles. You’d have to say that it works well. The town has a fascinatingly rich and multi-layered history that stretches back to the Gallo-Roman era. Many artefacts from this time are on display at the Musée d’Art-Histoire-Archéologie on Rue Charles Corbeau in the former quarters of the Bishop of Évreux. The museum takes you right up to more modern times too, with its impressive art collection, including abstract art from the latter half of the 20th century.
Local guide Serge (on right in main pic) took us on a whirlwind tour of the town, culminating in a visit to Évreux Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Évreux). Essentially a Gothic cathedral, it’s a stunning mixture of architectural eras that include the late Renaissance. Inside, you get to admire its extraordinary modern organ. It looks like something from “Despicable Me” but it really works – both from an aesthetic and acoustic point of view.
Auvers-sur-Oise is not actually in Normandy but it’s so close that it could be and in terms of the purposes of this visit, it couldn’t be overlooked, such is the strength of association the remarkable town has with the artistic movements of the area and the geographical feel of the place.
It’s another of those towns that astonish with its timeless feel land unexpected charm. It was here that Vincent Van Gogh lived his final days, dying from a wound that was self-inflicted in a field (still untouched by development) just metres from the church (Eglise Notre-dame-de l’Assomption) he famously painted and from the graveyard where his remains lie next to those of his brother Theo.
You can visit his room, which is part of a museum and below which the old tavern he used to drink in has been recreated as it was in his day. Much of town has not changed one bit since Vincent and a whole entourage of other artists made their mark here back in the day. To stroll around the narrow streets behind the main Rue du Général de Gaulle is to take a step back in time, where you’ll recognise plenty of landmarks familiar from Van Gogh’s paintings. The local tourist office now has an artists’ trail too that takes you to more great artistic highlights such as the House of Dr Gachet, the Daubigny Museum and the Absinthe Museum. The same office also has a programme of boating Impressionist tours.
Finally, the region’s capital Rouen is a real sleeping beauty of a major European short-break destination. We were there during the superb culinary festival that is the Fête du Ventre, where the entire centre of town becomes one enormous traditional French market about a thousand times larger than an actual traditional French market.
There is a great range of attractions to see here in Rouen, including the Panorama XXL, the Historial Jeanne d’Arc and a number of art museums with outstanding collections. But one of the most unusual and surprisingly entertaining and fascinating ones of all is the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles. It’s quite a mouthful of a name for the world’s greatest collection of things made of iron. I kid you not; it’s located in a de-consecrated church and one could not imagine all the things that would be in here, from ornate gates to iron jewellery, weapons, elaborate treasure boxes, medical instruments and Marie Antoinette’s personal key. You’ll want to go there again and again!
Get Yourself There
Both Aer Lingus and Ryanair operate several daily direct flights but to get to the heart of these parts of Normandy more quickly, you can’t beat the Beauvais connection with Ryanair.
– Best Western Hôtel Littéraire, 33 Rue du Vieux Palais, Rouen. +33 2 35 71 00 88.
You cannot get a better location in Rouen than this – right in the heart of mediaeval bliss and two steps away from the Place du Vieux Marché. This is in a series of literary hotels that celebrate famous French writers. This one does a great job on local boy Gustave Flaubert, with a lovely library area off reception where you can chill out with one of his books, as well as some original manuscripts on display. The parking is underground via a big lift for your car, the rooms are very nicely appointed and the breakfast is fully 4-star.
– Hôtel Château Corneille, 17 Rue de l’Église, Vieux-Villez. +33 2 32 77 44 77.
This is affordable country château living at its very best. What the breakfast room might lack in more authentic ambiance, the comfortable bedrooms, overall package and level of service makes you feel like a film star away in the French countryside for little more than relaxation, peace and quiet. It’s a perfect spot to base yourself for exploring the region if you prefer the quiet of the countryside but within striking distance of civilisation.