The French coast of Normandy gazes across the Channel onto the southern coast of England, and while cross-Channel travellers today are generally peaceful in intent, in the past the armies of conquest and liberation have braved the waves in both directions. In 1066, William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, set sail to oust the pretender Harold. The invasion and its dramatic and victorious conclusion at the Battle of Hastings are portrayed in glorious colour in the Bayeux Tapestry, now housed in its own museum in this charming small town. Nine centuries later, on “D-Day”, the largest amphibian assault in history onto the coast of Normandy marked the beginning of France’s liberation. The beaches where the allies came ashore stretch from Cherbourg east to Le Havre; museums vividly describing the day’s momentous events abound, and the cemeteries of the fallen blanket the countryside.
In the more placid years in between and since, Normandy has assumed many guises: as a thriving seaside community of fishermen and sailors, a rich agricultural land of plenty inland, and its picturesque villages and towns have long been steeped in history and the arts. Caen is the site of the ducal castle of William, with abbeys and churches dating from as far back as the 10th century, and a number of grand and ornate town houses, most of which are now hotels. Rouen, with over a dozen fine museums, is well-known for its gothic Notre Dame Cathedral, its magnificent façade the subject of Monet’s obsessive meditations on the quality of light, and in front of which Joan of Arc went to the stake.