From stylish seaside resorts to tranquil countryside, Calvados offers a rich variety of landscapes and activities. Its mild, almost Gulf Stream climate stretches the summer season from early May to late September. An abundance of apple trees makes this cider country. Almost every village has its own blend and will assure visitors with passionate sincerity that it is the best in Normandy. Cider tasting, however, proves but a training run for the real event: the sampling of Calvados, a luscious apple spirit that started out as cider but has gone through a double distillation process with lethal effect.
The best antidote is a glass or two of clear water from the sparkling streams that meander through intertwined, wooded valleys of beech and pine. They offer tantalising glimpses of the roofs of timbered houses, covered in pinkish tiles that catch the sun. Little seems to have changed since the time, more than a millennium ago, when Duke William left the land that ‘wanted for nothing’ to conquer us.
His exploits are chronicled in that great medieval newsreel, the Bayeux Tapestry, a prodigious 230-foot account of events culminating in the Battle of Hastings. King Harold is almost certainly not the knight shown in the tapestry trying to pull an arrow out of his eye, but his neighbour, struck dead by an axe. Early visitors to Bayeux will be rewarded by a space to park and a short queue.
William lies at Caen, in the Romanesque church of St-Étienne, celebrated by a tomb of unduly generous size for the small amount of his remains. A solitary thighbone is all that has survived squabbles over his earthly remains and the spoils of vandals during the French Revolution.
An event with more epic qualities, the Battle of Agincourt, was preceded by Henry V’s landing in 1415 at the Calvados port of Honfleur, now a picturesque harbour full of fine boats whose owners rarely set out to sea. Quayside restaurants offer exceptional seafood, taking the pick of the day’s catch direct from the fishing fleet.
The nineteenth century was the heyday for Cabourg, when French society thought it fashionable to swim in the sea before retreating to the comfort of its Grand Hotel. Neat rows of striped bathing tents on the broad, sandy beach and Cabourg’s refurbished, famous promenade revive the charming image of the Belle Epoque.
Deauville remains the place to see and be seen, where the wealthy and almost famous stay in its luxury hotels by the shore and parade up and down Avenue Montaigne, the shopping street where no one is expected to ask the price. There is however another side to Deauville, just as enjoyable, that costs very little. Instead of dressing up for polo, dress down for pétanque; hire a bicycle instead of a limo; shop for bargains in the local market. And when the runners are off at Deauville’s prestigious racetrack, remember that no matter how rich or poor, every gambler starts level.
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© Michael Pasdziro
© G. Wait