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Normandy Drive

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Upper Normandy consists of the French departments of Seine-Maritime and Eure, and Lower Normandy the departments of Orne, Calvados and Manche.

Rouen is the historical capital of Normandy and sits alongside the River Seine. Once one of the largest and most prosperous cities of medieval Europe, Rouen was the seat of the Exchequer of Normandy in the Middle Ages. It was one of the capitals of the Anglo-Norman dynasties which ruled England and large parts of modern France between the 11th and 15th centuries.

The city has great history and is noted for its surviving tall half-timbered buildings, cobbled streets and Gothic churches. Victor Hugo called Rouen "the city of a hundred spires".

William the Conqueror died there in 1087 and it is where Joan of Arc was burnt in 1431. In the centre of the Place du Vieux Marché is the modern church named after her. The large, modern structure dominates the square and represents the pyre on which she was burnt.

The city is also known for its Notre Dame cathedral with its butter tower. It was the subject of a series of paintings by Claude Monet, some of which are in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

The Gros Horloge is a 16th century astronomical clock. The Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics has a splendid collection of faïence and porcelain for which Rouen was renowned during the 16th to 18th centuries. It is also home of the Church of Saint Ouen.

Aitre St-Maclou, a pretty courtyard of timbered buildings, is now home to the school of fine arts. It had a darker history which is hinted at by the skulls that adorn the woodwork. It was the plague cemetery, built to house victims of the Great Plague of 1348, which claimed 75 percent of the population of Rouen.

Just an hour away is Honfleur, one of France's most attractive places. It miraculously missed being bombed in either of the World Wars and remains a busy fishing port. It has been a subject of painters for centuries and was a favourite with Monet and Cezanne.

The inner harbour is full of opulent yachts and wealthy Parisians spend weekends there and enjoy the cafés along the waterfront, which is lined with tall slate fronted, oak-tiled and timber framed buildings. They house restaurants, galleries and boating stores.

Vieux Bassin, the old dock, is filled with fishing boats and pleasure craft and the town's strong maritime history is very evident. A plaque on the wall of the 16th century Lieutenancy building says "It was here that French Pioneer, Samuel de Champlain set sail for Quebec in the early 17th century".

The Church of St Catherine, France's oldest wooden church, was created by shipbuilders in the 15th century. It has an 18th century bell tower across the square as a precaution against fire.

A one-hour drive westwards along the coast takes you to the infamous D-Day landing beaches. The Battle of Normandy was fought in 1944 between Nazi Germany and the invading Allied forces. They were the scene of the largest military operation in history — 135,000 men and 20,000 vehicles were taken to five landing beaches in the dead of night. More than 60 years later, the Normandy invasion still holds that sad record.

There are eight well sign-posted routes guiding visitors through the invasion and liberation of Normandy. Veterans, their families and those interested in the history of the war are uplifted by the respect shown to the sacrifices made by so many. For young people, the past is recounted in a simple and powerful way.

Bayeux is the central town to the D-Day beaches — Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah and Point du Hoc — and maps are available at tobacconists, bookshops and newsagents.

Next stop was Mont Saint-Michel, a rocky tidal island roughly a kilometre from the north coast of France at the mouth of the Couesnon River. It was once connected to the mainland by a thin natural land bridge which, before modernisation, was covered at high tide and revealed at low tide. That gave it a mystical quality — being an island half the time and not the other half.

It was once known as the "Mount in Peril from the Sea", as many pilgrims in medieval times drowned or were sucked under by quicksand while trying to cross the bay to the 80-metre-high rocky outcrop.

Its Gothic-style Benedictine abbey was dedicated to the archangel St Michael and the village that grew up in the shadow of its great walls. Built between the 11th and 16th centuries, the abbey is a technical and artistic tour de force, having had to adapt to the problems posed by this unique natural site.

The insular character of the mount has been compromised somewhat by several developments. Over the centuries, coastal flats have been reclaimed to create pasture and the Couesnon River has been canalised, reducing the flow of water and encouraging silting-up of the bay. In 1879 the land bridge was fortified into a true causeway, preventing the tide from scouring silt. There are plans to remove the causeway and replace it with a bridge and shuttle.

Nothing detracts from the sight of Mont St-Michel and its fortified Romanesque and Gothic buildings which clamber to the pinnacle of the graceful church.


Northern France


Vroom Vroom Vroom has car hire from around $35 a day.

Emirates has flights to Paris.

Fares from;
  • Perth, $2190
  • Melbourne, $2239
  • Brisbane, $2240
  • Sydney, $2254
  • Adelaide, $2858
  • Darwin, $3579

Valid for travel between October 4 and November 11, 2007. All prices quoted correct at May 31, 2007

More information

Normandy Tourism

Vroom Vroom Vroom
Ph: (07) 3256 3595
Fax: (07) 3256 3182

Ph: 1300 303 777

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