Travel

Off the Path: Upper Normandy — Part 1

Exploring the beautiful medieval towns and villages just south of Rouen.


Normandy is the region of France just west of Paris with some great history to it. It was settled as early as the 4th century b.c. and was the location of choice for the Vikings as they began their invasions of western Europe around the start of the 9th century.  It is from here that William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, set out to win the throne of England, where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, where Monet painted water lilies, and where the allies landed in WWII.

Many of us have the D-Day landing beaches and memorials on our bucket list. But Normandy is more than that. The region has a great medieval feel to it, and not surprisingly, given its proximity and historic ties, has the look of England — the countryside and terrain, and the style of architecture.shutterstock_171981185

This is Part 1 of the Upper (Haute) Normandy tour, covering the area that runs south and east of Rouen, in the Eure department. Rouen is selected as the starting point because it’s a great town for spending a day or two in its own right, and other destinations are accessible from there.

​I’ve built in 7 towns (8 if you include Rouen) for this itinerary, with a total round-trip drive of 158 miles.

Now, don’t panic — this is meant to be a full day tour, and you don’t have to visitevery town. For example, you can shorten the trip by about 40 miles if you skip Gerberoy. Also, while there are 1 or 2 towns that might require an hour or so, a few are very small and you probably will decide to just drive through and grab the ambiance but not get out of your car. I tried to cover all the towns worth visiting, but where you stop is your choice — in other words, you have options. Usually I follow these itineraries as is but I’m very selective as to where I stop.

The easiest way to get the trip done is by GPS — going by written directions and road signs is a hassle, and you’re likely to spend some hours trying to figure out where you are, how you got there, and how do you get out of there. With a GPS, you can plug in each town before you leave, save it, and go to your saved destinations when you’re ready to move on. Easy as pie.

The map below lays out the full itinerary, after which each village is described in the briefest of terms. I’ve added some pictures to give you an idea of what you will see, the number of miles between each destination, and links to websites where you can get more information on each destination. You might find it helpful to print out the itinerary pages below so you have a hard copy in your hands when you’re traveling.

​One final note before we get into the specifics — you might find yourself getting hungry along the way. I don’t really like winging it when it comes to food, so it’s rare that I will go to a restaurant without at least some information about it. Both tripadvisor.com and yelp.com can help you find a good place to eat in any of these towns. If you don’t have access to the internet and didn’t pick you’re places before you left home, you can try to get recommendations from locals. That is, if you speak French or can find someone in these little towns that speak English. If not, then you’ll just have to wing it — what the hell, it’s only a meal.

upper normandy south

ROUEN

Normandy’s capital sits along the Seine and is one of countries oldest and most historic cities. There are a number of historic sites here, such as the Cathedral Notre Dame and the Place du Vieux-Marche, where Joan of Arc was martyred. They also have a number of museums that take you through the various periods of the city’s history and highlight the city’s artistic traditions.

What I love most about Rouen is wondering through the ancient streets and alleys in the city’s historic quarter — its loaded with shops and restaurants. Rouen is a particularly good place to shop for ceramics and antiques, and if you’re into antiquing, keep an eye out for shops that sell les coffrets de Rouen, which are little hand painted wooden boxes that were popular during the 18th and 19th centuries.

To learn more, visit en.normandie-tourisme.fr

 

GERBEROY — 38 MILES

Gerberoy is regarded as one of France’s most beautiful medieval villages, and is protected as a classified site. Throughout its history, the city had its share of disasters, including fires and plagues, and hosted many a battle. Today, the streets are lined by timber-framed houses with flower cascading balconies, and you won’t see what typically makes up a modern urban landscape — telephone poles, billboards, electrical wires, etc. The town is actually quite small, and has only one attraction. For a small fee, the village well will light up so you can see its 180 foot depth.

To learn more, visit en.normandie-tourisme.fr

LYONS-LA-FORET — 35 MILES

Lyons-la-Forêt is a small village of about 800 residents set in a beech forest, the Forêt de Lyons. The village is built around the remains of the castle where Henry I of England died. In town is the Hostellerie de la Licorne, an inn which dates back to 1610.

​The architecture is typical for Normandy, with houses built in half-timbered, pink brick or tinted cob (clay and straw) style. In the center of town is the 18th century covered market, and throughout you will find tearooms, little restaurants, and antiques shops.​

To learn more, visit en.normandie-tourisme.fr

 

 

LES ANDELYS — 13 MILES

Les Andelys, situated along the Seine, actually began as two separate fishing villages that eventually grew into each other. Les Andelys boasts the ruins of the Chateau Gaillard, a castle built in 1198 by Richard the Lionheart when he was both king of England and Duke of Normandy.

When first built, the castle was advanced for its time, but it wasn’t long before developments in artillery made it obsolete. Nevertheless, it’s still an impressive sight and the ruins can be visited, from where you get a great view of the town and the countryside. In town, you can stroll through the narrow streets that are full of little shops and restaurants.

To learn more, visit lesandelys.com

LA ROCHE-GUYON — 17 MILES

La-Roche-Guyon is located at a bend in the Seine River, and is officially classified as one of the ‘most beautiful villages of France’. The village was originally established below, and is dominated by, a medieval chateau built in the 12th century, the remains of which can still be seen. The chateau can be visited, and offers great views of the village. The donjon or keep is connected to the main castle below the cliff by a tunnel that’s cut out through the rock. As an interesting side note, the Chateau served as Rommel’s headquarters during the Second World War.

​As you walk the streets of the town, you will pass beautiful houses with wood paneled façades. Along the carting paths, there are a number of caves dug into the cliff — these were mining caves, but at times have been used as stables or as saltpeter cellars. In the village center, the old market is now the side of the town hall. After exploring the village you can walk along the river front or climb the paths that run up to the hills above the village for views of the countryside.

To learn more, visit francethisway.com

 

GIVERNY — 6 MILES

The discovery of Roman and Gallic graves gives evidence to the village having ancient origins. But Giverny’s real fame began in 1882 when Claude Money moved in and began painting. He happened to see the town (at the time home to about 300 inhabitants, mostly farmers) through a train window, fell in love with it, and stayed until his death.

The village sits on the banks of the Seine and has two main streets which are crisscrossed by narrow alleys and lanes with slate-roofed houses and walls covered with wisteria. Claude Monet’s house lies between the two roads, and the house and the gardens are open to the public from April through October. (Admission is 10 euros.)

To learn more, visit en.normandie-tourisme.fr

 

VERNON — 5 MILES

Vernon is another one of those little gems resting along the Seine.  While not the smallest town on this itinerary, it doesn’t have any major monuments, but it does have a 12th century castle and Gothich style church (begun in the 11th and finished in the 17th century).  It’s also been immortalized to some degree, because Monet, living down the road in Giverny, depicted Vernon in paintings. And it has one of the more interesting sites, an old mill that hangs over the river.  There was a pending wheel that was powered by the river, but that’s gone, and what’s left is a strange looking house.

​The historic district has a network of medieval style streets with medieval style half-timbered houses dating from the 1500’s — the kind that you have to be familiar with by now.  There are still 233 of these wooden houses near the church, scattered down cobble-stoned streets, interspersed with shops, little cafés, and restaurants. There’s a great view of the town and the old mill from the Clemenceau Bridge.

To learn more, visit thecrazytourist.com

EVREUX — 20 MILES

Evreux is the capital of the Eure department and is one of the oldest towns in France. As with most old towns, they’ve had their share of difficulties. The city was raided by the Vandals in the 5th century, then pillaged by the Normans in 892, then burned by Henry I of England in 1194, then taken over by Philip Augustus of France in 1194. It was at times controlled by the French and then by the English up to the 15th century, and suffered major damage during WW II.

Things are a lot calmer there today, and it’s a nice town for strolling, particularly along the banks of the River Iton. The town has several marked paths to make touring a lot easier. The heart of Evreux has its two most important monuments, the cathedral built in the 12th century, and the Episcopal Palace, which now is a museum whose collections include archaeological artifacts, medieval art, and contemporary paintings. When you reach the main square you will find the town hall, and from there the promenade that runs along the river bank.  All throughout the historical center you will find the half-timbered houses, as well as restaurants and a variety of shops.

To learn more, visit  francethisway.com

 

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