Travel

Off the Path: Upper Normandy — Part 2 

Touring the Medieval towns and villages west of Rouen.


This is a second piece that covers In case you skipped Part 1, here’s a quick synopsis about Normandy — first settle in the 4th century b.c., Vikings came in the 9th century, famous for William the Conqueror, Joan of Arc, Monet, and  WWII landing beaches, looks a lot like England.

This tour in the Eure Department of Upper (Haute) Normandy focuses on the area mostly west of Rouen, which, as discussed in Part 1 (you really should read Part 1 first), uses Rouen as the starting point. There are 5 towns, including Rouen, in this itinerary, with a total round-trip drive of 127 miles, which should be easily manageable in a not-too-stressful touring day.

Still, as I mentioned in the previous article (that would be Part 1), some of these towns are very small and only require a drive through while for some you might decide to spend more time. Of course, how you use your time is entirely up to you, but try to keep in mind what else you want to see if you find yourself whiling away the hours sitting in a small cafe in the first town. You’re not really on the clock, but you might be just a tad if you want to see everything, and you probably don’t want to miss Honfleur, the last one on your journey.​

As I also mentioned, the only way to get you through these itineraries without wasting precious hours lost among the Normandy hedgerows like a GI in WW II  is by GPS. And it’s best to plug in each town to your GPS before you leave home, save it, and then pull up each town from your saved destinations when you’re ready to move on. Sure your navigator can type them in while you’re driving, but the there’s always the confusion as to how to spell the name of a French town — they sneak in unexpected letters in unexpected places.

The full itinerary is laid out on the map below. Each destination is described very briefly. I’ve added pictures to give you an idea about each town, the miles between destinations, and links to websites where you can get more information on each destination. You might find it helpful to print out the itinerary pages from this article 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. You can use either tripadvisor.com or yelp.com to find restaurants in each of these towns. If you haven’t access to the internet on your trip and you didn’t pick restaurants before you left, you’ll have to wing it, which is usually not a good idea.

​Now on the trip…

ROUEN 

(This is repeated from Part 1 for those who have skipped that article.)

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

 

JUMIEGES — 18 MILES

Jumièges is a tiny hamlet along the Seine that has an old-world charm to it and offers you the opportunity to take a nice stroll along the river. But people don’t come here for the town’s river, the cobble-stoned streets or the half-timber houses. They’re attracted by the abbey ruins. These have been described as the best France has to offer, incredible, extraordinary, even romantic.  They say there’s a magical quality when you hear the wind rustle through the trees and you marvel at the vaults that have been wide-open to the skies since the French Revolution. These ruins reflect the centuries when monks ruled life and spirituality.

​A little history — this Benedictine abbey was founded in 654 by Saint Philibert and housed around 2000 monks and lay brothers. As it was quite wealthy, it was attacked regularly by the Vikings during the 9th and 10th centuries. It was rebuilt in the 11th century and again became wealthy, as well as a major intellectual center. The abbey again came under difficult times in the 16th century with the Wars of Religion between the Catholics and Protestants, and then again with the French Revolution, which spelled its end as a living religious institution. At about that time, the abbey was purchased by a merchant who wanted it for the stones for other construction projects. Vandalizing of the abbey finally ended in the middle of the 19th century and eventually came under the protection of the state in 1946, leaving it in the state it is today.

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

LE BEC-HELLOUIN — 22 MILES

Situated between Rouen and Lisieux, Le Bec-Hellouin is listed as one of “The most beautiful villages in France”. It is a typical Normandy village with colorful half-timbered houses that sport flower-decked balconies. The town is most famous for its abbey, which was founded in 1034 by a knight who had decided to become a hermit. In fact, the name derives from the stream near the village (stream = bec) and the 11th century founder, Herluin. The church of Saint-Andre was built near the abbey in 1039.

As you walk through the town center and the ancient streets, you will see houses dating from the 15th century. You can also visit the abbey, and either explore at your leisure or take a guided tour, although the latter is only offered in French.

To learn more, visit lebechellouin.fr

PONT AUDEMER — 28 MILES

Pont-Audemer is located on the Risle River, and is officially listed as a ‘plus beau detour’ town by the people who do those things. It’s a former tanning town that is crossed by canals, which has led it to be nicknamed, in an over-stated way, as the Norman Venice.

The heart of the old town falls between the two branches of the Risle River. These two branches are joined by parallel streets and by various canals. The waterways that run through the center of the town give it quite a bit of charm, as do the typical half-timbered houses, the small bridges that cross over the canals, and the medieval streets. As you walk through the old streets of the town, you will pass its main attractions, including the tanners’ old washing and drying houses and the Church of St. Ouen.

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

HONFLEUR — 6 MILES

Honfleur is the only seaside town on this itinerary and is one of the highlights in all of Upper Normandy. It’s a bustling, colorful, and charming town that is able to retain that character despite all the tourists. In fact, it seems to have been that way for quite a while, because Honfleur was the favorite of many impressionist painters, including Monet.

​The town was built around the port that was once used for receiving commercial ships and fishing boats, but now mostly houses yachts. The heart of the port is the Vieux Bassin, or inner harbor, where wealthy families in days gone by would relish the privilege of owning such prestigious real estate. These houses, built between the 16th and 18th centuries, are squeezed together and have an oddity about them — they have two ground floors: one that opens onto the quay and the other that opens on the opposite side. That’s because they’re actually two different houses, with two different owners.

​All along the harbor and down the cobbled-stoned streets, there is no shortage of shops, restaurants, and cafes. Although it can get touristy, dining on the harbor is recommended — it’s a great place to relax, and watch the ships come and go.

To learn more, visit thegoodlifefrance.com

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