As I prepared to spend a month in Normandy this year, I was thrilled when my friend Holly accepted an invitation to visit. I looked forward to introducing her to everything that I love about this region of France, but knew from past experience that entertaining overseas can be tricky. For the past eight years, with a hiatus due to the pandemic, my husband, Ken, and I have spent several months at a time living like locals in Airbnb rentals, with me writing from wherever we happen to be. Yet, as he drolly observed, “People don’t come here to watch us sit around.” They might flip over the tourist traps that we try to avoid, and be bored into a stupor by things that we find charming.
This would be our fourth extended stay in the Calvados region, and our second consecutive June in a house next to an old mill in a rural village. I knew that our friend, who is a garden designer, would appreciate the setting, with roses, sweet peas and foxglove in bloom, and the cows grazing beneath our windows. But then what?
Holly had three requests. Mont-Saint-Michel, the abbey perched on a cliff, surrounded by water, was on her bucket list. One “fancy” restaurant meal would be her treat. The D-Day beaches and the American cemetery, for sure, but “I’m not that interested in World War II stuff, so maybe not all the museums on the subject,” she said.
That gave us plenty of latitude. With an emphasis on flora, fauna and food, we would take her to our favorite spots, and some places where we had never been. In between, we could show her a side of Normandy that most visitors never discover. On our advice, she arrived and departed midweek, so she could accompany us to the weekend outdoor markets that we frequent. We warned that there would be a lot of time in the car – it’s inevitable when touring lower Normandy. Those who want to cut down on the driving can base themselves in the city of Bayeux, which has a plethora of hotels and other lodgings and is at a crossroads.
Whether you’re planning an autumn sojourn, or gearing up for the 80th anniversary of D-Day on June 6, 2024, our far-ranging itinerary can add variety to the military must-sees. Here’s how we structured the week.
Gardens and Gourmets
On Day 1, a Wednesday, we drove about 50 miles east from our base in Cormolain, deep into the heart of the Pays d’Auge – a hilly area known for its apple orchards and dairy farms. The route there took us along country roads overhung with hedgerows: tall, dense bushes that provided the Germans with natural cover and impeded the advance of Allied troops after D-Day. Our destination was the village of Beuvron-en-Auge, with its restored half-timbered houses, and the Restaurant Le Pavé d’Auge, contained within the old covered market.
Le Pavé d’Auge is the kind of place where a lunch reservation entitles patrons to occupy a table for the afternoon. And it can easily take that long to consume what’s served. The amuse-bouche alone – two of them hors d’œuvres, and three desserts – could have been a meal by themselves. But there was a four-course menu to choose from, focusing on local seasonal ingredients. The most intense was the tender, gamey veal sweetbreads that I ordered, roasted in butter, with mushrooms and walnut pralines. Holly was delighted with the generous portion of pork shoulder, cooked at a low temperature to buttery tenderness, served with turnips and potatoes. By contrast, Ken’s turbot, though delicately presented in an emulsion of reine des prés (a meadow herb), was a dollhouse-size serving.
Before dessert, I suggested we share a cheese plate, giving Holly a chance to sample some of the most famous regional ones: mild creamy Neufchâtel, recognizable by its heart shape; and the far more pungent Livarot and Pont-l’Evêque. These and two others on the cheese chariot (pavé d’Auge and chevre) were farm-produced, rather than factory-made, according to the chef, Haye Adrien, who came out to greet us during this course.
I was so busy chatting with him that, much to the consternation of the maître d’, hadn’t even touched the apple sorbet, served as a palate cleanser after the cheese course, when our desserts arrived. While Holly and Ken rhapsodized about their chocolate ice cream topped with chocolate and hazelnuts, I was intrigued with my dessert soufflé. In a demonstration of this restaurant’s commitment to local products, Adrien, who took over as chef three months earlier, had switched the keynote ingredient from Grand Marnier (the orange-flavored liquor) to Calvados – an apple brandy from Normandy. Admirable, but overpowering. The splurge, which was as much entertainment as sustenance, came to €243 (about $265 at current conversion rates) for three people, including soda for Ken, and two house wines apiece, plus coffee, for Holly and me.
By then we had asked the chef where to go for a tasting – of both Calvados and the Pays d’Auge cider, which has an AOC designation. He directed us to the Manoir de Montreuil, in Cambremer, situated along the 40-kilometer Route du Cidre, which includes about 17 other producers. (To make an appointment, call +33 6 88 50 95 27.) At this domaine, which has lasted for 14 generations, we purchased cider; a small bottle of Calvados for cooking; and apple cider vinegar.
To walk off lunch, we headed to Les Jardins du Pays d’Auge, in the same village. Constructed around a 17th-century farm, it consists of more than two dozen themed gardens, spread over eight acres, that combine plantings with furnishings and decorative objects. Some, like a labyrinth made of hedges and a garden of the senses (featuring many varieties of mint and thyme), were experiential. Others, with a hanging swing or wooden benches painted cornflower blue, invited us to rest and reflect.
My favorites were the side-by-side Jardin du Diable (Garden of the Devil) and Jardin des Anges (Garden of Angels). The former featured plants that are known to be toxic – for example, foxglove, euphorbia and arum, while the latter relied heavily on biblical references to support its premise. Examples: The white rose is included because it’s a symbol of purity, and the aster amellus because it’s also known as the ear of Christ.
Caramel Calories and D-Day Lite
After our enormous lunch, we felt virtuous for skipping dinner, but by the next morning (Day 2, a Thursday) we practically had candy for breakfast, when we toured the caramel factory in Isigny-sur-Mer. The €4 admission fee included a couple of samples, which didn’t taste nearly as fresh as those that had been served at the conclusion of our gourmet meal the previous day. (No wonder: We later learned that the restaurant makes its own.)
According to explanatory panels, the butter and cream that goes into these products is all locally produced, and distributed through a dairy coop that’s existed since before World War II. But those who come here hoping to see much, from the windows overlooking the factory floor, will be disappointed; most of the work is done by robots. In short order, visitors filter into the vast gift shop, to be tempted by caramel items, attractive kitchen accessories and an extensive cheese counter.
Our proximity to Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer made Omaha Beach, site of one of the American D-Day landings, our logical next stop. Unlike the troops who landed there on June 6, 1944, we encountered fair weather and low tide. That made it possible to stand next to the hulking 50-foot- by-25-foot sculpture called Les Braves (The Braves) by Anilore Banon, installed in 2004 to commemorate the 60th anniversary. Each time I visit this spot, and the nearby American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, where nearly 10,000 soldiers are buried, I contemplate the enormity of the military achievement and the senseless waste of war.
The Abbey on an Island
“I can’t believe where we are!” Holly exclaimed on Day 3 (a Friday) as we approached Mont-Saint-Michel on foot via the two-mile path leading from the parking lot. In the early morning light, we watched schoolchildren frolic in low tide on one side, while sheep grazed in the marshes on the other. As the mist lifted and we moved closer, this multicentury architectural wonder came into sharper focus.
By this, our second visit, we had learned some energy-saving hacks for day-trippers. Arrive early, before the crowds; bring plenty of water, a hat and snacks. After crossing the drawbridge into the village, turn right at the post office and head up to the abbey, bypassing the logjam of the tourist shops. When you’re finished, return to the parking lot on the free navette (shuttle bus), because at that point the view will be at your back and you are likely to be exhausted.
The admission fee (€11, or about $12) includes a slender paper guide that will step you through the highlights. Holly called our attention to all the flowers in bloom along the way. There was thistle beckoning to the butterflies; red valerian growing opportunistically out of the rock at the abbey; and maidenhair spleenwort climbing the walls. While she identified many of the plants by their Latin names, I translated with the Plant Net app. We had come to see the abbey and stayed for the flowers.
Weekend Markets and Village Life
Our weekend (Day 4) began with the Saturday morning market in Honfleur. This was a sleepy village when the Impressionists painted the harbor more than a century ago. No longer: On a recent visit I was swarmed by river cruisers from the SS Joie de Vivre as I bought fish on the quay. Still, it’s worth negotiating the crowds to shop at the outdoor market in front of the wooden Church of Sainte-Catherine, which looks much the same as it did in a painting by Johan Barthold Jongkind. There’s a goat cheese vendor who sells out early to customers who say à la semaine prochaine (see you next week) as they gather their purchases. For lunch, we combined it with cooked beets and fresh fennel to make a salad. Dessert, also from the market, was fresh apricots, cherries and strawberries.
That afternoon it was time to introduce Holly to our own little village, which resembles so many others off the tourist trail. To get from our Airbnb to the center of town, we walked up a road that bypasses a wheat field, and in half a mile leads to the church, the graveyard and town hall – called the Marie because it is a place where people can get married.
One thing that makes Cormolain unique is that, in addition to a boulangerie and a butcher, it has an extensive secondhand bookstore, believed to be the only such place in Normandy. Named Librairie Bartleby, after the scrivener in Herman Melville’s short story, it has been housed for the past eight years in a space that previously held a café-grocery store (38 Rue de la Drôme).
Damien Renouf, the proprietor, is the son of Charo, the village brocante dealer (2 rue du Presbytère). The bookstore, open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 2:00 to 6:30 p.m., contains an estimated 40,000 volumes, arranged by language and subject matter.
From the English-language section, Holly purchased a first edition of The Bayeux Tapestry, by Eric Maclagan, published in 1943 (€5, or about $5.50). My “find” of the day, from a stack of books on a table devoted to French history, was Comment Est Tombée La Ligne Maginot (How the Maginot Line Fell), written by Paul Allard (a pseudonym) and published in 1942, perhaps clandestinely, during the German occupation of Paris. If life in a rural French village seemed to take us into the weeds, we found them very interesting weeds.
What the French Do on Sundays
Almost nothing is open in rural France on Sunday afternoon, so as Day 5 dawned we warned Holly that we must provision ourselves as if for an impending storm. That gave us an agenda in Port-en-Bessin-Huppain, a former World War II fueling station that’s still an active fishing village. We routinely buy the latest catch there directly from a couple of fishermen, who sell it only on Sundays, from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., from what looks like a garage, at 2 bis Avenue Mérchal de Tourville. That day we chose sea bass, to barbecue with lemon, and sage from our garden.
At the outdoor market along the quay, I called Holly’s attention to andouille de vire – a locally produced sausage. About four inches wide and made from the stomach and intestines of a pig, it’s a taste I have not yet acquired. Each time in Normandy I confirm this by trying the samples that market vendors hold out on toothpicks. Instead, we bought ingredients to make a potato gratin to accompany our fish: smoked ham, crème fraiche, and a wheel of Normandy’s notorious Camembert cheese. Because cooking is one of the things that the French do on Sunday afternoons, when everything is closed. And we never leave Port-en-Bessin-Huppain without stopping at the Maison Olard patisserie (18 Quai Félix Faure) for a brasillé – a one-foot-long, many-layered, buttery puff pastry, sticky with caramelized sugar.
Back in Cormolain, we took an afternoon hike to the lavoir – a communal washhouse found in our village and many others like it. Situated near a water source, it’s a covered pavilion where laundresses brought the dirty linen (in every sense) before running water and machinery enabled them to perform the chore at home. In Cormolain, one can approach the lavoir from the main street by passing under an arch onto the Chemin de Lavandières (path of the washerwomen). Overhung with hedges, the muddy route leads downhill past several retaining walls along which wild strawberries, ferns and St. John’s wort have taken root.
After five minutes we reached a clearing, crossed a stream, and the lavoir came into view, its timbered supports painted the same shade of blue as the furniture in the formal gardens we had visited. White bellflowers, dotted with raindrops, grew along the side. Red roses climbed a wooden fence across the road. Perhaps those who once toiled here had planted these adornments. For the sake of patrimony, the village still maintains them.
Bayeux and a Working Person’s Lunch
On Monday (Day 6), when almost everything else in the area is closed, we visited two tourist attractions that remain open: the famed Bayeux tapestry, depicting the 1066 Norman conquest of Britain, and the nearby cathedral where it was originally displayed. Then, as a contrast to the fancy restaurant where we ate the first day, we suggested lunch at Le Vieux Pont Restaurant, situated along Route D9 in the village of Juvigny-sur-Seulles.
It’s a place we discovered last year, when we drove by around lunchtime on a weekday and noticed many cars parked in front. Inside there are roughly a dozen tables, most of which are occupied by workers on their lunch break. The fixed-price, three-course menu (la formule) costs €13.80 (about $15), changes daily and includes three courses, with several offerings for each posted on a chalkboard.
I look for a main course (plat principal) that needs to be cooked slowly, my theory being that the chef has taken an inexpensive cut of meat and turned it into something tender and delicious. That day it was the sautéed pork with Provençale herbs, served with roasted potatoes. This being dairy country, the desserts usually include a high-quality ice cream or fromage blanc (a soft, creamy cheese with the consistency of sour cream). The service is quick but gracious, and one never leaves hungry.
After lunch, we stopped at the nearby Hottot-les-Bagues War Cemetery, about half a mile southwest of the restaurant, on D9, where 1,138 British soldiers are buried. Most of them died in battle in the immediate vicinity between June and July of 1944 – again a reminder of the brutality of war. But our primary reason for taking Holly here was to show her an example of a Commonwealth cemetery. There are ten of them in Normandy, and in front of each headstone is a mini garden. They are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – a global organization that cares for British graves in more than 150 countries and territories where the British had military engagements.
Cookies and Mulberries
By Day 7 Holly was doing her own research about World War II, to supplement information on the historic markers she’d been carefully reading. And, given a choice about what to do on her last full day in this part of Normandy, she expressed an interest in visiting another historic location, rather than a nearby formal garden. “I surprised myself!” she later told us. “Ken’s enthusiasm about military history really pulled me into wanting to learn and see more!”
So we packed a picnic and headed to Gold Beach, where the British landed on D-Day. From there it’s a scenic walk west for less than a mile along a promenade that leads to the seaside village of Asnelles. Along the way you can see an old German blockhouse; have a spectacular view of the temporary harbors known as mulberries; and gape at the elegant 19th-century mansions that were billeted during the Nazi occupation and fortunately not destroyed.
In Asnelles, we stopped at Les Sablés d’Asnelles – a local teahouse (2 Pl. Alexander Stanier) run by the company of the same name. It produces much-prized sables – cookies rich with butter from Isigny. If you arrive at lunchtime (12:30 to 2:00 p.m.), when their storefront is closed, you can buy these luscious biscuits for the same price at area supermarkets.
Monet’s Home and Gardens in Giverny
Holly’s flight to the U.S. didn’t leave until the following evening, allowing time for one more item on her list – and ours. In the course of a day trip from Cormolain to Giverny, we could get her most of the way back to Paris. And for us it was a unique opportunity to visit this horticultural wonder with a gardening pro.
For mere garden enthusiasts, one of the pleasures of visiting Giverny is that every photo taken with an iPhone looks like a Monet painting. No wonder: Claude Monet lived here from 1883 until he died in 1926, and the water garden that he created is depicted in his Water Lilies paintings, on display at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.
“The sheer number of plants is incredible,” was Holly’s reaction to the earthly delights. “Look at the size of that morning glory!” and “I’ve never seen yarrow this tall.” She pointed to an okra that we never would have noticed, a black coleus that “presents as a flower,” and explained the purpose of lavender in a mixed border: During the 19th century, ladies’ long skirts would brush against it and release a scent as they passed.
During our week together, Holly saw Normandy through our eyes. Through hers, we came to appreciate it in new ways.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.