A personal guide to the highlights of Upper Normandy
by Thomas Dowson
Think of Normandy, and for most people this conjures up images of the D-Day beaches, the Bayeaux Tapestry and le Mont St Michel. All of these important and interesting sites are in what is Basse Normandie.
Less well known is Haute Normandie, an area that most people simply drive through on their way further south. But this area is as rewarding and interesting as any of the other regions of France, with history stretching from the earliest Stone Age peoples to the more recent political alliances between the United Kingdom and France.
The weather here is as good as any other part of Normandy, and the cuisine is also much like that of the rest of Normandy. The coastline has a number of quaint fishing ports, and so fresh fish and shellfish are everyday fare. Otherwise, its cream, butter and apples in almost everything. The regional cheese is the heart-shaped Neufchatel, a creamy cheese related to the camembert family of cheeses and also made from cows milk. Rural legend has it that the women who made the cheese chose the heart shape for the English soldiers during the hundred years war.
The following is just a taster of what you can expect in that part of Upper Normandy that lies to the north of the Seine River.
Rouen, Le Havre and Dieppe
There are three main cities, and all definitely worth a visit, be it for a day-trip if you are staying in the area, or a longer city break.
Rouen is the administrative capital of Upper Normandy, and has a lot to offer visitors of all ages. The city has its origins in Roman times, and today it is France’s fifth busiest port. There are numerous excellent restaurants, great shopping opportunities, a vibrant nightlife and many museums and historic buildings. It was in Rouen that Jeanne d’Arc was burned at the stake. A popular historic monument in the city is one of Europe’s oldest working clocks; Le Gros Horloge has been in place since 1527, and gives the hour of the day the phases of the moon.
Le Havre is located on the north side of the mouth of the Seine River. The city is France’s leading commercial port and has an extensive maritime history dating back to the early 1500s. The original town was designed in 1541 on a chessboard principle by a leading Italian architect, Belarmato. Much of the old town was destroyed in the Second World War, but it was redesigned by the pioneer of reinforced concrete, Auguste Perret. In 2005 UNESCO declared the city a World Heritage Site because it is "an exceptional example of architecture and town planning of the post-war era". The fine art museum houses an impressive collection of art by important Western artists, local to the area.
Dieppe too has a long history as seen in the churches, castle and museum, but much of what visitors see today is modern. The museum is a must for those interested in naval history, and the history of the ‘ivory trade’. During the nineteenth century Dieppe was patronised by aristocrats and celebrities of the day, believing the seaside spas to have special healing powers. In August of 1942 the city was the scene of the first Allied reconnaissance in force on the coast of Europe. Some 7000 men, mostly Canadians, were landed on the coast, but the tanks floundered on the beach and were sacrificed. Like many of the coastal fishing ports in Upper Normandy, there is a great seafood market.
Normandy and the Impressionists
Upper Normandy and Impressionism go hand in hand. Not only did a number of the leading Impressionist artists live here, they also painted the wide open landscapes, the cities (Rouen, Trouville, Le Havre) and the dramatic coastline. So many of us know this part of Normandy through the more well known impressionist paintings.
Monet’s various studies of water lilies, for example, are from a series of ponds he dug himself in his garden in the town of Giverney where he lived. Monet also painted the front façade of the Cathedral in Rouen, not once but over 30 times. For the impressionists light was important, particularly the changing qualities of light at different times of the day, different times of the year. And so the play of light on their subjects, be they people, landscapes or the city, is emphasised.
The coastline of Upper Normandy was a frequent source of inspiration. The characteristic white chalky cliffs at Etretat and Pourville and the seaside towns of Tourville and Sainte Adresse were repeatedly painted by Monet, Boudin, Morisot and Isabey. And a visit to these places today gives some idea of the fascination these places held for the Impressionists.
Eu and Entente Cordiale
On the northern border of Normandy, with Picardy, is the historic town of Eu. In 1050 the Duke of Normandy, soon to be William the Conqueror, married Mathilde of Flanders. An image of the fortress that stood in the town then can be seen on the Bayeux Tapestry.
Today it is a more recently built château that commands visitors’ attention. Once the royal residence and seat of government for Louis-Philippe, King of France from 1830 to 1848. Louis-Philippe was an ardent anglophile, and it was at Eu that he welcomed England’s Queen Victoria in 1843, and where the first entente cordiale meeting took place.
To mark this event, King Louis-Philippe and Queen Victoria planted an oak and a beech tree side-by-side in the Fôret d’Eu. Still alive today these two trees have girths of about 250 cm (8 feet) and are about 30 m (100 feet) high. Nearby and on 28 October 2000, an oak and a beech tree were similarly planted side-by-side by the British Ambassador to France, Sir Michael Jay, and the French Ambassador to Great Britain, Mr Daniel Bernard, to celebrate the 100th Birthday of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
Abbeys, Churches and Châteaux
Upper Normandy has its fair share of abbeys, churches and châteaux originating in all periods of France’s eventful past. The immediate area surrounding the Seine River has some spectacular examples of Norman Abbeys, in particular Abbaye de Jumièges and Abbaye Saint-Georges de Boscherville. And the Abbey at Montvilliers, one of the most innovative presentations of Norman Abbey history for contemporary visitors, and the Abbey at Fécamp, the home of Benedictine liqueur, are other fine examples that are well worth visiting.
The area is literally littered with churches and châteaux of various ages in various states of repair. And frequently, when driving along the country roads, visitors can stumble upon some gems. Château Gaillard, a defensive fortress built by Richard the Lionheart in 1196 dominates the town of Les Andelys. The hilltop ruins of this castle stand in contrast to the more recent, palatial Château d’Eu.
Thomas Dowson is an archaeologist and writer, living in Upper Normandy. He offers guided archaeology and art tours of France.
This is a guest article in our Normandy section - return to Normandy region information