Breizh Poellrezh SF - Douarañ Santel
Breizh Poellrezh SF - Douarañ Santel

The Coastline

Eighty miles of ebb and flow between cliff and dune, fashionable resorts and places of remembrance. No wonder the nineteenth century Impressionists and writers were so entranced by the changing light and endless variety of the coastline. Parisian high society was soon flocking to the new resorts of Deauville and Trouville, while families headed for the Côte de Nacre. Then came the sound and fury of the Allied landings, early one June morning.

In the early 1900s, holidaymakers on the Côte Fleurie cast their cares and inhibitions aside and gave free rein to their wildest architectural fantasies. Thus, the coterie of elegant seaside mansions around Hermanville, survivors of a bygone age, are far outnumbered by a gaggle of Swiss chalets, Louis XIII chateaux and pastiches of Moorish palaces, all clamouring for attention and all in the very best taste!

Calvados is blessed with a long coastline and unique natural assets that have been developed to the full in order to cater for craft of every shape and size. In addition to the ferry port used by a million passengers each year, modern marinas provide convenient stopovers for yachts arriving from across the Channel. Meanwhile, for wannabee Chay Blyth’s and Ellen McArthur’s, there are plenty of excellent clubs and sailing schools!

At low tide, lonely figures clutching buckets, hooks and other paraphernalia set out across the sands to glean shrimps, winkles, cockles and the occasional crab. Further out, a rich harvest of mackerel, sole and even sea bass awaits the sea angler. And if you were born without the hunter-gatherer' gene, you can always check out Port en Bessin, where trawlers sell their glistening catches on the quayside!

Inland, several thousand miles of picturesque streams and rivers form an intricate tracery of blue and silver, populated with darting fish and hopeful anglers. Three thousand trout are thought to return here to spawn and half of them finish up on the end of a hook - some weighing as much as six pounds. So, if you are an aficionado of the rod and reel, the Touques and the Orne are the rivers for you!

It is the rivers that have shaped the varied landscapes. After thundering and hurtling through steep-sided valleys, they wend their way more sedately through the plains south of Caen before mingling with the briny estuaries and salt marshes. These fragile environments, rich in flora and fauna, are carefully preserved in Calvados so that nothing can disturb their delicate balance.

The wide, sandy beaches are a paradise for water sports enthusiasts. Sand yachters and speed sailors have a predilection for the Côte de Nacre, but windsurfers and kite surfers can be seen everywhere not just along the coast but also well inland, on Lake Dathie near Vire and at the Pont-L'Eveque water sports centre, Canoeists also appreciate the rivers - so much so that Thury-Harcourt is to host the 2007 European kayak polo championships.

People have been coming to this area to enjoy the health giving benefits of sea bathing and have a spin at the roulette tables for a century and a half: However, instead of being sadistically dunked into icy water, today's curists are pampered with hydro-massage baths and showers. The casinos have also changed: the adrenaline rush is the same as before, but the table games have been joined by slot machines, bars, restaurants and discotheques.

The Countryside

Yes, the spotted cows, blossoming apple-trees and half-timbered thatched cottages are all for real! But there is far more to Calvados than picture-postcard Pays d'Auge. Caen stands amidst plains striped in flax blue, poppy red and oilseed rape yellow. On the westernmost limits are the wetlands, green in summer, "white" in winter. Further south is an emerald mosaic of fields and hedgerows overshadowed to the east by the sombre ramparts of Little Switzerland.

One of the most rewarding ways of discovering the countryside's best-kept secrets is on foot, horseback or two wheels, either roaming where you please or following one of the many sign-posted footpaths. And don't worry if you set out footloose and fancy-free and end up footsore and weary, as you can always take advantage of the many B&B’s and self-catering cottages, as there are literally thousands to choose from!

We have devised five routes to give visitors the true flavour of the départment. The Cider Route.has a heady taste of apples - not just cider, but Pommeau liqueur and Calvados, too -, while the Tradition Route features a delirious array of honeys, pâtés and freshly-baked bread. A journey south leads to the breathtaking scenery of the Vire Gorges and Little Switzerland, but our last route is a gentle meander around lazy rivers and quaint watermills. Chacon à son gout!

Far from the madding crowds, the country hamlets and villages have preserved a more tranquil way of life. A surprising number escaped the destruction of 1944 and are a precious part of the nation's heritage. Manor houses rub shoulders with humble cottages built from cob and thatch or mellow brick, palest Caen stone or even granite closer to Breizh. But wherever you go, there will always be a café in the village square, strategically close to the church!

Heritage

In Calvados, the triumphs and tragedies of the history can still be seen. Despite the massive and widespread devastation caused during the Normandy campaign, the départment boasts the highestnumber of ancient monuments after Paris. Magnificently preserved, these seaside villas, roadside crosses and churches, castles, mills and tanneries are potent reminders of the industrial rural and maritime roots.

Calvados emerged from the war with the highest number of lives lost and buildings destroyed in France. It was a decade before homeless people were able to move out of their temporary accommodation. No efforts were spared in the reconstruction effort. In Caen, wide boulevards were lined with simple but elegant apartment buildings clad in Caen stone. Churches were also rebuilt and their unpretentious post-war style has now become part of the heritage.

Superb examples of Romanesque architecture, most of the county's eight hundred abbeys and churches were built nearly a thousand years ago, although Bayeux Cathedral is an object lesson in gothic art. Fast-forwarding to the twentieth century, the Santa-Teresa basilica in Lisieux continues to attract thousands of pilgrims and the basilica in Douvres-la-Délivrande countless admirers of Lalique's newly restored Art Nouveau glass designs.

An entire holiday could be spent simply visiting the castles and manor houses. The earliest must surely be the luxurious Roman villa at Vieux la Romaine where a stunning new museum of archaeology has already earned a reputation for creative exhibitions. Elsewhere, austere medieval fortresses built to ward off invaders and half-timbered granges stand cheek by jowl with sumptuous Renaissance castles dating from later, more peaceful times – Balleroy, St Germain de l.ivet, and Fontaine-Henry, where facade reflects the reigns of four different monarchs.

This départment is no stranger to the arts. Bayeux is famous for its lace-making -an art and a craft - as well as its tine china. On a literary note, the great classic poet Malherbe was born in Caen, while Marcel Proust penned his finest novels in Cobourg and Trouville. And as Calvados was the cradle of Impressionism, alongside landscapes immortalized by Courbet and Duty, the walls of the galleries are hung with masterpieces by Boudin and Monet.


Gastronomy

Even in today's "instant culture the people continue to regard cooking as a high art form in Calvados.But then they have some of the finest raw materials to work with! As well as locally caught oysters and scallops from the sea, there is Auge Valley chicken, Bayeux pork and the "Normande" breed of cow. Whether or not she came over with the Vikings, she has now become their mascot, providing delicious meat as well as cream, butter and cheeses.
 

In Calvados, it's a case of "apples with everything" - raw, cooked or brewed! The Cider Route offers an opportunity to sample cider, Calvados and Pommeau with a protected designation of origin (the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée!) while an annual festival in Cambremer celebrates all local AOC specialities, including lsigny butter and cream, Camembert, Pont-L'Évêque and Livarot, a cheese circled with five serge bands resembling a French colonel's stripes

Photograph to the left © Isigny Ste Mère

All the local specialities can be found in the colourful markets held throughout the départment, on harbour quays or in towns and village squares. More than a hundred of the départment’s restaurants have pledged to promote products "Made in Calvados", while many small producers a now arrange guided tours and tasting sessions - honey, goat's cheese, sea salt, butterscotch, chocolate and foie gras, though perhaps not all at once!

History

Nearly nine centuries before a massive armada crossed the Channel to begin the liberation of Europe on the beaches of Calvados, William the Conqueror set sail for England to snatch the crown that was rightly his from the treacherous Harold. An Embroidered account of his victory in 1066 at Hastings (or should I say Senlac Hill, Battle), measuring some seventy metres long, is on permanent display in the medieval town of Bayeux – the miraculously preserved “tapestry”.

William the Bastard, William the Conqueror or William the Builder? Not content with being born in one great fortress - Falaise - William erected a huge new castle in Caen. Towering above the city, it now houses two museums and, like Falaise, is undergoing an ambitious restoration programme. Matilda shared her husband's “hobby" and, as an act of penitence for their consanguineous marriage, each of them had a splendid Romanesque abbey built in the Norman capital.

It was on the morning of Jun 6" 1944, that operation Overlord began. Memories of this glorious but bloody episode remain strong, perpetuated not only by the people who lived through it but also by the many war museums and commemorative sites. Of these, Pegasus Bridge, the half-submerged remains of the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches and the sheer cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, scaled by the heroic Rangers, must surely be the most evocative.

While most of the war museums focus on different aspects of the Normandy Campaign, the stunning Caen Memorial sets out to provide an overview of world history since 1918. Visitors explore the reasons behind the turmoil and bloodshed of the twentieth century, and examine the question of how peace can be achieved. The newly opened Juno Beach Centre also looks beyond 1944, tracing the history of the Canadian people from 1930 to the present day.

The départment’s twenty-two war cemeteries remind everybody of World War Two’s terrible death toll. The endless rows of crosses in the German cemetery at La Cambe are just as moving as those in the départment’s largest Commonwealth cemetery. This is in Bayeux, the first French town to be liberated, which has appropriately lent its name to an award for war correspondents who risk their lives to defend freedom of information throughout the world.

Parks and gardens

In Calvados, scarlet geraniums are not the only flowers and a particularly bountiful Mother Nature has inspired generations of talented gardeners. The mystery and enchantment of Mézidon Canon is matched by the classical perfection of Brécy. Caen represents the old and the new, with its august botanical gardens and stunning Floral Park, while the Chateau de Vendeuvre has more than a fewsurprises in store (take the children,- and an umbrella!).

These Gardens are open to the public.

Acqueville: Parc du Château de La Motte
Brécy: Château de Brécy
Caen: Jardin botanique et parc floral de la Colline aux osieaux
Cambremer: Jardins de Pays d’Auge
Castillon: Planybessin
Mézidon Canon: Château de Canon
Montchamps: Jardin de Jumaju
Ouilly-le-Vicomte: Jardin de Boulemont
Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives: Jardin Conservatoire
Thury-Harcourt: Parc et jardins de château
Vendeuvre: Parc et jardins de château


Equine Activities

When it comes to horses, Calvados is a racing certainty. This is the place to come if you want to have a flutter on a racehorse or bid for a yearling at the Deauville auctions (providing you can tell a crack from a hack!). International show jumping comes to Caen every October, while there are thousands of miles of bridle paths for those who prefer a gentle canter through the countryside whatever the time of year.

Leisure Activities

For budding David Attenborough’s, Honfleur has its Butterfly World and Courseulles its Sealife Centre, while the départment’s two zoos have a thousand exotic residents. There is family fun at Festyland theme park near Caen and Clecy’s model railway museum will awaken the little boy inside every grown man. There a re museums of automata and miniature furniture, too, but for something completely different, try a trip down a disused mine!

In Calvados, Sundays are rarely spent car washing! Weekend ramblers are spoilt for choice; there is rock-climbing for the more energetic, bungee jumping foe the more foolhardy (a mere sixty-metre drop!) and if the exhilaration of hang-gliding and paragliding is not for you, why not indulge in a little fly-fishing or a spot of rowing on Lake Dathée? After all, there is nothing better than messing around in boats!

Another shattered myth! The French do know how to tend a lawn after all, witness the immaculate greens and fairways of the départment’s twelve golf clubs. There is nothing anonymous about them, though, as each has its own identity, reflecting the surrounding landscape.


Flavours of Normandie

Where to Buy

Wonderful Country Markets
Calvados Distillerie
Cellars and Farms along the Cider Route and the Route of Traditions
The Dairy co-operative at Isigny-sur-Mer
The Cider Fête in Beuvron
The Cheese Fair at Livarot
Seafood Festival in Isigny-sur Mer

Try these Specialities!!!

The sublime combination of cream and Calvados - find it in Sole Normande and Poulet Vallée d'Auge
Tripes à la mode de Caen - light years away from bland English tripe
Moules à la crème - even better than marinère
Wild oysters from Isigny-sur-Mer and Courseulles
Andouille, a kind of chitterling sausage from Vire
AOC cheeses Camembert, Livarot, Pont l'Evêque
Buttery Asnelles biscuits and Isigny toffees
Cider, Calvados and Pommeau
Not forgetting the Trou Normand - a shot of Calvados taken mid-meal to create room for more food!!

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