There is something special about Normandy. Yes, there is the magnificent foods, but beyond that there are so many corners that you turn that stop you in your tracks, you believe you have stumbled onto a movie set….it is far too perfect. Over the years, as I traveled there it always leaves me with magical impressions.
“My wish is to stay always like this, living quietly in a corner of nature.” Claude Monet
His corner was Normandy at Giverny, both his artistic and personal sanctuary for his outdoor painting, loving the early morning light. His house that is now a place of pilgrimage still has its pretty pink façade and green shutters. The interior especially the kitchen with its blue Rouen tiles and dining room of chrome yellow give you a glimpse of the man.
The father of Impressionism found his true refuge in the quiet space of Normandy… and it seems it was his true identity, though born in Paris at five he moved to La Havre. Though he also lived in Algiers, Marrakech and London….he returned to his roots in his most prolific painting around Normandy. In 1874 his painting depicting a sunrise at the port of La Havre gave rise to the term “impressionism” characterized by bright colors and rapid doting brushstrokes. They aimed to capture the ephemeral, sensory effect of a scene. In essence, the impression was but a fleeting instant of light in time. He repeatedly painted the same scenes multiple times as for the effect of weather, light and atmosphere. "I am more and more mad about the need to render what I feel or experience.” Claude Monet
His gardens and their colors seem to epitomize his paintings. Monet created over 250 paintings of water lilies, they were the singular focus of the last decades of his life. In 1918, Monet offered 8 massive water lily paintings to the French government. In exchange, the government agreed to construct a custom built monument to showcase them to great effect. In 1927, the water lilies were set in massive curved panels and installed in two adjoining oval shaped rooms in Paris’ new museum, The Orangerie. Some art historians call the Orangerie the world’s first “art installation” because the space was designed specifically for Monet’s paintings. Do not miss them when you are in Paris.
Monet also painted the Rouen Cathedral over thirty times, each canvas captures the light on medieval structure at different times of the day, in different weather, and tracking the shifting light on the stones. I have been told he would set up three canvas at a time using a second floor window of a ladies clothing shop, one on the corner further away and another, bustling from one to another. 'Everything changes, even stone?' Monet wrote of painting the cathedral. The cathedral's intricate façade is hewn from monochrome stone but we can see many colors throughout the range of canvases from mauves and greens to pinks. Monet experimented with pigments in an attempt to capture the atmosphere and light surrounding the cathedral, much in the same way he uses many colors to paint the surface of the chalk cliffs at Étretat. Today, the cathedral is one of the defining pieces of architecture in this part of Normandy. Aside from its striking architecture, it's also famous for its tombs – one of which houses the heart of Richard the Lionheart.
Lyons-la-Fôret is a fairy tale village and hidden gem situated in the heart of Normandy’s largest beech forest, the Forêt domaniale de Lyons-La-Forêt, which covers an enormous 11,000 acres. When you get out of your car you are met by an array of magnificent half-timbered, pink brick or tinted cob (clay and straw) houses. The village boasts tearooms, little restaurants, two charming hotels, antiques shops and the beautiful 18th-century timber-framed covered market. A long street leads you beside the Lieure River to the picturesque Church of Saint-Denis, which dates from the 12th to the 16th century. Recognized as one of the ‘most beautiful villages in France’ and it truly is that.
Ports don’t come any prettier than Honfleur on the Seine estuary. Colorful half-timbered houses jostle for position on the quays, along with art galleries and restaurants. Packed with things to see and do, it’s not for nothing that Honfleur is one of the most popular places to visit in France. The harbor was chosen for its strategic location on the southern bank of the Seine estuary. During the Hundred Years’ War, the French king fortified the port, although that didn’t stop the English taking over for several decades. Wealthy Honfleur families built their 16th to 1t century multi-story homes packed tight next to each other, especially around the Vieux Bassin, the heart of the port, where a front-row home overlooking the boats was a real sign of status. Although there are no longer any major commercial ships or fishing boats in the Vieux Bassin, it’s not uncommon to see yachts there.
Honfleur takes particular pride in its Impressionist roots – Claude Monet’s mentor Eugène Boudin was born in the town, and Monet and his contemporaries would often set up their easels at the Ferme Saint-Siméon on the hill above Honfleur, to capture the beautiful light of the Seine estuary. La Ferme Saint Siméon is a magnificent 17th century inn, where our now famous little painters came to be pampered by Mother Toutain. This unique place welcomes you so that you, in turn, can rejoice in the marvelous light of the Seine. Today you can stay at this lovely atmospheric inn, now a serene Relais and Chateau hotel. The Boudin Museum is right down the road not to be missed.
Sailing north from Paris on the Seine River through Normandy, you will round sharp bend with perhaps the morning fog rising off the water and see Les Andelys. It ticks all the boxes of a quintessentially charming French village: rolling green hills injected with white stone cliffs hugging the Seine River, while a 12th-century castle, Richard the Lionheart’s “Fair Castle of the Rocks” Chateau Gaillard, keeps guard of it all 300 feet atop a rocky bluff. It is worthy of any painter’s canvas. The town’s name comes from the two parts that make up the town – Petit-Andely on the banks of the River and Grand-Andely, home to an impressive, flamboyant Gothic church called the Notre-Dame des Andelys. This is a must stop and all the boats will tie up for an up close visit.
Richard, the third son of Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine, reigned as King for only ten years but certainly had a romantic reputation, he was well over six feet tall and good looking, at 16 he led an army, he was the leader of the Third Crusade to Jerusalem, and spent years traveling all over the eastern Mediterranean. Upon returning to his Norman roots he built the massive fortress to oversee the strategic bend in the River Seine in unprecedented record time. He was the architect. In reality the innovations he designed would be adopted more than a century later. The reputation of its builder, Cœur de Lion, as a great military engineer might stand firm on this single structure. Thus pin pointing and enhancing another beautiful village in Normandy. I can envision the knights riding up to the castle with their banners flying so clearly.
Then there is the pinnacle, Le Mont-Saint-Michel, sitting on a granite outcrop in the tidal basin that is washed by 30 to 40 foot tides and fed by the Couesnon River. It sits on an island, crowned with a statue of the archangel plated with fine gold and floats like a mirage on the horizon just off the Norman coast of France. For more than a thousand years, its distant silhouette has sent pilgrims' spirits soaring…and it does the same for tourists today. The Abbey turned a lost island in a bay into a worldwide tourist attraction. It's safe to say there’s nothing in the world quite like this magical island. Viewing it from the mainland in different lights is magical – the impressionist Paul Signac captured it during the setting sun in 1897.
In 966, Benedictines settled there at the request of the Duke of Normandy, Richard I, also known as “Richard the Fearless” (a local lad from Bayeux and no relation of Richard the Lionhearted). This rock — a small mountain forming an island — was even more isolated by the bay's dangerous quicksand, disorienting fog, and mythic tides. Pilgrims crossed the mudflat to the island quickly and carefully, knowing that the sea swept in "at the speed of a galloping horse."
Today more than 3 million visitors flock to the Mont via a raised footbridge/shuttle way to allow it to be an island in the sandbanks once again. The restoration project has been an overwhelming success for the ecology in particular more than 250 species of birds are now observed in the marshes without forgetting a healthy population of bottlenose dolphins and seals.
Normandy is a movie set, step back and enjoy its viewing pleasures.