A city break to Caen, Normandy – direct from London
Given the scale of destruction, how much of the fine old medieval city remains to be seen? I was pleased to discover a great deal more survived than might be imagined from wartime photographs of the aftermath of the bombing.
Many soldiers passing through Normandy in 1944 wrote home about the beautiful region and how lovely it would be without the destruction wrought by war. Now over a million Britons ferry across the Channel every year, to do just that. The landing beaches and numerous other wartime sites are, of course, a large part of the attraction – but since it is all situated within the delights of the Calvados area – there is plenty else to make it a popular destination.
Now a new route, flying in to Carpiquet airport, just outside Caen, makes a quick city break to the region a practical proposition. Carpiquet airport is the closest to the Normandy battlefield area – it was just big enough to accommodate the US President’s Air Force One and a host of other world leaders when they flew in for the 70th anniversary commemorations in June 2014. It’s quiet enough to ensure that the average tourist gets through and out in a matter of minutes. From the Gate at London (Southend) it is possible you could be in your French taxi en route to Caen city centre in just over an hour, as I discovered.
Caen was an objective for the Allies on D-Day itself because of its importance as a road hub, dominating the transport routes through the area. However, just a matter of weeks before the invasion Hitler had had a premonition that the Normandy beaches were a likely landing area – he shifted 21st Panzer Division up to Caen from Brittany. It was 21st Panzer that was to launch the only German tank counter-attack on D-Day itself, briefly fighting their way through to within sight of the landing beaches before being forced to withdraw back to the city.
Caen then became the centre of German resistance on the British side of the Normandy beachhead. It was first bombed on the 6th June and repeatedly bombed in the following month, as the British and Canadians struggled to capture the city, finally taking the greater part of it, up to the river, on 9th July 1944. Further fighting to take the remainder of the city would cause even more destruction.
Contemporary British newsreel of the battle for Caen:
Given the scale of destruction, how much of the fine old medieval city remains to be seen? I was pleased to discover a great deal more survived than might be imagined from wartime photographs of the aftermath of the bombing. The greater part of the residential area of the city had to be rebuilt but many of the fine old buildings in the centre escaped. For those with an interest in history there is much to explore. The old cobbled streets and squares will equally appeal to those whose interests lie in shopping and French cuisine.
A good place to start might be the Tourist Office opposite the old Church of Saint-Pierre. From here you can sign up for a walking tour of the city. At present the tours devoted to the city’s experiences in 1944 are conducted in French – but if a group is touring together it is possible to arrange for the guide to do the tour in English. Alternatively the little tourist train which leaves from just outside Saint Pierre offers an English version of its general guide to the city, a useful way to quickly orientate oneself.
I did not immediately notice that the spire of Saint Pierre is a work of reconstruction, it was destroyed in 1944. Fortunately the greater part of this splendid building, noted for its combination of Gothic and Renaissance styles, survived. The medieval stained glass windows also suffered in 1944 and these have not been perfectly restored, plain glass has been used to fill the damaged pieces – and Saint Pierre continues as a living Roman Catholic church, just as it has for centuries. In many ways this is the story of Caen itself – outwardly it is a lively University city and old market town, look a little closer and there are many layers of history to discover.
Until 1944 the most significant layer of history was straight out of ‘1066 and All That’. Caen was the home town of the Duke of Normandy, earlier known as William the Bastard, later known as William the Conqueror, King of England. His massive Norman ‘Keep’, much more than just a castle, dominates the high ground above the city and the ramparts of the old walls provide several free viewpoints over the city. Inside the extensive grounds within the walls is a Normandy regional museum and an Art gallery, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen.
It is a pleasant stroll through the pedestrianised old town streets, past the street cafes and the modern shops, to find what remains of William the Conqueror. He lies buried in the Abbaye aux Hommes, the monastery he founded in 1066. Or rather his left femur and a few other bits lie here, his grave having been disturbed twice – once during the French religious wars and again during the French Revolution. William also founded a nunnery in Caen, the Abbaye aux Dames, where his wife, Mathilde de Flandre, lies .
Both of these ancient buildings survived the Allied bombing – which was especially fortunate for the thousands of the citizens of Caen who found refuge here in June and July 1944. Their survival may be attributed to the blood soaked sheets that formed a Red Cross on the roof of the buildings – or because they were notable landmarks that the bomber crews used to navigate by. The survival of the towers at the Abbaye aux Hommes may also have been fortunate for the English monarchy – it is said that if the towers fall so too does the English Crown. Queen Elizabeth II apparently contributed funds when the towers were damaged in the Great Storm of 1987.
So Caen itself has much to offer, as well as being a base from which to venture forth to discover more about the D-Day landings and the subsequent battles. Nearest is Pegasus bridge over the Caen canal, seized after a brief attack by men of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in one of the opening actions in the early hours of 6th June. This was part of the British 6th Airborne Division’s Operation Tonga, that took the eastern end of the Normandy bridgehead, protecting the beaches from flank attack during the crucial first day and beyond.
At 12 km (or 7 and a bit miles) from Caen, Pegasus Bridge and the nearby museum are a prospective cycle trip along the dedicated route alongside the Caen canal. Just a little further along is the port of Ouistreham where many people travelling by ferry arrive with their cars from England. Amongst the invasion troops that landed here at Sword beach on D-Day were No.4 Commando, who fought their way inland to reinforce the 6th Airborne. A museum commemorates the Free French troops of No.4 Commando who overcame the German strongpoint at the casino in Ouistreham, and another museum, ‘Le Bunker’ – the Museum of the Atlantic Wall – emphasises the perspective of the German defenders.
Memorial de Caen
For those interested in a more comprehensive exploration of the D-Day landings you have to go in another direction. The Memorial de Caen lies on the outskirts of Caen and could easily occupy a whole day if you wanted to explore it fully. It was established not just as a Museum but as a ‘Centre for History and Peace’, so it takes care to place the Battle of Normandy not just within the context of World War II but within the context of the 20th Century as well. Signage in French, English and German indicates the spirit in which it was established.
The Memorial de Caen caters well for those on an educational or school trip but there is much to interest those who may already be familiar with the general history. There are many exhibits and artefacts which tell the personal stories behind the war – one that caught my eye was the model wooden coffin that French patriots sent as a warning to their neighbouring collaborators. ‘The 100 Objects of the Battle of Normandy’ exhibition uses individual artefacts to tell the story behind the battles of 1944 and is particularly fascinating. Underneath the museum lies a former German command bunker – itself now an exhibition space focusing on the German occupiers.
For those wanting an organised tour of the nearby beaches the Memorial de Caen offers a number of guided day trips by coach – and you can even book a two day tour through them, which includes museum entrance, hotel and coach tour.
For those who might like a day trip without a World War II theme there is one unmissable location just a 15 minute train ride away. The Bayeaux Tapestry is now such a world famous destination that the guided audio tour is now offered in over 40 languages. Sometimes the crowds at these locations can be unbearable – but the audio tour here has been designed to manage the flow of people along the 70 metre long Tapestry, and does a pretty good job of it.
And it is well worth it. Even within its climate controlled cabinet you can get up close to ‘Tapestry’ and examine the fine detail in the embroidery. Is it Harold who gets the arrow in the eye? I am with Simon Schama on this – I think it is – but you need to see the original for yourself. If you found history boring at school, a visit here might just put things right. At nearly a thousand years old, this is an early example of the victors getting to write the history – the associated museum which is included in the admission price does a very good job of explaining the background history, so you do come away with a much better appreciation of the context.
The Tapestry was designed to be displayed annually in the nave of Bayeaux cathedral, so the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux should be part of your exploration of the modest town, or rather small city, itself. William the Conqueror was present at the consecration of the building in 1077, and although there have been many additions since, he would recognise much of what exists today.
Bayeaux was captured by the Allies on 7th June 1944 and so almost completely escaped battle damage or bombing. It had long been a sleepy backwater of France and much of the medieval town remains, even the very much earlier Roman road to Paris is easy to identify amongst the old streets. To discover much more – the medieval toilets that dropped straight into the river, the old street names based on the local trades, the ‘foundling door’ at the local hospital – a guided tour will give you many more insights. Based on my experience Discovery Walks, which run daily tours, can be highly recommended.
Is a city break long enough?
Visiting Caen by flying into Carpiquet offers many opportunities for a quick trip to Normandy without having to take a car. Much can be packed in in two or three days, although those wanting to explore all of the landing beaches, and more of the many different museums and memorials along the coast, will want longer.
At the eastern edge of the Normandy battlefield Caen is rather distant from all but Sword beach, especially for those relying on public transport or taxis. Flying in to Carpiquet and taking a hire car makes everything accessible – and would give you at least one day’s extra time over those taking their own car over by ferry and back.
This could be the ideal ‘reconnaissance’ trip for those who have not visited Normandy before, or a pleasant reminder of what France has to offer and an opportunity to look at a few aspects you might have missed earlier.
To get the best out of a short trip it will help to book some things in advance, especially during the busiest season in the summer. Booking a taxi from the airport would be a good option and this can be done 24 hours in advance – but get them to meet a specific flight rather than a particular time, in case of delays (Airport-City Center = 20-25 €)… Taxi website in English. Otherwise Twisto Bus Line No 2 is the route you want. The Caen Tourist office is very helpful … firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can find most of what you need to know directly from their website including taxis … buses … car-hire. Two companies offer bike hire from Caen and there is a map available of local routes, as well a longer routes in the Calvados region, including a tour of the D-Day beaches. There are regular trains from Caen to Bayeaux, Europe Rail has the details.
N.B. I travelled as a guest of Flybe and Normandy Tourism in July 2014. Lack of time meant I did not visit the Pegasus Museum or the two museums in Ouistreham – so I cannot really comment how good they are but I mention them because they are of obvious interest.
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