A rich tapestry of Norman history

History teacher Andrew Morris shares his tales from Bayeux to Mont Saint-Michel. Now pay attention at the back.

April 28, 2011
The atmospheric rocky islet of Mont Saint-Michel, dubbed 'Merveille de l'Occident' - Wonder of the West

The atmospheric rocky islet of Mont Saint-Michel, dubbed 'Merveille de l'Occident' - Wonder of the West

Think Normandy and two things normally come to mind: D-Day Beaches and the slightly soggy part of France you pass through on your way to warmer climes in the Dordogne or Provence.

Whilst the former is richly deserved and a good reason to explore the region, the latter proves nothing but our infatuation with avoiding "British" weather when we go abroad.

I'm happy to report that during our sojourn to Normandy it didn't rain once during the day and so a big raspberry to all those doom-mongers who told us we'd might as well go to Scotland.

Staying on the Contentin Peninsular, which juts out like a Gallic thumb to anyone who disparages this proud region, Normandy is the sort of destination that requires respect.

For the historians among us, there are three major periods in the Norman past which are pertinent to the fortunes of our island as well as theirs: Duke William's fiefdom - doyen of 1066 and all that, the 100 Years War and of course the events of June 6 1944. We started in 1066 by hot-footing it to Bayeux where every school child who has a smart Alec history teacher (like me) will tell you, it's not actually a tapestry but an embroidery which recounts the events of this epochal year for Anglo-French relations. You will see the intricacies of the handiwork that put together this 70-metre work of master propaganda.It was used to cover a wagon during the French Revolution and was generally schlapped around. Take heart though; it is in outstanding nick.

Getting there

Brittany Ferries sails to Caen and Cherbourg in Normandy from Portsmouth and Poole. Return fares from £132 for a car and two passengers. www.brittanyferries.com, www.normandy-tourism.org

Bayeux is a magnificent example of a medieval city with an impressive cathedral surrounded by some lace-making houses and only a few miles from the D-Day landing beaches (between Omaha and Gold). It's centrality to far more recent events are marked with great respect in the Battle of Normandy Museum on its outskirts.

At the British and Commonwealth Cemetery we saw Welsh regiments paying their respect to fallen colleagues.

The tiny stones that had been placed on the headstones of the Jewish fallen of the Commonwealth drew a particular intake of breath for us.

Caen is where William married his cousin Mathilde against the wishes of the Pope. He agreed to sanction the marriage if they built two his-and-hers cathedrals. These magnificent buildings - Abbaye aux Hommes and Abbaye aux Dammes - are located on either ends of the city .

Away from the big cities such as Bayeux and Caen, the latter of which has its synagogue in the shadow of its very imposing castle, Normandy is most definitely bucolic. One Sunday afternoon, we encountered far more cows than people - a manifestation maybe of the Norman penchant for all things dairy-related. Norman cooking is often swimming in cream.

To the north west of the D-Day beaches is the tres joli harbour at Saint Vaast-la-Hougue and just up the coast is the pretty fishing village of Barfleur.

Around the headland and journeying down the west coast of the peninsular are the vast family-friendly beaches of Barneville-Carteret and the much quieter Portbail in the region of Cote des Iles where the salt flats attract some major and varied bird migrations for any twitchers out there.

Another hour south are the imposing turrets of Granville - a coastal fortress town which changed hands between us and the French during the 100 Years War.

Below the Upper Town is, the Lower Town home to fine beaches and the "oh so tres chic" Christian Dior museum – they're very proud of their sartorial son here.

Half an hour south of Granville, Normandy meets Brittany and it's here that the most famous of Norman landmarks, Mont Saint-Michel rises out beyond flat meadows. It's one of the "wow" moments when you first see the 11th Century abbey - a rocky islet referred to as 'Merveille de l'Occident' (Wonder of the west) - glinting in the sun. To get to the mount you cross the causeway where the sheep don't seem to care they are blocking your way to this UNESCO World Heritage site.

Of course where there's tourists (and there are three million of us every year), there's tat, and winding our way up through the rocky outcrop's medieval streets we had to run the gauntlet of very worst of it - including sharp looking faux-medieval swords and assorted chivalric rubbish.

But make it past the overpriced creperies and the abbey at the top of the mount is worth the effort. Ascetically stunning and with panoramic views of the vast tidal flats, it makes you realise the monks (and indeed our friend Duke William) understood the expression location, location, location

The English tried to take it during the 100 Years War.They failed, but the gamut of British school trips makes up for the initial failure to infiltrate it.

Our final couple of days we explored the many museums and memorials along the five D-Day landing beaches.

Of particular note is the 360 degrees cinema at Arromanches - above the British landing site at Gold Beach; the impressive array of military hardware at Utah Beach and the rather ramshackle but fascinating Musee de la Liberte in Quineville which displays artefacts from Occupied and Vichy France.

Be you a military buff, a historian or just someone interested in grandpapa's stories, a visit to the any of the D-Day beaches is as humbling as it is fascinating.

Last updated: 11:25am, April 28 2011