The Orne runs through the heart of a region in Northern France known as Suisse Normande, an area of outstanding beauty mimicking, in miniature, mountains and valleys of Switzerland with its sudden, descending gorges and wooded, green slopes. The beautiful river flows through weirs and waterfalls, providing a playground for canoeists, adventure seekers, fishermen and bird watchers. Along its sun-dappled length a variety of trees shade its banks while fat, cream- or black-spotted cows graze in lush fields nearby. Here, in this delightful place, my family and I were privileged to spend a holiday in a comfortable, converted barn.
We arrived on a fine, summer afternoon: four adults and two children, three generations of the same family. Our crossing from Dover to Calais was pleasant and our drive westwards smooth and quiet. Tourists seemed few around the countryside, perhaps preferring to motor to the hot spots of Southern France, leaving this area predominantly to local people and French holidaymakers. Our accommodation proved to be a long, low, renovated building, possibly an old cow shed some centuries old, with a large country-style kitchen. Glass doors opened out to reveal an expanse of lawns, trees and bushes overlooking a natural pond inhabited by several otters. An idyllic place surrounded by serene countryside, that our grandchildren Nicholas and Emily set out immediately to explore.
My first impressions of Suisse Normande were of peace and tranquility. Roads, uncluttered by traffic leading from one tiny hamlet to another set amongst, what appeared to be, never-ending miles of farm land. A spider’s web of tiny lanes, sometimes without signposts, could lead you into a farmyard or, sometimes, right back where you started. One guidebook says “this whole area can get too crowded for comfort during high season,” but we did not find this to be true during our stay in late July. A quiet relaxing atmosphere seemed to be paramount.
Our nearest village, Clécy, we found perched on a hill about 1km from Pont du Vey, an ancient bridge crossing the River Orne. Set out in a typical French way with a town square, a few eateries, one or two shops and a wonderful town hall with flags fluttering outside, Clécy looks down over a patchwork of rolling scenery. Locals here were friendly and helpful to us, often willing to engage in conversation. I managed to communicate in spite of my limited French vocabulary and our grandchildren drew many a smile with their attempts at the language.
Venturing further a field, but within easy driving distance of Clécy, is Falaise, birth-place to William the Conqueror, known by the more familiar name to Normans as 'William the Bastard' because of his illegitimate birth. The story goes that his father, Duke Robert of Normandy, spotted a laundress called Arlette working in his chateau. He took a fancy to the young girl and she, returning his attention, eventually produced William. His great castle, completed two hundred years after his death, stands prominently above the town. Severe damage during World War II has resulted in lavish, modern restoration, but retaining parts resembling the Tower of London. A spectacular visual and audio exhibition is displayed in William’s castle telling his life story and invasion of Britain. His mammoth task of conveying troops, horses, weapons, armour and supplies in wooden boats across an unpredictable Channel for the Battle of Hastings was incredible. This feat, in reverse, was to be repeated centuries later for the D-Day landings, still a difficult operation even with more modern equipment. Mount the high battlements of this notable, historical edifice for views far and wide across Normandy or admire “the Conqueror’s” enormous statue in Falaise town square.
Bayeaux needs little introduction. Famous for its wonderful tapestry depicting William’s battle with King Harold, this work of art needs to be seen to be believed. Commissioned by Bishop Odo, William’s half-brother, the tapestry is thought to have been sewn by nuns in England and transported back to France for the inauguration of magnificent Bayeaux Cathedral in 1077; it still stands in perfect condition today. The seventy metre long embroidery is displayed in one long strip, under glass, around walls in a seminary across the river from the Cathedral. It tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England showing, in detail, every event leading up to, and during, the great fight. On the edge of Bayeaux, overshadowed by the Cathedral’s Spire, is a World War 11 museum and War Graves cemetery. Many symmetrically placed gravestones commemorate different nationalities of both allied forces and their opponents killed on the Normandy landing beaches in 1944.
Moving a little south from Caen, towards the border with Brittany near St Malo, is the abbey of Mont St-Michel. Arrive early and see, rising out of the morning mist above a swathe of sands, this breathtaking sight of mediaeval splendour, a rock encompassing a little city topped by a fortress-abbey. Innumerable well-photographed postcards and posters cannot do justice to the feeling of awe inspired at first sight of Le Mont St Michel. Enjoy a walk across a long causeway to enter through an old fortified gate into a main street that climbs up through a maze of gabled houses, growing steeper and narrower towards the great Gothic church known since 1228 as the Merveille – “The Marvel”. And if all these historical and cultural experiences are not enough, there are countless chateaux or exquisite churches scattered throughout the countryside.
Our grandchildren, Nicholas and Emily, equally enjoyed our outings to historical sites. Most of the attractions we visited are child-friendly, providing information at adult and younger level. But to bring a more light hearted approach we spent a great day touring the excellent Zoo de Jurques. Some people may not like the concept of keeping animals in zoos but many are currently providing invaluable havens for endangered species besides working on research to increase numbers through wildlife breeding rehabilitation programmes. The great variety of animals at Jurques look healthy and well tended in their large enclosures. We had great fun watching the antics of tiny penguins, viewing a pair of beautiful Bengali tigers and seeing, for the very first time, two rare white tigers from Siberia. We also saw a pack of wolves, once common inhabitants in Northern Europe, fed by their keepers. This was an interesting revelation showing strong family ties amongst these fearsome creatures.
Our most memorable times were spent watching our young grandchildren swimming and boating on the River Orne. Here there are canoes for hire to travel up or down the river and an exciting adventure pursuits centre. To pass the time while the children played, we resorted to sipping glasses of Normandy cider and trying out various dishes served at riverside cafés. Local-grown apples, along with cheeses, cream and seafood dominate menus in Normandy. Chicken and pork dishes often include apples and this fruit is also used to stuff gateaux or decorate delicious, glazed, French tarts. The region is renowned for producing cider, pommeau, a sparkling apple perry, and calvados, a brandy made by distilling cider and matured in oak casks for several years. Such tipples go well with the area’s most famous cheese, creamy camembert, eaten soft but not runny, Pont-L’eveque, whose recipe dates back to the 13th Century and is matured for up to six weeks, or Livarot, another medieval cheese, strong and ripened for three months. If cheese is not to your liking then try shellfish, oysters, mussels and scallops, brought fresh from nearby coastal towns.
Suisse Normande has much to offer in its variety of activity pursuits, historical sites, gastronomic delights... or just relaxing in beautiful surroundings.