The winds of World War II destroyed much of Caen in northern France, devastating the charm that centuries before had attracted William the Conqueror. Though the largest city and capital of Basse Normandy, it has become more high-tech magnet and less a tourist destination.
Caen still offers impressive local sights in a location within easy reach of places like the magnificent Mont-Saint-Michel and the World War II cemeteries along the coast.
We chose to stay in Caen for a long weekend of sightseeing, shopping and exploring the historic sites and museums of Caen. The two-star Hotel des Quatrans in the city center was convenient, clean and entirely adequate for our home base.
From the hotel, it’s a short block to the Château de Caen, the castle of William the Conqueror, who conquered England in 1066. Others have gone well before you. In fact, it was in 1123 that some thousand knights gathered at the castle with Henry II and Richard the Lionhearted to celebrate Christmas.
Two museums have been added to the original structure – the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Musée de Normandie. In the first, European art embraces Renaissance Italians, Dutch masters and 18th century French portraits. The Normandy museum displays a mix of archeological discoveries that traces Norman history from the megalithic period (4500 – 1500 BC) to the early 1900’s. Plantings from the Middle Ages and the original Exchequer building round out an interesting tour.
The tourist office should be your next stop, across from the church of Saint-Pierre. They’re always helpful with recommendations, maps and current activity/event listings. The church is also a must to visit and was recently restored with exceptional care to reveal stunning Renaissance stonework.
We wandered through the Quartier Vauguex, a pleasant pedestrian area in central Caen with interesting shops, bistros and brasseries, and chose Maire Corbeau for a delightful Normandie fondue dinner.
Two Romanesque abbeys anchor the city– one for men, the other for women. The Abbaye aux Hommes, at the west end of rue Saint-Pierre, was founded by William the Conqueror as a place for his tomb. Next to the Saint-Etienne Church are the 18th century buildings that are now home to City Hall. The Abbaye aux Dames is at the other end of Caen’s center and was commissioned by William’s wife. The church of La Trinite is her beautiful monument with magnificent stained glass.
A relatively new addition is the Le Mémorial de Caen -“a museum for peace”- that was built on a plateau named after General Eisenhower. Funded and supported by the United States, Britain, Canada, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the USSR and France; the contemporary, high-tech museum immerses you in the history of war and the prospects for global peace – Nobel Peace Prize recipients are commemorated with portraits and essays. In the landscape that endured and rejoiced in the Allied invasion, the lasting museum remembers war while fostering peace.
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