Normandy, home of the Northmen. Vikings from Scandinavia led by Rollo were offered a vast amount of land here by the king Charles the Simple. In the coming years, these particular raiders were assimilated by the French, though they maintained a distinct cultural identity. The line of Norman rulers eventually led to William the Conqueror as well as Roger II of Sicily. Hotly contested by the British and the French for centuries, Normandy continued to be a center of worldwide events up through World War II and beyond. Due to the aid provided by the English and Americans as well as the large amounts of tourism based on the D-Day beaches, this area of France is extremely welcoming and accommodating to English speakers. Needless to say, I was ready to dive right in. I’ve already mentioned Rouen as a day trip from Paris (as well as how my layover here became material for a future trip) and Mont-Saint-Michel but I want to talk more about exploring Caen and Bayeux.
The train station in Bayeux is situated a bit outside of the town itself but is an easy and pleasant walk. The main road into town from the station takes you right past the Tapestry Museum and straight down into the Old Town. I checked into the hotel right away to stash my bags so I could get to exploring. I wanted to get to Caen to see one of the castles William the Conqueror lived in. I wanted to get back to Bayeux before it got too late so I headed back to the train station for the quick ride to Caen.
On my way to Caen, I visited the Bayeux Tapestry Museum which has on display the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the story of how William the Conqueror invaded England. This tapestry is extremely famous and you can find pictures of it in just about any article discussing William and his exploits. The tapestry is extremely protected due to the fact that light can degrade the fibers it is woven with so photography is not allowed in the museum and therefore, I can’t post any pictures of it (only designated photographers have taken photos but a quick google image search shows they are everywhere). This museum is a must-see for anyone even remotely interested in history. You start off receiving a 25-minute long audioguide that is designed to take you along every inch of the 70-meter tapestry and give you the details of what is happening along the way (you can’t pause it or rewind so pay close attention!) For as ancient as it is, this work of historic art is remarkably well preserved though there are a few signs of previous mishandlings if you look closely enough. I could barely breathe the whole 25 minutes I was so enraptured by the story and standing in the vicinity of such an important exhibit. Afterward, there are a few other exhibits and cinematics that display bits of Norman and Viking history in the surrounding area as well as different tools and displays on the making of the tapestry itself.
Originally, I had stopped in Caen before Bayeux but luckily I did a bit of research before I had gone too far from the station because once again, the Vigipirate national security alert system forbade bringing large bags like the backpack I was hefting into the castle and museums and there were no nearby cosignes so I had to head back to Bayeux to drop my stuff off before returning. Once you get to Caen though, it is a pretty straight walk to the castle. In fact, the street next to the train station leads directly to the castle and what’s cool is you can see straight up the hill to the castle so there’s no way to get lost.
Some of the museums within the castle were closed by the time I got there, but the grounds are still open to wander around. Different plaques around describe the structures and ruins you can see within the walls. This was another moment of ancestral discovery for myself because according to the research I’ve done on Ancestry.com, my family is descended from William the Conqueror. He founded the village, two abbeys, and the castle in Caen before his conquest of England. Unfortunately for present day travelers, both the original castle and the castle built by Philip II Augustus are in ruins, though luckily enough remains to see the layout and to get the tiniest idea of how both parts of the chateau may have looked. As you would expect from such historical figures, the castle is quite impressive and worth a visit. There are a few cathedrals nearby I stopped into on my way back to the train where I had the saddest experience I’ve ever had while traveling. (This post is too long to contain that story but I will be writing about it next week so follow along!)
By the time I got back to Bayeux, the museums and cathedrals were closed so I decided to try to get dinner. The old town of Bayeux, though small, is very cute. Shops and restaurants line the main street bisected by a canal. There are two ancient watermills that line the canal and are worth a look. Thanks to the fact that Bayeux remained largely untouched during the wars, much of the architecture and layout remains the same.
The Cathédral Notre-Dame de Bayeux and the Tree of Liberty in the square beside it are yet another example of brilliantly lit monuments from across France. I didn’t get to see the actual light show on the tree but it remains lit regardless. The cathedral and tree are lit in bright LED’s which are visible from all around the village. The tree is especially interesting due to the way the lights and shadows dance on the leaves. There are quotes projected on the nearby sidewalks and buildings in French and English. Knowing the history of this town during WWII makes the quotes and lights quite poignant.
I got quite an early start the next day to try and hit the things I missed the night before starting with a few WWII monuments. The British Military Cemetery and Memorial lie on the outskirts of the town along one of the two routes built in the war so that tanks and supplies could bypass the town because the existing streets were too narrow. Besides Arlington in Washington DC, I had never visited a cemetery that hit me quite as hard as this one did. Though not extremely large in size, the small space is filled with hundreds of identical tombstones. The thing that really struck me was the number of tombstones etched with “A Sailor/Soldier of the 1939-1945 War.” The vast number of casualties in the World Wars is well known but the number of people buried without identification brought tears to my eyes.
The Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy is very close by. Inside are tanks, maps, and a ton of artifacts from WWII, especially those pertaining to D-Day. It’s a lot to take in really. The entire story of the D-Day invasion is laid out in tons of detail as well as how the war affected nearby towns. Bayeux, however, was the only town to escape damage from the war and was also the first town liberated. If the World Wars are of any interest, Bayeux and this museum should be near the top of the list.
I then walked towards the city center to go to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire Baron Gérard (Baron Gérard Museum of Art and History also called the MAHB). I suggest buying the combination ticket that allows access to all three museums. The museum is actually situated in the old Bishop’s Palace and inside you can see remnants of the Gothic architecture that was eventually built over but not fully removed. The rooms move chronologically from prehistory through the Celts, Romans, Franks and on through to modern day with displays of items from archeological finds as well as rooms displaying the major industries that profited Bayeux: Lace, and porcelain.
The cathedral was my last stop before leaving Bayeux. Built on the site of ancient Roman sanctuaries (pieces of which you can actually find in the courtyard as well as the crypts), the cathedral is Gothic through and through. It was consecrated in the presence of William the Conqueror and is actually where William made Harold Godwinson take an oath that originally made William the heir to the throne of England (of course Harold broke it and William invaded). Inside you can see Romanesque themes as well as Gothic though they blend seamlessly together. The cathedral is actually the original home of the Bayeux Tapestry which is believed to be commissioned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and William the Conqueror’s half-brother.
Despite the small town feel that Bayeux radiates, there’s a ton of things to do in and around the city center. Even though I didn’t do it that way, it’s very possible to see the best of Bayeux in one day. The village is only about two and a half hours from Paris by train and due to the proximity to the different D-Day beaches, Bayeux is a great base from which to explore the major historic Norman sites. My visit to this part of Normandy was full of emotions and experiences I’ll never forget!