Neil Hennessy-Vass discovers an often overlooked part of France rich in culture, history and good food and less than an hour’s flight away
The echo chamber of today’s society loves a sound bite. This year it’s been “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” and of course it should be rightly celebrated as one of if not the greatest achievement of man thus far. But what it boils down to is travel, the desire to go further, see more and in this case see what no man had seen before, the surface of the moon first-hand. When I travel I try to see the place for the first time I’ve usually read about it, seen it on TV or in a film or pictured in a magazine so it’s genuinely hard to be surprised when travelling. But sometimes I’m delighted and immensely pleased by what I find.
Caen is to all intents and purposes a gateway to France from the UK. Most people who have passed through it will have done so by ferry. Roll on roll off and drive away to wherever they are headed. But did you know you could fly to Caen in under an hour from the UK? Thought not. I tried it recently and it’s a revelation. I stayed at Southend’s excellent Holliday Inn, comfortable and a three-minute walk to the terminal (they can even look after your car while you’re away) or you can take the train from Liverpool Street in an hour. Then it’s 100 paces to the terminal. See what I mean, this is easy peasy travel that gives you more time in the destination, simple eh?
So landing at Caen Airport is a bit like being a VIP, it’s small discrete and perfectly formed. I was in and out in no time and here’s the thing, everyone’s polite and cheerful. In fact many a celebrity do use the airport for that reason, think President Obama, think Prime Minster Brown, think Tom Hanks, you get the idea. Now if it’s your chauffeur’s day off then there’s plenty of options on the car hire front or just get a taxi.
As I mentioned most people drive through Caen on the way to somewhere else. Well I would urge you to stay a while and see what it has to offer. For those seeking history, it has that in bucket loads. William the Conqueror hails from here (there’s a giant castle in the middle of the town where he lived) and the beautiful town of Falaise is nearby, where he was born. The D-Day landing beaches are all within grasp, one (Sword) is actually by the ferry terminal that you’ve probably driven past.
Now these moments in time are well-known and part of the mindset as British, after all they had quite an impact on us, being conquered by the Normans and winning the second world war. But just like that sound bite I mentioned earlier, we think we know what happened but do we, do we really?
There are two ways to bring this history back to life and experience it almost first-hand. The first is to visit, The Caen Memorial Museum. Opened in 1988 from the entrance alone you get where it’s coming from. Resembling a bunker with a fissure large enough to drive a tank through this vast building covers everything of importance from pre WW1 to the end of the Cold War. With testimonies, photographs, relics, artifacts and excellent films, many commissioned by the museum it brings to life the times we have lived in. It doesn’t stop there, if you want to delve deeper the museum offers guides to take you around the displays of course but also to explore the environs, whatever you want on whatever subject matter you might have in mind. Say you wanted to know where the Canadian divisions were during the Falaise Pocket (an encircling movement during the battle of Normandy that cost thousands of German lives); they will take you there. Or if you’d like to know about the landing beaches they can take you there in conjunction with the artifact held at the museum and bring it all together. It’s like the best history lesson you’ve never had.
That might be a bit draining for the whole trip I’ll grant you so maybe you’d like to wander around Caen and just take it all in. Of course, you can do that, there are plenty of interesting things to see and you can stay right in the centre of town and be in the middle of it all (there are over 80 hotels in the town). But if you fancied something a little different, then I’d recommend the guided tour. This is unlike most tours, available from the tourist office on Oustreham Beach (near the casino and Sword Beach) you can hire for only €6 an umbrella with headphones. This GPS enabled device guides you through the back streets and along the beach over the course of 90 mins. But the best and I can’t state this strongly enough this is not a standard guide ‘droning on’ in your ear, this is a highly produced series of voices giving, memories, recollections, human stories that refer to exactly where you’re standing. Some of it is like poetry, some of it is like a social documentary, it’s just a brilliant soundscape. All the time there are seagulls, children playing, waves pounding in the background all adding to the atmosphere.
There’s good shopping to be had in the town, they excel at marvellous French food, unsurprisingly it’s full of independent restaurants with tip-top service, The Bayeux Tapestry is nearby, there are countless cute villages in Normandy, crepes and galettes galore, 10km of wonderful beach to explore. To paraphrase Neil Armstrong It’s one small flight for man but one giant leap in culture. Happy landings.
I stayed at Best Western Plus Le Moderne