Driving Monet home

Ayushi Saxena | Updated on: Jun 29, 2018
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Roads in Normandy take you past gardens, villages, towering cathedrals and beaches

Normandy: the land of Monet’s gardens, D-Day beaches, Mont St Michel abbey and cider. Often, visitors to France stop at Paris and quickly make their way to the vineyards or the French Riviera. The fascinating and historically significant Normandy region, a few hours from the capital, is rather neglected.

Although it seems laughable to call any place in France underrated, Normandy on the whole is really a gem. I returned star-struck after a road trip with a few friends in August last year.

The first stop on our Normandy itinerary was Giverny, where Monet’s house and gardens have been converted into a museum. Giverny is firmly on the tourist radar and we found a snaking queue outside the museum — on a Monday, no less. However, the wait was well worth braving if only to spend some time wandering around Monet’s magical gardens, where he painted his famous water lilies series. Even swarms of tourists can’t take away from the tranquillity of the gardens.

After Giverny, we drove to the erstwhile capital of the Anglo-Norman empire — Rouen. This is also where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake. After a frenetic weekend in Paris, Rouen seemed to be just what we were craving — laid-back, unhurried, inviting us to linger over meals and take a stroll by the Seine.


It’s elementary: Falaise d'aval and the needle at the Normandy coastline close to Étretat



The centrepiece of the city is the Rouen Cathedral, arguably the most striking of all the Gothic-style cathedrals we saw in France. It demands undivided attention, for only then can you appreciate every little architectural detail — in turns delightful and intimidating. The cast-iron spire, distinctly neo-Gothic in style, makes Rouen the tallest cathedral in the country. In a series of 30 paintings, created between 1892-4, Monet captured the beauty of the Rouen Cathedral at different times of the day and year.

Rouen is also a good base to explore the chalk cliffs of Etretat from. The day of our drive to Etretat, we woke up to moody, grey skies and a persistent drizzle. Thus began our acquaintance with the fickle Normandy weather, so infamous that most souvenirs you see here joke about the weather. Come to Normandy to experience four seasons in a matter of half hour, the locals say.

Rain lashed our Ford as we drove to Etretat. We huddled into our thin jackets for protection against chilly winds. Completely unprepared for this weather, we cursed our lax Googling. However, nothing could mar the beauty of the cliffs. On a clear day, the cliffs appear to shimmer. But even with clouds overhead, the cliffs looked stunning — rather easy to imagine as the setting of a 19th-century Gothic romance. The moody white rock faces rise in arches over the sea — some of them as high as 70-80m.

On the way back to Rouen, we stopped at the charming port of Honfleur. On our drive over, the clouds had miraculously parted and the skies were a cerulean blue. We passed fields peppered with stacks of golden hay and grazing cows, and readied for a pleasant and warm evening walk around Honfleur.

The fickle Normandy weather kicked in as soon as we arrived in Honfleur, in the form of torrential rain. Nevertheless, we spent a pleasant, if short, evening at Honfleur, huddled under umbrellas, taking shelter in French cafés and picking up bottles of cider and Calvados (apple brandy).

The next day we made our way to Gavray, the village that was to be the base for the next leg of our trip. We’d passed quaint, picturesque villages and we were pleased to be finally staying in one. From Gavray, we drove to to the abbey at Mont St Michel — the second most-visited site in France after Paris.

The abbey is an island, connected to the mainland by a bridge, and reached by a shuttle from the car park, a kilometre away. Although the monastery has been around since the eighth century, the Romanesque church rising over the ramparts was commissioned in the 11th century, and Charles VI strengthened its fortifications in the 14th century.

The best views of the abbey are from the bridge. I could well imagine it as a refuge for pilgrims in the medieval ages, or the English armies trying to breach its fortifications during the Hundred Years War. Inside the monastery, the feeling of timelessness disappeared as we walked through narrow streets filled with souvenir stores and overpriced restaurants. But it is easy to leave behind the crowds once you ascend the stairs to walk the ramparts, which look out at the sea during high tide and at swathes of sands during low tide — a dramatic landscape at any point of the day.

If you have even a passing interest in world history, you could visit the D-Day beaches dotting the coast here, the war memorials and the World War II cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.

On our last day, we decided to honour the Normandy staples of cider and cheese. We stayed in our charming Airbnb, drinking cider by the litre and gorging on Camembert and Livarot local cheeses and cured meats, as horses and donkeys grazed in the adjoining field. It was the perfect end to our Normandy trip, marred slightly by the weather.

Ayushi Saxena is a Delhi-based children’s books editor and freelance writer

Published on June 29, 2018

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