A Trip to Caen
A brief trip across the English Channel from Portsmouth to Ouistreham followed by a short bus ride through the countryside, will take you to the Normandy city of Caen. Many of the historical buildings within the city were built at the time of William the Conqueror (who reigned from 1066), though few remained intact following the devastation that took place during WWII. Now rebuilt, there are still impressive churches and abbeys to see, many with blackened gothic architecture and gargoyles peering down at you from the heights.
The castle, Château de Caen, built by William the Conqueror is a good starting point as it stands on high ground with superb views of the city and houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts. There are plenty of other attractions and sites of interest in and around the city including botanical gardens, museums, and the Caen Memorial Museum with an area especially dedicated to D-Day and The Battle of Normandy.
The locals’ mindset is one of socialising and relaxed sauntering amongst the cafes and shops, or along the banks of the Orne River. In summer near the Basin Saint Pierre Marina, informal tango dancing is held by groups of all ages and abilities. In the sultry humid night, you can while away some time watching – or even trying – some of the moves made to look so effortless by the locals.
The city is heavily influenced by the university population, so there are plenty of bars and affordable restaurants. The fruit and vegetable markets are impressive in scale and an important part of local life in the city. The quality and prices are excellent too, so make sure you stock up if you are able. Hotels are plentiful, mostly unfussy, and easy to book online, though watch those summer months and the influx of tourists that can make accommodation scarce.
With all of the churches and spires around, it’s not surprising that you’re likely to stumble upon a wedding or two. They’re easy to spot as the families gather in elegant dress waiting in the streets for the bride to arrive. There is a great sense of style and panache in the occasion, and nothing of the tackiness that can encroach in other western cultures. Mind you, if noise pollution is not your thing, then neither is a Caen wedding – or at least the finale – which entails the bride and groom driving circular routes around the city followed by a convoy of friends and relatives blaring their car horns.
On the subject of merriment, you will be well served if you like beer in Caen. There are many Belgium brews to choose from and the Flemish ‘abbey’ beer Affligem is popular. It is often served in a large glass with a stem; be careful though, as it goes down all too easily and tends to be potent stuff.
The relaxed nature of Caen, with its restaurants, cafes, easy going people, and pleasant walks, all makes you wonder why you didn’t come before and why you really have to leave. It’s a place to unwind, and in a city that is perhaps a rare quality.