Caen was our touchdown pad for our three week Normandy adventure. Our friend Jill, who served as our master guide for France, suggested that we stay in Caen as it was the “Gateway to Normandy.”
She was not wrong! Caen is on its own, an incredibly historic city - and not just for its involvement in WWII -although the liberation of Caen was one of the most important operations of the war. It is positioned pretty centrally in the region, with everything you might want to visit within an hour or so. The farthest we went was to Mont. Sant Michel which took us around 2.5 hours.
Caen has truly remarkable history, dating back to prehistoric times. In the 10th Century it became the seat of power for the Duchy of Normandy when William the Conquerer built his castle there. It was one of the Federalist provinces that rose up and almost brought France into a civil war during the revolutionary years. And in the 1940s, it was occupied by the Nazi regime. And then theres all the history in between that, too. Its safe to say Caen is not only a beautiful city, but a resilient one.
Caen’s seemingly most present history is that of WWII. Over 70% of it’s buildings were destroyed or damaged in the Allied Bombings during the Battle of Normandy, and you can see evidence of this all over town. Caen was an important city to regain control of, due to its access to the coast and the River Orne. It served as an area where importing and exporting was of great importance - if the allies did not regain control, it would be harder to bring troops and supplies in from the beaches of Normandy.
Decades later, I think it would be remiss to say that many Norman locals are happy about it. Happy to have their freedom, of course and always, but for the unnecessary destruction of civilian life and precious history - a little less.
As you walk the streets, you see Medieval architecture married to modern cement buildings. Clearly areas that were bombed out and destroyed. On top of all of that, thousands of civilian lives were lost during the allied bombings due to a carelessness in alerting the city of the upcoming raids. A beautiful city, with long standing history, scarred by war and loss.
Though Caen’s most recent history holds a hefty presence, it should also be known that Caen is a bustling, lively, and historic University city and has been for a long time. Although the original University was founded in the 1400s during the Allied Bombings of WWII the University buildings were completely destroyed.
The learning never stopped, really. While the University was destroyed, classes were held in buildings all across the city that were still standing. A campus was re-established in 1957, with the mascot of a Phoenix. Fitting, since the University quite literally rose from the ashes.
The college scene is alive and well today, but there are plenty of tranquil spots around the city, as well. It served us nicely as a home base - it was convenient to get to from Paris, with the train taking us straight into Caen. We had access to rental cars, many museums and wonderful historic sights. Plus, the beautiful expanse of Normandy was right at our finger tips!
Our only complaint - no bike rentals unless you have a French credit card! Biking around would have been such a dream. They do have Twisto Velo racks all around the city, but you have to get a Twisto card (which we didn’t know) or have a French credit card in order to operate the machines.
Top 11 (we spent three weeks there, ok!!):
- Caen Castle - an 11th century Castle built by William the Conquerer
- Pegasus Bridge Museum & Café Gondree - The site of the first successful Allied Mission on D-Day, and the first Maison liberated in France - a café, still owned by the same family.
- Place Saint Saveur - a beautiful square in Caen full of shops, restaurants and picturesque French architecture
- Hippodrome & Canal Walk - a Hippodrome built in the 1800s surrounded by walking paths (you can actually walk on the Hippodrome path!) and neighboring the canals of Caen!
- The BOULANGERIES - Bakeries!! We discovered Gringettes here - OMG!!
- Memorial de Caen - a WWII German bunker turned museum, a truly remarkable memorial!
- L'Abbaye Aux Hommes - the Men's Abbey, a former Benadictine monastery founded by William the Conquerer. Also the place where he is buried!
- Musée de Normandie - A stunning display of human history throughout Normandy from prehistoric to present times
- L’Hydropathe (tapas and wine restaurant) - Delicious, hip and fun! A great tapas restaurant.
- Les Petites Douceurs - Dessert on Dessert on Dessert! A quaint, unique restaurant specializing in dessert!
- Rue Saint-Pierre - our favorite street to roam in Caen! Shops & restaurants galore!
What we missed:
A lot of restaurants - we cooked at home every night! #budgethack
Rue Saint-Pierre - such a picturesque street!