For those planning to hit the battlefields of Normandy and perhaps looking for a good place to stay, Caen is a wonderful choice. This city was located in the British/Canadian Sector, inland between Juno and Sword Beaches. The British Airborne landing zones were about a half-hour away to the east, while Omaha Beach was only an hour away to the west. The city itself was well fashioned for tourism -- convenient, overloaded with hotels, bustling with places to eat and shopping, and some tremendous things to do and see in the city. I rather enjoyed it as a stopover. After spending the daytime touring battlefield locations, I enjoyed being able to relax at an outdoor bar or cafe emjoying a local beer or wine. Because it was June, the sun didn't go down until about nine-thirty at night, so I took one of the evenings and did a quick twilight tour of the city, which I am pleased to describe here.
Caen had plenty of well-marked walking routes for the city, and I followed one of the shorter ones due to limited time. The city's attractions followed along an east-west road between two abbeys, L'Abbaye aux Hommes at the west end (shown in the first photograph) and L'Abbaye aux Dames on high ground in the East roughly a mile away. L'Abbaye aux Hommes comprised the city's most common postcard shot, with its huge flag-laden front garden and spectacular facade. The Abbaye had a beautiful museum which I was able to devote only ten minutes to, but it seemed worth a further look. I was also able to take a peak inside the church, the structure at the right center, which was absolutely beautiful on the inside. I was not sure of the significance of the flags, that included European nations, the United States and Canada, and a host of others. Several of them represented nations not fighting in WWII or that didn't even exist until after the Cold War.
The walking route in between the abbeys hosted a number of historical buildings. Many of them were residences, old hotels, or churches. One of the more striking of them stood directly across from the Abbaye des Hommes. It was the Eglise St. Étienne, shown in the second photo. Destroyed during the war, the ruins have been allowed to stand as a war monument, now sitting adjacent to a major traffic circle. Photographs of the church dating before the war showed it to have been once one of Caen's most beautiful churches.
At the mid-way point between the abbeys sat a collection of historic structures, such as the Chateau Ducal, shown in the third photograph. This massive residential fortress was built for none other than William the Conqueror in the 11th Century, he who was also remembered in a famous tapestry located in the nearby city of Bayeux. The Chateau and its surrounding park consumed about two city blocks. The interior of the castle has a museum, a host of monuments, and the Church of St. George, each being worth visiting. The Chateau was near Caen's University, and the combination of a sunny evening and the Chateau's beautiful park drew a number of students lazing on a sunny day.
The Chateau also provided a great vantage point in nearly all directions. The fourth photograph shows a view of the Notre Dame de Froiderue with portions of the Chateau visible across the front. The Notre Dame was a fantastically ornate church that looked like it had sustained war damage and had not yet been restored. Also visible (though not in this photograph) was the Tower Leroy, a large round guard tower that sat in the middle of Caen's busiest downtown road (the road going across the fourth photograph).
Beyond the Tour Leroy, there were two directions one could take. The main road continued on toward the city's inner harbor (the Port de Plaisance) leading to the Orne River and out to sea. The Port's marina was very crowded with boats. It was surrounded by a collection of modern chain hotels and restaurants. The other path was the Rue Basse that led up a steep hill over the port to the Abbaye aux Dames. This was a smaller but picturesque abbey with nearby ruins of a city wall and a garden.
The main road itself was a wonderful sight. Most of it had old style gathering spots along both sides of the road, such as the one shown in the fifth and final photograph. But it wasn't just Norman French cuisine -- just about any cuisine was available. Pubs lined along the Port de Plaisance, restaurants are located all along the main road and up to Le Vaugueux, tucked away on the east side of the Chateau. The more colorful places were toward the west on Rue St. Pierre. This road also had a number of the more traditional hotels that offered limited facilities and typically locked the doors at night -- these were family-operated businesses.
Caen was an absolute blast. I really enjoyed walking around, seeing the sights, and trying the local food. I appreciated its convenience as well -- being near so many other attractions. If you are planning a trip to this region, Caen is a good place to hang your hat.
Trip Taken 2-3 June 2002 -- Last Updated 04 October 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin
* To the untrained eye, it is tempting to pronounce Caen like Cannes ('kahn'). However, the 'n' in Caen should not be pronounced, "Kah" with "ah" being very nasal, is closer to correct. But to get it absolutely right, consult your neighborhood Francophone. (Acknowledgement to Claire Prosper)