Caen, France

An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983

Caen, France

Caen

The city of Caen, with a dramatic history spanning from the time of William the Conqueror to the D-Day Landing, is a highlight of any Normandy tour. A tour of Caen in this part of Normandy should also include Bayeux, Colleville sur mer, as well as the landing beaches of Omaha beach, Juno Beach, Utah beach and Sword beach.

Caen was the capital of Normandy.

Caen rose to prominence under the rule of Norman dukes in the 10th and 11th centuries, and was the capital of Normandy during the reign of William the Conqueror. William established Caen’s most important medieval site, the Abbaye-aux-Hommes (Men’s Abbey) to gain absolution for marrying his cousin, Matilda of Flanders. The abbey is a masterpiece of Norman Romanesque, with an intricate Gothic facade. William’s final resting place – located within the abbey – was destroyed in the 16th century by Calvinist mobs, restored, and then destroyed again during the French Revolution.

Not to be outdone, Matilda established her own abbey, known as the Abbaye-aux-Dames (Women’s Abbey). Look for her simple tomb in the Église de la Trinité, which has remained intact since her death. Though the abbey is now home to government offices, the church remains open to the public and tours with a private guide are offered several times a day.

The Conqueror’s legacy can also be seen at the Chateau de Caen, which looms above the centre of the city. While William’s residence, the 12th century donjon (keep), remains only in ruins, visitors can tour the oldest civic building in Normandy, the Échiquier, and the Jardin des Simples, a garden of aromatic and medicinal herbs dating back to the Middle Ages. The chateau is now also home to the Musée de Normandie (Normandy Museum), which explores the region’s history from the Gauls and the Romans to the Saxons and Vikings, with exhibitions about the landscapes of Normandy and the daily lives of medieval peasants.

Another medieval highlight of your Caen city tour is the Église Saint-Pierre, a beautiful Gothic church built from the 12th century to the 16th. The soaring spire (76 metres tall), hit by shells during World War Two, has since been restored. Make a point of looking for the engravings in the nave, which are carved with characters from the Arthurian epic poems.

Eglise de la Sainte Trinite, Abbaye-aux-Dames.

Caen’s history would remain turbulent throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. The city was captured by the English twice during the Hundred Years War, and remained under English occupation until 1450. The University of Caen Normandy – one of the oldest in France – was founded by an English Duke, John of Lancaster. During the Reformation, Caen became a centre of Protestantism, especially Calvinism, while the city was linked to the Girondin faction of revolutionaries during the French Revolution.

Caen and the Battle of Normandy

Caen would be one of the most important sites of the Normandy landings of British and Canadian troops during World War Two. Though the initial intention of the Normandy D day landing  in the battle of Normandy had been to take Caen on the day of the landing on the Normandy coast, the Allied forces were held up on the four key beaches of Omaha beach, Juno Beach, Utah beach and Sword beach, so German forces retained hold of the city. Caen became a major battlefield, as Allied forces took the Western suburbs and Germans retained the centre, with the city only liberated on August 6, two months after the initial landing. Caen bore huge losses during the campaign, with 70% of the city destroyed by Allied bombing – including the spire of Saint-Pierre and the University of Caen – and over 2,000 civilian casualties.

Today, the history of the War is explored at the Mémorial de Caen, one of Europe’s most moving World War Two museums. The memorial museum includes a superbly designed interactive exhibit telling the story of the Normandy landings. Officially designated a ‘museum for peace’, the message here is one of hope, with extensive exhibits telling the story of post-war peacemaking.

Located only two hours from Paris by train, Caen is a great base for exploring Normandy and Northern France. The British and Canadian D-Day Beaches and the Pegasus Bridge War Memorial are only short trips away, while medieval history buffs will enjoy journeys to Bayeux and the monastery of Mont St Michel.

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