Home of Calvados, Camembert and some of the richest history in the country, Normandy does not lack for sights or activities, and with it being just a hop, skip and a jump away from the UK coastline, it’s the perfect getaway destination for us Brits.
I was to embark on a three-day cycling trip, discovering the region’s cycle routes on an e-bike: Velo Francette, la Veloscenic and the Tour de Manche. Most cyclists would turn their noses up at e-bikes but they really were a savior at times. It meant we could cover more ground and see more of the region, whilst still feeling like we were getting some exercise and travelling with the freedom that only comes with a transport of two wheels.
We took the overnight ferry with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Ouistreham, which was a breeze. The comfortable cabins meant we arrived in Normandy early the next morning, refreshed and ready for a day of cycling. We saw so much in the three-days we were there; the trip was a whirlwind of beautiful scenery, exceptional food and fascinating sights. But first we were to start with a spot of history.
After collecting our bikes close to the ferry terminal, we hopped on and cycled by the riverside of Ouistreham, passing through a fish market and watching the fisherman gather and fix their nets in the early morning light.
We paused by the mighty Pegasus bridge as it ascended to let a passing boat through, then we cycled the short distance to our first stop; the Pegasus Memorial museum which was a moving display of history, telling the stories of the brave soldiers involved in the D Day landings. There were a range of genuine articles donated by family members of the soldiers including uniforms, helmets, weapons and hand-written letters. The museum is visited by many of the remaining veterans and their families and holds a sacred place for those who were touched by the war. We watched a video of archive footage recently created by the museum, which brought a tear to my eye. It was extremely moving and the knowledgeable museum staff could fill in the gaps with their vast knowledge about the landings and the time surrounding them.
We could have stayed for hours but we had a lot of ground to cover so we hopped back on our bikes to cycle to Caen where we were to enjoy lunch at the stylish La Table Des Matieres, a restaurant in the newly built modern library. Here I enjoyed a cod spring roll on a bed of creamed leeks which was delicious. This came alongside some crusty bread and whipped goats cheese.
After our satisfying lunch, we strolled around Caen, which is a beautiful town and home to France’s first ever University. It is also home to the stunning Abbaya aux Hommes, the Abbey built by William the Conquerer in 1063. We strolled around the grounds of the gothic buildings, which was oozing with historical charm.
Logis Hôtel au Site Normand in Clecy was to be our lodgings for the night and where we were to dine too. This is one of the things I love about rural France, you can stop in almost any restaurant, café or hotel and dine like a queen. The quality of the produce and the skill in the cooking is beyond anything you could expect here in the UK.
The feast we dined on was delicious and felt well-deserved after a day of cycling and sightseeing. The highlight was a beautiful starter of a soft-poached egg yolk surrounded by a truffled cream sauce with crunchy croutons for texture. The cheese trolley should also get a special mention. If you like French cheese than you’re in the right place. I couldn’t resist enjoying slices of melting soft cheeses with crackers at the end of the meal.
We enjoyed a good night’s sleep before rising early to jump back on the bikes the next morning. The first stop was the pretty town of Domfront, which was also our stop for lunch. But first we visited the very impressive Saint-Julien church, where we were to climb the church tower to enjoy a view across the town. This church is unique in many ways; it has weathered many storms and has been through several renovations and even a re-build. It’s well worth a visit. The town of Domfront is adorable with cobbled streets and quaint chateaus lining the streets. It’s a typical French town, where again, you can find exceptional food. We feasted on a camembert tartine at Le Bistrot Saint Julien, which was washed down with a traditional cider, made locally. Not missing the opportunity to try a trio of French desserts, we ordered the Café Gourmand, which was three mini desserts of apple crumble, crème brulee and a chocolate soufflé. It was an absolute delight.
Reluctantly jumping back on our bikes after such an indulgent lunch, we whizzed down the cycle paths to Bagnoles-de-l’Orne. The cycle there was leisurely; we travelled through gravelly, forest lined paths and crossed farm land dotted with cute farmhouses and the odd friendly cow, grazing on the grass.
Arriving in Bagnoles-de-l’Orne, we took a stroll through the lovely spa town and stopped off in one of the many chocolate shops to arm ourselves with salted caramels and indulgent French truffles. The town is set around a lake which is the perfect spot for an afternoon stroll. We went on to the B’O resort and spa for a relaxing bathe in the saunas and a massage, which was the perfect end to another day of cycling.
Dinner again was another show-stopper, enjoyed at our hotel Hôtel Le Normandie Bagnoles de l’Orne. The molton lava chocolate dessert was the crowning jewel of this elegant four-course meal which we enjoyed with a full-bodied French bottle of red.
Our final day saw us cycle part of the Tour de Manche, a huge cycle route which links Normandy, Brittany, Dorset and Devon. We stopped off for lunch in a quaint restaurant called Pom’Cannelle in the town of La Haye-du-Puits, where I enjoyed a delicious fish lunch before jumping back on our bikes for the highly anticipated penultimate stop of the day, the cider farm. The farm was owned and run by the delightful Marie-Agnes who showed us around and hosted a cider tasting. This region is famed for its delicious cider and Calvados and the producer we visited was awarded with the Appellation d’Origine controlee (AOC) label, which recognises it as a quality controlled product.
Marie-Agnes was charming; the daughter of the original founders of the farm, which started production in 1946, she showed us around and took us through the process of cider making. We learnt that 90% of the equipment used to make the cider was original, including the press, which they use to press the apples by hand. We then sampled a range of her delicious ciders, including three different types of Calvados which is not necessarily recommended if you plan on cycling again! My favourite was the Pommeau de Normandie, which was crisp and fruity with a strong apple flavour.
We left content and laden with bottles, ready to head back to the ferry port for our journey home, but not before one more delicious French dinner. We enjoyed a very stylish meal at L’Escale des Sens in Carentan. I enjoyed a starter of whipped goats cheese held in roasted onion cups and a main of a ballotine of chicken served with sautéed vegetables and a rich meaty sauce. Dessert was a brownie topped with fresh cream, raspberries and a raspberry tuile. The meal was a triumph and a great end to a brilliant trip.
Cycling around Normandy is a journey I’d massively recommend. The region is abundant with incredible food, historical sights and easily accessible cycle routes, which makes it perfect for a trip with friends or the family. The locals are friendly and will welcome you with open arms, ready to show you the delights of what their area has to offer.
Melissa travelled to France with Brittany Ferries and Normandy Tourism.
For more information on visiting Normandy visit the website here.