Normandy—shaped roughly like a jigsaw puzzle piece—sprawls across France’s northwestern corner. Due to its geographic position, this region is blessed with a stunning natural beauty that once inspired Maupassant and Monet. Little wonder today's sightseers pack into colorful Rouen, seaside Honfleur, and magnificent Mont-St-Michel. Happily, it is easy to escape all those travelers. Simply lose yourself along the spectacular cliff-lined coast or in the green spaces inland, where the closest thing to a crowd is a farmer with his herd of brown-and-white cows. Whatever road you turn down, the region is sure to enchant.
Say the name "Normandy," and which Channel-side scenario comes to mind? Are you reminded of the dramatic silhouette of Mont-St-Michel looming above the tidal flats, its cobbles echoing with the footfalls of medieval scholars? Or do you think of iron-gray convoys massing silently at dawn, lowering tailgates to pour troops of young Allied infantrymen into the line of German machine-gun fire? At Omaha Beach you may marvel at the odds faced by the handful of soldiers who in June 1944 were able to rise above the waterfront carnage to capture the cliff-top battery, paving the way for the Allies' reconquest of Europe.
Perhaps you think of Joan of Arc—imprisoned by the English yet burned at the Rouen stake by the Church she believed in? In a modern church you may light a candle on the very spot where, in 1431, the Maiden Warrior sizzled into history at the hands of panicky politicians and time-serving clerics: a dark deed that marked a turning point in the Hundred Years' War.
The destinies of England and Normandy have been intertwined ever since William, Duke of Normandy, insisted that King Edward the Confessor had promised him the succession to the English crown. When a royal council instead anointed the Anglo-Saxon Harold Godwinsson, the irate William stormed across the Channel with 7,000 well-equipped archers, well-mounted knights, and well-paid Frankish mercenaries. They landed at Pevensey Bay on September 28, 1066, and two weeks later, conquered at Hastings.
There followed nearly 400 years of Norman sovereignty in England. For generations England and Normandie (as the French spell it) blurred, merged, and diverged. Today you can still feel the strong flow of English culture over the Channel, from the Deauville horse races frequented by high-born ladies in gloves, to silver spoons mounded high with teatime cream; from the bowfront, slope-roof shops along the harbor at Honfleur to the black-and-white row houses of Rouen, which would seem just as much at home in the setting of David Copperfield as they are in Madame Bovary.
The French divide Normandy into two: Haute-Normandie and Basse-Normandie. Upper (Haute) Normandy is delineated by the Seine as it meanders northwest from the Ile-de-France between chalky cliffs and verdant hills to Rouen—the region's cultural and commercial capital—and on to the port of Le Havre. Pebbly beaches and even more impressive chalk cliffs line the Côte d'Alabâtre (Alabaster Coast) from Le Havre to Dieppe. Lower (Basse) Normandy encompasses the sandy Côte Fleurie, stretching from the resort towns of Trouville and Deauville to the D-Day landing beaches and the Cotentin Peninsula, jutting out into the English Channel.