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Normandy Trip Report & Les Plus Beaux Villages de France Question

Normandy Trip Report & Les Plus Beaux Villages de France Question

Mar 13th, 2013, 03:39 PM
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Normandy Trip Report & Les Plus Beaux Villages de France Question

My wife and I took a trip to Normandy and Paris back in October of last year. We were initially going to go to either Burgundy or the Dordogne, but ultimately opted to visit Normandy instead because of the commute time to the other two regions and we were only there seven days.

On this report I'm not going to mention much of our four days based in Paris. However, the biggest highlights were getting to visit Chartres and Père Lachaise, two great places I had never been before. I particularly loved Chartres, it's my favorite Paris day trip I've ever taken. I would highly recommend it to anyone. The cathedral may be my favorite in Europe that I've seen.

In Normandy we spent all three nights in Rouen and rented a car. I liked Rouen but did not love it. The cathedral and old town were very impressive and I really enjoyed walking around for a few hours, but then I was ready to move on. It would have made a great day trip, but ultimately we found coming back there each night to be really cumbersome. Driving in Rouen was a nightmare, especially at night for someone like me who was driving in France for the first time. Anyway, for future reference this trip taught me that driving in the country in France is much easier and I would have been much happier staying in small towns.

I had Stu Dudley's guide for Normandy, which proved to be of more use than any of the guidebooks we had with us. The real highlight of the whole trip was our three days of driving around Normandy. We visited several towns, villages, and chateaux in the region. We enjoyed all of the chateaux we visited, especially Chateau St. Germain de Livet. The setting and architecture were just sublime.

Of the towns and villages we visited, here is a list of my favorites:

Le Bec-Hellouin

There were very few people we encountered in any of these towns, which really added to the experience for us. I'm sure it was because we were there in October, which is well after their peak tourist season. I particularly liked the setting of Beaumont-en-Auge and the unbelievable views from the lookout just off the center of the village. There is a neat hiking trail that descends down a heavily wooded trail from there that in retrospect I wish I had taken the time to explore. Actually, the only one of these villages that is not surrounded by a stunning landscape is Beuvron-en-Auge. However, wandering through the streets of this village was really enjoyable and unfortunately my wife did some impromptu shopping. Also, we enjoyed the best meal of our trip at their Michelin starred restaurant, Le Pavé d'Auge, per Stu's strong recommendation.

The most disappointing site of the trip for us was Honfleur. We both thought the town and harbor were beautiful. However, it was just too touristy for us and we found ourselves glad to leave after a couple of hours. It did not seem like a real place, but rather like a trip to Maui (my least favorite place I have ever gone on vacation) where the locals have left and what's left are outdoor shopping malls, hotels, resorts, and other schemes to get your money.

After the trip I did some research and realized all of the villages we loved other than Beaumont-en-Auge have the official designation as Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. I'm wondering if this is just a coincidence or if there's something to it. I'm wanting to start planning my next trip and I'm wondering where to look as a reference point to find the most beautiful small towns and villages of France. The things that most interest me are small, quiet villages, food, chateaux, and cathedrals, probably in that order. Several of you on here are much more seasoned travelers than me and I'm not wanting to make the same mistakes on my next trip that I made on the last one. I've read several message boards where some of you have mentioned you don't even consult travel guides anymore, which is something I find interesting. I personally have five different travel guides to France and I consult all of them frequently, maybe I have been consulting the wrong material all the time in trip planning.

My big takeaways on how to make my next trip better are the following:

1. Pick up the rental car up and drop it off at CDG instead of a major city center

2. Spend the entire trip based in small villages with maybe a day or two at the beginning or end in Paris to appease my wife

3. Slow down and try to see fewer sights and spend more time enjoying the sights I do get to. This includes doing less driving.

4. Get the Michelin Green Guide and corresponding maps. From the comments I've read on this board, this seems to be the guide that I haven't previously had that would most help me.

Blaise22 is offline  
Mar 13th, 2013, 03:55 PM
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Stu Dudley
StuDudley is offline  
Mar 13th, 2013, 04:05 PM
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That sounds like a real nice trip Blaise22. I really like the rolling hills and pretty landscapes in the Pays d'Auge.

The website for the Plus Beaux Villages is:


I much prefer basing in towns and villages for the same reason you found. Driving in and out of large cities every day is a pain.

Although the Plus Beaux Villages site is great, IME there are loads of charming towns and villages that don't make this list. I'm one of those who doesn't read guidebooks and I rely pretty much on just looking at my Michelin map and reading the icons to find interesting towns and sites. The scale 1:150,000 maps show the starred attractions in the corresponding green guides. I also use tourist office websites. Tourist office websites are far more comprehensive than guidebooks. And a final tip is to google photos of any town that interests me to see if I might want to pay a visit. I found one of the most useful websites for photos of towns and villages is www.cartesfrance.fr.
FrenchMystiqueTours is offline  
Mar 13th, 2013, 06:38 PM
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Blaise, you are a brave man to say you didn't like Honfleur. Of all the places we visited on our September trip, Honfleur was the biggest disappointment, because of the crowds. We aren't used to crowds in France except maybe on a market day (and at CDG, but I don’t consider the airport part of our time in France).

I think you're onto something with your idea for your next trip. That’s how we like to travel. We stay off the autoroutes and take D roads. We saw Le Bec-Hellouin on an interesting day's drive we took from Mortagne-au-Perche to Barneville near the Seine, all on D roads, through 5 or 6 pretty villages.

PBVs are great and we’ll go out of our way to see one, but there’s a tradeoff. PBVs have preserved their architectural heritage but in many we’ve gone to there aren’t stores and services for the residents–no boulangerie, no epicerie, no bank. Gift shops, restaurants, and cafes, yes.

There are plenty of scenic roads that will take you through architecturally interesting little towns that aren't on the official PBV list, and the towns are more typical French towns.

We discovered Les Plus Beaux Detours on our last trip. I had been skeptical, thinking it was just another marketing thing. However, we went to Chateau-Gontier because we were on a nearby walk and were very pleasantly surprised by the town. We went back on market day and thought they had a pretty good market. Later we went to Pont-Audemer on market day and really liked it too, and then found out that both towns are Plus Beaux Detours. So next year we’re putting some of these on our list.


Petites cites de caractere are another source of small towns that might fill the bill for you:


I never miss a chance to plug Villes et Villages Fleuris. They are floral knockouts, especially the smaller towns:


Please come back and tell us what you find in your research. You’ll probably come up with some ideas we can use for our next trip too.
Coquelicot is online now  
Mar 13th, 2013, 06:45 PM
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Thanks for the tips. We are headed to France in June, starting and ending in Paris, where we planned to rent a car from CDG--good to have that confirmed as a good idea--and make a loop over 5 nights. (some probable destinations are Chartres, Le Mans for the 24-hour race 1.5 days, Mont St. Michel, Bayeaux, D-Day beaches, Amiens, probably Chantilly). And on the day we travel from our B&B near Bayeaux to one in Amiens, we were planning on going through Lyons-de-Foret because of a family-name-connection. So how encouraging to find you listing this obscure little village as a favorite!

Enjoyed your candor and info.
texasbookworm is offline  
Mar 13th, 2013, 07:54 PM
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There is a Michelin map dedicated to Les plus beaux villages. Because it is a map of France in its entirety, it can only be used in conjunction with a more detailed map.
Michael is online now  
Mar 13th, 2013, 08:12 PM
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Well, here's a different take on Honfleur (with photos)...we loved it. We were there in early October. I've liked it both times we visited. To each his/her own.


maitaitom is online now  
Mar 13th, 2013, 08:22 PM
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Maitaitom what program do you use for the wonderful travel pictures and comments
1ladyrep is offline  
Mar 13th, 2013, 10:39 PM
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We really enjoyed our trip to Normandy as well. Ours was more focused on Bayeux but we also visited Rouen, Honfleur, Etretat, Buevron-En-Auge, etc. Very relaxing. (We also didn't care as much for Honfleur but I guess we are in a select minority).

indy_dad is offline  
Mar 13th, 2013, 10:41 PM
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Over four trips to France we have visited lots of Plus Beaux villages in a lot of different areas. They are usually worth a visit. We have also found lots of wonderful villages that have not made the list. We also prefer to stay in small villages [ in a gite] for a week to really explore the area. Getting off the main roads is the way to find lovely places. Agree that Plus Beaux Detours are worth looking at too.

I have a collection of guide books. but find the best way is after we have decided our base for the week, i google everything in the vicinity eg town and village sites, natural features such as rivers, gorges etc and make our own guide. There is a wealth of info out there.

Have fun
rhon is offline  
Mar 14th, 2013, 02:28 AM
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WE also liked Le Bec-Hellouin, we stayed there in January about 15 years a go and even in the damp cold it was charming.
welltraveledbrit is offline  
Mar 14th, 2013, 06:42 AM
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IMO, like most touristy places, it is best to visit Honfleur in the early morning or late afternoon when there are not as many tourists there. Better yet - stay in Honfleur and day-trip elsewhere by 10am & don't return until after 6PM.

Stu Dudley
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Mar 14th, 2013, 06:54 AM
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Tom, I always read your trip reports religiously (and yet for some reason I was not asked to be pope) and recently saw your photos of Honfleur, and I enjoyed your enjoyment. Knowing that somebody got the best out of it kind of made up to me for the hectic time we had there

As Stu says, tourist hotspots are different when tourists are not there, and you four had a chance to see the town in a better light.
Coquelicot is online now  
Mar 14th, 2013, 09:51 AM
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I appreciate all of your responses. And thank you all for the excellent resources for finding the villages and rural places of France that will most interest me.

I think Stu has the right idea for Honfleur if you don't like crowds. As I mentioned, I really thought it was a beautiful place, it just didn't seem as authentic and have the character for me that many of the other places I liked more had. But for many it could very well be the highlight of their trip to Normandy.

Texasbookworm, while you're in Lyons-la-Forêt, be sure to check out Boulangerie Dubourg, which is in the village center. I lucked into the best bread I've ever tasted there. They take a baguette and brush it with butter and then bake it in a wood burning oven. I'm not sure what they call it, but it's their house specialty and definitely worth seeking out.
Blaise22 is offline  
Mar 14th, 2013, 10:22 AM
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Coquelicot, the Villes et Villages Fleuris website you posted is really interesting. Is there a threshold for how many flowers the town gets rated with that really piques your interest? I'm just wondering if you have seen a big differece between towns rated quatre fleurs and those rated trois fleurs.

Brittany is an area we are really considering for our next trip, so the other link you posted regarding the Petites Cites de Caractere could be very useful as well. Thanks again!
Blaise22 is offline  
Mar 14th, 2013, 10:27 AM
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"Maitaitom what program do you use for the wonderful travel pictures and comments."

1ladyrep - It's iWeb on Mac, which unfortunately they abandoned when they went to the stupid Cloud. My site which I post on iWeb is now hosted by Danica Patrick (sorry, it's GoDaddy). I love the format of my website, but unfortunately it does not lend itself to comments directly. I'm trying to see if there is a web guru who can help me with that. Thanks for the nice comments.

Blaise and cocquelicot (by the way, you had my vote for Pope)...The way you felt about Honfleur is the same way I felt about Aix-en-Provence when we visited a number of years ago. Sometimes if you hit a place at the wrong time, you get a bad vibe. We've been lucky that both times we visited Honfleur, it was relaxing.

maitaitom is online now  
Mar 14th, 2013, 05:29 PM
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Blaise, the smaller a town, the more you will notice its flowers, so 3- and 4-flower towns can both be spectacular.

One of my favorite days was just driving around from Landean (where we stayed in a B&B with its own very nice garden) to St. Fraimbault, Lassay-les-Chateaux with a lovely rose garden, St Loup du Gast, Chailland, and finally Juvigne. Juvigne has been the European champion VF--it, Saint Fraimbault, and St Loup du Gast are 4 flowers; Lassay and Chailland are 3.

In Brittany, La Gacilly, Rochefort-en-Terre, and even tiny Saint Juvat are very very nice. Considering the size of St Juvat, they plant an amazing number of annuals each year.
Coquelicot is online now  
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