Getting Oriented

The Seine Valley divides Normandy in two as it flows northwest from Paris through Rouen and into the English Channel at Le Havre. To the north lies Upper Normandy and a spectacular coastline of towering chalk cliffs called the Côte d'Alabâtre (Alabaster Coast). West of the Seine lies Lower Normandy, full of lush meadows and lined with the sandy beaches of the Côte Fleurie, or Flower Coast. (These are the same beaches where the Allies landed on D-Day.) Far to the west, at the foot of the sparsely populated Cotentin Peninsula, the offshore Mont-St-Michel patrols one of the continent's biggest bays.

  • Upper Normandy. Haute-Normandie is anchored by Rouen. Despite being battered in World War II, this alluring gateway city retains such an overwhelming number of churches, chapels, towers, fountains, and old cross-beam houses that many visitors take two full days to soak it all in. Heading some 60 km (35 miles) northwest to the Channel shore, the Côte d'Alabâtre (Alabaster Coast) beckons. Named for the white cliffs that stretch north, it includes the spectacular rock formations at Étretat that inspired Monet to pick up his paintbrush. Nearby Fécamp bridges the sacred and secular with its noted Benedictine abbey and distillery.
  • Lower Normandy. Basse-Normandie begins with the sandy Côte Fleurie (Flower Coast), announced by seaside Honfleur, an artist's paradise full of half-timber houses. Just south, Rothschilds by the Rolls arrive in season at the Belle Époque beach resort of Deauville. Modern, student-filled Caen is famed for two gigantic abbey churches begun by William the Conqueror, who is immortalized in nearby Bayeux's legendary tapestry. This town makes a great base for exploring somber D-Day sites along Utah and Omaha beaches; bus tours and moving memorials make a fitting prelude for a drive across Normandy's Cotentin Peninsula to Mont-St-Michel, whose tiny island is crowned by one of the most gorgeous Gothic abbeys in France.

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