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Rick Steves Snapshot Normandy
By Rick Steves
By Steve Smith
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around December 27, 2022. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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- Rick's firsthand, up-to-date advice on Normandy's best sights, restaurants, hotels, and more, plus tips to beat the crowds, skip the lines, and avoid tourist traps
- Top sights and local experiences: Visit the Big Clock in Rouen that dates back to the Renaissance, and see the famed Bayeux Tapestry. Pay your respects at the D-Day beaches, and cross the causeway towards the towering Mont St. Michel. Savor creamy Camembert, sip fresh local cider, or take a bike ride through the countryside
- Helpful maps and self-guided walking tours to keep you on track
With selective coverage and Rick's trusted insight into the best things to do and see, Rick Steves Snapshot Normandy is truly a tour guide in your pocket.
Exploring beyond Normandy? Pick up Rick Steves France for comprehensive coverage, detailed itineraries, and essential information for planning a countrywide trip.
This Snapshot guide, excerpted from my guidebook Rick Steves’ France, focuses on the fascinating regions of Normandy and Brittany. Normandy teems with turning points. For more than a thousand years, legendary figures such as William the Conqueror, Joan of Arc, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower have changed history here. But Normandy is more than invasions and D-Day beaches. Honfleur’s gentle harbor inspired the Impressionists, as did Rouen’s magnificent cathedral. A thousand-year-old tapestry in Bayeux captures the drama of medieval warfare in a million stitches. On your journey, discover the architectural—and spiritual—marvel of Mont St-Michel, rising above the tidal flats like a mirage.
Next door is a wilder part of France with a Celtic twist—Brittany. Experience a land of rough coastlines, traditional lace headdresses, and its own language—Breton. Taste its world-famous crêpes and oysters, as well as buttery cakes and cookies. Discover its best-preserved medieval city—Dinan—and a typical Breton beach town, St-Malo. Mixed together, Normandy and Brittany are an intoxicating French cocktail. Drink it all in.
To help you have the best trip possible, I’ve included the following topics in this book:
• Planning Your Time, with advice on how to make the most of your limited time
• Orientation, including tourist information (abbreviated as TI), tips on public transportation, local tour options, and helpful hints
• Sights with ratings:
▲▲—Try hard to see
▲—Worthwhile if you can make it
No rating—Worth knowing about
• Sleeping and Eating, with good-value recommendations in every price range
• Connections, with tips on trains, buses, and driving
Practicalities, near the end of this book, has information on money, phoning, hotel reservations, transportation, and more, plus French survival phrases.
To travel smartly, read this little book in its entirety before you go. It’s my hope that this guide will make your trip more meaningful and rewarding. Traveling like a temporary local, you’ll get the absolute most out of every mile, minute, and dollar.
Rouen • Honfleur • Bayeux • D-Day Beaches • Mont St-Michel
Sweeping coastlines, half-timbered towns, and thatched roofs decorate the rolling green hills of Normandy (Normandie). Parisians call Normandy “the 21st arrondissement.” It’s their escape—the nearest beach. Brits consider this area close enough for a weekend away (you’ll notice that the BBC comes through loud and clear on your car radio).
Despite the peacefulness you feel today, the region’s history is filled with war. Normandy was founded by Viking Norsemen who invaded from the north, settled here in the ninth century, and gave the region its name. A couple hundred years later, William the Conqueror invaded England from Normandy. His victory is commemorated in a remarkable tapestry at Bayeux. A few hundred years after that, France’s greatest cheerleader, Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc), was convicted of heresy in Rouen and burned at the stake by the English, against whom she rallied France during the Hundred Years’ War. And in 1944, Normandy hosted a World War II battle that changed the course of history.
The rugged, rainy coast of Normandy harbors wartime bunkers and enchanting fishing villages like Honfleur. And, on the border it shares with Brittany, the almost surreal island abbey of Mont St-Michel rises serene and majestic, oblivious to the tides of tourists.
Planning Your Time
Honfleur, the D-Day beaches, and Mont St-Michel each merit overnight visits. At a minimum, you’ll want a full day for the D-Day beaches and a half-day each in Honfleur and on Mont St-Michel.
If you’re driving between Paris and Honfleur, Giverny or Rouen (covered in this chapter) are worthwhile stops. By train, they’re best as day trips from Paris. The WWII memorial museum in Caen works well as a stop between Honfleur and Bayeux (and the D-Day beaches). Mont St-Michel must be seen early or late to avoid the masses of midday tourists. Dinan, just 45 minutes by car from Mont St-Michel, offers a fine introduction to Brittany. Drivers can enjoy Mont St-Michel as a day trip from Dinan.
For practical information in English about Normandy, see http://normandy.angloinfo.com or www.normandie-tourisme.fr.
Getting Around Normandy
This region is ideal with a car. If you’re driving into Honfleur from the north, take the impressive but pricey Normandy Bridge (Pont de Normandie, about €5 toll). If you’re driving from Mont St-Michel into Brittany, follow my recommended scenic route to the town of St-Malo.
Trains from Paris serve Rouen, Caen, Bayeux, Mont St-Michel (via Pontorson or Rennes), and Dinan, though service between these sights can be frustrating (try linking by bus—see below). Mont St-Michel is a headache by train, except from Paris. Enterprising hotel owners in Bayeux run a minivan service between Bayeux and Mont St-Michel—a great help to those without cars.
Buses make Giverny, Honfleur, Arromanches, and Mont St-Michel accessible to train stations in nearby towns, though Sundays can be challenging. Plan ahead: For bus information in English, check with the local TI. Or, if you can navigate a bit in French, try the websites for Bus Verts (for Le Havre, Honfleur, Bayeux, Arromanches, and Caen, www.busverts.fr), Keolis (for Mont St-Michel, www.destination-montsaintmichel.com), and Tibus or Illenoo (for Dinan and St-Malo, www.tibus.fr or www.illenoo-services.fr). When navigating these sites, the key words to look for are Horaires or Fiches Horaires (schedules) and Lignes (bus route). Bus companies commonly offer good value and multi-ride discounts—for example, Bus Verts offers a 20 percent discount if you buy just four tickets (even if you share them with another person).
Another good option is to use an excursion tour to link destinations. Westcapades provides trips to Mont St-Michel from Dinan and St-Malo, and Afoot in France leads quality tours for small groups or individuals.
Normandy’s Cuisine Scene
Normandy is known as the land of the four C’s: Calvados, Camembert, cider, and crème. The region specializes in cream sauces, organ meats (sweetbreads, tripe, and kidneys—the “gizzard salads” are great), and seafood (fruits de mer). You’ll see crêperies offering inexpensive and good value meals everywhere. A galette is a savory crêpe enjoyed as a main course; a crêpe is sweet and eaten for dessert.
Dairy products are big, too. Local cheeses are Camembert (mild to very strong; see sidebar), Brillat-Savarin (buttery), Livarot (spicy and pungent), Pavé d’Auge (spicy and tangy), and Pont l’Evêque (earthy flavor).
What, no wine? Oui, that’s right. You’re in the rare region of France where wine is not a local forte. Still, you probably won’t die of thirst. Fresh, white Muscadet wines are made nearby (in western Loire); they’re cheap and match well with much of Normandy’s cuisine. But Normandy is famous for its many apple-based beverages. You can’t miss the powerful Calvados apple brandy or the Bénédictine brandy (made by local monks). The local dessert, trou Normand, is apple sorbet swimming in Calvados. The region also produces three kinds of alcoholic apple ciders: cidre can be doux (sweet), brut (dry), or bouché (sparkling—and the strongest). You’ll also find bottles of Pommeau, a tasty blend of apple juice and Calvados (sold in many shops), as well as poiré, a tasty pear cider. And don’t leave Normandy without sampling a kir Normand, a mix of crème de cassis and cider. Drivers in Normandy should be on the lookout for Route de Cidre signs (with a bright red apple); this tourist trail leads you to small producers of handcrafted cider and brandy.
Remember, restaurants serve only during lunch (11:30-14:00) and dinner (19:00-21:00, later in bigger cities); cafés serve food throughout the day.
This 2,000-year-old city mixes Gothic architecture, half-timbered houses, and contemporary bustle like no other place in France. Busy Rouen (roo-ahn) is France’s fifth-largest port and Europe’s biggest food exporter (mostly wheat and grain). Although its cobbled old town is a delight to wander, the city feels less welcoming at night (you’ll notice a surprising number of panhandlers). Rouen works best for me as a day trip from Paris, or as a stop between Paris and Honfleur.
Rouen is nothing new. It was a regional capital during Roman times, and France’s second-largest city in medieval times (with 40,000 residents—only Paris had more). In the ninth century, the Normans made the town their capital. William the Conqueror called it home before moving to England. Rouen walked a political tightrope between England and France for centuries, and was an English base during the Hundred Years’ War. Joan of Arc was burned here (in 1431).
Rouen’s historic wealth was built on its wool industry and trade—for centuries, it was the last bridge across the Seine River before the Atlantic. In April of 1944, as America and Britain weakened German control of Normandy prior to the D-Day landings, Allied bombers destroyed 50 percent of Rouen. And though the industrial suburbs were devastated, most of the historic core survived, keeping Rouen a pedestrian haven.
Planning Your Time
If you want a dose of a smaller—yet lively—French city, Rouen is an easy day trip from Paris, with convenient train connections to Gare St. Lazare (nearly hourly, 1.5 hours). Considering the convenient Paris connection and Rouen’s handy location in Normandy, drivers can save money and headaches by taking the train to Rouen and picking up a rental car there. Leave the car (with your bags in it) in the secure rental lot, and visit Rouen before heading out (for car-rental companies, see “Helpful Hints,” later). Even if you don’t have a car, you can visit Rouen on your way from Paris to other Normandy destinations, thanks to the good bus and train service (free daytime bag check available Wed-Mon at the Museum of Fine Arts, closed Tue).
Orientation to Rouen
Although Paris embraces the Seine, Rouen ignores it. The area we’re most interested in is bounded by the river to the south, the Museum of Fine Arts (Esplanade Marcel Duchamp) to the north, Rue de la République to the east, and Place du Vieux Marché to the west. It’s a 20-minute walk from the train station to the Notre-Dame Cathedral or TI. Everything else of interest is within a 10-minute walk of the cathedral or TI.
Pick up the English map with information on Rouen’s museums at the TI, which faces the cathedral. The TI also has €5 audioguide tours covering the cathedral and Rouen’s historic center, though this book’s self-guided walk is enough for most. They also have free Wi-Fi (for 30 minutes) and a loaner iPad (May-Sept Mon-Sat 9:00-19:00, Sun 9:30-12:30 & 14:00-18:00; Oct-April Mon-Sat 9:30-12:30 & 13:30-18:00, closed Sun; 25 Place de la Cathédrale, tel. 02 32 08 32 40, www.rouentourisme.com). A small office in the TI changes money (closed during lunch year-round).
Arrival in Rouen
By Train: Rue Jeanne d’Arc cuts straight down from Rouen’s train station through the town center to the Seine River. Day-trippers should walk from the station down Rue Jeanne d’Arc toward Rue du Gros Horloge—a busy pedestrian mall in the medieval center. This cobblestone street connects Place du Vieux Marché and Joan of Arc Church (to your right, the starting point of my self-guided walk). While the station has no baggage storage, you can check bags at the Museum of Fine Arts during open hours for free (10-minute downhill walk from the station), then continue on to the start of the self-guided walk. You can enjoy this lovely museum at the end of the walking tour.
Rouen’s subway (Métrobus) whisks travelers from under the train station to the Palais de Justice in one stop (€1.50 for 1 hour; descend and buy tickets from machines one level underground, then validate ticket on subway two levels down; subway direction: Technopôle or Georges Braque). Returning to the station, take a subway in direction: Boulingrin and get off at Gare-Rue Verte.
Taxis (to the right as you exit station) will take you to any of my recommended hotels for about €8.
By Bus: Rouen’s bus station is a half-block off Rue Jeanne d’Arc, near the river (CNA bus information office open Mon-Sat 9:00-19:00, closed Sun, Compagnie Normande d’Autobus, tel. 08 25 07 60 27). To reach the center, exit the station to the right, turn left up Rue Jeanne d’Arc, then turn right on pedestrian-friendly Rue du Gros Horloge to reach most hotels and the cathedral. (To find the start of my self-guided walk, turn left on Rue du Gros Horloge.)
By Car: Finding the city center from the autoroute is tricky—assume you’ll get lost for a while. Follow signs for Centre-Ville and Rive Droite (right bank). You may see signs for P&R Relais. These are tram stops outside the center where you can park for free, then hop on a tram (€1.50 each way), avoiding traffic. For day-trippers taking my self-guided walk of Rouen, the parking lot under Place du Vieux Marché is best. Other lots are scattered about the city center and any central spot works (see map on here). You can park in street spaces for free overnight (metered 8:00-19:00), or pay for more secure parking in one of many well-signed underground lots. La Haute Vieille Tour parking garage, between the cathedral and the river, is handy (about €13/day, €5/3 hours). When you get turned around (likely, because of the narrow, one-way streets), aim for the highest cathedral spires you spot.
When leaving Rouen, head for the riverfront road where autoroute signs will guide you to Paris, or Le Havre and Caen (for D-Day beaches and Honfleur).
Closed Days: Most of Rouen’s museums are closed on Tuesday, and many sights also close midday (12:00-14:00). The cathedral is closed Monday morning and during Mass (usually Tue-Sat at 10:00, July-Aug at 18:00; Sun and holidays at 8:30, 10:00, and 12:00). The Joan of Arc Church is closed Friday and Sunday mornings, and during Mass.
Market Days: The best open-air market is on Place St. Marc, a few blocks east of St. Maclou Church. It’s filled with antiques and other good stuff (all day Tue, Fri, and Sat; on Sun until about 12:30). A smaller market is on Place du Vieux Marché, near the Joan of Arc Church (Tue-Sun until 13:30, closed Mon). The TI has a list of all weekly markets.
Supermarket: Small grocery shops are scattered about the city, and a big Monoprix is on Rue du Gros Horloge (groceries at the back, Mon-Sat 8:30-21:00, closed Sun).
Internet Access: The TI offers 30 minutes of free Wi-Fi and has a loaner iPad. Rouen is riddled with Wi-Fi cafés; several are within a few blocks of the train station on Rue Jeanne d’Arc.
English Bookstore: ABC Books has nothing but English-language books—some American, but mostly British (Tue-Sat 10:00-18:00, closed Sun-Mon, south of St. Ouen Church at 11 Rue des Faulx, tel. 02 35 71 08 67).
Taxi: Call Les Taxi Blancs at 02 35 61 20 50 or 02 35 88 50 50.
Car Rental: Agencies with an office in the train station include Europcar (tel. 02 35 88 21 20), Avis (tel. 02 35 88 60 94), and Hertz (tel. 02 35 70 70 71). They have similar hours (normally Mon-Fri 8:00-12:00 & 14:00-19:00, Sat 8:30-12:00 & 14:00-17:00, closed Sun).
SNCF Boutique: For train tickets, visit the SNCF office in town at the corner of Rue aux Juifs and Rue Eugène Boudin (Mon-Sat 10:00-19:00, closed Sun).
Welcome to Rouen
On this 1.5-hour walk, you’ll see the essential Rouen sights and experience its pedestrian-friendly streets filled with half-timbered buildings. Remember that many sights are closed midday (12:00-14:00). This walk is designed for day-trippers coming by train. Drivers should park at or near Place du Vieux Marché (parking garages available).
From Place du Vieux Marché, you’ll walk the length of Rue du Gros Horloge to Notre-Dame Cathedral. From there, walk four blocks to the plague cemetery (Aître St. Maclou), loop up to the church of St. Ouen, and return along Rue de l’Hôpital ending at the Museum of Fine Arts (a 5-minute walk to the train station).
• If arriving by train, walk down Rue Jeanne d’Arc and turn right on Rue du Guillaume le Conquérant (notice the Gothic Palace of Justice building across Rue Jeanne d’Arc—we’ll get to that later). This takes you to the back door of our starting point...
Place du Vieux Marché
• Stand near the entrance of the striking Joan of Arc Church.
Surrounded by half-timbered buildings, this old market square has a covered produce market, a park commemorating Joan of Arc’s burning, and a modern church named after her. A tall aluminum cross, planted in a flowery garden near the church entry, marks the spot where Rouen publicly punished and executed people. The pillories stood here, and during the Revolution, the town’s guillotine made 800 people “a foot shorter at the top.” In 1431, Joan of Arc—only 19 years old—was burned at this site. Find her flaming statue facing the cross. As the flames engulfed her, an English soldier said, “Oh my God, we’ve killed a saint.” (Nearly 500 years later, Joan was canonized, and the soldier was proved right.)
▲▲Joan of Arc Church (Eglise Jeanne d’Arc)
This modern church is a tribute to the young woman who was canonized in 1920 and later became the patron saint of France. The church, completed in 1979, feels Scandinavian inside and out—another reminder of Normandy’s Nordic roots. Sumptuous 16th-century windows, salvaged from a church lost during World War II, were worked into the soft architectural lines (the €0.50 English pamphlet provides some background and describes the stained-glass scenes). Similar to modern churches designed by the 20th-century architect Le Corbusier, this is an uplifting place to be, with a ship’s-hull vaulting and sweeping wood ceiling that sail over curved pews and a wall of glass below. Make time to savor this unusual place.
Cost and Hours: Free; Mon-Thu and Sat 10:00-12:00 & 14:00-18:00, Fri and Sun 14:00-17:30; closed during Mass. A public WC is 30 yards straight ahead from the church doors.
• Turn left out of the church and step over the ruins of a 15th-century church that once stood on this spot (destroyed during the French Revolution). Leave the square and join the busy pedestrian street, Rue du Gros Horloge—the town’s main shopping street since Roman times. A block up on your right (at #163) is Rouen’s most famous chocolate shop...
Les Larmes de Jeanne d’Arc
The chocolate-makers of Les Larmes de Jeanne d’Arc would love to tempt you with their chocolate-covered almond “tears (larmes) of Joan of Arc.” Although you must resist touching the chocolate fountain, you are welcome to taste a tear. The first one is free; a small bag costs about €8 (Mon-Sat 9:00-19:00, closed Sun).
• Your route continues past a medieval McDonald’s and across busy Rue Jeanne d’Arc to the...
▲Big Clock (Gros Horloge)
This impressive, circa-1528 Renaissance clock, le Gros Horloge (groh oar-lohzh), decorates the former City Hall. Is something missing? Not really. In the 16th century, an hour hand offered sufficient precision; minute hands became necessary only in a later, faster-paced age. The lamb at the end of the hour hand is a reminder that wool rules—it was the source of Rouen’s wealth. The town medallion features a sacrificial lamb, which has both religious and commercial significance (center, below the clock). The silver orb above the clock makes one revolution in 29 days. The clock’s artistic highlight fills the underside of the arch (walk underneath and stretch your back), with the “Good Shepherd” and loads of sheep.
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- On Sale
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- Rick Steves