Normandy is forever etched in the mind of the world as the site of the largest military invasion by sea in history. It all unfolded during World War II along 50 miles of beaches code-named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword. The plan was for the Allies to overwhelm occupying German forces with a barrage from the ocean the likes of which they could never imagine, then push them back to their border. The events of that heroic day and the months that followed have been well chronicled. But no amount of reading can prepare the visitor for the impact of gazing upon the 9,000 crosses and Stars of David at the American Cemetery, spread on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.
There is, of course, more to Normandy than its role in this heroic chapter. In fact, its military past stretches back centuries. Named for the Vikings who conquered it in the ninth century (the “northmen”), it was later the launching pad for William the Conqueror’s incursion into Britain in 1066. The fantastically preserved Bayeaux Tapestry depicts his successful invasion. Eventually the Brits fought back and gained control during the Hundred Years War, bringing Joan of Arc to a fiery end after she famously inspired her French army to rise up against the British Crown.
Today, Normandy is unarguably one of France’s prettiest corners. Its green pastures and dramatic chalk hills guide the Seine River on its sinewy course. Black-spotted Norman cows graze wide fields and help produce some of the world’s most distinctive cheeses, including soft and earthy Camembert. Groves of apple trees blanket the countryside, providing some of the purest cider you’ll ever taste, as well as the famous Calvados, a delicious apple brandy served as an aperitif throughout the province.
Impressionist artist Claude Monet captured Normandy’s beautiful countryside en plein air. After the loss of his wife in 1879, he discovered Giverny along the Seine while traveling by train. Monet first rented a barn there and transformed it into his studio; he later purchased it and expanded the property. His famous gardens blossomed from the artist’s desire to paint “controlled nature.” In fact, he and his gardeners even re-routed part of the Seine River to form the lagoon that would become the subject of many of his paintings, including the famed Water Lilies.
Monet contributed to the idea that France’s light was distinct and special. The artist was obsessed with capturing the way sunlight illuminated a space. He was known to paint the same subject many times in different shades: full sunlight, overcast, rain and snow clouds, dawn and dusk. With his tireless examination of light, he transformed the world of art.
He – and other painters of his day – also transformed the way we see Normandy. Pastoral scenes along the Seine comprise many works of his contemporaries. Downriver from Giverny, where the Seine widens to form a pristine estuary, the fishing village of Honfleur became a favorite subject of artists, and remains so today. This is a quintessential picturesque fishing village of France: fishing boats bob along the quay, multi-hued gabled houses hug the shore, and yes, even today, painters lean into their easels, carefully dabbing bright colors on their canvases in an attempt to capture that famous light just so.