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Normandy offers visitors tapestry of good things

PUBLISHED: 12:32 09 May 2013 | UPDATED: 13:34 09 May 2013

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Hop across the Channel for vivid reminders of the D-Day landings and the events of 1066, plus some French culinary highlights

In a rare stroke of luck, our summer holiday coincided with what turned out to be the only week of sunshine.

This was fortunate because, with a breastfeeding baby in tow, we could only face a short drive from the ferry ports for our annual sojourn in France.

But although Normandy and its more rugged cousin north Brittany get similar weather to the UK, this fascinating and varied region still feels worlds away from southern England.

With three children, a boat crossing to the Continent seemed the best way to go – cabins are very reasonable on day crossings and give you a base to let the baby (and mum) sleep while the older children explore the boat, take in a movie, magic show or the children’s area. They have since asked repeatedly when can they get back on board.

After debarking from Caen Ouistreham, although weighed down with two weeks’ worth of kit, our modestly sized car was soon speeding towards the Breton coast where we were booked into a mobile home on a tranquil yet tasteful campsite.

By that evening I was sitting on the decking of our well-kitted out temporary home, drinking a glass of wine while the children palled up with fellow young campers in the adjacent play area.

The following day, in warm sunshine (hurray) I was ensconced by the pool complex watching my boys fly down the curly slides, congratulating myself on an excellent choice of location, when the younger one flung himself at a wall and split open his chin.

Even a speedy visit to an out-of-hours GP (and a hefty bill) couldn’t dim my delight at the lovely surroundings, as we cooked steaks from the local butchers and sipped red wine following a hard day’s swimming.

Great beaches

There are great beaches along what’s called the Côte D’Émeraude – all the way to the seaside resort of Dinard and charming walled city of Saint-Malo.

But next up were three days at a friend’s excessively large chateau in Normandy’s Vire region, which we used as a base for excursions to the area’s many attractions, including a day out in Caen where William the Conqueror’s castle dominates the city, largely a ruin but fun to explore.

On the outskirts is Memorial 39/45, probably the best of the area’s many museums covering the D-Day landings. The eight-year-old was big enough to process the momentous historical event, while the four-year-old (and husband) enjoyed the highly visual evocative displays.

Back towards Ouistreham there’s Pegasus Bridge over the Caen canal, where at 0016 hours on June 6, 1944, Maj John Howard’s 181 men in gliders were the first Allied forces to land and engage the enemy, with the instruction – according to The Longest Day – to “hold until relieved”. This they did with few casualties and there’s a great small museum nearby as well as the perfectly preserved Café Gondrée – the first French building to be liberated on D-Day.

Next day we headed for Omaha Beach where the rows of white crosses at St Laurent cemetery, which feature in Saving Private Ryan, stand testament to the American losses on D-Day.

These days it’s a lovely, gently sloping beach with dunes and small sandy pools where we enjoyed bathing before taking a bracingly windy boat ride from nearby Port-en-Bessin to get a different perspective of the landing beaches.

There are other spots to visit along this coast, depending on your fascination with the subject – I like the ruins of Pointe du Hoc with its wrecked gun battery and sheer cliff face where the Texas rangers climbed to victory. At Arromanches you can see the remains of the British mulberry harbour from the hilltop museum with its 360-degree circular cinema projecting archive footage on nine screens.

Winding back in time to a much older battle, we headed to the pretty medieval town of Bayeux to see the remarkable tapestry stitched by Norman women commemorating William’s victory at the battle of Hastings.

You enter a darkened room, where the tapestry is exhibited in a narrow horseshoe. They’ve thoughtfully provided an audio guide for children, and ours enjoyed spotting details such as animals, arrows and quicksand before watching an animated cartoon version of the tapestry.

Maritime museum

The boys also loved a trip to Cherbourg’s Cité de la Mer, a vast maritime museum housed in the port’s art deco transatlantic cruise liner terminal. Beyond the atmospheric, echoing baggage hall is an interactive exhibition on the Titanic which briefly docked there on its doomed maiden voyage on April 10, 1912.

You can tour a decommissioned nuclear sub, Redoubtable, marvel at an aquarium where you can stroke rays in a pool, and roam galleries celebrating underwater exploration from Captain Nemo to the colossus that is Jacques Cousteau – an all- round French hero who co-invented the aqualung and pioneered marine conservation.

Away from the museums, there’s much to enjoy eating out, or in after plundering Normandy’s culinary delights from Camembert and Pont-l’Évêque cheese to cider and Calvados.

On our way to our final destination, a gîte south of Lisieux, we passed grazing dairy herds and pretty half-timbered houses in the Pays d’Auge region. As the weather inevitably faded to cloudy and windy, we enjoyed trips out to the Zoo de Cerza where a safari train chugs you past the monkeys, lions and rhinos, and bought local wares to cook at L’Aigle’s vast and sprawling Saturday market.

There were spots we didn’t get to – the tourist trap yet world heritage monument that is Mont Saint-Michel, rising up from the bay across treacherous sands, and Monet’s house at Giverny where he painted his famous water lilies.

The wonder was that, even after a two-week stay, we’d only scratched the surface of this wonderful area.

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