Caen is the biggest city in lower Normandy (Basse Normandie) and it’s also the capital.
Caen sits on the river Orne which runs right through and bisects this vibrant city in two. On the left bank of the river is the old part of town with medieval streets and ancient buildings. On the right side of the river is the more modern bustling city of Caen.
Caen is well known thanks to the remains of historical buildings built during the time of William the Conqueror. The city was the location of his favourite residence and he was buried here in the town which he loved, together with his wife.
It’s also famous because of the fighting that took place in and around the town during World War II and particularly the Battle of Normandy in 1944. The town was heavily bombed and all but destroyed during the War, though it has been largely restored and some of the important sites were thankfully not damaged.
The tragic memories of those times have been preserved at the Museum for Peace – the Caen Memorial.
Things to do in Caen
Visit the Caen Memorial which is on a plateau named after General Eisenhower on a cliff top underneath which were the German headquarters in June/July 1944. The museum has been created with donations from Britain, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Poland, the US and the USSR.
See the great collection at the Musée des Beaux-Arts with paintings by such luminaries as Monet and Reubens, the museum traces the history of European Arts from Renaissance Italy to modern day contemporary art.
Tour the Abbaye aux Homes and Abbaye aux Dames. The Abbaye aux Hommes was established by William the Conqueror to hold his tomb. His plans for a sombre and dignified last journey did not go as planned however and after the funeral procession caught fire there were unseemly fights in the streets over the rotting corpse. The procession was further delayed when payment was demanded by a family on whose land the tomb was build. Hundreds of years later the tomb was ransacked by rioters during the French Revolution and all that remains of the great leader is a thighbone, rescued from the River Orne.
The Abbaye aux Dames was founded by William’s wife Matilda (she of Bayeux Tapestry fame) as atonement – she hoped that her husband’s soul and her own would be saved by doing so as she had married her cousin William. Both had been excommunicated by the Pope for their “sin”.
How to get to Caen
By Air – small airport near Carpiquet.
By Train – Gare SNCF and Gare Routière with a TGV stop.
By Ferry – Caen (Ouistreham) port serviced by Brittany Ferries, and nearby St Malo, Le Havre and Cherbourg