In Caen one might find themselves falling into a calm stroll, far from the brisk Parisian pace which is unable to fit the city’s streets. It may be far past the well-versed vendors, fish-mongers and merchants, who sit underneath their striped canopies and their white ribboned hats.
Caen during the slow hours of the morning seems hushed, though as the middle of the day arrives and the shadows retreat, a city may be revealed, bustling with tourists, shoppers and museum-goers. Caen is a little under 2 hours on the train from Paris’ St Lazare station and is therefore either a modest divergence from the big city, or an ideal opportunity to explore some of Normandy’s interesting streets and museums.
The city centre is a fair distance from the train station however, trams are available. On the other hand, the walk may be worth the time. Individuals might set off from the crossroads, down the majestic Rue Saint-Jean with its tall utilitarian architecture and then across the L’Orne River glinting in the morning sun. The road leads right up to the Roman Catholic church of Saint-Pierre; showing both gothic and renaissance influence. This space sitting east of the centre of Caen seems to be exceedingly open and refreshing, and the grand walls of the Château de Caen are in full view. In between the church and the château lies a small grassy expanse, which may be the ideal place to open a book or lay down and enjoy a picnic on a summer’s day.
As one of the largest medieval structures in Europe, the château seems to loom over Caen’s skyline. It was built around 1060, by William the Conqueror and then later added to by his son Henry I; supplementing it by building the church, the keep and the duke court. The château served as a royal fortress in the Middle Ages, a stronghold during the Hundred Years War, and then a barracks in World War Two.
Following the war and Caen’s liberation, the château was at the heart of the city’s reconstruction, which continued up until 1962, fully restoring the castle to its former glory. At the front of the château is the barbican, walk through it to reach the tree scattered bailey. It’s at this point one may truly realise the scale of the château and also its beauty.
The château is now home to the museum of fine arts in Caen, a contemporary building adding to the magical history. The museum is one of the most important in France, concentrating on European paintings from the 16th, 17th and to the 20th centuries. It has stunning works on show such as; Andrea Sacchi’s The Death of Queen Dido and Claude Monet’s Reflections on Water. Walking around, one might feel the art’s aura, powerful and yet delicate; right at home in Caen’s castle.
Further into the bailey are the château’s museums of history and culture and behind are the remains of a small section of inner castle wall. The stairs up the wall lead to one of the finest views in the city overlooking all of which one has travelled, and then further beyond seeking, are the spires and towers of other historic sites across Caen. The view combines all which may be all of Caen: the smoky silvery colours, the sounds of markets and traders, and the brief clouded trace of sea air as it drifts down from the Normandy coast.
Visit Caen to discover more about its compelling history; from William the Conqueror to the city’s liberation in 1944. Travel to see the architecture of the churches and abbeys, to experience the slow summer mornings and to walk through its quaint streets and alleyways. Caen may be a small humble city, yet with much on offer to the curious traveller.
What other period of Caen’s history might tourists like to learn about?