On our last day in Normandy, we took the train to Caen. It’s a quick and easy trip from Bayeux, about 20 minutes.
Caen is much bigger than Bayeux but unlike Bayeux, it was almost completely destroyed in bombing raids as part of Operation Overlord (the Battle of Normandy). Fortunately, a few historical things remain, including part of William the Conqueror’s Ducal Château and two abbeys: Abbaye aux Hommes (men’s abbey), aka the Abbey of Saint-Étienne, and the Abbaye aux Dames (women’s abbey).
Unfortunately, we arrived too late in the day to get tickets to the full tour of the Abbaye aux Hommes (although we did go into the church that serves as William the Conqueror’s final resting place). We also didn’t have time to get to the Abbaye aux Dames since we had to catch the train back to Bayeux. Perhaps next time….
Caen Memorial Museum
There is also a very large and extensive Caen Memorial Museum, which covers the period from post World War I to the Cold War, with a focus on World War II and an entire exhibition hall for the Battle of Normandy. Ticket prices are higher than many of the other museums we visited during this trip, but it’s worth it particularly if you want to learn more about the events that lead to the war.
Many of the items (newspapers, video footage with narration, postcards, etc) are entirely in French, but exhibit placards are in French, German, and English and some of the video footage has subtitles, making exhibits understandable for non-French speakers.
As an American, I found it particularly interesting to see the history told from a European/French perspective, particularly the war’s toll on France and other occupied nations, the French Resistance, and the Vichy government.
The Ducal Château
There are remnants of the Ducal Château (aka, Château de Caen or the Ducal Castle) that survived bombings. The castle was built around 1060 by William the Conqueror, who was the Duke of Normandy before adding “King of England” to his titles.
The château is a complex of several buildings, very easily noticeable from the street due to its size and position at the top of a hill. Also it looks like a medieval castle, so there’s that to distinguish it from its more modern surroundings. 🙂
Today, in addition to the ruins of parts of the castle, this area is the home of the Musée de Normandie (Normandy Museum) and the Musée des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts). It’s quite a large area with plenty of tree-shaded grassy places and many people use it for leisure time: lounging in the grass, biking, walking, or hanging out with friends.
It’s well worth a walk around the still-standing ramparts for a fantastic view of the city as well as for the thrill of literally walking in the footsteps of people who defended the castle 1,000 years before. It’s a shame that so much of it was destroyed in the war, but I’m grateful that parts of it still exist.
Within the complex is also a tomb for unknown soldiers. Again, I’m touched that people still lay flowers at these various markers and memorials scattered throughout the Norman cities and countryside.
Abbaye aux Hommes and William the Conqueror’s Grave
As I mentioned, we arrived too late in the day to get tickets for the full tour of the Abbaye but thankfully the church, which is part of the abbey was still open.
Within the church at the altar is William the Conqueror’s grave. I have to admit that I didn’t research this area at all before we went since it was somewhat of an unplanned day trip for us so I was not aware that his grave was here in this church until we entered. It made for a pleasant and surprise, a little tourism Easter egg for me, to see his final resting place.
There are also two lovely memorial plaques dedicated to the remembrance of the 60th anniversary of the beach landings (débarquement) in 2014 and a plaque describing how faith and the walls of the church sheltered the citizens of Caen during the war.
Église St. Pierre and Église Saint Étienne le Vieux
Église Saint Étienne le Vieux is nearby the Abbaye aux Hommes and mostly is in ruins.
Historians estimate it was built in the 10th century and earned the moniker “vieux” (old) once the Abbaye aux Hommes, aka Abbey of Saint-Étienne, was built in the 11th century. Old is a relative term, I suppose. 🙂
Église St. Pierre is directly across the street from the ducal château. Parts of the exterior were being restored during our visit, a never-ending task for cities with structures that date back 1,000 years or so.
Caen Street Scenes
I’ll close this post with a few shots I took of miscellaneous parts of the city. This post doesn’t do justice to all there is to see in Caen and I wish we would have had more time to explore this city.