As regular customers of Inntravel (with Alsace, the Austrian Lakes and the Czech Republic under our belts), my wife Lynda and I were recently invited to become occasional researchers and writers on their behalf. We thought about this proposition long and hard for two seconds then said, ‘Yes, please’. Of the holidays that we have subsequently recce’d, one of our favourites is Normandy by bicycle: from its tumultuous past, the impression we took away from our meanderings across the region is serenity, an enriching and picturesque, ever-intriguing present.
As customers, we know how important the hotels are at the end of a ride. And Inntravel have this covered, establishing preferential and often long-standing relationships with their hoteliers. In Normandy, this is the case for the elegant and historic Le Lion d’Or in the centre of Bayeux, as well as for the contrasting hotel located in the middle-of-nowhere-village of Crépon: oh, what a joy to arrive at La Rançonnière, a converted fortified 15th-century farmhouse, all courtyard, mellow stone buildings, beamed interiors, and gardens. In summer you can take your breakfast and evening meals on the terrace; and yes, the menu makes full use of local produce including an uplifting 'trou normand' course of apple sorbet and calvados (designed to fill the ‘hole’ between main courses and stimulate your appetite).
Equally important – as one’s intimate companions for a week – are the bikes. Now, on this trip I confess I succumbed to the charms of an electric bike; Lynda would not do it any other way having previously been converted on Inntravel’s Burgundy holiday, revelling in sailing past me up hills with a smug grin. I had a feeling it was cheating, but no longer: some may still prefer the virtue of self-propulsion but even on this Grade 1 holiday, there are some hills, longer days and headwinds to contend with that an electric bike simply takes in its stride. Whilst you still have to expend effort pedalling (it’s not a moped, you understand) and you still change gears accordingly, the bike kindly and smoothly gives you a push, like an invisible hand. You select the degree of boost desired for the terrain so that you can concentrate on enjoying the scenery, and then conveniently recharge the battery overnight. Actually, I found myself explaining (half in apology) to other cyclists or walkers as I overtook them that I was astride an e-bike.
Really, there were no lowlights. What we found was a surprising variety: inevitably, World War II was evident in the D-Day landing beaches, the museums, the cemeteries, the abandoned bunkers and other artefacts, but you could indulge this historical aspect as much or as little as you wished (we were intrigued and moved without overdosing, and stunned by a 20-minute audiovisual experience in 360° at a new museum on the clifftop above Arromanches). We visited two attractive but busy working fishing villages on the routes – if you love seafood, you’ll be in your element on this holiday; we didn’t swim but you could; we found inland châteaux and gardens, abbeys and churches, beautiful river valleys, impressive feudal fortified farmhouses with huge barns and dovecotes; and we just loved the quiet lanes of the rides.
Bayeux, of course, is of a different nature: cafés and restaurants galore, an imposing cathedral and other medieval buildings, cobbled streets and townhouses, shops, a meandering river with mill wheels, and events such as the free son-et-lumière projected onto the huge ‘liberty tree’ in the cathedral square in summer. All of this in a compact centre that heaves with tourists but manages to feel calm and intimate. The town escaped bombing during the war (Charles de Gaulle returned gratefully here after the liberation and made two moving speeches) and the town trail included in the holiday pack (with its mixture of clear directions and fascinating depth of information) helps you discover the place. As for the famous tapestry (which is actually an embroidery), we were sceptical about joining the queue but the visit is well managed and the actual artefact not to be missed. Its creation raises many fascinating questions but the vivid thing is the level of lively detail the embroiderers captured: for example, horses are shown laughing as they sail across the Channel with the invading Norman army in high spirits; the feasting before Harold’s departure is interrupted by a man pointing to the tide being right to set sail; faces appear anxiously at windows on the lookout for Harold’s return; Harold is depicted as taken by surprise on his shipwrecked landing and capture as he hasn’t had time to put his shoes on… If the tapestry is loaned to this country, it would be a shame for this holiday. However, as this won’t happen until 2023 at the earliest, I recommend visiting it en France, as part of your own personal invasion of Normandy by bike!
No Inntravel holiday is complete without its food and drink. We’ve mentioned the fresh fish and seafood, then there’s the creamy sauces, the cheeses (Camembert on its home pastures, pungent Pont l’Évèque), the apple tart, the cider, the calvados. We found we didn’t miss our usual holiday sampling of local wine (it’s orchards in Normandy, not vineyards), and loved the simplicity of just ordering a cider with the meal: no difficult decisions, no snobbishness, it actually goes with everything, it slips down very easily, it’s cheaper. (There are wine lists, if you prefer!) At the end of another meal at our favoured restaurant hidden down an alleyway on their shaded riverside terrace (friendly service, good value, tasty galettes (savoury pancakes), cider by the pichet) we ordered a coffee and a “calva” – pet name for calvados – and the waiter beamed: “Ah, vous êtes vrais Normands!”. We certainly felt as if we belonged.