Top 10 Normandy

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Top 10 Normandy is a guide book that gives information on what it considers to be the ten best in a wide variety of categories in this region of France, famous for the Bayeux tapestry, the Impressionist painter Claude Monet, the D-Day landings, or even for camembert cheese and calvados.

The ten highlights of Normandy range from towns such as Honfleur, Caen, or Deauville to individual buildings or sites like the Mont-St-Michel, Rouen Cathedral, or the Fondation Claude Monet at Giverny. Pays d’Auge is also there for its orchards, hills and villages, as well as its famous cheese and cider. The ten highlights are focused on in the first section of the book, but there follow just over thirty pages that look at other aspects of Normandy, such as museums and galleries, activities for children, gourmet restaurants and Norman abbeys. The next thirty pages divide Normandy into four areas – northeastern, central, northwestern and southern – and give us suggestions as to the best sights, cultural events, places to eat, or unusual places to visit in a particular region. No matter where you are headed in Normandy, you will find ideas for places to go and things to do.

The final section of the book is entitled Streetsmart and opens with practical information such as how to get to Normandy, how to travel around once you are there, and where to find information. There is even a page listing ten things to avoid, from expensive international phone calls in hotels to crowded places in the height of the holiday season. There are nine pages on accommodation of various types, from luxury hotels to campsites or self-catering holidays – the top ten of each are listed. The index to the guide covers six pages and seems to be pretty comprehensive. The Phrase Book, however, consists of a mere two pages and is therefore very limited. It includes sections on emergencies, eating out, hotels, shopping, numbers and time as well as generally useful words. If your knowledge of French is extremely limited and you are staying any length of time, you will need a more comprehensive phrase book than this.

There is a map of the whole of Normandy split between the fold-out front and back covers, and the back flap also gives plans of the centre of both Rouen and Caen with an index of their streets and squares. There are about fourteen other maps dotted throughout the book, but some of these are very small.

I borrowed this book from the library a few days before going on a day trip to Le Havre. We were crossing overnight by ferry from Portsmouth, arriving at 8am and leaving Le Havre at 5pm. We couldn’t decide whether to spend the day in Le Havre or take the express bus (a thirty-minute or so journey) across the Seine estuary to Honfleur. They sounded to be as different as chalk and cheese: Le Havre was devastated in the Second World War and has been almost completely rebuilt, whereas Honfleur is a traditional fishing port, once very popular with artists and now apparently with the jet set. Honfleur sounded prettier, but the Top 10 Normandy tells you ten things to avoid, and one of them is seaside resorts in August as they are just too crowded.

Being an art lover, I knew that Le Havre had its Musée Malraux and Honfleur its Musée Eugène Boudin. An adult student of mine had recently told me that the Musée Malraux was reputed to be the best Impressionist museum outside of Paris, so I was interested to see if Top 10 Normandy concurred. It in fact lists Musée Eugène Boudin as number 3 and Musée Malraux as number 9 in its Top 10 Museums and Galleries. I initially thought that this indicated that Musée Eugène Boudin was the superior one, but later noticed a few lines on page 2 of the guide stating that ‘With each Top 10 list in this book, no hierarchy of quality or popularity is implied.’ The guide told me little about the Honfleur museum aside from the fact that works by Monet and Boudin can be seen there, and Monet is certainly worth a thirty-minute bus ride. Information on the Le Havre museum was slightly more detailed, describing the building itself as ‘innovative’ and ‘offering views of the port through a monumental concrete sculpture’ as well as works by Boudin and Raoul Dufy. It was becoming difficult to choose.

I decided to have a look at restaurants and found two Honfleur establishments listed in the Top 10 Gourmet Restaurants – the only other town to have two in this section is Rouen. Honfleur has another restaurant that makes the Top 10 list of Places to Eat in Central Normandy. I was, however, somewhat dismayed that I could not find a single restaurant in Le Havre listed in this guide. I remembered that I had read on a website that Le Havre was a haven for cafes and brasseries but not famed for its restaurants, yet the AA Key Guide to Normandy singles out La Villa du Havre as being ‘a gastronomic experience not to be missed’. I wondered why it hadn’t made the Top Ten.

In the end we decided to take the bus and spend a few hours in Honfleur – I found reference to the bus on the internet, by the way, not in Top 10 Normandy or the AA Guide. It was definitely a good decision, as Honfleur is such a picturesque town, and I’m glad we ignored the book’s advice to avoid seaside places in August. We easily found tables at a cafe for breakfast and a restaurant for lunch (but we didn’t go to establishments mentioned in the book). The only crowd we encountered was in the market square at midday, so it was easy to take photos as we walked around. I should perhaps say that this was a cloudy grey day and I realise Honfleur may be busier on sunny days.

Top 10 Normandy by definition does not include every place of interest, but the book measures just 190cm x 100cm and is very light in weight. For me this is an advantage as I don’t drive and had to carry it with me, but I expect some travellers who are driving would prefer a larger format. I borrowed it from the library at the same time as the AA Key Guide to Normandy, and decided that of the two I would take Top 10 Normandy with me. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to carry anything heavier. If you are driving around Normandy, the AA Key Guide has a much better map section, but it is bigger, heavier and more expensive. Details of individual places in Top 10 Normandy are fairly brief, but there are plenty of colour photographs as well to give you an idea of how worthwhile a visit might be for you. A useful little book.

Top 10 Normandy with Map by Fiona Duncan and Leonie Glass
DK Publishing – Eyewitness Travel 2008
Paperback, 144 pages


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Top 10 Normandy
by Fiona Duncan, Leonie Glass

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Written by frangliz

I have a degree in Fine Art but never actually worked in that field. After almost two years in Paris, I moved to Cairo and spent many years there teaching English language and literature in schools. I came back to the UK in 1999 and now work with young children. I also tutor students of all ages in French, English or Maths. I enjoy writing reviews in my spare time; another hobby of mine is photography. I have two sons who are now grown up, both working in IT.

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