Etretat

Spending one week in Northwest France

Why should you go to Northwest France, while most people take the autoroute du Soleil to the sunnier southern parts of France?

Well there are many reasons, I will list just a few. In Northern France you can find the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals in the world. You can enjoy the Atlantic beaches, the nice little harbour towns and go back in history and follow in the footsteps of all the French kings, Jeanne d’Arc, and explore the sparkling wines in the Champagne region. The Great War left innumerable scars to its landscape, villages and cities. And the beaches of Normandy were the starting point for the liberation of Western Europe during the Second World War. North-western France doesn’t fit the stereotypical image people have of France. There are no lavender fields, mountains or Roman Amphitheatres. But this part of France has a lot of other things to offer. To help you explore this part of France and we’ve listed our favourite spots in this itinerary for one week in Northwest France.

North Western France is comprised of three administrative regions: Normandy, Ile-de-France and Hauts-de-France which merges the former regions of Picardy and Pas-de-Calais.

Day one

We start our trip through North-western France in Reims, but the ideal starting point depends on your point of origin. From Paris it takes just an hour to reach Reims by train or 1.5 hour by car. Start in Lille if you come from Belgium, the Netherlands or the United Kingdom.

Reims cathedral
Stained glass windows by Marc Chagall in Reims cathedral

Reims

The main draw of Reims is its impressive 13th century Gothic Cathedral. This was the place were, from 1027 almost all French kings were coronated. The most famous coronation was probably the coronation of Charles VII in 1429 which was made possible by the actions of Joan of Arc. The cathedral was shelled by the Germans in World War I but has been restored since. One apse contains beautiful stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall.

Abbey of Saint-Remi

The abbey of Saint-Remi was founded in the sixth century, although most of what you can see today stems from the 11th century. Besides the abbey there was an abbey church, which was also replaced in the 11th century by the Basilica of Saint-Remi. Saint Remi baptised Clovis in the earlier church. This was a monumental historic event as it secured the safeguarded the continuation of the Christian faith in France and Western Europe. The remains of Saint Remi and of Carloman, the brother of Charlemagne, are kept in the abbey.

Palace of Tau

The Palace of Tau was the bishop’s palace and the place where the French kings would stay before their coronations. The palace grew out of a Gallo-Roman villa that was converted into a Carolingian palace. The oldest still remaining part is the chapel from 1207. Nowadays the palace houses a museum with tapestries, objects from the cathedral treasury and other objects associated with the coronation of the French kings.

Laon

It’s an hour by car or train to get from Reims to Laon. Laon has been of strategic importance for over 2,000 years. Before the Romans built a fort here, the local tribe used its location to protect against the Belgea. During the First World War it was captured by the Germans and held until the last summer of the war.     

Laon cathedral
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon

The most prominent building of the city which can be seen from afar is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon. This early Gothic cathedral is special because of its uniformity of style and it has escaped both World Wars unscathed. You can find other medieval buildings in the old town centre which makes for a nice city walk.

Compiegne

Compiegne is mostly known as the site of the armistice between France and Germany at the end of World War I and the reverse armistice between Germany and France after the defeat of France by Hitler in 1940. A copy of the railroad carriage can be seen at the original site of the armistices in the nearby forest of Compiegne. The original carriage was destroyed by Allied bombing after it was taken to Berlin by the Germans.

The Château de Compiègne was one of the three royal residences outside of Paris, the other being Versailles and Fontainebleau. Now it houses three museums, one of the palace itself, one on the second French Empire and an automobile museum.

Compiegne is an hour drive by car from Laon.

Day 2

Beauvais cathedral

The beautiful gothic cathedral with the highest choir of a cathedral in the world. Work on the cathedral started in the beginning of the 13th century and the cathedral was left unfinished when work halted in 1600.

Beauvais

Rouen

This ancient French city was founded by Gaulish tribes and became a major Roman city afterwards. When the Normans invaded France, they made Rouen their capital. During the hundred years war Rouen was in the hands of the English for some 30 years. During this time Joan of Arc was brought to this city to be put on trial and subsequently burnt at the stake at the central market square.

The city centre of Rouen still has a lot of medieval half-timbered houses. Making it a delight to walk the streets and back-alleys. On your way you’ll come across the Gros Horloge an astronomical clock which is decades older than the other famous one in Prague.

The main sight is Rouen cathedral, the Gothic cathedral is built on the site of an earlier Roman church and replaced a later Romanesque cathedral in the 12th century. The cathedral was severely damaged by British and American bombing during the second world war.

Rouen Cathedral

The cathedral was famously painted by Claude Monet in several of his paintings.

Just behind the cathedral lies another beautiful Gothic building, the church of St. Ouen. The church is even bigger than the cathedral and houses an organ by the famous French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.

Another church built in the flamboyant Gothic style is the church of Saint-Maclou. It lies on a small square surrounded by beautiful half-timbered houses.

Museums in Rouen

Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen

The biggest museum of Rouen is the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen. It has a big collection of paintings from the 15th to the 21st century. Highlights are works by Velazquez, Monet and Modigliani.

If you’re interested in the story of Joan of Arc, a visit to the Historial Jeanne d’Arc is a must. It is an interactive journey which tells the story of Joan with modern means.

And a visit to Rouen is not complete without a visit to its marketplace where Joan was burned. There is a modern church in the middle of the square and a little statue at the site of the stake.

Day three

We follow the river Seine westwards towards the sea. As the river winds slowly through the Parc Naturel Regional de Brotonne we come upon two old abbeys. The Abbaye St-Martin de Boscherville and the romantic ruins of the abbaye de Jumieges which was founded in 654.

Honfleur

The harbour of Honfleur by night.

Where the Seine flows into the Channel lies the quiet little harbour town of Honfleur.

This charming town hasn’t changed in centuries. It’s a good place to get some calvados, the local apple brandy. Stay here or in one of the other seaside towns in the direction of Caen.

Caen

Caen started as a Gallic settlement, but it was during the Norman times that the city really took off. William the Conqueror made it his capital of his duchy, built an enormous castle and churches and abbeys.

Much of medieval Caen was destroyed by the Allies during the liberation of France.

But nowadays the abbeys have been beautifully rebuilt.

Caen castle
Castle of Caen

The best one is the abbaye-aux-Hommes, William started this building in 1066. The abbey is one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Normandy.

Memorial of Caen

If you’re interested in World War II museums or D-day, this museum is a must.

On a hill in the centre of town lies the castle of William the conqueror. He built it before his invasion of England. It served as the powerbase of the Norman Dukes until it was captured by the French King in 1204.


Day four

Bayeux

Bayeux
Bayeux cathedral

In Bayeux are two magnificent souvenirs of William the Conqueror. The greatest is the majestic and unique tapestry of Bayeux, this exquisite tapestry tells the tale of the Norman conquest of England. All the important moments of this history are embroided on this 70-meter-long tapestry.

The other souvenir is the Cathedral Notre Dame, which originally displayed the tapestry. The tapestry and the cathedral were both commissioned by Odo of Bayeux the half-brother of William.

Normandy beaches

Bayeux is close to the Normandy beaches. There are many museums nearby the several beaches, together with memorials and cemeteries.

We went to Omaha beach and the American cemetery there. Here you’ll find a very informative memorial centre free of charge with a good overview of the different events of the invasion.

Utah beach
Utah beach

Nearby lies the Overlord museum, this paid museum has a big collection of vehicles used in the invasion.

Day five

Le Havre

On the other side of the Seine lies a city with a completely different look than the idyllic harbour towns like Honfleur. Le Havre was almost completely destroyed by American bombing during the invasion in 1944. The architect Auguste Perret lead the rebuilding of the city which was recognized as UNESCO World Heritage in 2004. Auguste Perret was a teacher of Le Corbusier, and his style has a lot of similarities, the brutalistic use of concrete.

The most impressive building by Perret is the St. Joseph’s Church near the seaside. The church built in the shape of a lighthouse is an impressive piece of modernist architecture.

Another interesting building is the House of Culture, nicknamed the Volcano.

Volcano
Le Volcan by Oscar Niemeyer

Etretat

After so much cultural sights it’s time for a change and some naturel wonders. Therefor we go to Etretat and its chalk cliffs and the famous natural arches. So, go for a walk along the cliffside.

Day six

Amiens

We end our day in Amiens, with its famous Gothic cathedral. This cathedral is the biggest cathedral of France, building started in 1220 and the cathedral was finished in relatively short time, only some 50 years, where most other cathedrals took centuries to finish. The beauty of this cathedral lies in its intricate sculptures.

Somme

Near Amiens lay many of the sad battlefields of the First World War. The infamous battle of the Somme was fought here, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers are still remembered as unknown soldiers. The scars of this horrific conflict are still visible in both the graveyards and the landscape. We visit the Thiepval Memorial, this huge memorial building commemorates the more than 70,000 missing Commonwealth service men lost during the battle of the Somme.

Thiepval
Thiepval memorial

Arras

To the north of Thiepval lies the Arras, which grew rich from the wool trade in the Middle ages. It changed hands several times until 1640 when it was ceded to the French crown for good. The city was severely damaged during the first world war but much of its historic centre has been rebuild. The city has two buildings listed as two different UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The belfry of the town is part of the as part of the Belfries of Belgium and France group. The Vauban citadel is part of the Fortifications of Vauban group. The city also has two large squares, La Grand’ Place and La Place des Héros.

Day seven

Lens

Louvre Lens

Lens was a mining town during from the 19t century until the 1980’s when the last mines closed. The surrounding area is still scattered with surreal pyramid like hills from this time. As a way to revitalize this part of France, an annex of the Louvre was opened here. This Louvre Lens is a very interesting museum. It has two parts, a big hall with the free collection and another hall for paid exhibitions. The beauty of the main collection is the fact that all the items are situated in one hall in chronological order.

Lille

Lille or Rijsel the Dutch name was originally part of the county of Flanders. It exchanged hands several times until it finally ended up in French hands at the end of the 19th Century. The shared heritage of this city is still visible in its buildings which have a more northern façade than buildings in most other France cities.

Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille

The Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille is one of the oldest museums of France. The large museum has a nice collection of paintings from the Middle Ages upon modern times. The collection includes works by Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Delacroix and Claudel.

Citadelle de Lille

The citadel was built by the military engineer Vauban, who built many similar fortresses along France its border at the order of Louis XIV. Many of his creations can be seen in the unique section of the Palais des Beaux-Arts which houses the models of various border towns.

Art Deco

Lille is a great place to admire some art deco style buildings. Some prime examples are the former fish restaurant ‘a la Huîtrière’ in the Rue des Chats Bossus, the old newspaper building ‘La voix du Nord’ at the place Charles du Gaulle and the bakery ‘ Maison Méert’ in the Rue Esquermoise. Maison Méert is also a great place to eat some waffles.

Roubaix

If you’re really into art nouveau, then make the trip to the neighbouring town of Roubaix. There the art nouveau swimming pool has been converted into a museum and it’s a delight to marvel at the architecture and the art in this building.

Also read our article about Bourges cathedral for more Gothic art!

cheverny

The 7 best Loire Valley Castles

The Loire Valley in France is home to around a hundred different castles. They range from small manors to royal hunting palaces and from single donjons to big fortresses. And don’t forget the romantic places where you can imagine fairy tales taking place. The area has one of the biggest castles densities in the world. This all results in abundant choice for tourists.

We’ve visited this region for more than 30 years and have seen them all, many multiple times. We made this list to give you an overview of what the Loire Valley has to offer. Hopefully this makes you hungry for more.  We’re looking forward to your feedback: do you agree with our list? Do you have other castles to add? Let us know!

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Nr. 7 The Royal Château de Blois

History of the castle

The Royal Château de Blois was built in the middle of the town of Blois and overlooks the Loire river. Work on it started as early as the 13th century. The current castle is a mixture of several buildings ranging from the 13th to the 17th century with a central courtyard. The castle was the residence of several French kings. It also served as a base of operations for Joan of Arc during her successful attempt to relief the siege of Orleans.

The oldest part of the castle is the “Salle des États Généraux”. This gothic hall served as a court and as the place for the French parliament (the Estates General) to assemble. The French king Louis XII (1498 –1515) made the castle his residence and capital and added a wing to the castle. His successor François I added another wing and created a library. But he stopped using the castle after the death of his wife.

Royal Château de Blois

After the French revolution, the castle was set to be demolished. It survived serving as a military barrack. In 1841 is was declared a historic monument and restoration started under the direction of the architect Felix Duban. Nowadays, the town of Blois owns the castle and it’s open to the public.

What makes the castle special

Blois castle is one of the few French castles used as a permanent royal residence. The different styles of the castle give a great overview of the architectural development throughout the 13th to 17th centuries. It also provides great views of the Loire river from the castle grounds.
The castle is centrally located both in the town of Blois and in the Loire Valley.

Nr. 6 Château de Chaumont

History of the castle

Odo I, then count of Blois, founded the Château de Chaumont in the 10th century. After the failed rebellion by its owner, Pierre d’Amboise, the original castle was destroyed in 1465. Charles I d’Amboise rebuilt the castle between 1469 and 1475.

The wife of King Henri II, Catherine de Medici acquired the castle in 1560. Among its famous visitors was the astrologer Nostradamus. After the death of her husband the King, Catherina forced his mistress Diane de Poitiers to swap castles. She received the castle of Chenonceau in exchange for the castle of Chaumont.

chaumont
Château de Chaumont

What makes the castle special

Chaumont castle overlooks the Loire river. Its exterior has the classic look of a medieval castle. The castle is host to an international Garden Festival every year. Here contemporary garden designers display their work in the English-style garden. The gardens are huge and an attraction on their own.

Nr. 5 Château de Cheverny

History of the castle

At the end of the 15th century the Hurault family acquires the estate of Cheverny. In 1510 Raoul Hurault starts building a fortified manor at the estate. Henri Hurault replaces this building with the current castle in 1624 when he decides to raze to old building. This building is finished in 1634 and hasn’t been changed on the outside since. The Hurault family still owns the estate today. They lost ownership twice, but managed to get it back both times.

cheverny
Château de Cheverny

What makes the castle special

Even as the castle has been opened to the public since 1925, the original owners still live at the property. The castle has a great hunting estate and hundreds of hunting dogs are kept for annual hunts in Autumn. Château de Cheverny also served as inspiration for Hergé. As he based Captain Haddock’s castle Marlinspike Hall (Château de Moulinsart) in the ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ on this castle.

Nr. 4 Château de Chinon

History of the castle

Chinon is one of the older castles in the region. Theobald I, Count of Blois founded the first castle at this spot in the 10th century. In the 11th century the counts of Anjou acquired the castle. Henry II, member of the House of Anjou was king of England and took the castle from his rebelling brother in 1156. He made Chinon the administrative centre for his continental possessions. Most of the structures seen today can be attributed to his reign. Henry died here in 1189.

At the beginning of the 13th century, King Philip II of France beleaguered the English lands in France. In 1205 he captured Chinon, the castle remained under French control ever since. On 6 March 1429 Joan of Arc arrived at Château de Chinon. Here she convinced the dauphin Charles VII to let her join the army at Orleans and try to lift the siege.

The castle fell into disuse at the end of the 17th century. Aside from brief use during the ‘Reign of Terror’ at the end of the 18th century, it was left to decay until the beginning of the 21st century.
Massive excavation and restoration works started in 2003. They finished in 2010, resulting in the castle as it can be seen today.

Chinon
Château de Chinon

What makes the castle special

Château de Chinon is a proper medieval castle with an interesting history. It hereby fits the preconceived picture of castles and knights. The link with the mystical hero of Joan of Arc adds extra flavour to the castle. There is a museum dedicated to her on the grounds. The castle is located on the bank of the Vienne river and is quite the sight as it towers the under-laying village.

Nr. 3 Château d’Azay-le-Rideau

History of the castle

A local lord named Ridel (or Rideau) d’Azay, built a fort at the site in the 12th century. The future French king Charles VII burned this castle to the ground in 1418. He did this as a reaction to the insults thrown by the occupying Burgundian soldiers.

Gilles Berthelot, mayor of Tours and treasurer to the King, started construction on the current castle in 1518. The new castle was a blend between its medieval past and the latest architectural styles of the Italian renaissance. The French state bought Azay-le-Rideau in 1905 and listed it as an historical monument.

azay-le-rideau
Château d’Azay-le-Rideau

What makes the castle special

Together with Ussey, Azay-le-Rideau has the highest fairy-tale castle vibe. The castle is one of the best examples of early French renaissance architecture. The location on an island in the Indre gives this castle an edge. Visit the castle early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the light is softer. This way you can get a perfect picture as the castle is reflected in the water.

Nr. 2 Château de Chambord

History of the castle

Chambord was built to act a magnificent hunting lodge for King Francis I in 1519. Construction was only finished in 1547, the year Francis died. The castle was abandoned by his successors and fell into decay. In 1639, Gaston d’Orleans got the castle as a present from his brother King Louis XIII. He restored much of the castle. His work was continued by King Louis XIV who added a 1,200-horse stable. But in the end, he also abandoned the castle in 1685. This pattern would repeat itself, until the French government bought the castle in 1930. Restoration work started after the second world war.

Château de Chambord

What makes the castle special

It was hard to make a decision on the number one castle. Chambord has so much going for it. It’s huge and it has dozens of towers big and small. Both the exterior and the interior of the castle are embellished with emblems, gargoyles and double staircases. This all provides a unique experience. Added bonus is the controversy about the architect of the castle, was it Leonardo da Vinci or not?

But in the end, it’s the size which keeps this castle on the second spot. The castle feels a bit like an empty shell, still waiting for a king and his court to move in. You should go and visit, and decide for yourself.

Nr. 1 Château de Chenonceau

History of the castle

The original castle of Chenonceau was built somewhere in the 13th century. it burned down in 1412 to punish to owner Jean Marques. After a turn in fortune, he rebuilt the castle and fortified the mill in the 1430s. The new owner Thomas Bornier demolished the castle except for the keep in 1513. He build the current castle on top of the foundations of the fortified mill.

Francis I seized the castle because of outstanding debts. His successor Henri II gave it to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. She initiated the building of the bridge to connect the castle to the other side of the river. When Herni II died in 1559, his wife Catherine de Medici forced Diana to exchange Chenonceau for Chaumont. The castle became Catherine’s favourite residence. She added the gallery on the bridge and added new gardens.

The Dupin family bought the castle in 1733. Louise Dupin held famous literary salons at Chenonceau. They attracted famous French enlightenment writers like Voltaire, Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau also served as her secretary and tutor to her son. She saved the castle from destruction during the French revolution. She convinced the Revolutionary Guard of its importance for travel and commerce since it was the only bridge for miles.

The Menier family bought the castle in 1913, and still own the castle to this day. In the first world war the castle served as a hospital. During the Second World War it was a route to the unoccupied part of France on the other site of the river.

Château de Chenonceau

What makes the castle special

We visited this castle many times and it keeps drawing us back. It has an unique bridge design and beautiful formal French gardens. And on top of that, there is the Shakespearean story about Catherine de Medici, Diane de Potiers and Herni II. If you can only visit one Loire Valley castle in your life, let it be this one. Just know that it’s the river Cher, a Loire tributary and not the Loire itself, the castle crosses.

Follow up Where to go alternatives

If you still haven’t had enough try some other castles. To name a few, go to Ussey, Sully, Amboise or Villandry. But even after visiting those there are still dozens more to explore and discover. And while you’re in the area, visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bourges Cathedral.

The seven best Loire Castles
Bourges Cathedral

Bourges Cathedral: an UNESCO WHS Review

History

The site of the cathedral served as the city’s main church all the way back to Carolingian times (714-1124) and maybe even further back to the founding of the bishopric, proposedly by saint Ursin in the 3th century.

It is not known when the construction of the current cathedral began, but documents suggest somewhere around 1194. The building was completed in different steps and finally consecrated in 1324. Due to structural problems with the South tower, an adjoining buttress tower was built in the 14th century. Probably due to similar problems the North tower collapsed in 1506, afterwards it was rebuilt in a more contemporary style.

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Review of Bourges Cathedral

Read more about how we rated Bourges Cathedral and other sites at our UNESCO World Heritage Site Review.

Bourges Cathedral
Bourges Cathedral

Beauty: 4

The cathedral of Bourges is a highpoint of Gothic architecture. The stone work on the front façade is especially beautiful and intricate. When the light hits the original stained-glass windows, they come to live and add to the spiritual atmosphere of the place. The rest of the interior is restrained and simple with a 37m high nave that inspires awe.

Uniqueness: 3.5

Bourges cathedral is an excellent example of Western-European Gothic architecture. What makes it especially unique is the fact that the building survived through all the ages relatively undamaged. Therefor all but one of the stained-glass windows date back to 1215. But similar buildings can be found in France, not that far from this one. Four other great examples are the cathedrals of Chartres, Amiens, Reims and the Notre-Dame in Paris.

Stained glass

Experience: 3.5

The cathedral gets its fair share of visitors, but its far less crowded than similar Gothic cathedrals elsewhere. This leaves more room for silent contemplation and admiration here. Guided tours are available, but only in French. You can visit the tower which provides magnificent views of the town and the surrounding area.

Disability:

The site is wheelchair accessible except for the tower with its 396 steps. Tours for the visual impaired are available by appointment.

Value for money:

The entrance fee is €8.00; the visit will take you between 30-60 minutes. This gives you reasonably good value for money.

Location: 3.5

Bourges lies along the A-71 highway and has a train station with trains to Paris and other cities. There are also various bus connections available. The cathedral is 15 minutes by bus from the station or 25 minutes on foot which takes you through the old town. It’s an easy daytrip from the popular Loire Valley. But it is further afield from Paris than the cathedrals of Reims, Amiens and Chartres.

Bourges

Overall rating: 3.5

Bourges cathedral is a beautiful building which provides a decent visitors experience. There are other comparable cathedrals in the country and this one is a bit further away from the main tourist itineraries. Definitely worth the visit when you are in the area or are interested in gothic architecture. This all results in an overall score of 3.5 out of 5.

Also read our review of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Himeji Castle.

Should you visit Bourges Cathedral?