Caen

Caen Abbaye dux Hommes

Caen (pop.113,000) is the large, metropolitan capital of Basse-Normandie. It is referred to as the city of William the Conqueror, having been founded by him in the 11th century. Due to its central location, it was fought over incessantly throughout history. The most notable fights were those that occurred during the 14th century and the Second World War.

While the English wrecked havoc on the streets during their siege in 1346, perhaps the most poignant battle in this city was the Battle of Caen, which occurred during the Battle of Normandy in 1944. This intense clash destroyed almost 80% of the city. Hence, almost the entire city was rebuilt in the 50s and 60s. These restoration works followed a predominantly utilitarian style, causing the city to comprise of both historical and modern buildings. Besides its neighbour Bayeux, Caen is also a useful base for exploring the D-day beaches. However, Bayeux offers more in terms of atmosphere. 

Layout

Caen is located slightly inland from the English Channel with the Orne River running through its northeast. The city centre is located south of the university and Château, along rue St-Pierre, while the old city is east of it on rue du Vaugueux. The train station is across the river on rue de la Gare, with the bus station right beside.

 


Caen rampartsThe city’s loss during the Battle of Normandy is commemorated in the Memorial – Un Musée pour la Paix (Museum for Peace) [Esplanade Général Eisenhower, +33 231060645 www.memorial-caen.fr/ ad/ch €17.50/Free]. It provides details that trace the series of events from WWI to this battle and the liberation. The museum attempts to recreate the war experiences, by using audiovisual technology such as voice-over narrations, audio testimony and lighting effects. It also has a second section, which documents the battles and wars that have occurred from the Cold War to the current year; even featuring an exhibit with regards to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. It also houses an underground gallery with exhibits dedicated to Nobel Peace Prize winners (set in WWII German soldier bunkers), as the memorial also hopes to send a message of treasuring peace.

Caen’s landmark is the Château de Guillaume le Conquerant [Place Guillaume le Conquérant, +33 231416144  www.chateau-guillaume-leconquerant.fr Free], which sits just above the city centre, as a testament to William the Conqueror’s hold on the area. It was built in 1060 and was later extended by his son, Henry I. The castle is surrounded by a moat and houses a number of interesting sights, such as the ramparts and the Église St-Georges (of the 12th century). It also features the Échiquier (an old civic building that dates back from the 1100s) and an ancient garden- Jardin des Simples, which houses aromatic and medicinal herbs, that were cultivated in the Middle Ages (just watch out for the poisonous plants!).  

The castle is also home to the Musée de Normandie [ +33 231 304760  www.ville-caen.fr Prices vary], which features exhibits related to the historical and archaeological tradition of Normandy. It holds a permanent collection of archaeological and ethnographical artefacts that document the geographical and human evolution of the place.   

The Musée des Bayeux-Arts [ +33 231304770  www.mba.caen.fr Prices vary], also within the castle’s perimeters, features Western art exhibits between the 15th and 21st centuries, displaying notable names such as Rubens, Baroque and Monet.

The only pre-war buildings that have been saved in the city are those that stand next to the château. The Musée de la Poste [52 rue St-Pierre] which was built in the 16th century, has been closed to public since 2009. However, you can still admire the architecture of the half-timbered building from outside. Another such building is the Maison des Quatrons [25 rue de Geôle], which was built in the 15th century and is now a historical monument that occasionally plays host to cultural events.

Caen also houses two impressive Romanesque Abbeys that were founded in the 11th century. These were offered as part of deal of pardon for William the Conqueror who was found to be guilty of a semi-incestuous marriage to Matilda of Flanders, who turned out to be his distant cousin.  The abbeys, each sit on different ends of the city, with the Abbaye dux Hommes (Men’s abbey) at the western end of rue Écuyère and the Abbaye dux Dames (Women’s Abbey) at the rue des Chanoines.

NORMANDY Caen abbaye aux DamesThe Abbaye dux Hommes (see previous photo) was William’s final resting place. However, his remains have been destroyed by the Calvinists and Revolutionaries over the years, leaving only a thigh bone behind! Now it houses the Église St-Etienne and its former convent buildings house the city’s town hall.

The Abbaye dux Dames (see adjacent photo), on the other hand, holds Matilda’s (intact) tomb at the back of the main altar.  Like the men’s abbey this also features a church- the Église de la Trinite. This is also where a number of regional government offices stand.