Soaring church towers have embellished Caen’s skyline since William the Conqueror’s time. The castle, now home to major museums, was a key medieval Norman fort. In World War II, D-Day operations kicked off just down the Orne River, British airborne troops famously securing the vital Pegasus Bridge. Caen’s vast war museum is now also dedicated to peace, and the Orne used by yachts heading for Caen’s central marina and lively centre.
© Danielle Dumas
Caen lies close to the D-Day landing beaches, to its own ferry port of Ouistreham (with regular connections to Portsmouth), and to beaches and resorts where you can enjoy traditional seaside fun. Caen even has its own yachting marina, the Bassin Saint-Pierre, reaching into the heart of town.
Historically, it was due in large part to William the Conqueror that Caen grew into a great city beside the Orne. William’s wife, Matilda of Flanders, was also involved. Each ordered a grand abbey, the Abbaye aux Hommes for William, the Abbaye aux Dames for Matilda, both hugely impressive places to this day. In between them, the many-turreted castle was one of the most important in the duchy of Normandy; now, its walls conceal two museums.
During the Hundred Years War, Caen was violently attacked by English forces. In the second half of that conflict, English troops occupied the town for a long period, but the results were not all negative, as Caen University was founded at this time and the city retains a reputed university to this day.
Famously, the first crucial, successful action of the Allied D-Day invasion on 6 June 1944 was when British airborne forces secured the bridges downstream of Caen, between Bénouville and Ranville. Bénouville Bridge has gone down in history as Pegasus Bridge, after the emblem of the troops who took the crossing.
Unfortunately, Caen would not be liberated rapidly. After bitter fighting and terrible destruction, Caen was liberated on 9 July 1944. Much of the town had been destroyed. That said, some of Caen’s grandest monuments survived and much of the town was rebuilt in fine Caen stone – by the way, the Tower of London, ordered by William the Conqueror in the 1070s, was built in large part from Caen stone. All told, Caen’s city centre was well restored post-war. It makes an attractive place to visit, with plenty of museums, shops, restaurants and gardens, plus the liveliness of a university town.
- Caen Castle: the original castle was built for William the Conqueror, who made Caen into one of his greatest centres of power in Normandy. Damaged during bombings in 1944, the castle has been restored since. Its long walls and many towers make an impressive sight. Inside the ramparts, explore two exceptional museums, the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) and the Musée de Normandie (on the region’s history and ethnography). Also visit the Salle de l'Échiquier (Treasury Chamber) and Saint-George's Church.
- Abbaye aux Hommes: William the Conqueror, to regain the favour of the Pope, who disapproved of his marriage to his distant cousin, Matilda, Princess of Flanders, ordered the construction of the Abbaye aux Hommes in 1066. It was begun in the Romanesque (Norman) style, but completed in the 13th century in Gothic style. It houses William's tomb. The abbey is an architectural masterpiece, its elegant lines mixing the simple Norman style with Gothic inspiration. The later, substantial monastic buildings attached were built with Classical grandeur; they now house Caen Town Hall.
- Abbaye aux Dames (place de la Reine Mathilde): This abbey is the counterpart of the Abbaye aux Hommes, built for Queen Matilda on a similarly grand scale between 1060 and 1080. The 11th century Church of the Holy Trinity, which was refurbished in the 12th century, is a fine example of Norman architecture. The superb crypt, with its barrel vaults supported by 16 close-ranked columns, is remarkable. Queen Matilda is buried at the heart of the church.
- Hôtel d'Escoville: behind a sober facade, this magnificent former private house is now the home of Caen Tourist Office. Once inside the courtyard, admire the extravagant architecture all around, in what is one of the most typical examples of early Renaissance architecture in Caen.
- Église Saint-Pierre (church of Saint Peter): this parish church is remarkable for its luxurious ornamentation. It was begun in the 12th century and completed in the 16th century in Renaissance style.
- Le Jardin des Plantes (botanical gardens): Caen prides itself on being a green city. In the heart of town, these botanical gardens owe their originality to Gallard de la Ducquerie, who in 1689, when Professor at Caen’s Faculty of Medicine, acquired the land and filled it with rare plants. Today it is a place to relax or play, but visitors can also discover more than 2,000 different species of plants.
- Caen Port de Plaisance (Marina): lying just beyond one of the liveliest, best-restored corners of the old town centre, this long marina packed with yachts makes a surprising sight, reaching into the very centre of town. Backed by smart modern apartment blocks, it is a pleasant place for a stroll.
- Mémorial de Caen: before or after a trip to the D-Day Beaches close by, a visit to the Mémorial de Caen is highly recommended. Note that this is a major war museum, rather than simply a memorial monument; in fact its full title in English is the Caen Memorial Centre for History and Peace. It was inaugurated in 1988, standing on the very soil where some of the fighting for Caen took place. The museum focuses on the Battle of Normandy. The displays are superbly presented, making the most of modern techniques and film. The room devoted to D-Day is particularly fascinating, using a large split screen to follow the landings simultaneously from the Allied and German viewpoints. Post-war work on peace-making is also covered at the Caen Mémorial.
- Colline aux Oiseaux: beside the Mémorial de Caen, these impressive and varied gardens were created on what was previously a municipal rubbish dump. Now they make a wonderful place to clear your mind after visiting the war museum. The rose garden is one highlight. Children enjoy the small farm, where they can touch the animals, the maze and the crazy golf.
- Pegasus Bridge: Follow the Caen Canal a few kilometres north out of the city via industrial quarters (although the towpath is popular with walkers, cyclists and roller-skaters) and at Bénouville and Ranville, you come to the crucial crossings over the canal and the Orne River secured by British 6th airborne division on the night of the 5th to the 6th June 1944. In honour of the men, led by Major John Howard, who carried out the vital mission to take Bénouville Bridge, it was renamed Pegasus Bridge, after the emblem of the mythological flying horse used by the British airborne forces. The Café Gondrée on the Bénouville side of the canal is said to have been the first house in France to be liberated by the Allies on D-Day. On the Ranville side of the water, you can see the original Pegasus Bridge alongside the Mémorial Pegasus, a museum that recounts the heroic actions here in detail. Also pay your respects to the soldiers who died in action and are buried at the Ranville Commonwealth Cemetery.
- Festyland Theme Park: this fun amusement park stands within Caen’s ring-road, in the northwest corner of town, towards Bayeux. It contains a good selection of rides, from ones specially geared to young children to more challenging ones for teenagers and parents.
- Vieux-la-Romaine Gallo-Roman Museum and Archaeological Site: South of Caen, some of the most important vestiges of any Roman town in northern Gaul were found at the well-named village of Vieux (meaning ‘old’ in French). In Roman times, Caen was not an important settlement, but the town on the site of Vieux, then called Aregenua, was. It was capital of the Viducasses tribe. The museum, opened in 2002, displays interesting finds, plus you can visit the archaeological sites.