La Suisse Normande
‘Norman Switzerland’ is not a mountainous area, but a delightful, steep, wildish stretch around the Orne Valley south of Caen. Here, go messing around in boats, hiking or rock-climbing, or simply marvel at the gorges from a gorgeous riverside restaurant terrace.
The Orne River has carved dramatic meanders and gorges into the rocks of the area known as La Suisse Normande, or Norman Switzerland. The highest heights in these parts reach over 1,000 feet, making these the most elevated spots in Normand.
Sports enthusiasts will find plenty to amuse them in La Suisse Normande. The river attracts canoeists, amateurs and professional – the area even hosted the canoe polo world championships in 2014. Angling is another popular, quieter pursuit on the water. The rocks above attract rock-climbers, while hiking possibilities are numerous.
La Suisse Normande also has its relaxing sides, including appealing riverside hotels and restaurants and picturesque villages tumbling down the slopes.
- Suisse Normande Route: enjoy a 40-mile round trip by road to discover the area.
- Château de la Motte: this magnificent listed building was constructed between 1598 and 1614, and is a good example of early French classical architecture. The castle’s gardens are well worth seeing, as is the fine Romanesque church in nearby Acqueville.
- Clécy and Le Vey (websites in French): the lovely slope-side village of Clécy is dominated by a dramatic outcrop known as the Pain de Sucre (Sugarloaf), as well as by the Lande Viaduct. The Church of Saint-Pierre, with origins going back to the 15th century, was given imposing transepts and choir in the 19th century. The village contains interesting houses and manors that reflect Clécy’s importance in the region. Down by the Orne, in the adjoining village of Le Vey, the river and riverside restaurants are extremely popular. For sporting types there’s also the golf course and the summer toboggan track.
- Musée du Chemin de Fer Miniature de Clécy (website in French): set in a disused quarry between village and river, this model railway centre is packed with fascinating details. There’s also a mini train on which to take a short ride.
- Musée André Hardy: the 19th century painter this museum is named after and dedicated to lived in Clécy, painting many rustic scenes around la Suisse Normande. The museum is attached to Clécy tourist office. There’s also a painters’ trail to follow around the village.
- Les Rochers des Parcs: these dramatic cliffs opposite Clécy lay bare the geology of the area. They are popular with hikers and are surrounded by fine moorland. Rock-climbers love them too, enjoying numerous routes up the rock-faces.
- Saint-Omer (website in French): as well as its Romanesque church, refurbished between the 18th and 19th centuries, Saint-Omer is known for the remains of the Abbaye du Val, a former Augustinian establishment. As to the site of Saint-Clair's Chapel, it offers fine views over the plains of Falaise and Caen towards the sea, the Seine estuary and the hills of the Pays d'Auge.
- Roche d'Oëtre: the great Oëtre Rock rising above the Rouvre River, south of the village of Pont-d’Ouilly, boasts one of the finest viewpoints in Normandy. To appreciate this wild place, where the shapes of the rocks spark the imagination, follow the two-hour hiking circuit.
- Thury-Harcourt: Northern gateway to the Suisse Normande, Thury-Harcourt had a major castle and a significant industrial past, with tanneries and enamelling factories. However, the village was destroyed by German forces in 1944, so it had to be entirely rebuilt after the war. The ruined castle is surrounded by enchanting gardens beside the Orne River.
- Tranchée du Hom: the rocks were cut through here in 1883 to allow a road to be built between Thury-Harcourt and Aunay-sur-Odon.
- Saint-Martin-de-Sallen (website in French): see Saint-Martin's Church, Saint-Joseph's Chapel and the graves of British soldiers.
- Saint-Rémy-sur-Orne (website in French): here, the earth was rich in iron ore, which was extracted from pits known as Les Fosses d’Enfer (or Pits of Hell) from 1460 until 1968. Now the Musée des Fosses d’Enfer and Normandy Geological Resource Centre relate Normandy’s geological story as well as charting the lives of the local miners. Notre-Dame Chapel, with its altar placed on a mining truck, was built by miners in the 20th century.