Listed in the Telegraph's 50 Intriguing Alternatives in France
Beginning in the middle of the ninth century, raiding parties from Scandinavia first pillaged, and then occupied, the coastal reaches of northern France. The effect on Carolingian France was catastrophic, and as its governmental systems collapsed, France disintegrated into a patchwork of small feudal domains.
Normandy was one of the most significant of these, and after the old Norse chieftain, Rollo, was granted the lordship of the lands north of the rivers Epte and Andelle, he took the title ‘Duke’ and set his embryonic duchy on a course of expansion. Rouen was Rollo’s chosen capital, and this tour concentrates on the eastern part of the duchy along with the adjoining Beauvaisis, combining sites which are otherwise difficult to access with the great monuments of Rouen, Evreux and the Seine Valley.
It is no exaggeration to see in the events of 1066 something central to a Norman, and English, sense of identity. The most obvious reminders of this are the great Norman castles and churches which are such familiar landmarks of English towns. Their origins lie in the pioneering eleventh-century buildings of Jumièges, Rouen and Bernay. This early, and exceptionally inventive, development of a mature Romanesque architecture places Normandy at the forefront of an initiative which was to have profound consequences for later medieval Europe – the creation of integrated and highly articulated churches on a colossal scale – the effects of which are readily seen.
Normandy’s Romanesque buildings have often been the subject of lavish praise, however. That distinctive late twelfth- and thirteenth-century architecture, of polished surfaces, detached shaftwork, giddying spires and sumptuous colour remains less widely appreciated. It is also the case that the buildings undertaken in the aftermath of the Hundred Years War have been overlooked by historians of the period. Yet these are characterised by an extraordinarily well-developed interest in the picturesque and the fantastical, by myriad angles, flickering tracery, and twisted slate-hung roofs. Taken individually they number among the most ravishing buildings of late medieval Europe.
Mantes, Rouen. Travel by Eurostar at c. 10.30am from London St Pancras to Paris, and by coach to Mantes, home to the French royal collegiate church of Notre-Dame. Transfer by coach to Rouen where all seven nights are spent.
Rouen. Unquestionably the greatest city of Normandy, and one which retains enough of its historic fabric to rank among the most architecturally enthralling cities of northern Europe. Visits include the wonderfully inventive cathedral, the Palais de Justice, the Musée des Antiquités and the important late Gothic churches of St-Ouen and St-Maclou.
Caudebec-en-Caux, Fécamp, Jumièges, Boscherville. Drive along the Seine to Caudebec-en-Caux to see the virtuosic parish church of Notre-Dame and on to the great ducal monastery of La Trinité at Fécamp. The afternoon is spent at the peerless ruined abbey of Jumièges, one of a handful of buildings which might be said to mark the arrival of mature Romanesque architecture in Europe and finally, the altogether more intimate spaces of St-Martin-de-Boscherville.
Evreux, Conches-en-Ouche, Bernay. Evreux’s diocesan museum was recently beautifully refurbished and now houses both the exquisite 13th-century shrine of St-Taurin and the English alabaster retable of St George from La Celle. We will follow this with visits to Evreux’s variously Romanesque and Gothic cathedral along with the gloriously ramshackle monastic church of St Taurin. The afternoon will take in Conches-en-Ouche, famed for its late medieval and early Renaissance stained glass and Bernay - the essential starting point for an understanding of Norman Romanesque.
Bayeux, Caen. The Bayeux tapestry, subject of much scholarly attention and an object whose splendour and importance can scarcely be overstated, one of those rare ‘marvels’ which exceeds expectations. In the afternoon continue to Caen, capital of Basse-Normandie. The city offers a feast of celebrated Romanesque buildings, the great abbey churches of St-Etienne and La Trinité both buildings of the first rank built c. 1065 to c. 1140.
Les Andelys, Rouen. From the ruins of the Château Gaillard, Richard I’s mighty castle defending the approaches into Normandy, there are spectacular views of the Seine valley. Below is Grand Andely, centred around the church of Notre-Dame (13th and 15th century), while in Petit Andely is the 13th-century church of St-Sauveur. The afternoon is free in Rouen.
Saint-Germer-de-Fly, Beauvais. Drive to St-Germer-de-Fly, a Benedictine abbey with an early Gothic church to which a delightful quasi-freestanding Lady Chapel was added in the manner of the Sainte Chapelle. Rest of the day in Beauvais, whose breathtakingly audacious cathedral choir has lost little of its power to thrill. Indeed, no description of French Gothic is complete without it.
Gisors. Drive to Gisors, the old capital of the Normandy Vexin, with a magnificent castle and 16th-century church. Continue to Paris and return by Eurostar to London St Pancras arriving at c. 6.00pm.
Dr Richard Plant
Architectural historian and lecturer specialising in the Middle Ages with a strong interest in the modern. He studied at Cambridge, followed by the Courtauld, where he obtained his PhD. He was Deputy Academic Director at Christie’s Education and has published on English and German architecture.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,980 or £2,800 without Eurostar. Single occupancy: £3,550 or £3,370 without Eurostar.
Return rail travel by Eurostar (Standard Premier) from London St Pancras to Paris; coach travel in France; accommodation as described below; breakfasts and 5 dinners with wine or beer, soft drinks, water and coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Hotel de Bourgtheroulde, Rouen: 5–star hotel in the historic centre of Rouen, a few minutes walk from the cathedral. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
The tour involves a lot of walking, some on roughly paved streets, and a fair amount of standing around. You need to be able to carry your luggage on and off the train and within the stations. On some days there is a lot of coach travel; average distance per day: 92 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'Excellent lecturer. Very knowledgeable and also good at communicating at a personal level with tour members.'
'Very good itinerary. Well planned and covered a variety of buildings. Lovely countryside.'
'An admirable itinerary: it took in most of the medieval sites in Normandy.'