I’ve disembarked from a ferry on the north coast of France innumerable times, then like most other holidaymakers have invariably headed south, barely glancing at the flat landscapes either side of the autoroute, the Michelin map on my lap and yelling directions at the last minute as my partner tries to remember which side of the road to use: ‘Right! Right! NO! Drive on the right! Turn left!’ etc.
This holiday has been different, peaceful, positively tranquil. We have a modern electric car that glides quietly along; I decide the route on my computer, email it to my phone, and ‘Mrs Google’ does the rest, displaying the map on a vast satnav. Her pronunciation of French place names is excruciating, but we never miss a turning.
This year, instead of the slog south, we have been staying a mere two hours from Cherbourg, in a lovely gite near Conde-en-Noireau, well away from the beaten track. The secret of Normandy is that the through routes are on the plains. Away from those routes the countryside is undulating and lush, crossed by sheltered valleys where in places rivers like the Orne and the Vire have eroded craggy outcrops.
Chateaux, some dating back to the Normans, still guard the land, and rich pastures and fields of sunflowers lie beside ancient forests.
While the scars of the second world war are never far, and many towns show the signs of reconstruction, there are still villages of golden stone or even half-timbered houses, with slate-hung walls, with roofs punctuated by little dormer windows or conical turrets, and brimming over with flowers.
The Pays d’Auge is another tranquil corner of Normandy where amongst orchards and cidreries there nestles an exceptionally beautiful place, the Jardins du Pays D’Auge. It’s silent, fragrant, and a plantsman’s delight, divided up into many ‘garden rooms’ separated by hedging and sheltered by mature trees. The plantings are themed in each section – the garden of the angels, the garden of the moon, etc – and the plants carefully labelled. Reconstructions of traditional Norman buildings of the Pays d’Auge are set amongst the gardens giving the impression of a centuries-old setting, yet one discovers that 30 years ago this paradise was merely a field.
To get to Claude Monet’s world-famous garden at Giverny we forsook our sheltered paradise and crossed the plains to the bustling valley of the Seine. Here is a more prosperous part of Normandy – but one is never away from the sound of traffic. This garden can no longer be considered peaceful – at times one is reminded of a theme park with its queuing crowds. There is constant photography – one cannot move without being in someone else’s way, the smartphones capture every view from every angle. The place must generate thousands of images every hour. Yet the exuberance of the plantings is stunning: riotous clashes of colour: purple, orange, red, yellow, blue; the beauty and form of an individual flower and the intensity of many blooms massed together.
If Monet were alive today, perhaps he would enjoy painting the crowds. It rained during our visit, and two young oriental women passed me sharing an umbrella, in the style of Madame Monet with her parasol.