Normandy's history is a tapestry of war, faith and art

A section from the Bayeux tapestry - To reward Harold for his brilliant conduct in the field, William confers knighthood up on him according to the French ritual and leads him to Bayeux. There, Harold swears to secure for him the throne of England upon the death of Edward. (AP-Photo) 09/23/1953
A section from the Bayeux tapestry - To reward Harold for his brilliant conduct in the field, William confers knighthood up on him according to the French ritual and leads him to Bayeux. There, Harold swears to secure for him the throne of England upon the death of Edward. (AP-Photo) 09/23/1953 ASSOCIATED PRESS

NORMANDY, France — It would be hard to find a region with as many intriguing contrasts as this one in northern France.

The medieval town of Bayeux has a tapestry depicting an epic battle that changed the course of two nations, and in Giverny, a floral tapestry is the result of one man's quest for peace and serenity. There are shrines to St. Michael, a lieutenant in the army of God against the devil, and St. Joan, a lieutenant in the army of France against the English. The same beaches that were painted in a pastel haze by the Impressionists were painted deep red by the blood of the Allies.

Normandy offers the traveler so much that the only problem is where to begin.

For Lexingtonians, it's our sister city, Deauville, a seaside resort whose genteel Gallic charm is a complement to our city's genteel Southern charm. They love their horses with the same passion that we love ours, as can be seen in two race courses, an equestrian center, a prestigious auction house, and a renowned Polo Cup. Normandy also will be the site of the 2014 World Equestrian Games, the 2010 installment of which was in Lexington.

On a tour of the magnificent Villa Strassburger, used by the mayor for official entertaining, I was surprised and delighted to discover a large oil painting of the horse Fair Play, sire of Man o' War, dominating a wall of a reception room.

But its equestrian culture is only part of Deauville's charm. Other musts include a promenade on its seaside boardwalk and a visit to the elegant casino. Even if you don't gamble, check out the magnificent theater, inspired by the opera house at Versailles (France, not Kentucky).

If Burgundy and Bordeaux have their wines, Normandy counters with calvados, an apple brandy. On the outskirts of Deauville, in a park filled with centuries-old trees, Château du Breuil and its distillery welcome visitors.

On the tour, I discovered that the region's distilling traditions date to Norman times, and during the tasting, I discovered that an aperitif of apple juice, calvados and vanilla extract makes for some mighty fine sipping.

Caen and Colleville-sur-Mer

The city of Caen dates back 1,000 years, when it was founded by William, Duke of Normandy, who became king of England after routing Saxon king Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

You can trace William's footsteps at the impressive Abbaye aux Hommes ("Men's Abbey") and its counterpart, Abbaye aux Dames ("Ladies' Abbey"), founded by his queen, Matilda, and at the Ducal Castle. Built by William as both residence and fortification, the castle remains one of the largest enclosures in Europe.

For me, Caen's most impressive offering is the Caen Memorial. It is divided into two sections, each occupying its own building: the world before 1945 (events leading up to and including World War II) and the world after 1945 (from the end of the war to the fall of the Berlin Wall).

It would be virtually impossible to do justice to both if you have only a few hours, as I did, so I chose to explore the world before 1945. The multimedia exhibitions are heart-rending and heart- warming. Regardless of whether you are a military buff, this is one memorial you won't want to miss.

From Caen, it is an easy journey — in distance, if not in spirit — to the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, which covers 173 acres on the bluffs above Omaha Beach. There, 9,387 white crosses and Stars of David mark the graves of Americans who died to liberate Normandy from the Germans during World War II.

At nearby Utah Beach, the Museum of the Landing was built in 1962 on the exact spot where the second wave of American soldiers came ashore on June 6, 1944.

Tale of two countries

Few places have been as inextricably linked as Normandy and England, and the story of how that tie came to be can be seen in the famous tapestry in the Museum of Bayeux.

The tapestry, part of the UNESCO "Memory of the World" program, is a scroll of woven linen on which is embroidered the story of William, Duke of Normandy. Believing himself the rightful heir to the throne of England, he fought and defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. He was there after known as William the Conqueror.

Legends abound as to who commissioned the 11th-century tapestry, although contemporary scholars have settled on William's half-brother, Bishop Odo, who fought alongside him at Hastings. One of the tapestry's more humorous panels shows Odo swinging his club, illustrating that, as a religious man, he was forbidden to spill blood, but was permitted to "knock a man senseless."

The medieval town of Bayeux itself is well worth a visit, with its architecture of black-and-white half-timbered buildings. Even if you don't stay at L'Hôtel Lion d'Or, stop in for a meal. The atmospheric inn is full of wonderful photographs of illustrious past guests, including Gens. Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who stayed here after the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Saints Michael and Joan

No visit to Normandy is complete without a visit to Mont Saint-Michel, the 11th-century abbey built on a rocky outcrop in the English Channel. Dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, who fought the devil in the guise of a dragon, the abbey became a place of sanctuary and pilgrimage, and a fortress against the ever-pesky English.

Having already visited the abbey's twin, St. Michael's Mount, across the channel in Cornwall, I was surprised by my first view of the French version. Unlike the English abbey, which is privately owned and stands alone atop its promontory, Mont Saint-Michel is a small community, with hotels, shops and restaurants below the abbey.

Be forewarned: The climb to the abbey, up steps cut into sheer rock, is an aerobic workout at best and treacherous after a rain. But don't be deterred: The chance to see the church, chapel, cloister and crypts makes the trek worthwhile.

Rouen is best known for its association with Joan of Arc. In 1430, at the height of France's Hundred Years War with England, Joan, a teenage peasant, followed the voices in her head to lead an army against the English, liberating Orleans.

After failing to liberate Paris and betrayal by the Duke of Burgundy, she was brought to Rouen for trial, and in 1431, at age 19, she was burned at the stake. The modern church named in her honor in the Place du Vieux-Marché has a controversial exterior design said to represent her funeral pyre.

There's nothing controversial about Rouen's most famous church, Notre Dame Cathedral, which is the subject of a famous series of paintings by Claude Monet that now hang in Paris's Musée d'Orsay.

A gastronomic museum of sorts is Restaurant La Couronne, where, in 1949, Julia Child sat down for her first dinner in France. I was determined to eat same dishes Child had: oysters on the half shell, sole meunière and a dessert of fruit with crème fraiche, accompanied by a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé. The staff, undoubtedly used to the request, happily obliged.

Impressionists' paradise

Monet was but one of the artists, collectively known as Impressionists, who found Normandy a fertile field for their imagination and talent. The most famous of the places associated with the Impressionists is the village of Giverny, Monet's home for 43 years. The bungalow where he lived and painted is open to the public, but the real draw is the gardens.

Pausing on the bridge overlooking the Water Garden and seeing the blur of colors that so inspired Monet, I felt my own inner artist struggling to get out. The gardens are beautiful in every season (during my visit in June, the roses were the stars).

Giverny wasn't the only place in Normandy to inspire Monet and fellow Impressionists Boudin and Corbet. Other places included the picturesque harbor of Honfleur and the Natural Arch, set amidst the cliffs at Étretat.

Standing above those cliffs, I couldn't help thinking that all of Normandy is worthy of an Impressionist painting.