A small, rather faded vintage leaflet from the Chemins de Fer de l’Etat (State Railways of France) promotes two charming excursions around Normandy that we would happily recommend today. The first scales the dizzy heights of Suisse Normande with all it’s ‘charm, grace and hints of savagery’. The second invites travelers to tour the Normandy Bocage, suggesting beautiful views to admire and historic sites to visit. Translated below, we think you will agree they are irresistible.
Suisse Normande and the Bocage
This is a region where Normandy, without ceasing to be grassy and green Normandy, feels the approaches of Brittany and sees the old rocks of Armorique rise, suddenly bursting their fresh grass fleece. In this fertile nature are gorges, steep rocks, almost mountains. It has been said “it’s a Little Switzerland”, as if there were only one ideal type of landscape in the world. It is a marvel to see, however small! In truth, this country needs only a vague comparison with Switzerland to be delicious: both green and rugged, laughing, but with a laugh that shows its teeth, it has charm, a lot of grace and a hint of savagery and a double name: it is the “Bocage Normand”.
At the edge of the grove is Falaise where William the Conqueror was born. On a steep rock stands the formidable fortified castle of the first Dukes of Normandy. All around are ravines and gorges with famous sites: Arlette’s Fountain, the Devils’ Gap, the Gorge of Saint-Quentin. Further west, the Orne and on, pass from the countryside of Argentan to the countryside of Caen. Explore an extraordinarily winding gorge that becomes a true mountain torrent before twisting and meandering to end at a grandiose escarpment. The Pont-d’Olly, at the confluence of the Noireau, Clécy and Thury-Harcourt are access points to the most famous sites. Another small Norman river, the Vire, goes down in cascades in the verdant gorge of the ‘Vaux de Vire’ overlooked by the city and the ruined castle of Vire on its granite hill. It was to the rhythm of these mills that Olivier Basselin, in the sixteenth century, laughed his songs that gave rise it is said to the word “vaudeville”
Finally, in the south from the outskirts of Alençon to the shore of Avranches is a long ride over Armorican sandstone, veiled with thick trees of the Andaine forest, cut with only a few breaks formed by sneaking rivers. A charming thermal station, Bagnoles, lodges itself in one of these breaks, Domfront’s old dungeon commands another, and Mortain is a third, in a delightful setting dripping with water cascades.
An excursion into the Normandy Bocage
From Paris, it is possible to go to Falaise either by the Cherbourg line changing at Mézidon, or by the Granville line, until Argentan. Falaise, a small town of 7,000 inhabitants, is extremely picturesque and rich in monuments; ruins of a considerable castle of the Dukes of Normandy; St. Gervais Church xvi century, Church of the Trinity xv and xvi centuries; statue of William the Conqueror, who conquered England (1066). We will complete our visit here with an ascent of Mount Mirat (very beautiful views), and a the classic walk to Breche-au-Devil and the Tomb of Marie Joly, returning by Ussy and Villers-Ganivet.
From Falaise, the railway goes west to the Orne valley where you can get off at the Ménil-Hubert-Pont-d’Ouilly station, a beautiful site at the confluence of the picturesque valley of the Noireau. This is where the gorges of the Orne begin. We can travel either by road, highly recommended, or by the Flers river to Caen via Clècy and Thury-Harcourt, which has an imposing castle of the xvii and xviii centuries.
Returning to Flers and the main Paris-Granville line we can, by the Briouze line, visit Bagnoles-de-l’Orne, where we will find hotels and the distractions of a city of waters, with a choice of charming walks in the forests of Andaine and La Ferte. From Flers a junction leads directly to Domfront, well situated above the Varenne gorge, overlooked by the ruins of the famous dungeon; near the Romanesque church of Notre-Dame-sur-l’Eau.
On the main Granville line is Vire on a granite hill with commanding views over the Bocage and the Vaux de Vire. In Vire is the picturesque Porte de l’Horloge (xiii and xiv centuries); Church of Our Lady, xiii, and xv century ruins of the ancient castle.
From Vire a line goes towards Mortain. Half way is a simple church of the xiii on the slopes of the Cance valley, with its charming waterfalls; also a former Abbaye Blanche of the xii and xiii centuries; climb for 25 minutes here to the chapelle Saint-Michel, on a rocky summit from which one touches an immense green horizon.