Normandy has always had large ports: Rouen, on the Seine, is the nearest navigable point to Paris, while Dieppe, Le Havre and Cherbourg have important transatlantic trade. Inland, it is overwhelmingly agricultural a fertile belt of tranquil pastureland, where the chief interest for most visitors will be the groaning restaurant tables of regions such as the Pays d'Auge. Much of the seaside is a little overdeveloped; the last French emperor created, in the second half of the nineteenth century, a "Norman Riviera" around Trouville and Deauville, and an air of pretension still hangs about their elegant promenades. But more ancient harbours such as Honfleur and Barfleur remain visually irresistible, and there are numerous seaside villages with few crowds or affectations. The banks of the Seine, too, hold several delightful little communities.
Normandy also boasts extraordinary Romanesque and Gothic architectural treasures, although only the much-restored capital, Rouen, retains a complete medieval centre. Elsewhere, the attractions are more often single buildings than entire towns. Most famous of all is the spectacular merveille on the island of Mont St-Michel, but there are also the monasteries at Jumièges and Caen; the cathedrals of Bayeux and Coutances; and Richard the Lionheart's castle above the Seine at Les Andelys. In addition, Bayeux has its vivid and astonishing tapestry, while among more recent creations are Monet's garden at Giverny and, at Le Havre, a fabulous collection of paintings by Dufy, Boudin, as well as other Impressionists. Furthermore, Normandy's vernacular architecture makes it well worth exploring inland the back roads through the countryside are lined with splendid centuries-old half-timbered manor houses. It's remarkable how much has survived or been restored since the Allied landings in 1944 and the subsequent Battle of Normandy, which has its own legacy in a series of war museums, memorials and cemeteries.
To the French, at least, the essence of Normandy is its produce. This is the land of Camembert and Calvados, cider and seafood, and a butter- and cream-based cuisine with a proud disdain for most things nouvelle. Economically, however, the richness of the dairy pastures has been Normandy's downfall in recent years. EU milk quotas have liquidated many small farms, and stringent sanitary regulations have forced many small-scale traditional cheese factories to close. Parts of inland Normandy are now among the most depressed in the whole country, and in the forested areas to the south, where life has never been easy, things have not improved.
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