Times have been tough recently. Moving, affirming, even uplifting, but also exhausting. You may need a fall break. I make. So to Normandy. The British flock there in the summer, less, inexplicably, in the autumn, when it is more magical. Fewer still arrive south of the Orne department – the least populated and least visited part of the region. So you should have to yourself the field of explaining to the French the brilliance of the monarchy.
Second advantage: Orne County is practical. It’s around 90 minutes from the Ouistreham/Caen ferry, two hours from St Malo, to our chosen base, Bagnoles-de-l’Orne. The deep green landscape is filled with shire cattle and horses. Pastures bordered by tall hedges and erratic paths give way to woods and unexpected hills that the locals, with admirable ambition, compare to the Alps. It’s pretty mild all the time, but all the milder in the fall. Wood smoke and mushrooms on the forest floor do him good.
There are also faint echoes of an England we can remember from when we were young. This is advantage three. But the food is richer: advantage four. Beef, cream, butter, and any amount of cheese hold their own during the fall season. Cider too, although calvados is more useful.
The fifth advantage is that this is a mainly relaxing place. It’s just for now. Head to Bagnoles de l’Orne. Bagnoles resembles a Belle Epoque spa town of rustic elegance, because that’s what it was (and is). Think of Buxton coming at you from a jaunty angle eight times smaller. Built around a lake, it’s a place to take the waters (Romanian kings often appeared) before strolling, twirling a mustache or revealing a shapely ankle. Someone recently called the atmosphere “Proustian.” We would probably say “Edwardian”.
And certainly you can go straight from the modern thermal establishment to the casino and then to the race track, which seems quite Edwardian to me. Around him, there is more garden than city and more forest than either. Bagnoles is nestled among 18,000 acres of beech, oak, fir, rock and much more. The locals are tireless in their efforts to get you to bike, walk or run through them. The city is a trailhead headquarters, which would have ruled out Proust.
Mushrooms were probably more her line. Mine too. The autumn forest of Bagnoles abounds with them, about 1,700 varieties, literally dozens of opportunities for a slow and painful death. You need to wander around with an expert, to distinguish your ceps and chanterelles from the European death caps and destroying angels. I would suggest Franck Quinton, Michelin star chef and co-owner of the Manoir-du-Lys hotel on the outskirts of the city. He organizes mushroom-picking outings, overnight stays, and cooking lessons, and then brings you more interesting mushroom dishes than you’ve ever had anywhere else (manoir-du-lys.fr). I’ll stake ten pounds.
Playboy Runners and Plantagenets
Now for the sixth advantage: there are plenty of things to do right at your fingertips. I just made some. Duty first took me to the Le Mans 24 Hours race museum. I am so uninterested in cars that I often forget if mine is a Peugeot or a Renault. But it seemed silly to be around and not look in, like being in Pontefract and not eating licorice.
I was surprised. The museum had plenty of cars, including vintage Le Mans winners, but almost as many human stories, from the Bentley Boys, playboy racers of the 1920s, to the guy who, driving his 2CV around the world, ran out of oil in somewhere remote in East Africa. So he put bananas in the gearbox and kept driving. Finally, I thought, a decent use for bananas (lemans-musee24h.com).
Better still was the historic center of Le Mans, home of the Plantagenets. Our Henry II was born in 1133 in what is now the town hall. He was baptized in the nearby cathedral, one of the best Gothic and Roman churches in France. Beset by spider buttresses, it looks like a monumental transforming toy. Inside are treasures including, frescoed on the vaults of the Lady Chapel, 47 musical angels. One is playing the hurdy-gurdy.
Henry would no doubt find his way through the cobblestone streets that wind between Roman walls, ornate stone facades, walled gardens, and crooked timber framing. The district has now become chic with bistros and boutiques. When, at dusk, the dim lighting casts long shadows, the running figures are less toothless. villains with daggers, more schoolchildren with violin cases. This is a commendable development.
Saints and war stories
Other days, I stopped at St Céneri-le-Gérei, a small stone village so perfectly nestled among the trees of the steep valley of the Sarthe that it seemed to have a secret purpose. Afternoon soaps seeping from the huts brought things back to normal.
The village church had beautiful frescoes, but the associated chapel, down the hill in the middle of a field, had a wooden statue of St Céneri in which women desiring to marry were urged to stick a pin. If he got stuck, they would be married within a year. A supply of pins was available. Nearby, a rock protruding from the floor of the chapel, if she sat on it, promoted fertility in women. This was, then, a one-stop shop for mothers-to-be.
Later, I drove to Horse Country and the Haras du Pin. It is the oldest stud stable in France, an 18th-century manor house for steeds, inscribing the horse in the country’s never-ending quest for greatness.
A little further north, towards Montormel, the landscape is still relaxing: birdsong, hedgerows, fields, the small Dives stream, but the story is not. This is the Falaise Pocket where, 75 days after D-Day, 100,000 retreating German soldiers were nearly surrounded. Allied forces (British, American, Canadian, Polish, French) subjected them to beatings. Some 50,000 escaped when the pocket collar tightened, 40,000 captured and 10,000 killed. That the Dives Valley is now as serene and sleepy as a Sunday afternoon is perhaps nature’s way of compensating.
On Hill 262, where Polish forces fought furiously, often hand-to-hand, to close the pocket, the Montormel Memorial explains it all (memorial-montormel.org). It covers the end of a campaign started weeks earlier on the Normandy beaches that killed some 20,000 Norman civilians. The full experience of occupation and civilian suffering takes center stage at the Civil War Museum in the city of Falaise itself (memorial-falaise.fr). Among a million stories, the one that stuck with me was that of Edmone Robert. She was a Norman primary school teacher, a communist and a member of the first resistance. She was arrested in her classroom in 1942, she was sent to the camps, she survived until the end of the war and then died on the train on the way home.
That’s micro-history. There is macrohistory in the medieval castle that towers over the city. Around 1028, this was the birthplace of William the Bastard who, 38 years later, evolved from “Bastard” to “Conqueror”. The castle is monumentally intact, bristling like a brigade of old warriors, but, if you want to honor one of Carlos III’s most distant ancestors, you’d better be quick. The visit is fascinating, but it involves more and steeper stairs than some older people appreciate (chateau-guillaume-leconquerant.fr).
camembert and calvados
Later, I headed to the most famous village in the world. In 1791, a priest fleeing the revolution arrived and showed local milkmaid Marie Harel a new way of maturing cheese. She named the result after her village: Camembert. The place is no bigger now (pop: 176) than it was then, and has long since lost its monopoly on making Camembert. They can, and do, produce it in Hungary and Brazil. But the real stuff is still made locally and the Really the real stuff, using raw milk, has an AOP, as do fine wines.
The Maison du Camembert and the attached museum are as welcoming and informative as one would expect cheese establishments to be. You’ll learn that camembert really took off as France’s number one cheese when it was included in the rations of soldiers in the Great War (maisonducamembert.com).
I kept going, deeper into what is known as the Pays-d’Auge. If Postman Pat French, he’d be hanging around here, too. He has the necessary bucolic serenity, with apple trees everywhere. This is the land of apples. The harvest is in full swing as we speak. At the bottom of a valley near Crouttes, the half-timbered Galotière farmhouse took care of my apple-fueled booze needs. Calvados, mainly, because I have serious doubts about cider: a children’s drink in adult clothes.
Make up your mind about it at the harvest-time apple festivals at Vimoutiers, a Croutte jump (October 15-16) or the equally nearby Sap-en-Auge (November 12-13).
I headed for the base, through the hills, forest, cliffs, and rocks that dreamy geographers call “Suisse Normande” (Norman Switzerland). It’s great but not that great, but great enough for me. Back to Bagnoles. This is truly a charming place. American billionaire Frank Jay Gould thought so too. He invested much of his crooked father’s railroad fortune in both the casino and the majestic Grand Hotel. American cash would turn Bagnoles into a luxury seaside resort. Gould expected gratitude. He asked the Bagnoles council to name a bridge in his honor. The council refused. Gould left and subsequently founded Juan-les-Pins on the Riviera.
I sat on the balcony of my hotel, drank a young calvados on the rocks and looked at the lake, the park and the town centre. Gould had played his part, but Bagnoles had gotten along pretty well without him ever since. Then I went for a run through the woods. Just kidding.
How to do it
Take the ferry from Portsmouth to Caen or St Malo (brittany-ferries.co.uk), or the Eurostar to Paris (eurostar.com) and rent a car. Right on the lake, the three-star hotel Le Béryl (hotel-bagnoles.com) is remarkably welcoming, with a touch of class, a good restaurant, plus a sauna and indoor pool. Room-only Autumn Doubles from £95, though check the website for deals.