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Northern France

Northern France’s main sights span thousands of years of history, from the awesome megaliths of Carnac, through the 18th-century grandeur of Nancy’s town architecture, to Strasbourg’s futuristic Palais de l’Europe, the seat of the European Parliament. Its cities boast some of the country’s greatest cathedrals, such as those of Reims and Rouen. The region’s most famous religious monument is Mont-St-Michel, whose evocative silhouette has welcomed pilgrims since the 11th century.

POINTS OF INTEREST

STRASBOURG

Located halfway between Paris and Prague, this cosmopolitan city is often known as “the crossroads of Europe.” It is also home to the European Parliament. A boat trip along the waterways that encircle Strasbourg’s Old Town takes in the Ponts-Couverts – bridges with medieval watchtowers – and the old tanners’ district, dotted with attractive half-timbered houses. Dating from the late 11th century, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame dominates the city. There are wonderful views from the viewing platform on the rooftop. The grand Classical Palais Rohan houses three museums: the Musée des Beaux-Arts, the Musée Archéologique, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which has one of the finest displays of ceramics in France. Also worth visiting is the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, Le Vaisseau, a scientific discovery center for children aged 3–15, and the Musée Alsacien, which overflows with exhibits on local traditions, arts, and crafts.

REIMS

Renowned throughout the world from countless champagne labels, Reims has a rich historical legacy. The city’s most famous monument is the magnificent Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame, begun in 1211. For several centuries, the cathedral was the setting for the coronation of French kings. Highlights are the 13th-century Great Rose Window and the west facade, decorated with over 2,300 statues. On the eve of a coronation, the future king spent the night in the Palais du Tau (1690), the archbishops’ palace, adjoining the cathedral. Its 15th-century banqueting hall, the Salle du Tau, with its barrel-vaulted ceiling and Arras tapestries, is a star attraction. Among other fine historic buildings are the 17th-century Ancien Collège des Jésuites, which is now a school, and the Basilique St-Remi, the oldest church in Reims. Relics of the town’s Roman past include the Cryptoportique, part of the former forum, and the Porte Mars, a triumphal Augustan arch. The Musée de la Reddition occupies the building that served as Eisenhower’s French headquarters during World War II. It was here, in 1945, that the general received the Germans’ surrender, which ended the war.

ROUEN

Formerly a Celtic trading post, Roman garrison, and Viking colony, Rouen became the capital of the Norman Duchy in 911. Today, it is a rich and cultured city that boasts a wealth of splendid historical monuments. Rouen’s Gothic cathedral, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame, has an impressive west facade, made famous by the great Impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840– 1926), who made almost 30 paintings of it. A number of these can be seen in the city’s excellent Musée des Beaux-Arts. From the cathedral, the Rue du Gros Horloge leads west, passing under the city’s Great Clock, to the Place du Vieux Marché, where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake in 1431. The Flamboyant Gothic Eglise St-Maclou and Eglise St-Ouen are two of Rouen’s finest churches. The Eglise St-Ouen is noted for its restored 14thcentury stained-glass windows. The Musée de la Céramique displays around 1,000 pieces of Rouen faïence – colorful glazed earthenware – as well as other pieces of French and foreign china. The former family home of Gustave Flaubert (1821–80) has been converted into a museum containing memorabilia from this famous French novelist’s life.

BAYEUX

The main reason to visit this small town in Normandy is to see the world-renowned Bayeux Tapestry. This incredible work of art depicts William the Conqueror’s invasion of England and the Battle of Hastings, which took place in the 11th century, from the Norman perspective. It was probably commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William’s half-brother. The 70-m (230-ft) long embroidered hanging is displayed in a renovated seminary, the Centre Guillaume-le-Conquérant, which also gives a detailed audiovisual account of the events leading up to the Norman conquest. As well as the tapestry, a cluster of 15th–19th-century buildings and the Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame are Bayeux’s principal attractions. Bayeux was the first town in Nazi-occupied France to be liberated by the Allies following the D-Day landings in 1944. On the southwest side of the town’s ring road, the Musée Mémorial de la Bataille de Normandie traces the events of the Battle of Normandy in World War II.

MONT-ST-MICHEL

Shrouded by mist, the silhouette of Mont-St-Michel is one of the most enchanting sights in France. Now linked to the mainland by a causeway, the island of Mont-Tombe (Tomb on the Hill) stands at the mouth of the Couesnon River, crowned by a fortified abbey that almost doubles its height. Lying strategically on the frontier between Normandy and Brittany, Mont-St-Michel grew from a humble 8th-century oratory to become a Benedictine monastery that had its greatest influence in the 12th and 13th centuries. Pilgrims known as miquelots journeyed from afar to honor the cult of St. Michael, and the monastery was a renowned center of medieval learning. After the French Revolution, the abbey became a prison. It is now a national monument that draws some 850,000 visitors a year. A footbridge links the island to the mainland year-round apart from a few hours each year when the tide is too high.

ST-MALO

Once a fortified island, St-Malo stands in a commanding position at the mouth of the river Rance. In the 16th–19th centuries, the port won prosperity and power through the exploits of its seafaring population. Intra-muros, the old walled city, is encircled by ramparts that provide fine views of St-Malo and its offshore islands. Within the city walls is a web of narrow, cobbled streets with tall 18th-century buildings housing many souvenir stores, seafood restaurants, and creperies. St-Malo’s castle, the Château de St-Malo dates from the 14th and 15th centuries. The great keep today houses an interesting museum charting the city’s history. In the three-towered fortification known as the Tour Solidor, to the west of St-Malo, is a museum devoted to the ships and sailors that rounded Cape Horn.

CARNAC

This popular town is probably most famous as one of the world’s great prehistoric sites. As long ago as 4000 BC, thousands of ancient granite rocks were arranged in mysterious lines and patterns in the countryside around Carnac by Megalithic tribes. Their original purpose is uncertain, though they are thought to have religious significance or to be related to an early astronomical calendar. Celts, Romans, and Christians have since adapted them to their own beliefs. You can see some of the menhirs at the Kermario site, on the town outskirts, while in the center, the Musée de Préhistoire gives an insight into the area’s ancient history.