How to spend a weekend in rural Normandy, from Camembert to castles

This article was created by National Geographic Traveler (UK).

The rural heart of Normandy showcases the best of la belle France. No other region is strictly agricultural and devotes so much land to pastoralism. And this plays out in his culinary experiences, from baking cider bread in an apple orchard’s centurion stone oven to sampling the heavenly taste of buttery Camembert, handcrafted with passion and ancestral know-how on a family farm.

Cruising the empty country lanes of the Pays d’Auge is a blissful invitation to really slow down. The checkerboard pattern of fertile green fields lined with hedges, dotted with mottled white-and-chestnut Normandy cows and half-timbered farmsteads offers glorious scenery by car or bike. Apple and pear orchards glow pink in spring and fiery red in autumn as you enjoy seasonal fruits in the pretty village Auberge (taverns) is an epicurean highlight. Eco-conscious chefs were cooking up a gastronomic storm here using local, organic produce long before the zero-mile cooking trend was coined.

History buffs won’t be disappointed either. Growing up in the rolling hills of the Suisse Normande, William the Conqueror later, as Norman King of England, shipped creamy Caen limestone across the Channel to build the White Tower at the Tower of London. The region is also full of beautifully preserved castles, Renaissance showpieces with witch hat towers and moated gardens. Take a tour, taste, and at the end of each day finish your meal like the locals do in this traditional, down-to-earth part of Normandy – with a heartwarming Calvados digestif.

Day one, Villages & Cider

Exploring the rainbow of outdoor stalls at the market in Pont-l’Évêque, famous for its eponymous AOP cheese, is a rendezvous with the epicurean soul of this small riverside town. Follow your nose to the Fromagerie René stand and buy a piece of washed-rind cheese packed in a poplar box. Tastings of thick ambrosial cream made from unpasteurized milk and slow-cooked Teurgoule Normande, a cinnamon rice pudding, from La Ferme de la Bourgeoterie are equally fragrant. Drive 10 minutes north in the Pays d’Auge to Christian Drouin, a 17th-century working farm where the Drouin family have been making double-distilled cider to make Calvados since 1960. Guided tours lead through the apple orchards, the artisanal distillery and the aging half-timbered barn where the apple brandy in oak casks turns mahogany golden over time.

Follow the hedge-lined lanes to Beaumont-en-Auge. Here the last remaining kaleidoscope maker in Europe, visiting from Paris in 1976, bought a half-timbered house to set up shop there. Admire the handmade optical toys at Dominic Stora’s quirky shop, Après la Pluie. Then browse the neighboring fashion boutiques and antique galleries and grab a bite to eat on the aptly named Rue du Paradis. Then drive 20 minutes south to the village of Cambremer, the starting point for the Route du Cidre, with a Romanesque church and art exhibitions in a medieval manor. Visit the Jardins des Pays d’Auge to see flower gardens reminiscent of the angels, the devil and more.

It’s a 15 minute dirt track past stud farms and cider cellars to Beuvron-en-Auge. Above the village, admire the 12th-century Chapelle de Clermont, then descend to the square. You might recognize the half-timbered horseshoe-shaped houses clustered around the old market hall from David Hockney’s Beuvron-en-Auge panorama painting; he lives nearby. Linger over an aperitif in the Coiffeur – a bar that was the village hairdresser until 1972. Or head straight to Le Pavé d’Auge’s traditional dining room for dinner. Chef Jerome Bansard champions the region’s earthy riches, but his refined Norman cuisine is soufflé-light. Don’t skip Normandy’s famous four-cheese course: Camembert, Neufchâtel, Pont-l’évêque, and Livarot – eaten in that order, with a dollop of thick Crème d’Isigny.

Second day, history & camembert

Start your journey through Norman feudal history in Falaise in Suisse Normande, birthplace of William the Conqueror. Pay homage to the warrior king at his statue in Place Guillaume le Conquérant. The stone-paved square also features a retired Sherman M4A1 main battle tank, stenciled by French street artist Jef Aérosol in 2019 to celebrate peace since the Battle of Normandy. Walk up the ramp and over the ramparts to immerse yourself in the drama and gore of the 11th century at the Chateau de Falaise. The stone fortress (where William, a duke’s illegitimate son, was born) features digital tablets that guide visitors through the impenetrable fortresses and the menacing Talbot Tower, once home to banquet table-bound and tamed birds Weasels tasked with keeping rats at bay.

Wind 20 minutes southwest through pea green pastures to Les Roches d’Oëtre, a rocky chasm overlooking gorges carved by the River Rouvre. From the car park, follow the Sentier des Corniches trail to the viewpoint. Or pick up a map at the visitor center for details on longer trails leading down to the river. End the afternoon at the Ferme du Champs Secret. Patrick Mercier’s family business produces AOP Camembert Fermier-certified farmer’s camembert, made on site from the unpasteurized milk of his herd of 110 Normandy cows. Everything from filling the curds into molds to turning 700 cheeses a day is done by hand. Before you go, grab a round from the fridge and drop £4 in the honesty box.

End your Camembert journey with an early evening aperitif in the village where France’s best-known cheese was born in 1791. Arrive at 5:00 PM to stroll through the history and popular culture of the Camembert village at the museum. You’ll find that Camembert only became a national icon in 1918, when local farmers sent weekly cheese packets to French soldiers. The same museum ticket gives you access to the neighboring Fromagerie du Clos de Beaumoncel, where you can look through glass into the humid aging room and sample pasteurized and raw milk Camemberts at the Maison du Camembert, uphill behind the church. Linger over an aperitif of oven-baked camembert and pommeau (a sweet blend of cider and calvados).

Three more adventures around the Vallée d’Orne

The River Orne flows through the Vallée d’Orne on its 94-mile journey north from Lower Normandy into the English Channel at Ouistreham, and you can swim, paddle and splash around at several spots along its banks.

1. Canoeing and Kayaking
West of Falaise, pretty little Clécy is the main hub for outdoor activities and a vantage point for a bird’s-eye view of the valley. Stock up on coffee and picnic lunches at the boulangerie in the main square, Place du Tripot, before heading down to the river. Capa Venture rents canoes, kayaks and standup paddleboards. Paddle calm waters beneath the soaring arches of the enormous Clécy Viaduct, built in 1866. Or join a more challenging half-day or full-day kayaking expedition. Minibuses take river explorers upstream to Pont d’Ouilly, from where it’s an eight-mile paddle with the occasional rapids back to Clécy. Guingettes, pop-up summer cafes on riverbanks along the way add a dash of vintage Renoir-esque cool.

2. Take water
In 2022, the Belle Époque spa town of Bagnoles-de-l’Orne became the first destination in France to receive a Gold-certified Green Destinations award for sustainability from the Global Tourism Sustainable Council. Since the Middle Ages, French “curists” have traveled here to drink the thermal waters here. Combine a dip in the underground spring-fed pool at B’O Spa Thermal with leisurely forest walks through a maze of 300-year-old oak trees in the sheltered Forêt d’Andaine. If you crave the old-school glamor of Honfleur on the coast, Bagnoles’ historic district of opulent Art Deco villas – east of the city’s central lake – is its soul sister inland.

3. Bungee Jumping
To pick up the pace, join adrenaline junkies at the Souleuvre Viaduct, a 40-minute drive west of Clécy, just west of the Vallée de l’Orne. French engineer Gustave Eiffel designed the viaduct over the Souleuvre River in 1893, and trains to Caen passed over it until 1960, when the railway line was closed. From the highest of the five remaining granite pillars at Skypark, bungee jumpers now make death-defying leaps of faith while enjoying breathtaking aerial views of the patchwork fields of Normandy on the heart-wrenching 200-foot drop into the river below. If you dare, you can ask to be plunged waist-deep into the water. A zipline and giant swing cater for the less intrepid.

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