A walking tour of Caen, Normandy

9th March 2018

The town of Caen suffered much destruction during battles in Normandy in 1944 but today, it still retains many of its medieval buildings and historic sites.

My D-Day arrival in Normandy was on board the Mont St Michel of Brittany Ferries. Arriving in Ouistreham Port at 0645hrs, I was only half an earlier and a few hundred yards away from where troops landed seventy years before. Most who landed near Caen in 1944 were from 3rd Infantry Division and included the 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles.

By 0800hrs in 1944, the British Army had secured the beachhead and had begun the inland advance. They would later rendezvous with 6th Airborne Division at Pegasus Bridge. The centre of Caen was my destination.

Halting the advances

The 70th anniversary of D-Day commemorations saw many heads of state visit Ouistreham. The port town was the setting for the official international commemoration ceremony. The journey into Caen from Ouistreham came to a stop on several occasions due to roadblocks and heavy security. All public transport was off for the morning.

Troops in Caen

Imperial War Museum Photo: B 6727 (Part of the War Office Second World War Official Collection). British Infantry troops pick their way through the ruined streets of Caen on 9th July 1944.

Out and about in Caen

During World War Two, the Battle of Normandy robbed Caen of many of its historic buildings. Much medieval architecture and the university campus received heavy damage during the prolonged bombing of Operation Charnwood.

Still, seventy years later, many old buildings dotted around the centre of Caen are worth visiting. Signposts, plaques, and flags tell the stories from William the Conqueror to the liberation of Normandy.

The liberation of Caen came on 9th July 1944 – over a month after D-Day. There are many references to the British and Canadian liberators throughout the streets. The Royal Ulster Rifles, in particular, are held in high esteem. A memorial to the Rifles stands just outside the castle gates.

A walking tour of old Caen

The Place de la Republique stands in the heart of old Caen. It’s there I began my tour. On 7th June 1944, it suffered severe damage under Allied aerial bombardment. This destroyed the old City Hall. The 17th-century French classicist building took several direct hits. Further strikes on 13th June and 7th July caused more devastation. The interior of the hall burned out first but the July strikes rendered it a pile of rubble.

In the years after the war, this area saw much redeveloping and rebuilding. In 1952, the proposed idea of rebuilding City Hall fell through and the council relocated in 1964 to the Abbaye aux Hommes.

This public square with its gardens is the starting point for my tour of the town. To the north-west, we leave on Rue Paul Doumer and continue left on Rue de Brasand, and right onto Boulevard Bertrand. Straight ahead is Place Saint-Etienne.

Eglise Saint-Etienne

The Eglise Saint-Etienne (St Stephen’s Church), which was badly damaged by Allied bombardment during the battle for Caen in 1944. Photo taken on 6th June 2014.

Castles and churches at war

There stands the Eglise Saint-Etienne and the Abbaye aux Hommes. The abbey, built by William the Conqueror, according to legend once housed the monarch’s remains. During the height of battle in 1944, residents of Caen would huddle in the church buildings for shelter.

Abbaye aux Hommes, Caen

The Abbaye aux Hommes (Men’s Abbey) in Caen once held the remains of William the Conqueror and since World War Two has served as City Hall. Photo taken on 6th June 2014.

Hotel de Ville, Caen

The Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) in Caen is part of the Abbaye aux Hommes and replaces the old city hall which was completely destroyed by bombing in 1944. Photo taken on 6th June 2014.

Saint Saviour's Church, Caen

The old Saint Saviours church, dating back many centuries stands as a survivor of the Battle of Normandy in 1944. Photo taken on 6th June 2014.

Next, we walk east along Rue Ecuyere, taking a left on Rue Arcisse de Caumont. This street becomes Rue Saint-Pierre, and passes St Saviour’s Church on the way to Place Saint-Pierre. Noticeable buildings here include the 16th century Escoville House. This is now the tourist information office.

Memorial to the Resistance, Caen

The city of Caen is full of memorials from throughout the centuries. This poignant one remembers those who fought with the French Resistance during World War Two. Photo taken on 6th June 2014.

Remembering the liberators

A plaque remembering the role of the Allied liberators in the battle for Caen in June and July 1944. Photo taken on 6th June 2014.

Canadian liberators in Caen

The role of the Americans and British is often talked about but this memorial remembers the first Canadians who arrived to free Caen in 1944. Photo taken on 6th June 2014.

Looking to the left is the Chateau de Caen. This castle, built in 1060, belonged to William the Conqueror shortly before his invasion of England. The castle saw action as a military barracks during World War Two and as a result suffered severe damage.

The castle houses the Normandy Museum and the Chapel of St George, which is one of the oldest buildings in the region. The Normandy Museum holds many of the surviving artefacts from the old Arts Museum that once stood in Place de la Republique. Outside the castle walls stands a memorial to the 3rd Infantry Division, who led the liberation charge after D-Day.

3rd Infantry Division in Caen

A memorial to the 3rd Infantry Division, which included the Royal Ulster Rifles, stands just outside the walls of Caen Castle. Photo taken on 6th June 2014.

After a visit to the castle, we leave to the south along Avenue de la Liberte and turn left on Rue des Chanoines. This takes us towards Trinity Church and the Abbaye aux Dames. In the latter building is the tomb of Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror. Both the men’s and women’s abbeys became temporary hospitals during the fierce fighting of the Battle of Normandy.

A proud city rebuilt

From the abbey, we can take Rue Haute to the west. From there, turn left on Rue Manissier, right on Rue Basse, left on Rue Samuel Bochart and right on Rue du Marechal Leclerc. The latter street, of course, named after French war hero Philippe François Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque. Arriving in Place du Theatre, you will be on the southern side of Place de la Republique.

Eglise Saint-Pierre, Caen

The Eglise Saint-Pierre (St Peter’s Church) is one of many buildings in historic Caen to have been beautifully restored after the Second World War. Photo taken on 6th June 2014.

After the war, the French government erected temporary houses and food stores around this area of town. By 1948, reconstruction began but it would take fourteen years to rebuild the devastated city.

This short walk through the old sector of the town unveils an astounding amount of history from the 11th to the 21st centuries. It also shows that many buildings miraculously survived the intense bombing on 1944 and the dedication of the French people to their restoration for our future generations.

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