A Spiritual Tour of Normandy, France
Leah Walker November 17, 2014

When many Americans think of Normandy, France, the first thing that comes to mind is D-Day and World War II. It was on June 6, 1944 that the Allied troops, consisting of 73,000 Americans, stormed the beaches of Normandy in an effort to liberate France from German control. This year marked the 70th anniversary, putting the event and Normandy back in the world’s spotlight.

The truth is that I am one of those ill-informed Americans who know very little about French history, unless it is directly related to the USA. Before my recent trip to Normandy with Atout France, the France Tourism Development Agency, my knowledge of Normandy was Mont Saint-Michel, WWII, and cream.

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In reality, the region in northwest France is steeped in history, just as one would expect. Having been settled since ancient times, Normandy has seen a multitude of ruling people including the Celts, Romans, Franks, Vikings, and English. Over the centuries, Normandy has experienced much turmoil, but after seeing the beauty of the area, not to mention its strategic location, I understand why it was coveted by so many.

When the invitation came from French Tourism to visit Normandy, I just assumed the trip would focus either on the area’s ties with World War II or even a broad overview of the region. However, I was intrigued by the trip’s spiritual theme. Given the country’s deep Catholic roots, I’m very aware of the large volume of abbeys, chapels, churches, basilicas, and cathedrals, but I hadn’t considered that visitors would center their travels on these buildings. It made sense the more I thought about it. After all, there are culinary and wine-focused holidays, so why not spiritual?

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Always welcoming new experiences, I eagerly accepted the invitation and left my beloved Paris with Beth from Atout France, Doni from Girls’ Guide to Paris, and our trusty driver, Arturo from My Paris VIP, to explore some of Normandy’s most historical, revered, and beautiful Catholic destinations.

Abbaye-aux-Hommes de Caen

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The oldest part of Abbaye-aux-Hommes {Men’s Abbey} dates to the 11th century and the time of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy. Against the will of Pope Leo IX, William the Conqueror married his distant cousin, Matilda of Flanders. In an effort to get back into the good graces of the church, he commissioned the building of Abbaye-aux-Hommes and dedicated it to Saint Étienne. The tomb of William the Conqueror can be seen in the Abbey Church of Saint Étienne. This Benedictine monastery has served many purposes over the centuries, including a refuge for the people of Caen during WWII and a school. Currently this grandiose example of Norman Romanesque architecture houses Caen’s city hall.

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Abbaye-aux-Dames de Caen

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Built at the same time as Abbaye-aux-Hommes, Abbaye-aux-Dames was founded by William the Conqueror’s wife, Matilda of Flanders, and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Once a shelter to girls from aristocratic Norman families, the building has also been used as barracks, a warehouse, hotel, hospice, and now, it’s home to the Lower Normandy Regional Council. The Holy Trinity Abbey Church is three stories high {typical of Norman architecture} and holds the body of Queen Matilda.

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Abbaye Saint-Martin de Mondaye

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Although the actual abbey structure only dates to the 18th century, Norbertine brothers have occupied the land since 1202. Due to heavy damage caused by the 100 Years War and subsequent invasions, the monastery was rebuilt entirely, taking 34 years.

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La Sainte-Trinité de La Lucerne

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This Premonstratensian monastery dating to the 12th century fell into disrepair, until 1959 when Marcel Lelégard purchased l’abbaye de La Lucerne. During the past 50+ years, it has been extensively restored and rebuilt. Today, the restoration of the abbey continues at the hands of craftsmen, some of which have spent decades on the project.

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La Basilique Notre-Dame d’Alençon

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Construction began on this Gothic basilica during the Hundred Years War and continued through the 16th century. This impressive building is found on a pedestrian-only street in the center of Alençon, a city dating back to the 5th century. Steeped in history, the basilica houses eleven Renaissance stained-glass windows that survived the 1944 bombings and also where Saint-Therese was baptized in 1873.

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Maison Natale de Sainte Thérèse

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The birthplace and childhood home of Sainte Thérèse in Alençon attracts pilgrims and curious visitors alike. In this house-turned-museum, the life Louis and Zelie Martin, as well as their children, is examined. With it’s multiple levels, chapel, garden, relics, and mementos, Maison Natale de Sainte Thérèse also offers a glimpse into French life during the late 1800s.

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Notre Dame de Pontmain

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In Pontmain, a village of less than 1,000 people, is a beautiful 19th century neo-Gothic basilica that draws thousands of pilgrims each year. Relatively unknown, even in France, Pontmain was the location of an apparition of the Virgin Mary on January 17, 1871. Only seen by a handful of village children, the Virgin Mary appeared in the sky for three hours. In a blue dress adorned with stars, a black veil, a golden crown, and holding a red cross, the Virgin Mary called the children to pray and gave a message of hope. Today, visitors can attend mass in the basilica multiple times per day, visit the restored chapel, and view the barn where the Virgin Mary was seen just as it was nearly 150 years ago.

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Mont Saint-Michel

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As a UNESCO world heritage site and the third most visited spot in France, Mont Saint-Michel is probably the most well known religious site outside of Paris. Located on a rocky island between Normandy and Brittany, this tiny commune of less than fifty people dates to the 10th century and was built to honor Saint Michael. Over three million people each year come to wander the narrow streets of the medieval village that surround the abbey. However, only a third of them actually climb the hundreds of steps required to reach the abbey. Those that do make the trek are rewarded with architecture ranging from Gothic to Romanesque, as well as splendid views of the bay that leads to the English Channel.

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Even though I was raised Protestant, I still found my spiritual trek through France’s ‘Bible belt’ rewarding. One doesn’t have to be Catholic, Christian, or religious at all to appreciate the history, architecture, and cultural impact the role of Catholicism has played, and continues to play, in this part of the world. Hundreds of Catholic religious sites exist for the devout on pilgrimages and also the curious tourist to explore.

There’s no doubt that I will return to this picturesque part of the world. As an American, I want to discover the significant World War II sites, and as a foodie, I want to eat more lamb and cheese. But thanks to my Spiritual France tour, I discovered there’s much more to the region than D-Day and cream.

Additional information can be found by visiting Normandy Tourism, France Tourism USA, and Abbayes Normandes. For private excursions and transfers around France, check out My Paris VIP.

I was a guest of Atout France. In no way was I swayed to write a positive review based on the hard-hitting calvados, the charming and hospitable Norman people, or endless number of pastries I was fed. As always, opinions are mine.

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, France Today, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don't extend to speaking French. Yet.

21 Comments

    1. There are thousands of layers of history in France, particularly Normandy. It would take a lifetime to unearth it all.

    1. That stained glass in Pontmain is beyond words. That photo was taken around 11 am when the sun hit the window just right. Amazing!

  1. I visited Normandy as a college student to study World War II. We mostly toured beaches and historic spots that pertained to the landings, but we did visit Mt. St. Michel. It is a beautiful region and one of my favorite places I visited in France. I agree there is much more than the World War II history and would love to return to delve deeper.

    1. What a very cool college experience. I’m afraid I wouldn’t have appreciated it during my time in college. Now, that sounds like an amazing opportunity.

    1. I think we gave Normandy the moniker, ‘Bible belt’ about halfway through the trip. The concentration of these holy buildings is astounding.

  2. Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most magical places I have seen in all my travels and within France. That whole corner of France with Caen, Bayeux, and other smaller towns in the area are some of my favorites. Nice post and photos!

    1. You said it, Raul. Every corner of Normandy that I saw, including Mont Saint-Michel was magical. I can’t wait to return.

  3. I’m one of those ill-informed Americans, too. I know we’ll visit Normandy one day because the hubs is such a WWII/history geek, and it’s nice to know there are such beautiful abbeys and cathedrals there, too. I love the third photo in the post – where was it taken? It’s quite striking; nicely done!

    1. Yes, any WWII history lover must visit Normandy. As for the third photo, it’s in Pontmain. If I remember correctly, it was built in the ’70s and the stained glass is by a famous artist. I’ll have to consult my notes to be certain.

  4. Thanks for introducing me to Normandy – I have yet to discover this part of France myself, but judging by this piece (and the amazing photos), I am certainly missing out!

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