Normandy is not a homogeneous geographical unit, rather it is an old province, formerly a dukedom, embracing two large areas with different geological structures, which become progressively younger from west to east. The sandstone, granite and Precambrian schists of the Armorican Massif in the west give way to strata of clay, limestone and chalk dating from the Triassic (beginning 254 million years ago) to the Tertiary (beginning 65 million years ago) periods, which belong to the geological formation of the Paris basin. Normandy can therefore be conveniently divided into two quite distinct regions: Haute-Normandie, which lies northwest of the Paris basin, and Basse-Normandie, which resembles its neighbour Brittany and consists of an eroded foundation of ancient rocks. The administrative region of Haute-Normandie is made up of theEure (27) and Seine-Maritime (76) départements; Basse-Normandie includes the Calvados (14), Manche (50) and Orne (61) départements.
Regions of Normandy
The inland areas can be divided into two types of regions, open country and woodland. In the strictest sense, the open country (campagne) consists of dry, windswept plains and cultivated fields. The woodland (bocage) is typical of the Armorican Massif, although to the east it spills over into the Maine, the Perche and the Auge regions. Typical of the countryside, and sometimes confusing for casual ramblers, a network of dense hedges grows on earthen banks, enclosing fields and meadows and forming a sort of labyrinth.
The people living on the farms and hamlets scattered along the sunken roads have for a long time lived in relative isolation. Lastly, the different parts of the coast of Normandy also have distinctive characteristics.
The Pays de Caux is a vast limestone plateau, stretching from Le Havre to Dieppe, covered with fertile silt, ending along the coast in cliffs famous for their hanging valleys (valleuses) and bordered to the south by the Seine Valley. The area produces wheat and industrial crops such as flax, sugar beet and rape. Cattle here are raised for meat.
Bordered by the valleys of the Epte and the Andelle, the Vexin normand is covered by a particularly thick layer of alluvial soil which favours the intensive cultivation of wheat and sugar beet.
The Plaine du Neubourg and the Évreux-St-André district present a flat landscape of open fields, similar to the area known as Caen-Falaise. The fertility of the soil in these areas favours large-scale arable farming coupled with cattle-breeding for the production of meat. Vegetables are grown around Caen.
The Argentan-Sées-Alençon country, north of the Sarthe Valley and the Alpes Mancelles, is composed of small chalk regions where horses and cattle graze in the open orchards.
The Roumois and Lieuvin plains, marked by hedges and apple orchards, are separated by the Risle Valley. The Pays d’Ouche is more densely forested, whereas the rolling hills of the Perche normand, a famous horse-breeding district, form a transition between the Paris basin and the Armorican Massif.
The Norman part of the Pays de Bray is a vast clay depression, known as the buttonhole, bordered by two limestone heights. It is stock-raising country and has increased its production of meat; it also specialises in fresh dairy produce such as yoghurts and petits-suisses.
The Pays d’Auge, which contains the river valleys of the Touques and the Dives, differs from the other regions in that the chalk strata have been deeply fissured by streams. High local humidity promotes the growth of grassland and hedges. Apples are turned into cider and Calvados, and milk into Camembert. Horse breeding is also a tradition near the coast and the Perche region.
The Bessin, with Bayeux as its capital, lies to the east of the Armorican Massif. Breeding of saddle-horses and trotters is a long tradition, while famed local dairy produce carries the name Isigny.
South of the Bessin is the Bocage normand, where meadows, sometimes planted with apple or pear trees, are enclosed by hedges. Dairy farming is still the main activity. In addition to the traditional Normandy cream and butter, farmers produce sterilised milk with a long shelf life and which needs no refrigeration (UHT milk) and a great variety of low-fat dairy produce.
The remote peninsula of Cotentin, which lies between the Vire estuary and Mont-St-Michel Bay, is part of the Armorican Massif. The peninsula itself is divided from the Bocage normand by a sedimentary depression, which is flooded at certain times of the year; there are three distinct areas within the peninsula: the Cotentin Pass, the Val de Saire and Cap de la Hague. The region is still largely devoted to stock raising except along the coast where vegetables are grown, as they are in nearby Brittany.
The coast of Normandy from the River Bresle west to the River Couesnon is as varied as its hinterland. Erosion by the sea has transferred material from rocky projections and deposited it in sheltered coves. The sea has brought shingle (stones) to the bays and ports of the Pays de Caux and mud to the Seine estuary; it has silted in more than one port (Lillebonne was a sea port in Gallo-Roman times).
The Pays de Caux meets the sea in what is known as the Côte d’Albâtre (Alabaster Coast), a line of high limestone cliffs, like the White Cliffs of Dover, penetrated by shingle-bottomed (stony) inlets. The sea beating at the foot of the cliffs has eroded the cliff face, forming hanging valleys where streams once flowed.
The Côte Fleurie offers miles of fine sand beaches where the sea may withdraw more than a mile at low tide; it also enjoys a high level of sunshine. The Calvados coast is composed of the low Bessin cliffs, interspersed with sand dunes and salt marshes (Caen area).
To the west are the sand or sand and shingle (stony) beaches of the bracing Côte de Nacre (Mother-of-Pearl Coast). The Cotentin Peninsula resembles Cornwall and Brittany with its rocky inlets, although sand dunes and beaches stretch along the coast where the continental rock base does not reach the shore. Mont-St-Michel Bay is known for its vast sands and mud flats from which the sea seems to withdraw completely at times.
The lighthouses along the Normandy coast, which guide navigators in the Channel, also make good vantage points. The Norman engineer Augustin Fresnel (1788–1827) replaced the conventional parabolic reflector with compound lenses, which led to great progress in the length of beam projected out to sea. At night, in the more difficult sectors, several lighthouses can be seen at once, each with its own peculiarities: fixed, revolving or intermittent beam.
Horses: the pride of Normandy
More than 70% of all French thoroughbreds and trotters are bred in Basse-Normandie as well as the most powerful draught horses (Percherons) and some of the best carriage-horses (cobs).
Thoroughbreds are the fastest and the most refined horses, but their racing career does not exceed three years. The sale of yearlings at the end of August in Deauville attracts international racing stable owners. The sale of brood mares and foals is held in late November.
French trotters were developed from Normandy mares and Norfolk-roadster trotters.
French saddle-horses, a term which first appeared in 1958, encompasses almost all French competition horses, particularly for show jumping.
Whether chestnut or bay, the Norman cob is strong, compact, likeable, full of energy and has a pleasant way of trotting. Cobs can work in the fields or be harnessed to a carriage.
Percherons, dappled grey or black, are the most sought-after heavy draught horses in the world; the race was developed from cobs and Arabs, some say as far back as the Crusades.
Finally, one can‘t ignore the Cotentin donkey, recognised by the national stud in 1997, which has a soft grey coat, with a cross of St Andrew on its back. These gentle beasts now carry tourists on treks across the Cotentin.
National stud farms
As one of the oldest French institutions – the first was founded by Colbert in 1665 – the system of 23 national stud farms works in close collaboration with the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique to improve breeding techniques. The system also supervises all equestrian activities, horse racing and betting in France.