Caen is the capital of the French province of Normandy and the heart of the Calvados region. Caen is located at the point where the Orne and Odon Rivers converge and is further linked to the sea by a 9-mile canal built in 1850. Its harbor ranks as the 12th largest in France.
Caen has expanded over the years with ease. Greater Caen is a wild sprawl of 18 communities that stretch into the vast surrounding countryside without ever really coming to an end. The city has World War II to thank. The destruction of Caen during the war eliminated the conventional constraints that were placed on town planners in the early 20th century. The long Rue Saint-Jean, for example, was totally destroyed because of the war and was never rebuilt as it was a winding thoroughfare. The planners simply reconfigured a straight line with a bulldozer.
Caen is nicknamed the Athens of Normandy and is a “polyphonic" city of well-designed proportions, according to novelist Didier Decoin. Each period in history has left behind its mark, and succeeding generations have combined these reminders of earlier times rather harmoniously with their contemporary needs. Caen has also been touted as the best reconstructed city in France, and for good reason. Quarries nearby supply the white stones tinged with golden yellow that is seen in all the buildings, resulting in a stunningly uniform urban look. This uniformity strikes the right balance, rational design, and purpose, allowing the city to avoid the stench of austerity and coldness.
For a while, Caen was mired in an economic slump after it lost its steelworks, which began back in 1914 thanks to the entrepreneurial efforts of magnate, Baron Thyssen. In recent years the city diversified into biomedical research and computer technology. The city is home to the Institute of Science of Matter and Radiation, which boasts the national heavy-ion accelerator (the G.A.N.I.L.).
The city walls of Caen give way to excellent views of the urban buildings, thoroughfares, and sights within the city, which include the 12th century St. George’s Chapel, the Garden of Medicinal Herbs, the Bailiwick, the Art Gallery, which was restored and extended in the 1990s, and the Exchequer Room, which was once Normandy’s seat of justice.
Caen has its share of gardens, parks, and open spaces to lighten up the “polyphonic” vibe. The hippodrome, La Prairie, and the river banks of the Orne, for example, give the city a “green” side to it. Of course, Caen is of architectural and historic interest as well with its old streets, churches, and private residences, but it also has a social and cultural scene, being home to one of France’s oldest universities. The Caen University (or Universite de Caen Basse Normandie) was founded by the Duke of Bedford, Regent of England, in 1432, and boasts an enrollment of 25,000 students.
The icon of Caen is probably the Caen Castle (or Château de Caen). William the Conqueror built the castle in 1060 and his son, Henri, later extended it. One of the largest medieval fortresses in the region, this massive castle peers over the pretty Vaugueux district, the picturesque yachting marina, and the outer edge of the city center. It was the scene of many battles during the Hundred Years War and also hosted a royal banquet in 1182 during Christmas for Henry II and thousands of knights. The castle houses both the Museum of Normandy and Caen’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Holy Trinity Abbey
Caen is perhaps best known for its two abbeys. Residents can thank William the Conqueror and his wife, Matilda, for this. Both were distant relatives (cousins) and married each other without the consent of the Pope. To obtain his forgiveness, Matilda founded the Holy Trinity Abbey (Women’s Abbey, Abbaye aux Dames, Church of the Holy Trinity, or Eglise de la Sainte Trinite). This building is a prominent feature in Caen’s skyline and is flanked by two towers that lost their steeples in the 1700s. The Romanesque building has a white vault that serves as the former Duchess of Normandy and Queen of England’s grave. The epitaph reads “a pauper among the paupers”.
The Women’s Abbey was saved from destruction by the Normandy Regional Council. They purchased the living quarters of the abbey and turned them into offices. They also restored and enhanced the old church. The highlights of the building are the grand foyer, refectory, lavatorium, and main courtyard. The latter provides a magnificent view of the church’s frontage.
St. Stephen’s Abbey
To receive dispensation for marrying without the Pope’s consent, William the Conqueror built St. Stephen’s Abbey (“abbaye Sainte Etienne”, Men’s Abbey, Eglise de Sainte Etienne, or Sainte Etienne Church). Fittingly, St Stephen’s projects grandeur. One would expect nothing less from the Duke of Normandy and future King of England. The abbey stands at the end of an esplanade that features a series of formal gardens. Also featured are two spires that rise 260 feet above ground and are visible even from across the plain. William commissioned its construction in 1066, the same year he conquered England, but it was not inaugurated until 1077. Moreover, the spires, chancel, and chevet, which gave the abbey its Gothic style, were not added until the 13th century – long after William’s death.
The Abbey Church of St. Stephen bears many different historical periods, having been modified over the years. In the 17th century, the church was restored as much as possible to its original design, using techniques and styles employed by builders back in William’s days. The restoration effort was led by a monk named William de la Tremblaye, who hailed from Le Bec Hellouin. He was both an architect and cleric and supervised the reconstruction of both the Holy Trinity and St. Stephen’s, including the dilapidated living quarters of both. The unity of style seen in the two abbeys is all thanks to William de la Tremblaye. Today, William’s grave is beneath a stone slab in front of the altar. Unfortunately, only one thigh bone remains, thanks to years of desecration and pillaging.
After the French Revolution, the abbey was occupied by the Malherbe High School. The abbey has since been restored to its original look and its South Transept serves as Caen’s Town Hall.
Quatrains’ House sits at the foot of a castle. Its timber beams, constructed out of red bricks, are spaced generously, giving the building a fine appearance.
The Escoville Residence (or Hotel d’Escoville) once belonged to one of Caen’s merchants during the Renaissance. The 16th century home was restored in the 1990s by architect Zninden who characterized his work as the “first step in the architectural discovery of Caen”.
Memorial for Peace
Caen was damaged badly during World War II. In 1988, it decided to erect the Memorial for Peace (or Memorial pour la Paix) to commemorate the events of the war. The memorial is a long tall frontage interrupted only by a single breach, which is supposed to symbolize the years of the last war. Also on display are exhibits of Nobel Peace Prize winners.
Caen has a number of old streets that have been preserved in its medieval state. These include Rue Saint Pierre, Rue du Moulin, Rue Saint Saurveur, Rue Froide, and Rue du Vaugueux. Rue du Froid has a cruel legend linked to it, while Rue du Vaugueux is a colorful street that has come to symbolize Old Caen.
Caen has a significant number of parishes and boasts hundreds of churches. These fine buildings are the pride of the local residents. They even dispute the title that Victor Hugo gave to its rival, Rouen: “the town with the one hundred bell towers”. Unfortunately, some of Caen’s great churches were destroyed in the last war. Both St. Stephen’s Church and St. Giles’ Church were bombed in World War II, leaving only pieces of embryonic stone pillars lying on the lawn of a square.
St. Peter’s (or Saint Pierre) was also damaged in the war when its 254-foot bell tower collapsed on its nave, but the church has been rebuilt. This Flamboyant Gothic marvel has a signature Renaissance chevet and a frieze that rises above chancel’s arching.
St. John’s (Saint Jean), another church that was destroyed in the war, was rebuilt to perfection. Even the inherent imbalance that prevented bellecotes and a steeple from topping the original building was restored.
Notre Dame de la Gloriette has a Classical West exterior as austere as they come, while St. Sauveur features twin chevets and twin naves that run parallel. Both were built during a time when Caen was expanding population-wise.
“Château de Caen.” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%A2teau_de_Caen>
Gaudez, René, Hervé Champollion, and Angela Moyon. Tour of Normandy. Rennes: Éditions Ouest-France, 1996. ISBN: 2737317185.
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