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Caen La Mer: Markets, monuments, museums and memorials

Think of Caen and most likely the things that pop into your mind will include William the Conqueror, whose power base was here, and Caen Memorial.

Caen is the biggest city in, as well as the capital of, lower Normandy. It’s a town with a vibrant vibe, history, grand architecture, a fantastic foodie culture and a real community spirit which is all about the markets.

There is a market every day of the week here, but the two big ones are on Friday and Sunday mornings…

The Market of Saint-Sauveur

The Friday morning market in Place Saint-Sauveur is a stone’s throw from the famous Abbaye aux Hommes, built as a penance by William the Conqueror. The Pope excommunicated the then Duke of Normandy William for marrying his cousin Matilda of Flanders in 1053, but he was forgiven by founding the Abbey in 1063. Meanwhile Matilda founded the nearby Abbaye aux Dames in about 1060. Both buildings, one to each side of the castle of Caen, were paid for with booty stolen from England. And both Matilda and William were interred in their abbeys. Marble plaques mark the spots, though William’s now only contains a single thigh bone. The rest of his bones were scattered during the French Revolution.

Early on a sunny Friday morning, I explored the market which spills out of Place Saint-Sauveur the oldest square in the city and into the roads around. It’s probably the oldest market in Caen too. Though the date for when it started isn’t known, the market is mentioned in documents from the time of Richard II, William the conqueror’s grandfather.

Truly divine

About 250 traders are here. They sell everything foodie and almost everything else. Local honey, butter, cider, calvados (apple brandy) and garlic. There’s even ginger, saffron and yuzus, grown less than an hour from the city. Of course, Norman cheeses are there in abundance. Camembert, affectionately known as God’s feet by the locals, Pont-L’Evêque, Livarot and Neufchâtel. I stopped in my tracks at the sight of chocolate bread and a delicious spread of tarts and cakes. “Would you like to try” the stall holder asked me, smiling as I sighed with happiness. It tastes divine. An elderly lady nodded approvingly and told me that she never buys any food at a supermarket, only this market and the Sunday morning ‘big one.’

In the square, shoppers pulling trolleys and carrying baskets and bags are watched over by a statue of a no-doubt approving Louis XIV dressed as a roman Emperor. A voracious gourmand, he was said to eat up to 300 oysters in a single sitting. With that in mind I followed my nose to the fish market where the freshest of scallops, which are emblematic of Caen, sea snails, bulots, fish and all manner of shellfish were arrayed. A group of infants on a school trip to learn about food passed me by chatting about the incredible display and laughing at a stall called ‘Standouille’, a play on words in French ‘c’est un andouille’ which sells an impressive range of sausages.

What a load of tripe!

Tripe of course is also sold at the market, Tripe à la mode de Caen is the traditional dish of the city, and they’re very proud of it here. And it if floats your boat, pop to Boucherie Sabot in Boulevard des Alliés near the 14th century Tour Leroy. Sabots is Normandy’s most famous, multi-award winning, third-generation family producers of Tripe.

It’s an impressively beautiful, irresistibly scrumptious market – enough to make me want to move to Caen!

Caen Castle and the old district

At the other end of the marketplace, the vast ramparts of Caen Castle are imposing and majestic. This was one of the largest medieval enclosures in Europe, built in around 1060. Though the castle lies in ruins, there are wonderful views from the top (top photo). Plus there are two excellent museums. The Musée des Beaux Arts and the fascinating Musée de Normandie which explores the history of the Norman people, within the enclosure. Below it lies the old district, small but well worth a wander.

Marché du Dimanche Saint Pierre

The most important market in the region takes place on Sunday morning market at the port de Plaisance in Caen. Along the quay of the bassin Saint-Pierre, on Place Courtonne and Quai Vandeuvre, you’ll find a whopping 400+ traders selling pretty much everything. There’s a mind-boggling array of local products straight from the farm. Olives from Provence and goods from all around France, artisan and craft goods, clothes, homeware and more.

Families amble, browse and buy, stopping to look out over the port at the boats bobbing up and down, their anchors clanging gently, while birds hover waiting for titbits. Keen cooks buy the freshest produce for the all-important Sunday meal. And baskets are filled with food for the week ahead.

What really surprised me about this market was the dizzying amount of street food stands. Great steaming bowls of aromatic noodles and cauldrons of prawns and shellfish, irresistible Brittany style galettes, succulent roasting chickens, even vegan.

Where to eat out:

Caen is a foodie’s paradise and the local restaurant chefs are often to be seen at the city’s markets. You’ll find heaps of choice when it comes to eating out, these are just a few of my favourites:

L’Aromate, 9 Rue Gémare, 14000 Caen. laromate-caen.fr Superb menu and it’s all about the ingredients. The freshest fish and vegetables and chef. The staff are friendly, the ambiance is great – you simply can’t go wrong here.

L’Okara, 24 Rue Froide, 14000 Caen. www.lokara.fr Welcoming organic and ethical vegetable restaurant that’s perfect for vegetarian and vegan dining.

Une Cuillére a Carrée, 22 Rue de Bernières, 14000 Caen. unecuillerecarree.fr A real favourite with the locals for its refined and delicious menu.

Le Pt’tit B 15 Rue du Vaugueux, 14000 Caen. www.leptitb.fr In an ancient building in the medieval district, in a picture postcard pretty street, in the shadow of the great castle ramparts. Superb menu and delicious cocktails – an absolute winner.

Bouef and Cow, 6 Boulevard des Alliés. boeufandcow.com Elegant and welcoming setting overlooking the beautiful church of Saint-Pierre and serving Normandy’s finest burgers and meaty dishes.

La Ferme de Billy, 31 Rue de l’Eglise, 14980 Rots. ferme-de-billy.com/en A 15-minute drive from Caen city centre brings you to the glorious apple-growing countryside of Normandy – and a traditional cider farm. The Ferme de Billy’s weekend brunch and Thursday/Friday lunch buffet is the best I have ever been to. A huge choice of local products, beautifully cooked and presented. Afterwards take a walk around the estate with its 13th century chapel. A must if you’re in Caen.

Where to stay

I stayed at the 3* Hotel Des Quatrans, 17 rue Gémare, 14000 Caen. hotel-des-quatrans.com It’s in a tranquil spot, but just steps from the city centre. Ideal as a base to visit Caen and the wider area.

Go Trade is a European project which since 2017 has worked with English and French partners to support and preserve the role that traditional markets play in daily life. Find our more at: gotrade-markets.eu

Did you know: Caen is one of those tongue-twister words non-French find really hard to say. Some say it like ‘con’ which in French means idiot (or worse). It’s more like ‘Carn’ – pronounce the ‘n’ but emphasise the ‘r’!

Details of markets and what to see and do in Caen: caenlamer-tourisme.com

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