Ouistreham in the apple-growing department of Calvados in Normandy, is steeped in history and has a jolly seaside air to it. It’s a great place to stroll with a long promenade, a fabulous fish market and a charming town.
Ouistreham’s Riva-Bella beach is a listed seaside resort known as the ‘ Pearl of the Côte de Nacre’ (mother of pearl). It has an air of yesteryear with its endless stretch of sandy beaches along the English Channel, beautiful Belle Epoque and Art Deco villas, little wooden bathing cabins and gently sloping beach.
A historic seaside town
Made popular by Parisians at the end of the 19th century with the train journey taking just 6 hours, it took its name from the first beautiful villa built there. In 1866 a Monsieur Longpré built a house at no. 53 rue Pasteur, he called it Belle Rive. When his friend, a painter, came to stay, he found the sunsets on the coast were as beautiful as those he had seen on his travels in Italy and he nicknamed the villa ‘Riva Bella’.
Many more architecturally stunning houses were built here (if you play Sims World, you might spot a Ouistreham villa on the vacation home list!). It reminds me of its glamorous neighbour Deauville though Ouistreham is smaller, more tranquil and less celebrated. It does though, like Deauville, have a casino. It’s a great base if you’re visiting this area of Normandy as well as an ideal weekend getaway. It also makes for a great day out if you’re in nearby Caen.
What to see in Ouistreham
Ouistreham is a town made for strolling. Breathing in the fresh air, taking in the sights – it’s as invigorating as it’s interesting. The seaside walkway from Lion-sur-Mer to Hermanville-sur-Mer, follows the route of the Via Turonensi, part of the Santiago de Compostela. The walk is lined with many lovely houses dating from the Second Empire – the regime of Napoleon III, whose legacy is also present in the canal he commissioned which connects Caen marina to Ouistreham.
There are fabulous views from Ouistreham Lighthouse if you climb the 171 granite steps to the top. Look out over Ouistreham’s bijou ferry port, and on a clear day you can see as far as Mont-Saint-Michel. You’ll also have panoramic views over the coastline and historic Sword Beach, the most easterly of the D-Day landing beaches and the only beach where French forces took part on 6 June 1944, led by Commando Philippe Kieffer.
Traces of the past can be seen in many places in and around Ouistreham. The famous Pegasus Bridge is just 10 minutes away by car. Memorials abound, including one in honour of Piper Bill Millin, the soldier who landed on Sword Beach playing the bagpipes. Le Grand Bunker, a former German command post is now a fascinating museum and listed historic monument.
The Musée du Debarquement no. 4 (No. 4 Commando Museum) preserves the memory of the 1st Battalion of Naval Fusiliers. It was set up by Commander Philippe Kieffer which, incorporated in the British No 4 Commando, was the only French unit to take part in the Normandy landings. The Hillman Site was one of the biggest German command posts during WWII. In the summer months, ‘Friends of the Suffolk Regiment’ Association are on site to tell stories of the past. It’s an engaging place to visit – especially for history lovers.
Tales of the past and markets
Take an audio guided tour called La Délicate – Ouistreham. It’s an unusual format – the guide is contained in an umbrella! The tour takes in the beaches and streets of Ouistreham. It tells the history of the town through stories and memories of those who lived here. Or take a ride! There are several cycle routes along the canal to Caen, including the route of the Vélo Francette which begins in La Rochelle and ends in Ouistreham.
A daily fish market is held in Ouistreham. Friendly stall holders pile up the days haul including the most delicious scallops – which this area is famous for. Enjoy the freshest fish dishes in the many restaurants and brasseries, washed down with local cider. And polish it off with ice cream and locally made salted caramel. Try La Table d’Hotes where Chef Yoann serves creative, seasonal dishes. Or push the boat out at La Voile Blanche overlooking the sea.
This is also a great area for nature lovers. To the east of Ouistreham Riva-Bella, is the Pointe du Siege and Orne estuary, the largest nature area in Calvados. Dunes, marshes, salt meadows and forests are home to many wild birds and seals.
Info: Tourist office website
How to get there: Caen ferry port is in Ouistreham (15km from Caen) and ferries run from/to Portsmouth. The nearest train station is Caen and buses run regularly between the two towns.