A foodie Segway tour through fascinating Caen

The Abbaye aux Hommes, built by William the Conqueror, in Caen. Picture: Emilie Ursule/ Normandy Regional Tourist Board
The Abbaye aux Hommes, built by William the Conqueror, in Caen. Picture: Emilie Ursule/ Normandy Regional Tourist Board
Picture: Fareham Fire Station on Twitter

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It’s a city of soaring spires and high culture, steeped in history and with a serious obsession with food.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I was describing Paris, perhaps Oxford. But you’d be wrong. It’s Caen.

For many, Caen, in Normandy, is the place where you hop off the ferry on your way to beginning the real holiday.

Perhaps a bit too much like it’s twin city, Portsmouth, to be worth stopping at.

But, as I discovered, it is an absolute treasure trove of delights.

Heavily bombed during the Second World War, there is a real mix of the old and the new – which may put some people off because it’s not as pretty as towns and cities further inland.

But, if you know where to look, architecturally there are some magical pockets of history told through the walls of spectacular cathedrals, secret alleyways bursting with crêperies and pátisseries , beautiful bookshops and castles.

And, of course, it is home to the grizzly remains of William the Conqueror –but more on him later.

The adventure started with an overnight ferry from Portsmouth’s International Ferry Port with Brittany Ferries.

We set off around 10pm and after a quick night cap I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow in my comfortable en-suite cabin.

Our first stop in France was the magnificent Caen Castle, which houses the Musee de Normandie.

Running until March 5 is the museum’s latest exhibition, A Table!

It’s a fabulous gastronomic tour through the history of Norman cuisine.

Anyone who has spent any time in France will know how food is worshipped as an art form over there.

A Table! charts, with classic French elegance, how Norman cuisine has evolved from the 17th to 20th century, using paintings, cooking utensils, advertising and recipes.

It’s fascinating, particularly the beautifully-arranged table settings which have been laid out to show how the theatre of eating a meal would have changed through the ages.

Who knew you could have up to a dozen pieces of cutlery each for a single meal?

Famous as France’s great apple region, there’s lots about the history and importance of the apple brandy, calvados, and cider to the region.

But the real treat is the cheese and the wonderful advertising for Camembert.

Although the exhibition is in French, it is easy to follow and you’ll leave feeling hungry.

We left the museum just as the sun was setting over the city – and it painted a beautiful vista from our Castle Caen vantage point.

I think I must have been dazzled by the golden-orange rays when I agreed to a gastro-themed Segway tour of the city.

For the uninitiated, a Segway is a two-wheeled, battery-powered self-balancing scooter.

And, for context, the British owner of the company died when his Segway hurtled off into a river. Cripes.

Holding on for dear life, fearing that any moment I would face-plant on to the ancient cobbles, I tentatively leaned forward to propel my machine on.

To cries of ‘waaahh’ and aaaghhh’ (from me) I made my way through Caen’s hidden side streets, steeped in Norman history, and along narrow pavements, under the careful watch of our guides.

We stopped off along the way to sample some of the gastro delights of the city.

First was wine merchants BiBoViNo where we indulged in hot red wine and Camembert, followed by tergoule, Normandy rice pudding.

Just a simple bite of traditional French food, but such a joy.

Further on we stopped again for some cidre glace and calvados. They certainly pack a punch.

So it was with renewed vigour that I whizzed around Caen.

It was dark by now, which added an extra frisson to our visit to the tomb of William the Conqueror in the spectacular Abbaye aux Hommes.

There is actually very little of him there after his corpse exploded on the way to burial, and looting during religious riots centuries later.

But it was astonishing to think I was just feet away from (a bit ) of the man who shaped England.

With November’s festive lights twinkling, the Hotel de Ville was also something to behold.

So too is the ruined church, Saint-Etienne-le-Vieux, which was destroyed by German bombs during the war.

Alighting at Caen Castle, thankfully in one piece, I was already planning my next trip.

To find out more go to normandy-tourism.org.

ESSENTIALS

Brittany Ferries operates routes from Portsmouth to Le Havre, Caen, and Cherbourg in Normandy. Travel overnight by luxury cruise ferry in your own en-suite cabin, or choose the three-hour summer fast-ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg. Fares start from £79 each way for a car plus two. For offers and to book, call 0330 159 7000 or go to brittanyferries.com.