The prefecture of Calvados and capital of the former region of Basse-Normandie, the city of Caen suffered serious damage during the Battle of Normandy in 1944. This certified City of Art and History nonetheless has some first-rate architectural reminders of its splendid past.
It's worth taking the time to admire its built heritage. The Men's Abbey, or Abbey of St. Stephen of Caen, was founded by William the Conqueror to obtain the Vatican's pardon for his marriage to a distant cousin, the Princess of Flanders. The prestigious and imposing structure was begun in the 11th century in the Romanesque style, and was completed in the 13th century in the Gothic style. It combines both architectural styles with elegance and harmony, forming an aesthetically remarkable whole. The Ladies' Abbey, built between 1060 and 1080 at the request of Queen Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, was the female equivalent of the Men's Abbey. The Church of the Trinity, a beautiful example of the Romanesque style with a choir where Queen Matilda was laid to rest, is its highlight.
Caen Castle, residence of the Dukes of Normandy, is another of the city's main attractions. Built in the 11th century, also by the illustrious William the Conqueror, it was a real fortress during the Hundred Years War. It was restored after being seriously damaged during the Second World War, and now encompasses the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Normandy, the Exchequer Hall, the Church of St. George, and a garden of medicinal plants. Its wall walk offers a lovely view of the city and ramparts.
The Caen Memorial Museum, Centre for History and Peace, inaugurated in 1988 by President François Mitterrand, is an international educational and cultural centre built to commemorate the Battle of Normandy. With 5,600 m² of permanent exhibitions, its rooms boasting every modern technology evoke the period from 1918 to the present day, with a particular focus on the Second World War and the post-war era. In the city's must-see museum, you can watch D-Day unfold on a giant screen, as it was experienced by both sides, and admire the gallery of famous Nobel Peace Prize winners.
Within the castle and the sculpture park, a contemporary building houses the Museum of Fine Arts, containing one of France's biggest collections of European paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries. There you can admire works from France, Italy, Holland and Flanders.
Caen offers many other gems, such as the Escoville mansion, a superb Renaissance house built in the 16th century by a rich lord, and now housing the Tourist Office. You can also admire the Church of St. Peter and its many sculptures, the Botanical Garden (Jardin des Plantes), home to many rare specimens at the heart of the city, or the "Vaugueux" quarter where Edith Piaf's family lived. And be sure to take the time to stroll around the medieval streets or the lovely marina in the city centre.