Times have been tough recently. Moving, affirmative, even uplifting – but draining, too. You might need an autumn breather. I do. So to Normandy. Britons flock there in summer, less so – inexplicably – in autumn, when it’s at its most magical. Fewer still make it to the southern Orne département – the least populated, least visited bit of the region. So you should have to yourself the field of explaining to the French the brilliance of monarchy.
Second advantage: the Orne county is handy. It’s around 90 minutes from the Ouistreham/Caen ferry, two hours from St Malo, to our chosen base, Bagnoles-de-l’Orne. The deep green landscape rolls plump with cattle and shire horses. Pastures edged with high hedges and erratic tracks cede to woodland and unexpected hills which locals, with admirable ambition, liken to the Alps. It’s pretty mellow all the time, but mellowest of all in autumn. Woodsmoke and mushrooms on the forest floor suit it well.
There are, too, mild echoes of an England we may remember from whenever it was that we were young. This is advantage three. But the food is richer: advantage four. Beef, cream, butter and any amount of cheese sustain through autumnal times. Cider, too, though calvados is more helpful.
The fifth advantage is that this is a mainly soothing place. It’s just right for right now. Head for Bagnoles de l’Orne. Bagnoles resembles a raffishly elegant Belle Epoque spa town, because that’s what it was (and is). Think Buxton coming at you from a rakish angle, and eight times smaller. Built round a lake, it’s a place for taking the waters – kings of Roumania showed up often – before strolling, twirling one’s moustache or revealing a shapely ankle. Someone recently called the atmosphere “Proustian”. We’d probably say “Edwardian”.
And certainly, you may go directly from the modern thermal establishment to the casino and on to the race track, which seems Edwardian enough to me. All around, there is more garden than town, and more forest than either. Bagnoles slots in among 18,000 acres of beech, oak, spruce, rocks and much else besides. Locals are relentless in their efforts to get you biking, hiking or running through them. The town is a trail-running HQ, which would have ruled out Proust.
Mushrooms were probably more his line. Mine too. The autumn Bagnoles forest abounds in them, around 1,700 varieties, so literally dozens of opportunities for a slow, painful death. You need to go roaming with an expert, to distinguish your ceps and chanterelles from the death caps and European destroying angels. I’d suggest Franck Quinton, Michelin-starred chef and co-owner of the Manoir-du-Lys hotel just out of town. He organises mushroom-gathering outings, overnight stays and cookery lessons, and then feeds you mushroom dishes more interesting than you have ever eaten elsewhere (manoir-du-lys.fr). I’ll stake a tenner on it.
Playboy racers and Plantagenets
Now the sixth advantage: there’s a raft of things to do within easy reach. I’ve just done a few. Duty took me first to the museum of the Le Mans 24 Hours race. I’ve so little interest in cars that I often forget whether mine is a Peugeot or a Renault. But it seemed daft to be nearby and not look in, like being in Pontefract and not eating liquorice.
I was surprised. The museum had lots of cars, including vintage Le Mans winners, but almost as many human stories, from the Bentley Boys, playboy racers of the 1920s, to the fellow who, driving his 2CV round the world, ran out of oiI somewhere remote in East Africa. So he jammed bananas into the gear box, and drove on. At last, I thought, a decent use for bananas (lemans-musee24h.com).
Better yet was Le Mans’ historic centre, HQ to the Plantagenets. Our Henry II was born in 1133 in what is now the town hall. He was baptised in the nearby cathedral, as great a Gothic-Roman church as France possesses. Beset by spidery buttresses, it looks like a monumental transformer toy. Within are treasures, including – frescoed onto the vaults of the Lady Chapel – 47 angel musicians. One is playing the hurdy-gurdy.
Henry would doubtless still find his way round cobbled streets weaving between Roman ramparts, ornate stone frontages, walled gardens and wonky half-timbering. The district has now gone stylish with bistros and boutiques. When, at eventide, low lighting casts long shadows, the scurrying figures are less toothless villeins with daggers, more schoolchildren with violin cases. This is a commendable development.
Saints and war stories
On other days, I paused at St Céneri-le-Gérei, a small stone village so perfectly folded in among the trees of the steep-sided Sarthe valley that it seemed to have a secret purpose. Afternoon soaps seeping from the cottages restored normality.
The village church had lovely frescoes but the associated chapel – down the hill, in the middle of a field – had a wooden statue of St Céneri into which women keen to get married were urged to stick a pin. If it stayed stuck, they’d be wed within the year. A supply of pins was available. Nearby, a rock sticking through the chapel floor, if sat upon, fostered fertility in women. This was, then, a one-stop shop for would-be mothers.
Later, I motored into horse country and the Haras du Pin. It is France’s oldest stud stables, an 18th-century stately home for steeds, enrolling the horse into the country’s never-ending quest for grandeur.
A little further north, towards Montormel, the countryside remains soothing – birdsong, hedges, fields, the little Dives stream – but the story is not. This is the Falaise Pocket where, 75 days after D-Day, 100,000 retreating German soldiers were all but encircled. Allied forces – British, US, Canadian, Polish, French – battered them into submission. Some 50,000 got away as the neck of the pocket tightened, 40,000 were captured and 10,000 killed. That the Dives valley is now as serene and sleepy as a Sunday afternoon is maybe nature’s way of compensating.
On Hill 262, where Polish forces fought furiously, often hand to hand, to close the pocket, the Montormel Memorial explains everything (memorial-montormel.org). It covers the end of a campaign begun weeks before on the Normandy beaches that killed some 20,000 Norman civilians. The full experience of the occupation, and civil suffering, is centre-stage in the Civilians’ War Museum in the town of Falaise itself (memorial-falaise.fr). Among a million stories, the one which stuck in my mind concerned Edmone Robert. She was a Norman primary school teacher, Communist and early resistance member. Arrested in her classroom in 1942, she was sent to the camps, survived to the end of the war – then died in the train on the way home.
That’s micro-history. There’s macro-history up in the medieval castle which towers above the town. Around 1028, this was the birthplace of William the Bastard who, 38 years later, evolved from “Bastard” to “Conqueror”. The château is monumentally intact – bristling like a brigade of old warriors – but, should you want to honour one of Charles III’s more distant ancestors, best be fleet of foot. The visit is riveting but involves more, and steeper, stairs than some seniors appreciate (chateau-guillaume-leconquerant.fr).
Camembert and calvados
Later, I motored to the most famous hamlet in the world. In 1791, a priest on the run from the revolution arrived and showed local dairymaid Marie Harel a new way of maturing cheese. She named the result after her hamlet: Camembert. The place is no bigger now (pop: 176) than it was then, and long ago lost the monopoly of making camembert. They can, and do, churn it out in Hungary and Brazil. But the real stuff is still made locally and the really real stuff, using unpasteurised milk, has an AOP, just like good wines.
The Maison du Camembert, and attendant museum are as welcoming and informative as you’d expect cheese establishments to be. You’ll learn that camembert really took off as France’s number one cheese when included in the rations of Great War soldiers (maisonducamembert.com).
I motored on, further into what’s known as the Pays-d’Auge. Were Postman Pat French, he’d be motoring round here, too. It has the necessary bucolic serenity, with apple trees all over the place. This is apple-land. The harvest is in full swing as we speak. In a valley bottom near Crouttes, the half-timbered Galotière farmstead saw to my apple-driven alcohol requirements. Calvados, mainly, for I have serious doubts about cider: a kids’ drink in adult clothes.
Make your own minds up about this at harvest-time apple festivals in Vimoutiers, a hop from Croutte (October 15-16) or the equally nearby Sap-en-Auge (November 12-13).
I turned for base, via the hills, forest, cliffs and rocks which starry-eyed geographers call “Suisse Normande” (Norman Switzerland). It’s grand but not that grand, but grand enough for me. Back to Bagnoles. This truly is a lovely place. US billionaire Frank Jay Gould thought so, too. He invested much of his crooked dad’s railway fortune in both the casino and the stately Grand Hotel. US cash was to turn Bagnoles into a luxury spa resort. Gould expected gratitude. He asked Bagnoles council to name a bridge after him. The council refused. Gould cleared off, subsequently founding Juan-les-Pins on the Riviera.
I sat on my hotel balcony, drinking a young calvados with ice and looking out over the lake, parkland and settled centre. Gould had done his bit, but Bagnoles had got on pretty well without him since. Then I went for a jog through the forest. Only kidding.
How to do it
Take the ferry from Portsmouth to Caen or St Malo (brittany-ferries.co.uk), or the Eurostar to Paris (eurostar.com), and hire a car. Bang on the lake, the three-star Le Béryl (hotel-bagnoles.com) is remarkably welcoming, has a swish of class, good restaurant, plus a sauna and indoor pool. Room-only autumn doubles from £95, though check the website for deals.