Want a weekend away? William Crossley takes the night boat to Caen for a weekend in historic Normandy

Want a weekend away in France but don’t fancy flying or going to London to catch a Eurostar train?

Then take the night boat to Caen instead, and enjoy a weekend laden with food, travel, culture and WW2 war sites, all brought to you via a trouble-free run drive to the Brittany Ferries terminal at Portsmouth.

I headed for bed soon after the ferry Mont St Michel sailed at 10.45pm, disembarking when she arrived at the port of Caen-Ouistreham shortly before 7am.

If you’re in a hurry to get going, the drive from Ouistreham into Caen takes about 25 minutes, but if you want to make an early-morning visit to somewhere with a special connection to Oxfordshire, turn off at Bénouville and follow signs towards Ranville.

To get there, you have to cross the Caen Canal and the River Orne on Pegasus Bridge and Horsa Bridge, named, respectively, after the winged horse emblem of British airborne troops and the gliders they used during the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

The job of seizing the bridges on the night of June 5-6, 1944, fell to 180 men of the 1st Battalion of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who landed in six gliders just yards from their objectives, catching the German sentries by surprise, in an attack later immortalised in the film The Longest Day.

The Mémorial Pegasus museum is open daily from February 1 until mid-December, but an early-morning visit allows you to get a feel for the location and contemplate the troops’ courage in near-solitude, disturbed only by a passing car or two.

Once across the river, you can again turn south to Caen but we headed north to enjoy breakfast in the resort town of Cabourg, at the Grand Hotel, built in Belle Epoque style at the start of the 20th century and a favourite of the writer Marcel Proust. He wrote much of his classic novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu – In Search of Lost Time – while staying here.

Rooms with a view are a speciality at the hotel - which looks out across a sandy beach to the English Channel – including the high-ceilinged dining room, so the Grand offers an ideal base if you want combine a seaside stay and city visit to Caen – just 30 minutes’ drive away.

Caen suffered badly from bombing and shelling during June and July 1944 as the Germans doggedly fought off a series of British attempts to capture the city, a period recalled at the Mémorial de Caen museum and in a digital walking tour through the city, with information accessed through a tablet or smartphone, drawing on testimony from residents who lived through the fighting.

Plenty of places of historical interest survived the bombardment, not least the Abbaye aux Hommes and Abbaye aux Dames, founded by the man who intertwined the fates of Normandy and England in the 11th century, William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda. Each was buried in the church of the abbey they founded.

Another historic focal point in the heart of the city is the castle, also built on William’s orders in the 1060s, which today is the home of the Museum of Normandy.

Its winter special exhibition, Á Table!, celebrates all things gastronomic and Normandy’s contribution to the reputation of French food and dining since the 17th century, from fine ingredients to the art inspired by food, its preparation and consumption.

Another way to learn about food Norman-style is to try a gourmet tour around Caen on a Segway, guided by David Letanneur of local firm Com’on Gyro.

None of our group had stepped aboard one of the two-wheeled scooters before, but after a few minutes’ practice scooting about in the castle grounds, we were off, dropping in at shops around the city to sample cheese, smoked sausages, wines and, bien sûr, being in Normandy, Calvados, the region’s famous cider brandy.

I took the chance to stock up with perfectly-ripened Camembert and Pont-l’Évêque cheeses during one of our stops, which provided a flavoursome reminder of France for a good few days after my return.

* For more on Normandy, go to:


* For Caen, see caen-tourisme.fr/en.

* For details on Cabourg, see cabourg.net and visit Sofitel.com for Le Grand Hotel in Cabourg

* For ferries to Normandy and Brittany, contact Brittany-ferries.co.uk or call 0330 159 7000.

* For more on the whole of France: atout France: uk.france.fr/