(Telegraph) – The bicycle looked perfect: a pretty shade of blue, with a brown leather saddle, high handlebars and a little basket that cried out for either a small dog or a baguette. Riding it was another matter.
As I set off along the seaside cycle path, the gears clunked regularly, alarmingly and without reason. But with sea salt in my nostrils, the English Channel breeze in my face and a history-soaked beach spreading to one side, I didn’t mind much. At least I wouldn’t get a speeding ticket…
Cycling has its challenges, but I hate driving. And new road rules introduced in France in 2018 – including reduced speed limits and the fact foreign drivers can now be chased for fines when they get back home – makes getting behind the wheel there even less appealing. So, I’d ditched the car and decided to do Normandy the greener way: train to Portsmouth, overnight ferry to Ouistreham (the port-town of Caen), then a combination of cycling, strolling, Segwaying and paddling for a motor-free mini break.
Docking in Ouistreham at sunrise also meant I had a full day ahead. After a relaxed coffee and a browse of the fish market’s shiny and crustaceous wares, I picked up my blue bike and headed west along the coast to Lion-sur-Mer. The soft sand and beach huts made it look every bit the happy holiday resort, but the numerous memorials were a reminder of very different times.
This was Sword Beach, easternmost of the D-Day landing sites, taken on June 6 1944 by British and Free French troops. I stopped at the bronze of Bill Millin, Lord Lovat’s personal piper, who played his brigade ashore. “Above the roar of battle came the skirl of liberation,” read the plaque. “If they remember the bagpiper, then they won’t forget those who served and fell on the beaches.”
There was more history to be absorbed in Lion-sur-Mer. Last summer, the town launched an audio-guided walk with a GPS-embedded parasol; as you move between the seafront and the backstreets, your ears fill with the sounds and stories of Lion’s residents: how they remember queuing to buy gui gui (sugar candy) from the confiseur on the promenade; how handsome Villa Louis was once the clandestine retreat of Édith Piaf and her lover Marcel Cerdan; how a D-Day bomb went through the roof of Villa La Horde but didn’t explode.
Further west lay Normandy’s other plages du débarquement, but instead I cycled back east to Ouistreham, then nine miles (15km) south to Caen, along the traffic-free canal towpath. Midway, I stopped at the Café Gondrée, the first building to be liberated in June 1944 as the Allies took the adjacent Pegasus Bridge in the first minutes of the invasion.
Caen, the medieval city of William the Conqueror, proved a tougher objective. The battle to take it lasted just under two months, killed 3,000 local people destroyed more than 70 per cent of the city.
On that basis, my expectations were rather low, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Weaving along the city’s riddle of cycle routes, I passed the enormous castle – still one of the largest medieval fortresses in Europe – and ended up in the old centre, with its narrow streets and timber-frame houses that the bombs did not destroy.
“Caen has so many layers of history,” David, my guide, told me a little later as we whirred over the city’s cobbles. I’d swapped my bike for a Segway, and was trying to manoeuvre this electric personal transporter without taking out any Normans. It was ridiculous fun.
David led me along streets lined with bookshops, up on to the castle ramparts and into the café-filled Vaugueux (the “peasants’ vale”) before ending up at a shop selling regional produce on old Rue Froide. Inside, the walls were lined with bottles of cidre, calvados and jars of tripes artisanale. I ignored the last – it’s a regional speciality but looked more like a science experiment. However, I heartily embraced the tasting of various tipples. My favourite was a cocktail of cidre tranquille (still cider) and framboise calvados – a Norman version of a kir royale.
From the shop it was only a short stumble to my pied-à-terre: a 19th-century town house that’s been transformed into three gorgeous apartments. I was up in the garret – the sort of cool, sloping space in which novels should be written. But there was no time for that.