In Normandy, France, there is a busy little medieval town (pop.16,000) which has survived attack after attack through the centuries. Passing to new hands more often than not, it continues to survive. Today, its greatest claim to fame is that it is home to the world’s most famous tapestry that isn’t a tapestry.
For the tourist, it is an excellent base for visiting not only the Bayeux Tapestry but other sights in the town itself and the surrounding area.
Bayeux was the starting point for William, Duke of Normandy, when he set out to take the English throne from Harold, who had already sworn him an oath of allegiance but then betrayed him by seizing the crown on the death of Edward the Confessor. The story is dramatically told in the Bayeux Tapestry, created in England in the 1070’s. Rather than a tapestry it is actually embroidery in eight colours of wool on linen, using an Anglo-Saxon variant of an ancient technique known as laidwork. Surviving through centuries, saved many times from destruction, the Tapestry is listed in UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ register. Now housed in the Centre Guillaume le Conquérant, the tapestry is open to visitors every day.
The aged stone and cobbles of Bayeux have seen many fortunes of war. Founded as Augustodorum, a Gallo-Roman settlement in the first century BC, it later became Noviomagus Badiocassium (‘New market of the Badiocassi’) after the local Gaulish people. After subjection of the area to Roman domination by a lieutenant of Julius Caesar, the town was romanized and became part of the Roman Empire’s coastal defences against pirates. In the late 9th century the town was again devastated but rebuilt within about 50 years, attracting a significant increase in population under Ducal Normandy.The cathedral was completed by William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Odo, in 1077. Following this, the town’s fortunes waxed and waned; burned down by Henry I of England, granted a municipal charter by Richard the Lionheart and repeatedly pillaged. It was not until 1450 that Bayeux was able to prosper and develop when the city was recaptured by Charles VII of France. Once again subject to domination by the Germans in 1940, it was the first town of the Battle of Normandy to be liberated - for once surviving almost completely unscathed.
Other sightseeing attractions of Bayeux include its cathedral, a botanical garden dating from the 1860’s, the Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum, and war-torn D-Day beaches north of the town. The largest British war cemetery in Normandy is easily visited from Bayeux and there are both American and Canadian war cemeteries within easy reach. Between Bayeux and Isigny Sur Mer is La Cambe, a German military cemetery containing over 21,000 German graves.
The walking high street bustles through eateries and fashionable shops, collecting delicious smells from patisseries and crêperies. It doesn’t require much exploration to locate relaxing sitting places under trees along the edges of the river Aure.
There is plenty of parking within a short walk from the town centre. A limited number of parking spaces can provide a lucky spot right outside the building where the Tapestry is housed. The town boasts an efficient office de tourisme who can give directions to any local sight or make bookings for full-day and half-day tours of the D-day landing beaches.
Bayeux can be accessed by train through the SNCF rail system, ‘downtown’ being about ten minutes walk from the station. It lies on the N13/E46 main route from Caen to Cherbourg, accessible in an hour and a quarter’s driving from the Cherbourg ferry and half an hour from Caen. A couple of days’ more leisurely meander from Calais could take in both Amiens and Rouen en route.
Generally temperate in climate, Bayeux offers both charm and history and is well worth a visit.