It is hardly worth repeating that Paris is not France, just as New York is not America and London not England. And it is not really true that the soul of those countries is to be found in any random small town. But if you wish to experience something of the spirit of a particular region in France, like Normandy, a village like Villers-sur-Mer on the English Channel can be rewarding because very little changes in such a place. It looks very much the way Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte painted the village in 1880, with two seaside buildings that are still standing.
With only 2,600 residents, Villers-sur-Mer is not in danger of a population explosion, and it was with good reason that François Truffaut, in his 1989 film The 400 Blows, shot the famous final scene of his young hero’s escape from the stifling atmosphere of Paris in order to walk beside a sea he longed to see.
The sea still looks and smells the same to everyone, lapping the shore most days, whipped to a foaming tempest on others. You can still see the well-kempt topiary dinosaurs that reference the town’s extensive fossil deposits. In fact, there is a Paléospace l’Odyssée museum and planetarium exhibiting the reconstructed creatures.
Villers spreads over 700 acres of the countryside and that curving crescent beach has a quiet, comforting appeal for the French on holiday who are tired of the hard, stony strands of the Riviera. The cliffs of Vaches Noires are a backdrop, and there is a sanctuary on an islet here, so the skies fill with birds, each with their own songs. St. Martin’s church is an impressive 19th century neo-Gothic structure for such a small town.
Villers is in the northern commune of Calvados, so sampling the local ciders and powerful spirit are requisite, as well as Normandy’s marvelous cow’s milk Camembert cheese, developed by a local farm woman back in 1791. The region’s Red Label scallops are widely regarded as among the best in Europe, and fishing them out is a leading industry here, with the painted boats bobbing in the harbor. For good reason, then, Villers holds an October scallop festival. The outdoor market is a repository of Normandy foods with all the region’s seasonal provender, right now teeming with wild mushrooms.
It would not take long on foot to tour the village and its surrounding sights, and the streets are rimmed with quaint old half-timbered and brick houses, shops, cafés and restaurants.
Where to stay in Villers depends on your budget, but the town is not rich in first-class hotels, though the well-appointed Domaine de Villers & Spa outside of town, with its indoor swimming pool and nearness to the beach certainly is, with room rates currently under 250€ per night. We stayed downtown at a comfortable, if not elegant, boutique Hôtel des Falaises, on the Rue du Maréchal Foch, within steps of just about everything you’ll want to see in town. Breakfast is included in room rates under 100€ per night. Bathrooms, however, are cramped.
The restaurants of Villers, as you’d expect, feature the bounty of the sea on every menu, and they are generally full of locals. Le Mermoz, on the Place Mermoz, has a modern cast to the décor with glass walls overlooking the beach. It has large, luxurious banquettes, globe lighting, sea foam colors and an oddly swanky bar, as well as outdoor tables. Portions are very generous, with fixed price menus at 31€, 24€ and 27€, as well as à la carte.
All French seaside restaurants are proud of and judged by their soupe des poissons with the requisite garlicky rouille mayonnaise, Gruyère and croutons, and Le Marmoz’s is remarkably light while deeply flavorful. Fat pink boiled crevettes were tender and sweet, and a terrine of wild boar was a particularly welcome choice in autumn. The chef presented us with a huge sole à la meunière in a pool of golden Normandy butter, while a rouget (red mullet) had a far more subtle taste than the species in cream) are a specialty of Normandy made with tiny, tender bivalves scented with herbs and curry. Smoked haddock was rather dull. The best of the desserts we tried was the chocolate pot de crème. La Marmoz also serves plateaus of icy shellfish and several non-seafood dishes.
Le Café de France (2 Rue de Génèral Charles DeGaulle) is a homier spot on a corner, identified at night by a glowing green neon sign and both its outdoor and enclosed terrace tables. They have a big menu that aims too hard to please everyone, with hot dogs and cheeseburgers, but the locals know to skip the printed menu and choose from the daily blackboard menu, with prices dependent on the market. We did so —they had an entire blackboard just with scallops dishes—and were delighted by an enormous torteau crab (24€) served cold with mayonnaise. Mussel soup (14€) was equally good, and the scallops gratiné12€) heady with cream and cheese, but a bit gummy. Chicken in a cream sauce (16€) was better, as was tête de veau with boiled potatoes and sauce gribiche (19€), and some superb scallops and fried goujonettes of Saint Pierre appeared on one plate (28€). Whenever I’m in Europe I order turbot and was not disappointed at Le Café de France with a fish of meaty flesh and gelatinous fat.
They also do a choucroute of seafood (26€) and sauerkraut, not unusual for Normandy, though I didn’t have a chance to try it. For dessert have the dependable crème caramel or crème brûlée (5€ each) or the crepes (4.50€). There is a 19.80€ three-course menu.
And don’t forget le trou normand—the Norman hole—which is a shot of Calvados around the middle of the meal that supposedly helps digestion and builds an appetite for more food. That, and a stroll along the strand as the water goes in and out as it has forever, will put you in good stead.