Walking along a woodland trail besides babbling white water, You could easily be in one of France’s rugged mountain areas. Trees tower above my head and steep cliffs rise up on both sides. But this atmospheric gorge isn’t in the Alps or Pyrenees. I’m barely an hour’s drive from the walled port of Saint-Malo and the broad sands of Normandy’s D-day beaches.
Welcome to the Suisse Normande, an unexpected area of upland in the heart of Lower Normandy. Straddling the departments of Calvados and Orne to the west of Falaise – birthplace of William the Conqueror – ‘The Hills of Normandy’ are cleft by the river Orne as it slices through a rocky massif en route to the English Channel.
Drivers can pick up a 65km scenic loop, La Route de la Suisse Normande, which links Thury-Harcourt in the north with Clécy, Pont-d’Ouilly and Condé-sur-Noireau. The sudden change in topography is a surprise to many British visitors, but the Suisse Normande is a popular meeting place for locals who come here to enjoy the great outdoors on a variety of levels. Choose from a gentle stroll or a hearty hike, a tranquil horseback ride or a physical challenge like canoeing or climbing.
A great starting place for first-time visitors is La Roche d’Oëtre, one of the best panoramic viewpoints in western France. Discover the flora, fauna and geology of this unique upland area at the visitor centre in Saint Philibert sur Orne. Perched on the roof of the Armorican Massif – the oldest mountains in Europe – this comprehensive centre is open March through to October.
Enjoy a meal in the busy restaurant; book outdoor activities and guided walks; or just collect maps and information. Children can search for the rock in the shape of a face and join in a variety of nature activities. At Pat’Balad, there’s even the chance to book not just a pony ride, but also a ride on a friendly cow!
Starting from the visitor centre, I followed a circular trail that drops steeply through woodland to the Rouvre, a small river which flows into the Orne, but there are trails too catering for wheelchair users and buggies, as well as for serious hikers. Walk completed, I set off for Pont-Erambourg near Condé-sur-Noireau to try another family-friendly activity, vélorail.
This uniquely French pastime involves pedalling a lightweight metal cart along a disused railway track, in this case a 13km return route that follows the pretty Noireau valley. Each vélorail takes two pedallers and two passengers, and the rhythmic activity proves a surprisingly pleasant way to get physical without getting worn out. There’s even time to enjoy the scenery as I go. (Open mid-March to 1 November, weekends only outside peak season)
Many sports activities in the Suisse Normande take place around Clécy and Thury-Harcourt, popular centres both for active travellers and those who prefer to watch others being active. Settle down with a picnic to see paragliders getting airborne from the Pain du Sucre, a steep escarpment above Clécy which forms part of the picturesque Route des Crêtes. Whether you decide to lunch or launch yourself off the hill on a tandem trial flight, you’ll certainly enjoy the panorama.
Down below, there are plenty of companies hiring out kayaks on the Orne for a duck’s eye view of the scenery. Or you could simply watch the fun from one of Clécy’s many riverside restaurants. And for a range of outdoor activities with expert tuition, try the Centre de Pleine Nature Lional Terray where choices include mountain biking and zip wires, archery and climbing.
If you like the idea of climbing, but don’t much like heights, the Via Ferrata de la Cambronnerie near Clécy offers a unique view of the Orne valley that’s suitable for families and children. Via Ferrata – or iron way – was originally used to transport men and machines across mountainous territory during wartime. Here at Clécy, climbers follow a series of low-level beams and footbridges in total safety for yet another unforgettable perspective on the beautiful Suisse Normande.