Every year, in general, there are four major cultural (in the widest sense) events in Normandy, and another accessible in Brittany. They are a jazz festival, a rock festival, a celtic music festival, a horse show, and a sheep fair. Of course there are a huge number of smaller events – shows, fetes, concerts, fairs – throughout the region, but these are the big ones you have to plan for if you want to be there. And of course, 2009 is the 65th anniversary of D-Day, and I will put more about that in a later bg.
The annual Jazz sous les Pommiers (jazz under the apple trees) is held in Coutances. This year, the 28th time, it is on the 16-23 May, and full details can be found here. The performers include well known international jazz musicians, such as Andy Sheppard, Django Bates and Branford Marsalis, plus world music stars and French heros. Many of the events are in the theatre, or other halls, but many are in the streets and other outdoor and indoor venues. You will need to book soon for some of the performances. Coutances is worth a visit at any time: its cathedral is one of the most exciting anywhere, and being on the high point of the town is spectacularly visible from every approach.
The rock festival is Papillons de Nuit, literally butterflies of the night or moths, and is held in a small village called St Laurent de Cuves, on 29, 30 and 31 May. Locals say that there are some problems with huge crowds of young people descending on a small rural area, but there seem to be no major crimes or unpleasantness. The biggest issue is camping sauvage – people pitching their tents in the wrong places: private property, growing crops, fields with livestock. This year the festival features the Kooks, the Ting Tings, Keziah Jones, and djs, rap acts, and who knows what. Well, the yoof know what, but most of the names are a mystery to me. Full details here. Includes a video introduction.
The third major musical festival is in Brittany, and is all Celtic music – not just Brittany, but Ireland, Wales, Scotland. This year is the 38th Festival InterCeltique, and the main focus this time is Wales (Pays de Galles). The event, – from 31 July to 9 August - details of which can be found here, takes place in Lorient and surrounding villages, much of it in the open air. Details of performers, and full programme, will be available on the official site from 31 March. There are also smaller events (fest-noz) throughout Brittany in the summer. I once followed the sound of Breton pipes after dinner in a small Breton town, and eventually found three blokes rehearsing in the local recreation ground, as darkness fell. Magical, the Breton pipes are like bagpipes, but smaller, only two pipes, and can have I think a sadder sound.
Something that happens every August, and is a prime date for the horse community, is the Normandy Horse Show (in French, la Normandie Horse Show, honest). This is several days of horse things, such as le jumping, the sale of les yearlings, and all sorts of other things that really, really interest the people who are really, really interested in that sort of thing. You may deduce that I am not one of them.
Even more specialist is the annual Foire de La Sainte Croix, or Foire aux Moutons (Sheep Fair) at Lessay, near Coutances, every September.. This attracts 400,000 visitors every year. The foire takes over a large area on the edge of town, and has competitions, and sales of sheep, pigs, goats, horses, ponys and no doubt many other species of domestic animal. It is accompanied by an enormous market, selling goods of all types, agricultural machinery, diy and home improvements, and enormously varied objects that I do not know how to use, or indeed how to want them.
Lessay itself is well worth a visit at any other time, for the Abbey. This was built not long after the conquest of England, and the exterior is one of the nicest examples of Norman architecture to be found. Inside is a wonderful simplicity, with plain white painted walls, and modern stained glass in the small windows. In 1944 the Abbey was effectively destroyed, and there are pictures of what was just a pile of rubble. Amazingly, it was rebuilt after the war, using the original plans which had survived, and using as much of the original white Caen stone (as used in Westminster Abbey) as possible, but facing most of it with new Caen stone. I saw it first a few months after the restoration was completed. I didn't know it existed, but driving through Lessay on a summer afternoon I stumbled on this wonderful blindingly white Norman masterpiece, and had to stop.
Just because Normandy is rural, part of la France Profonde, doesn't mean there are no major events. But there is also a huge variety of local fairs, celebrations, fetes and so on throughout the year, but especially in summer. Every village has its Comité des Fétes, charged with organising these events. Look for signs, ads in papers, posters in shop windows.