Known for its Calvados brandy and historic ties to 1066 and 1944, the Norman town of Caen is not considered a football stronghold.
Formed a century ago, flagship club SM Caen remained mainly amateur until 1985. The Rouge et Bleu enjoyed a brief brush with fame in the early 1990s and even played one round of the UEFA Cup.
Since promotion back to Ligue 1 in 2014, Caen have survived and, in 2015-16, even thrived. Currently a return to Europe isn’t out of the question.
Though top-level football hasn’t been a regular fixture in these parts, Normandy was where the modern game was first played in France, by English sailors in Le Havre in 1872. Today’s Havre Athletic Club still display the date on their logo of alternating dark-and-light blue, so coloured to honour the Oxbridge roots of HAC’s 19th-century founders. The club anthem goes to the tune of ‘God Save The Queen’…
The Derby Normand with SM Caen has usually been a lower-league affair – but not in the annus mirabilis of 1991-92 when both clubs achieved their highest league positions in modern times of fifth and seventh respectively.
After their subsequent brief European jaunt, Caen dipped and have since bounced back. Le Havre, meanwhile, sold on home-grown talent such as Paul Pogba and Lassana Diarra and haven’t clocked up two consecutive seasons in Ligue 1 this century.
While Caen have revived under Patrice Garande, an Olympic gold medallist with France in 1984, Le Havre have recently put their faith in Bob Bradley, former coach of the US national team.
Trains leave around every hour from Paris St Lazare to Caen (2hrs, €18 online).
If arriving by boat into Cherbourg, a train to Caen is 1hr 15 (€23). Le Havre is trickier, at least 2hrs 30min and €38.
Around Caen, a 24hr Twisto bus ticket is €3.95 – the stadium and War Memorial may be easier by bus but the town centre is walkable. The train station is south of the town centre, just over the narrow Orne river.
Nearest the stadium, in fact, beside the adjoining old ground, the Stade de Venoix, the Ivan Vautier is a quality boutique hotel with a spa and a Michelin-star restaurant. Also close, the Crocus is a bright two-star whose rates change if there is any event on at the Zénith exhibition centre.
Also convenient for the train, the ibis Budget Caen Gare is another handy, reliable choice.
Cheap and clean, the Hôtel de Rouen serves late arrivals and early birds near the station.
Also on quai Vendeuvre, Le Trappist specialises in Belgian beers, with a sister operation in Le Havre.
Local in feel and more recently opened, Normandy Spirit is on the other embankment and gets lively for matches on TV.
Best sports bar in town is Stadium, by Caen’s historic centre, part cocktail lounge, part restaurant, part DJ spot, lined with flat-screen TVs for wall-to-wall action, offset by framed shirts and a black-and-white run-around mural of great sporting moments.