Conquering Normans lack a little of the spirit of 1066

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

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. For a while, a return to Europe wasn’t out of the question.

Normandy Spirit/Sylvain Vaugeois

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 is usually 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 then 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 revived under Patrice Garande, an Olympic gold medallist with France in 1984, Le Havre put their faith in Bob Bradley, former coach of the US national team. For 2021-22, the Norman rivals finished on equal points in Ligue 2, well out of range of a play-off place for promotion.

Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

Caen la Mer Airport, 6km (3.5 miles) west of town, is mainly used by Spanish budget newbie Volotea.

A local Twisto bus runs every 30mins mornings-only to town, ticket €1.45 from the airport desk. Taxi Abbeilles Caen (+33 2 31 52 17 89) charges around €25-€30 into town.

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). 

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.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

Much of Caen’s nightlife is concentrated near the port, where you’ll find the Dublin Café, the London Café and the more pub-like O’Donnells (20 quai Vendeuvre).

Also on quai Vendeuvre, Le Trappist specialises in Belgian beers, with a sister operation in Le Havre. Local in feel, 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.

Where to stay

The best hotels for the stadium and city centre

Caen Tourisme has a hotel-reservation link.

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.

In town, there’s a smattering of dowdy two-stars, bearable – just – for one-night stay. The Hôtel Bernières (50 rue des Bernières, +33 2 31 86 01 26),  26), Central and Château are typical of the genre.

For a few extra euros, you might better off near the station. The Hôtel de France and Bristol are both decent mid-range options.

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.