Caen

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Caen

(The "e" is not pronounced in "Caen.")

Population: about 140,000. Caen has a university of long standing, and is a famed intellectual and artistic center which has given it the nickname "Athenes normande." But it's also important agriculturally and industrially.

Origins  The town's location on the River Orne (which flows N to the coast some 9 miles away) made it a busy trading center from the first. It was the favorite residence of Guillaume le Batard (William the Bastard), Duke of Normandy, who became William the Conqueror after 1066. William had a castle built at Caen; on its foundations, centuries later, a new castle was built which still stands. William and his wife Mathilde founded two abbeys (Trinity and St. Etienne) which also stand. William governed England from Caen.

After William's death at Rouen in 1087, his bones were brought to Caen to be entombed in his abbey. But in the 16th century, the French Protestants destroyed his tomb and scattered the bones. Only a thighbone was saved, and placed in a new tomb with much ceremony. This too was pillaged during the French Revolution, so nothing but the building itself remains of the greatest of Normandy's dukes.

His wife's remains fared better. Her bones rest peacefully in their original tomb at the abbey she built, the Abbaye aux Dames (sister-abbey of her husbands, the Abbaye aux Hommes).

World War II  In modern times, Caen became a great manufacturing center: shipping, steel refining (feeding on tons of ore from the mines of Lower Normandy). This brought Allied air attacks during the war, especially after the D-Day landings. The Germans dug in for a two-month battle just across the river from the city. The townspeople clustered in the older buildings for protection; this fact, which was known to the Allies, is what saved these historic landmarks from destruction. Toll of the war damage: 14,000 buildings destroyed or damaged, of which 110 were classed as historic monuments.

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