I left Granville on the main road north but soon got blown towards the coast again. Bordering the fields, the golden sheen of the carrot, leek and cabbage crops rippled defiantly in the strong wind that often blows here. I stopped the car at Le Havre de la VanleĢe, a low-lying expanse of fields edging the dunes, to admire the agneaux de preĢ-saleĢ, salt-marsh lambs that can stand the salty grass here, and whose meat ā a local delicacy ā takes on a special taste as a consequence of their diet.
RegneĢville-sur-Mer, a little further up the coast, has a beautiful end-of-the-world feel. Its medieval castle used to border the sea but now sits a kilometre or two away from any water. Thereās a campsite, a restaurant, a tableau of beached boats to stare at, and thatās about it. Except, of course, for the incongruous but well-stocked material shop and the disused railway station thatās been turned in to a cafeĢ and brocante.
Moving north again I treated myself to a brief stop in vibey Agon-Coutainville, and dipped into the inspiration that is La Sucette Chaude ā confiseurs of distinction since 1930. That day it was a bag of chiques that caught my eye but it could have been berlingots, marshmallows, ice cream or candy floss.
Gouville-sur-Mer, with its colourful beach huts and its horse-and-carriage ride out to the oyster beds at low tide, gives way to Barneville-Carteret, my destination for the night. With a beautiful beach, a great coastal path for walking, Belle-EĢpoque villas, and a wonderful hotel-restaurant, this northernmost overnight stop on my trip was the best of them all.
After the balmy beach of Barneville-Carteret, I didnāt expect what I got from the headland at the northern tip of La Manche. To say my trip to the Nez de Jobourg was windy would be undercooking it somewhat. The cliffs on which I was precariously balanced, navigating my way along gusty coastal paths, not even smiling at the wind-ravaged walkers approaching me as I hugged the hillside as we passed, are, at 128 metres, among the highest in Europe. It is often windy; houses here are built, often with stone or brick roofs instead of tiles, in huddles to protect them from the elements. And the sea in the narrow stretch that separates the mainland from Alderney has the strongest currents in continental Europe and can only safely be navigated for about an hour each day.
I drove from the Nez de Jobourg to Goury and its rescue station; this area is nicknamed La petite Irlande and it does look very much like the Emerald Isle. I then headed on to Port Racine, one of Franceās smallest ports, built on the site of a refuge for the corsair schooner LāEmbuscade (the Ambush), which was once the scourge of British vessels sailing to, from, and sometimes even just near the Channel Islands.
WEST MEETS EAST
Two stops remained on my road trip. First I criss-crossed the peninsula to explore the history of the eastern coast. Basing myself in the bustling port of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, I enjoyed a day trip to the nearby island of Tatihou. The island museum tells of the Battle of La Hougue in 1692, the shipwrecks of which can still be seen at low tide. You can buy tickets in the billeterie on the harbour front for the amphibious bus/boat to the tiny island. It takes ten minutes to sail across at high tide and by the time Iād wandered through the botanical gardens, visited the museum and the Vauban remains, the tide had lowered enough to put the wheels in motion. We chugged back on a circuitous route through oyster beds.
No trip to Normandy would be complete without visiting the D-Day landing beaches, and the most westerly of the five sites, Utah Beach, is in the deĢpartement of La Manche. I boned up on my Second World War history here and at the neighbouring village of Sainte-MeĢre-EĢglise, where the successful mission by US soldiers to liberate Normandy took place, and then ended my trip in Cherbourg, at the CiteĢ de la Mer museum, before setting sail for Portsmouth.
I hadnāt covered so many miles on my mini road trip around the coast of La Manche, yet I had been amazed by the landscape of the peninsula. Its rough seas make it so atmospheric and its high tides mean the coastline changes dramatically from white sandy beaches to rugged cliffs and isolated islands. There will be plenty more to see when I return.
SIDEBAR: MUSEĢE CHRISTIAN DIOR
Sometimes you come away from a famous personās childhood home and you feel a twinge of cynicism: they only lived here for a short time, is this just milking a tenuous link?
Thatās not the case here. Although Dior only lived in this pink Anglo-Norman villa on Granvilleās cliff less than a decade, his connection and love for the house is clearly real and moving.
He would later write in his diaries: āI have the most tender and amazing memories of my childhood home. I would even say that my life and my style owe almost everything to its site and architecture.ā
The stories you pick up of this very private man as you walk around the house and meander through the gardens are really memorable ā all the bits and bobs, the drawings, the pieces of his work, the film showing how some of his more intricate dresses were made, and the plans showing how the house was going to be altered when it became a base for British soldiers during the war.
The garden is said to have inspired him more than anything else, and much of the original planting plans ā which he made with his mother ā are still in place today.
D-DAY REMEMBRANCE TOURISM
The Airborne Museum at Sainte-MeĢre-EĢglise commemorates the bravery and hard work of the US paratroopers who made this area their dropzone when attempting to liberate Normandy from German occupation in June 1944. The museum is small but it really brings its story to life within its three main buildings. The first building houses a WACO glider, the second a C-47 plane and the third, and most modern, a pulse-quickening reconstruction of what is was like to be a paratrooper that night, dropped blindly into Normandyās hinterland.
Some of them found they were fatally heavy, with all their accessories, kit and supplies hanging off them, and sank to a grisly death in the marshland. Others, like John Steele, didnāt even touch the ground. He got snagged on the tower of Sainte-MeĢre-EĢglise church and had to dangle there pretending to be dead to put the enemy off the scent. A dummy hangs on the church in the village today and Steele is something of a celebrity in the area.
It is just a few kilometres from here to the Utah Beach Museum, which houses some interesting wartime vehicles and tells the story of how the US soldiers, whoād been trained up in England, finally took control of Normandy via its beaches. Some 21,000 soldiers were brought onto Utah Beach that day. The museumās jewel is its B-26 bomber, which was bought with funds from the sons of one of the American fighter pilots who survived the war. On a visit to Utah Beach they found their fatherās details in the records and were moved to raise the cash for the museum to be able to buy and display the plane.
LA CITEĢ DE LA MER
The City of the Sea is a museum dedicated to manās adventures under the sea. Itās in Cherbourg, right on the port, and has two unique exhibitions. The building itself is one large monument to Art Deco architecture, and while this is reason enough to visit, the highlights are Le Redoutable, a huge submarine you can explore with audio guides for adults and children; and the Titanic exhibition, a fully-featured digital experience showing what life was like on board the doomed vessel as well as analysing fault and aftermath.
The Titanic part kicks off in the awesome baggage hall ā another Art Deco masterpiece that has been perfectly preserved ā and it really puts a chill down your spine when you think of the poor people who boarded the ship here on its penultimate stop before attempting to cross the Atlantic.
The Redoutable and Titanic exhibitions are both musts, but thereās also a virtual tour
to the depths of the sea and an aquarium to discover. Oh, and the restaurant is pretty special too. Youāll need three hours minimum and you could easily spend the day here.
From France Today magazine