Ferry Trips series of posts describes some journeys we made a few years ago from Weymouth to France. Even after Condor Feries ceased oprating from the Port, it is still easy to drive to Poole instead. Here,a number of Ferries transport you to France, usually via Cherbourg. A fairly short drive then takes you to many glorious towns and historic sites in Northern France.
Port en Bessin Huppain is a commune of the Port on the Bessin River adjoined to the small town of Huppain in the Cotentin sub-department (West of Manche) on the Cherbourg Peninsula. We drove out from Bayeux, not so long ago, to tour Normandy Beaches (ibidem) but found many shops and restaurants closed due to being a Sunday. Whereupon, we stumbled acorss the very large and bustling market in Huppain, strung along the Portside. The Harbour was very reminiscent of Weymouth Harbour.
There were a number of cafes, bars and shops, some selling “Fine Old Calvados” (for some very fine old prices, but worth it!) A glass engraver asked my Wife’s name and decoratively engraved it on a small tumbler, free in just a few seconds. “Le moins prix du Monde”. We hope to go back soon to commission a larger work. (About 30 minutes from Bayeux).
Famously, Chateau de la Motte Husson is not far away (featured on Channel Four TV) – about 6km to the South. In Mayenne itself, there is a 10th century Chateau fortified in the 13th century, which is probably best viewed across the River from the riverside carpark on the East side), a Basilica de NotreDame built in 100 and the Romanesque Eglise de Saint Martin.
When we travelled there quite some time ago, we enjoyed the cafe scene in the little square above the town (photos below) and sought directions to the hamlet of Ger from the proprietrix. Within minutes, 5 ladies were all helping us and that is a measure of how wonderfully friendly and helpful the people of Normandy are in general.
Laval is about 1 hour’s drive South of Saint-Lo, equidistant from Rennes and Le Mans (2 great towns for exploring and shopping). It is the administrative capital of the Mayenne Department (Mayenne is about 20km North). The City is surrounded by industrialisation but at its heart is a fine, imposing centre of grand proportions, set off by the beautiful Mayenne River. The central streets are narrow but easily navigated to find a fairly large and rather attractive tree-lined car park next to the main bridge. Here, one can relax in cafes, overlooking the river or browse main shops, including a diversity of bookshops up the hill. Every 30 minutes, fountains jet from the River near the bridge and, for the more energetic, it is said to be a continuous, gorgeous riverside walk all the way to Mayenne.
Isigny is a short drive further along the N13 from the turn for Grandcamp Maisy. Isigny is a small town, in commune with 62 neighbouring villages, named after the D’Isigny family, who served with William the Conqueror (links to Walt Disney, also!) Just along from the port, there is access to the Western end of Omaha Beach. Isigny is a local centre for dairy products (AOC) and the cheeses are simply superb! We can recommend the fish soup in the Harbour Cafe as well.
Domfront-en-Poiraie is a small medieval commune, perched on a bluff above the River Varenne, about 2 hours South of Cherbourg. The old part of town is best approached by car fron the East, via a simple right turn off the Mayenne road. The village is a gem of ancient architecture, preserved as well as anywhere in France and very well worth a stroll to explore the curious and picturesque nooks and crannies.
Cherbourg-Octeville is a large city at the North of the Cotentin/Normandy Peninsula. Driving off the Ferry, we followed google directions and ended up in Octeville, eventually circling back to the D901, which we would have found very much more easily by ignoring google. Alternatively, it may be possible to avoid the town altogether by turning LEFT out of the Ferry area and finding the N13, all the way down the coat to Bayeux and beyound.
Cherbourg has a very extensive history (best to consult Wikepedia) but most folk drive straight through and into France proper. Behind the Regency Hotel on the inner harbour, there are numerous winding streets in the old quarter, along with cafes, shops and a pleasant large square.
Carentan Les Marais is a small, marsh-bound town with a small port, connected to the Sea by canal. Carentan is about 30 minutes West along the N13 from Bayeux. The town has a large gyratory square and several quaint shops, selling artefacts and excellent cheeses and other produce. The Port area is very peaceful and park-like – principally for pleasure craft. There are trips to view the nearby oyster beds (the wife gets seasick so we swerved that trip!)
Bayeux is a beautiful location, with many fine restaurants and several good cafes, more or less surrounding the old quarter, with the magnificant Cathedral facing Rue Larcher. Behind the Cathedral is a maze of tiny, narrow cobbled streets, barely wide enough for a car but they open out into wider boulevardes on 3 sides of the town.
The Bayeux Tapestry is about 70m long, housed behind glass in a “U”-shaped display room at the Museum. Flash photography is strictly prohibited and you may see your camera/device confiscated. Ambient light photography is also said to be prohibited but if one is careful not to be too blatant then the guards may turn a blind eye. The real purpose of a visit is to simply marvel at the incredible detail and wonderful state of preservation of something so fragile yet nearly 1,000 years old.
Heading South into Normandy from the Peninsula, in the Orne region, there is the delightful and slightly “upmarket” small town of Bagnoles de L’Orme, secreted in the forests of Andaines. The town is a spa, made famous (allegedly) by Seigneur Hughes de Tesse as a result of miraculous “cure” for his aged horse, “Rapide” in the Middle Ages. Latterly becoming a fine example of the Belle Epoque era, Bagnoles has a small casino on the lake and beautiful views from the baroque main street above the lake.
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