Normandy & Brittany
Thousands of years ago, the UK was attached to modern day France and although those land ties have long since been broken, a special bond and landscape similarity remains between Essex & Kent in England and Breton et Normandie en France.
The fact that a Eurotunnel train only takes 35 minutes to link Folkestone to Calais (strikes & immigrants permitting) means that La Manche is no longer much of a barrier between the countries whose histories are intertwined from William the Conqueror, through to the Tudors and on to the World Wars.
There is of course a healthy love-hate relationship between ‘Les Boeufs and The Frogs’, but there is also great respect and genuine friendship, even if relations are a little uneasy at times.
The fact remains that London’s biggest foreign visitors are the French and likewise the Brits pour into France via train and ferry.
So what is there to do and see in the North Western corner of France?
Moving swiftly on from the faded grandeur, booze cruise hypermarkets and immigration problems of Calais (if you do need to stay somewhere close to Calais choose the much prettier and more charming Boulogne just down the coast), the open road takes you to some wonderful places.
You could of course also arrive by ferry in the likes of Le Havre, Dieppe, Cherbourg or Dunkirque, all worth a short linger but not overly exciting.
In Normandy, speed down the traffic light toll roads or meander on the back roads to the Norman capital Rouen or the equally impressive Amiens, visit historic Caen, view the tapestry in Bayeaux, wander the old town streets of Honfleur or tour the thought-provoking battlefields of The Somme.
Infamous for being the execution place of Joan d’Arc, Rouen has a very impressive cathedral as it seems is the norm in France, an attractive clock tower, an impressively huge Hôtel de Ville and an equally large and architecturally pleasing palais de justice.
Many of the buildings are of the candy coloured half-timbered variety typical of Alsace and being a university city, there is an excellent lively cafe and bar scene to keep you occupied at night. 24 hours is ample to take in pretty much all compact Rouen has to offer.
Amiens remains on my list of great French cities to visit. The cathedral is a World Heritage site, there is a lovely waterfront and the city hosts an excellent Christmas market each year. It is also the perfect base from which to take a battlefield tour of the WWI killing fields of the Somme.
A sobering experience but compelling all the same.
The port city of Caen is also accessible by ferry from England’s South Coast and is well worth a look as well as being a gateway to the region.
The two abbeys and the castle are magnifique and several churches are also notable structures.
I have also visited a couple of special towns in Normandie. Bayeaux is 30 km from Caen and is situated on the River Aure. It is most famous for being the home of the famous tapestry, 1066, William the Conqueror, one in the eye for Harold and all that.
The tapestry is housed in a museum and although the main reason for the visit, the whole place was very pleasant indeed.
The harbour town of Honfleur is particularly worth visiting for its very nice waterfront and unusual old town, topped by medieval St Catherine’s Square.
As for Brittany chill out in St Malo, clamber around the cobbled streets of unique Le-Mont-Saint-Michel (officially Normandy but right on the border with Brittany) and take in the Breton main cities of Rennes, Nantes & Vannes.
St Malo is a walled city on the coast and a truly lovely spot to visit. Easily accessible by Brittany Ferry from the UK, a highlight is to walk around the walls for some brilliant views out to sea and across the town.
Much of the town was destroyed in WWII, but has long since been rebuilt to its former glory.
Apart from the grand buildings such as the cathedral and the chateau, St Malo has a wonderful al fresco restaurant & cafe scene. Perfect for chilling and ambling.
I only visited Le-Mont-Saint-Michel a few weeks ago with my wife, my dog and a friend, so here is my account…….
Saint Michel had a fairly new set up. No longer could you drive close, park up and walk the causeway. Nowadays they have decided to return the old car parks to nature, meaning that you have to park up further away in an expensive car park (€12.50 for two hours +) and take a shuttle bus along a new causeway to virtually the entrance to Le Mont itself.
As you alight the bus with all of the (other) tourists, there is a frenzy to get the first great shots of the enormous abbey perched high up on the rocky escarpment. The whole rocky hill with its rugged towers and spires stands there Mordor like, as if housing an evil empire that ruled the region with an iron fist. It would certainly not look out of place as a set in Lord of the Rings.
When we visited the tide was out leaving a sandy landscape dotted with pools of water. The hope is that wildlife will return in their droves once they realise that the lands are no longer reserved for coaches and four-wheel drives. Signs warned us that where we walked at the base of the rock would indeed be covered by the sea later in the day. It would have been great to stay and see it, but that would be a fair few hours away yet.
We decided not to pay to enter any of the museums of the abbey itself, content to just saunter up the rock to take in the views. As we ascended, happily the hordes of people thinned out somewhat allowing our dog to walk without the threat of being trampled on by a thousand feet. At 21 degrees, it was hot and thirsty work getting to the summit.
Thankfully there were plenty of shady nooks and crannies to get some respite from the midday sun and we were rewarded with spectacular views out across the sandbanks and up to the large town of Avranches opposite.
After an hour or so we were ready to amble back, deciding to shun the shuttle bus,thus enabling us to get some relatively crowd free shots of the impressive monolith. We were certainly thankful to have hats and water as the sun was beating down relentlessly. We took pity on the carthorses that had to ferry paying visitors to the attractions. No respite for them and a demanding coach master to boot.
So another UNESCO World Heritage site ticked off and well worth the effort too.
Finally the cities of Rennes, Nantes (now officially in Pays de la Loire region but forever associated with Brittany) & Vannes. All historic, fully deserving of a city break and yet to be visited by me.
The whole region is relatively small and easily explored in a week to ten days with a car.
Crowds and major tourist venues are so problematic. we spent a fortnight near Vannes and can thoroughly recommend the area for the usual reasons – markets, historic town centres etc but also take the boat to the Ile aux moines and walk the sentier des douanniers – the coastal path used by the customs officers in times gone by.
I have taken your travel advice and will be visiting at Mont Michel later this year thanks to cheap Ryanair flights to Dinard.
You will love it, especially if you can avoid the crowds!