Contentin – Cherbourg and the Landscapes of La Manche

The Cotentin is a region covered by the Cherbourg Peninsula offering an historical landscape with much to explore
When travelling to France, how many of us actually take the time to explore the area in which we arrive? Very few I would suggest, after all the majority of routes in and out of the ferry ports are designed to keep travellers away from the town and on to the main routes as quickly as possible. Such routes inevitably navigate motorists through largely commercial areas so there is never much to tempt the appetite.

It was not until I was given the opportunity to photograph Cherbourg and its surroundings that I realised just what an interesting and attractive region this is.

After a comfortable night crossing on the ‘Barfleur’ from Poole, I disembarked at Cherbourg to what seemed at first sight to be a rather unwelcoming sea mist, but as the sun burned through I could see Cherbourg coming alive with fishermen and market workers taking their ‘first of the day’ in the quai side bars.

Cherbourg certainly had a solid and comfortable feel about it and without the pretentiousness of a trendy holiday destination. In the days of the great transatlantic liners however, it must have experienced a taste of glamour as the rich and famous arrived in the port en route for Paris and New York.

The Port area was badly damaged by the retreating invaders in 1944 but the old town emerged largely unscathed and offers strollers many streets and squares containing a variety of cafes, charcuteries, patisseries and antique shops. In fact what better reason for exploring any French town? For more cultural interests the Musée Thomas-Henry in the Cultural Centre just off rue Place de Gaulle has some fine works by the local artist Jean-Francois Millet (1814 – 1875) who painted much of the landscape of the Contentin Peninsula.
To the west lies the rugged, windswept headland of La Hague which featured in so many of Millet’s paintings. The coastal views from the Pointe de Naqueville remain just as Millet had painted them, foaming blue sea against a backdrop of greenery reaching down to the shoreline. Millet lived in the village of Gréville which today proudly displays his bust outside the partly 13th century church.

The further west one travels the countryside becomes wild with outcrops of rock and few trees. The very tip off Cap de la Hague beckoned, but I decided to make my visit in the evening light hopeful of photographing a sunset against the silhouette of Goury lighthouse.

A refreshing sea breeze greeted my arrival as I crunched along the pebbles to a position just opposite the distant lighthouse and overlooking the Île d’Aurigny. From the southern edge of the Cap the view is equally extensive, reaching across the notorious Alderney Race, frequently running at over eight knots between the Contentin and the Channel Islands.

The setting sun obliged with an orange afterglow lingering over the sea and I made my way back along the rugged, granite spine past the man-made concrete intrusion of the nuclear reprocessing plant of Usine de la Hague.

My planned first night stop of was at Bricquebec in the Auberge du vieux Chateau, an attractive Logis de France hotel built within the ramparts of the12th -15th century castle. Queen Victoria stayed here in 1857 after visiting Cherbourg for the opening of the railway from Caen. I found it a comfortable hotel with a splendid restaurant located around the massive stone pillars of the Knight’s Hall. From the photographs hanging in the reception area, other notable visitors have included Field Marshall General Montgomery and Madame Giscard d’Estang.

Just 16km south west of Briquebec are the resorts of Carteret, Barneville and Barneville Plage which have formed a continuous holiday settlement along the mouth of the Gerfleur. Here their deserted beaches enjoy the warmth of the Gulf Stream and offer a wide expanse of sand and extensive sailing opportunities. Portbail I found particularly attractive, a tranquil place with two churches and a small harbour which lies at the southern end of Barneville’s beach.

The almost deserted Utah beach on the eastern coast is overlooked by the remnants of war. Massive concrete gun emplacements protrude from the grassy dunes and provide a distinct reminder of the significance the Contentin played towards ending the World War 11.

Once named Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, it is now more widely known as Utah in memory of the American 4th Division (7th Corps) who landed on the shores near Madeleine and the Dunes de Varreville under heavy fire from the German coastal batteries on the 6th June 1944. Their objective was to link with airborne troops of the 82nd and 101st Divisions being dropped around the town of Ste-Mère-Église. As the world now knows, this mission was successful and three weeks later the enemy had been taken from the Contentin peninsula.

Ste-Mère-Église, a small country town in the heart of a livestock breeding area was the centre of much fighting on the nights of 5th and 6th June 1944 when the American airborne troops were parachuted to clear the Utah beach exits. The town was liberated on 6th June and today its story is told in the Airborne Troops Museum. Tributes abound throughout the town and particularly in the glass of the main door of the church which suffered severe damage in the battle to rid the belfry of German snipers.

In the late afternoon sun of a July day, American tourists were much in evidence gazing up at the church tower and the parachutist who became entangled during his descent. It seemed a colourful and atmospheric little town, never wishing to forget its moment of liberation on what has always been regarded as ‘the longest day’. In fact the town featured in the film of the same title.

With evening fast approaching, I headed through the lanes of Contentin towards a town whose name appears on almost every road sign from whatever direction you are travelling. Valognes is in fact situated on the cross roads of the Contentin routes and is an important market town for the region. Despite severe damage in 1944 the town has fortunately retained much of its exceptionally fine architecture which in the 18th century gave Valognes the description of Versailles of Normandy. In the 15th century Logis du Grand Quartier there is an interesting cider museum where tasting of the local cidre and calvados is a distinct opportunity.

Once again the trusty Logis guide proved invaluable and the rather elegantly named Grand Hotel du Louvre provided a comfortable stay with a menu offering the very best of Normandy cuisine.

My final day was spent exploring the Val de Saire region to the north east of the peninsula. Inland it is an area of thick green woods and river valleys with attractive villages and farmsteads. My first port of call however was on the coast and the colourful harbour of St Vaast la Houge; pronounced simply ‘St Va’ by the locals.

Famous for its oysters the harbour was a hive of activity while in the Marina the sailing fraternity relaxed and took on board provisions of wine and bread for the next leg of their adventures.

It was at St Vaast that the English landed at the start of the Hundred Years War, and in the 17th century Vauban built the fortifications which still protect the harbour. The stone jetty stretches out 400 metres into the sea with a lighthouse at its tip provides a favourite strolling place with views across to Tahitou Island and the Ilet Fort, both of which can be reached at low tide.

Further north along the coast is the picturesque port of Barfleur. Bathed in morning sunshine it appeared a gem of a place, purposeful yet relaxed. Gentle sounds of conversation drifted across the harbour as fishermen unloaded sacks of freshly caught mussels. Gulls circled against an azure sky, children played timelessly in rock pools and an old man lovingly tended his allotment which ran down almost to the harbour edge.

The 17th century church stood solidly guarding the quay which seemed to be a communal gathering place for anyone to experience the sights, sounds and smells of this delightful little harbour. It was in fact from this very spot that William Duke of Normandy left in 1066 to conquer England. Later in 1194 Richard the Lionheart sailed from Barfleur en route to be crowned king of England.

The Contentin may not be as rich in Chateau as some other regions of France, but the colourful gardens and the intriguing story surrounding the 15th century renaissance Chateau at Tourlaville justified a visit as I began the last leg of my exploration.

The Chateau lies on the eastern fringes of Cherbourg where the gardens and surrounding estate are open to the public without charge. Jean de Ravalet, the Abbot of Hambye largely rebuilt the Chateau after it was acquired from Marie d’Estarville, the widow of the Duke of Nevers in 1557. Ravelet later left Tourlaville to his nephew, the father of eight children, among them Julien and Marguerite whose legendary story must have strongly featured in the headlines of the day.

Julien’s close relationship with his sister so concerned his parents that he was sent away to Paris. Marguerite in the meantime was married at the age of thirteen to John Lefebre, a man thirty three years her senior with whom she experienced a particularly brutal existence. Twice she escaped from their home in Valognes and travelled to Paris to meet Julien. For this she suffered further at the hands of Lefebre and was eventually sent back to the Chateau under accusations of having had an incestuous relationship with her brother Julien. So strong was the bond between the brother and sister that Marguerite escaped from the Chateau on the night of December 27th 1602, arriving at the former home of Jean de Ravelet in Fourges. Here she cut off a lock of her hair and sent it to Julien with a message to meet her in Paris.

The couple lived undetected in Paris until September 3rd 1603 when they were arrested and condemned to death for incest. On December 2nd they were executed in Place de Grève. Their public ending became a talking point for some time amid mixed feelings of indignation and regret.

Arriving back in Cherbourg I took a last walk around the harbours, the fishing boats seemingly more colourful in the late afternoon sun. The pavement cafes were full and everyone seemed to be enjoying the ambience of Cherbourg. I watched the ferries slowly edge their way in and out of the Port, their huge bulk towering above the myriad of masts in the Marina. As they unloaded their fleet of travellers it was apparent how few turned into the town, most headed for the N13 and the France that lies beyond. I shouldn’t have found this too surprising after all as I had read in many guide books that Cherbourg and the surrounding area had little to recommend it.
Unpretentious it might be but in my short exploration of only the tip of the peninsula, I found a multiplicity of landscapes within just one region; all very genuine and natural which is just as you find it.