As England and France have disagreed about almost everything over the last Millennium, it is really no surprise that this applies equally to the name of the strip of water between us. What we consider to be the English Channel, the French call La Manche, The Sleeve. Manche is also the name of the French département that makes up Normandy’s Cotentin peninsula, full of pleasant surprises.
In Cherbourg, the most convenient entry point for the peninsula, the old town lies just behind the waterfront and is easy to miss altogether on your way to and from the port. Cars have been banned altogether from several of its little cobbled streets, an agreeable maze that plays host to many restaurants, cafes, boutiques and shops specialising in gourmet food and wine. Also in the old town are the fish and open-air markets, offering truly fresh produce on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with knock-down prices if you turn up when most French shoppers are thinking about lunch. Just off the main square, EuroDif, the largest department store in Normandy, sells a huge range of goods that usually cost much less in France, including clothing, linen, crockery and glassware. Cherbourg also has the hypermarkets, Auchan and Carrefour, of which Auchan is more popular with UK visitors. Be warned, however: apart from a brief period before Christmas, neither is open on Sundays. If your main objective is beer, wine or spirits, for last-minute shopping, including Sunday mornings, the new P&O Ferries Superstore right by the ferry terminal offers excellent value.
Twelve miles south-east, in the lively town of Valognes, try the local cider (visit the cider museum, which sometimes offers free samples) and a range of delicious cakes at Patisserie Morriset. Most of Valognes’s grand historic buildings survived the fierce battle after the D-Day landings on beaches just a few miles away.
Further south, La Haye du Puits was also in the thick of the fighting although history records that the town’s first casualty was a GI who accidentally shot himself in the foot. La Haye is a popular shopping centre, with a frenetic supermarket, used by the multitude of visitors to the seaside towns on the nearby western coast. The most attractive, Portbail, has a marina full of modern exotic yachts and in sharp contrast, an interesting 11th century church.
Granville, the largest western resort, has a reputation for somewhat off-hand service and seems best avoided. For a warm welcome, visit the delightful villages on the east coast nestling between the rugged granite cliffs, especially Barfleur, St-Vaast la Hougue and Port Racine, probably the smallest port in the whole of France. Isigny-sur-Mer, in a deep inlet on the same coastline, has lovely views and a picturesque fishermen’s quarter.
Both Portbail and Carteret have ferry connections to the Channel Islands, an ideal excursion for the family. The best day out by far however is to Le Mont St-Michel, a medieval town and abbey rising sheer out of the sea, which rushes pell-mell over the sands at the approach of high tide. Now, where did you park your car…?
© Dieter Basse
Chemin des Douaniers, Baie de Quervières Hague
© Arnaud Simon
© CRT Normandie