Fecamp (Normandy), France September 2021

And so we came to Fecamp.

I was near here just two years ago, walking the cliffs between Yport and Etretat but, for some reason, I never made it to Fecamp. I missed out then because Fecamp is a pretty little town well deserving of a couple of days of anybody’s time and; that is precisely how long we stayed this visit (although a chunk of our time was spent securing the necessary paperwork to get us and our dogs back into the UK).

Fecamp is a long established fishing port nestled amongst the tallest cliffs on the Cote d’Albatre (the Alabaster Coast). For many years the town’s primary interest was cod (Fecamp being the largest cod fishing port in France) with many of the port’s larger trawlers regularly making round trips to Newfoundland in search of cod. It wasn’t until the 19th century, as sea bathing became popular with high society, that the town moved towards becoming a seaside resort.

The port now holds as many pleasure boats as fishing boats but fishing (together with associated industries) remains a way of life for a significant number of the town’s 20,000 population.

The view back into town from the harbour side is dominated by the 16th century Church of Saint Etienne but, pretty as that church is, the principal tourist attractions away from the seafront are the 12th century Abbey Church of St Trinite and the 19th century Palais Benedictine.

Commonly known as Fecamp Abbey, the Abbey Church of the Holy Trinity in Fecamp was founded by Richard I Duke of Normandy on the site of an earlier church destroyed by Vikings. The church was frequently extended; becoming part of a large Benedictine abbey that would prosper until the French Revolution caused its closure and many of the the buildings were sold or destroyed. Now only the church still stands but it remains a seriously large albeit, from the outside, unattractive church. At 127 metres the nave is as long as the church of Notre Dame in Paris. In addition to holding the remains of Richard I of Normandy and his son (Richard II of Normandy), it houses an unusual yet very important religious relic namely, two vials of Sacred Blood. This blood was supposedly collected by Nicodemus at the foot of Christ’s cross following his crucifixion and was then inserted into the trunk of a fig tree that eventually washed up in the swampland of Fécamp. This legend seems a bit far fetched but it has served to attract pilgrims to the church for centuries.

For my part, the most impressive building in Fecamp is the Palais Benedictine. Built at the end of the 19th century the Benedictine Palace is a masterpiece of Gothic & Renaissance architecture. It is also the only place in the world where the “Benedictine” liqueur is distilled. First created by a 16th century monk, Dom Bernardo Vincelli, and then developed by Alexandre Le Grand some time during the French Revolution, the recipe is a closely guarded secret but it is also very difficult to describe it’s taste. The museum and the distillery inside the building are both open to the public and the distillery offers tours and tasting sessions.

There was time during our stay in Fecamp for me to take just a short walk along the cliffs outside the town. I chose to walk the cliffs to the south of the town, heading towards Yport (although it was never my intention to go quite that far) but I think the better walk would have been to the north.

Cap Fagnet and a more picturesque stretch of high cliffs are to the north. There are also fine views over Fecamp from Cap Fagnet; a number of well preserved WWII bunkers which can be explored and; of course, there is the small Chapel of Notre Dame de Salut with it’s gilded statue of the Virgin Mary on the roof. This chapel is dedicated to all sailors lost at sea. The track to the south has no fine view back over the town and, whilst there is an occasional WWII bunker, the views are not as good as those to the north.

The next day – that was it. The dogs had been seen by a local vet and their pet passports were all properly stamped up. We were in possession of our Covid Test certificates. We were ready to leave for the Eurotunnel. There was just time for a final walk around Fecamp, a spot of lunch (a kind of cheese stew, would you believe?) and then we were off…

The Fourth Tour of Europe was concluded…

St Aubin sur Mer (Normandy), France September 2021

And so we arrived at Camping Sandaya La Cote de Nacre; a five star campsite in St Aubin sur Mer where Vanya intended we relax and enjoy the sun one last time before heading for Fecamp (where the dogs had to be examined by a vet before they could travel and where we had to go through the required antigen tests for Covid before we ourselves could travel) and then the Eurotunnel and home.

Located in the heart of the terres de Nacre beaches, St Aubin sur Mer is a small and quiet seaside resort with a fine sandy beach. It was not always so. The town is situated at the eastern end of what was known as Juno Beach on D Day, 6 June 1944, and; it was the scene of some particularly bitter fighting between, on the one side, the 2nd Battalion of the German 736 Infantry Regiment and, on the other side, elements of the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division, the Canadian 10th Armoured Regiment and the British 48 Royal Marine Commando.

The considerable damage caused to the town on and around D Day has long since been made good it the place is now a very popular and pretty seaside resort but, there is still much about to remind visitors of the events of 1944.

All along the seafront promenade there are placards (with photos) recognising the supreme sacrifice of individual soldiers on and around D Day. Also, at the western edge of the town a small War Memorial (and flags) now stands where once there was a German pill box and machine gun.

There was fierce fighting all across the town but nowhere more so than at the western end of the beach around a bunker known as Widerstandnest 27. During the morning of 6 June 1944, a total of 70 shells were fired from the bunker’s 50mm cannon (the empty cases were counted at the end of the battle) and these destroyed at least 6 Canadian tanks before the cannon itself was neutralised and the gun crew killed. This bunker and it’s 50mm cannon has been left as a permanent memorial on the promenade.

After almost 3 months of travelling we came to St Aubin sur Mer for a little R&R and we certainly did that (as the following three photographs testify), enjoying the sun, some local food and beers (as well as some superior French wines) but; I make no apologies for dwelling in this particular blog on the events of 6 June 1944. Throughout Normandy, and especially around the D Day beaches and up and down the Cotentin Peninsula, the French people continue to honour and respect the efforts of all those involved in helping liberate their country back in the 1940’s. This response of theirs requires recognition and appreciation, not least because it is as strong as ever even after some 75+ years.

And so to Fecamp…

Barfleur (Normandy), France September 2021

It was Vanya who suggested Barfleur as our next port of call and, confusing Barfleur with Harfleur, I agreed. I didn’t realise my mistake until half way up the Cotentin Peninsula and so added 100 miles to our journey. I never did get to see Harfleur but, it proved to be, quite literally, a great mistake. Barfleur is a wonderful place to visit.

Situated at the top of the Cotentin Peninsula, 25 kilometres east of Cherbourg, Barfleur is an authentic and picturesque fishing village largely untouched by tourism. It’s cobbled streets, lined with 17th and 18th century shuttered grey granite houses (interspersed on the harbour side with the occasional restaurant or crepery) make for a place with real character and it is fully deserving of it’s listing as a “plus beaux village de France”.

It is a surprisingly peaceful little village with just 700 residents but this has not always been the case. In early Medieval times (Anglo-Norman) it was the largest port in Normandy with a population of well over 9,000 and it is steeped in history. In 1066 the Norman army under William the Conqueror sailed from Barfleur on their way to England and the Battle of Hastings. In 1120, Prince William Adelin, the only legitimate son and heir to King Henry I of England, perished when his ship, the Blanche Nef struck a rock and sank off Barfleur, starting a crisis of succession in England which led to a 17 year long civil war (the Anarchy). In 1194, Richard the Lionheart sailed from Barfleur to be crowned King of England. In 1346, at the start of the 100 years war, Edward III ransacked and almost completely destroyed the town. It was pillaged again in the 15th and 16th centuries. Oh,and one shouldn’t forget the naval battle which began at Barfleur in 1692 and which over a few days saw a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet destroy the French fleet of Admiral Comte de Tourville. The list of historic events in this little corner of the world goes on and on.

Most of the current village dates back to the 17th or 18th century. The inside of the 17th century church of Saint Nicholas is impressive but from the outside, with it’s square tower in place of a spire, it looks more like a Norman fort. This was the parish church of Sainte Marie-Madeleine (born Julie Postel in Barfleur in 1756) who was beatified in 1908 and canonised in 1925 for, inter alia, risking her life harbouring fugitive priests during the French Revolution. The house she was brought up in can still be seen.

Other famous people connected with Barfleur include the Neo Impressionist painter Paul Signac who lived there during the period 1932 to 1935 but the the rather special light and colours has attracted many artists (not the least of which is Antoine Guillemet) and writers (Victor Hugo and Jules Renard to name but two).

Driving to Barfleur it was plain to see that the surrounding countryside is quite beautiful. Paul Signac described it as “magnificent and very wooded and the terrain is rolling. It’s one of the high spots of France: the sea is beautiful and the gardens are full of flowers”. I didn’t do it but this scenery is perhaps best enjoyed taking the two mile coastal path from Barfleur to the 233 ft high Gatteville Lighthouse (the second or third tallest lighthouse in Europe). For a small fee, one can climb the stairs to the top of the lighthouse and the views (and the sensations) at the top are supposedly worth every cent of the entrance fee. A few utterly useless points about the lighthouse I would share with you:- (a) It is spread over 12 floors (one for each month of the year) and; (b) there are 52 windows (one for every week of the year) and; (c) there are 365 stairs (one for every day of the year). Now, why on earth….? No matter.

Barfleur is known for it’s oysters and also it’s wild mussels. Most mussels are farmed nowadays but these ones, known as the Blonde of Barfleur, are taken from natural or wild mussel banks to the east of the Cotentin Peninsula. They are renowned across France for their quality and are often cooked with the local calvados and; they can be tasted at any of the village restaurants when in season. It was already in my mind to eat oysters that evening but I would have ordered the mussels if I had known they were available. I didn’t find out until later that the season runs from June to the end of October. Next time.

We had a pleasant wander along the harbour and around the village, enjoyed the sunset and then settled down with the dogs at a small restaurant, overlooking the harbour, La Boheme, which specialises in oysters and crepes and served both a Cremant for Vanya and a nice Muscadet for me.

Without a doubt the heart and soul of the village is the harbour. I was up early the next morning and wandered down to the harbour to get a loaf of fresh bread and some croissants from the bakery. The bakery wasn’t open when I arrived but, no matter. For almost an hour I sat, quite happily, watching the fishermen make ready their boats and nets and then slowly motor out of the harbour, one after the other, in just about every type of small and medium sized fishing boat you could imagine. It seemed as if the whole village was up and off out to sea that morning. It is probably the same every morning. Constant and timeless were the words most in my mind.

Our next stop will be Saint Aubin sur Mer. Thereafter we will aim for Fecamp. It is time to start progressing all the necessary paperwork for entry back into the UK and Fecamp isboth close to Calais and large enough offer all the services we need.

St Mere Eglise (Normandy), France September 2021

From Dol de Bretagne we continued on up the Cotentin peninsula towards Barfleur but as we neared the town of St Mere Eglise I thought to take a look see. I’d set off on a walk to St Mere Eglise from Carentan during my Second Europe Tour two years ago but ran out of time. Time to put that right.

St Mere Eglise is a small town on the Cotentin peninsula some 8 miles north west of Carentan. It was one of the first towns in Normandy to be liberated by the allies following the D Day invasion of 6 June 1944, with a mix of paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st US Airborne Divisions taking the town from the German occupiers. It is a fairly unremarkable little town except that it was of some considerable strategic interest during the battle for Normandy and it figured prominently in the film “The Longest Day” which I had watched in the early 1960’s.

One of the most unusual features in the town is the life size dummy paratrooper hanging from a parachute and rigging on the church steeple of St Mere Eglise. This uniformed mannequin was placed there by the town as a tribute to the paratroopers who were involved in capturing and holding the town and, in particular, the efforts of trooper John Steele (505 Parachute Regiment, 82nd Airborne) who, after exiting the aircraft, landed on the 12th century church and became snagged up on church spire by his parachute. Shot through the foot, Steele hung there for two hours pretending to be dead before the Germans noticed him and took him into (temporary) captivity. This event was recreated in the 1962 movie ‘The Longest Day’ with Red Buttons playing the part of John Steele.

The efforts of the 82nd and the 101st (and other airborne troops involved in the D Day landings) have also been recognised in two stained glass windows that have since been fitted in the church. One of these was designed by a local artist, Paul Renaud, who was 14 years old when the paratroopers landed and 16 years old when he drew a sketch for the window which was subsequently put together by Gabriel Loire. It depicts the Virgin Mary and child, above a burning St Mere Eglise, surrounded by paratroopers and planes. An inscription below the figures reads “This stained glass was completed with the participation of Paul Renaud and Sainte Mere for the memory of those who with their courage and sacrifice liberated Sainte Mere Eglise and France”.

A second window depicts St Michael, the patron saint of paratroopers. This too was put together by Gabriel Loire.

We stayed only a short while in St Mere Eglise and then moved on to Barfleur.

Dol de Bretagne (Bretagne), France September 2021

Early in the morning we left Saint Cast-le-Guildo and headed off to our next stop, Barfleur, up on the Cotentin Peninsula.

On the way we came upon the historic little city of Dol de Bretagne (just 5,600 inhabitants). Not too far from the English Channel, Dol de Bretagne sits on the coastal plain some 25 kms from St Malo in the east and Mont St Michel in the west.

We parked up in a motorhome aire near the town centre and made our way along first the Grand Rue des Stuarts (this city is reputed to be the home of the Royal House of Stuart and where the Scottish Kings of that name originate from) and then the Rue Lejamptel, past some exceptionally old (some say, 11th century) and very beautiful half timbered houses.

The most prominent building in this small city is the hulking 12th century gothic cathedral of Saint Samson which is built entirely of granite and/but, sorry to say, is not one of the best looking churches I have ever seen. It holds the relics of Saint Samson who originally came from Gwent in Wales.

Close to the cathedral is the Cathedraloscope which serves to explain various construction techniques used to build and decorate many of the magnificent medieval churches that can be found across Europe. Ordinarily I would have stayed on to learn more of this but the cathedral bells had been pealing for well over a quarter of an hour and showed absolutely no signs of ceasing. It was time to get something to eat and move on.

On the way out of the city, some 3 kilometres to the north, is a rocky outcrop with the fanciful title of Mount Dol. The outcrop is only 65 metres high with a small stone chapel and a windmill on top but it provides great views across the marshland towards Mont St Michel.

Time to continue our journey to Barfleur.

Landerneau (Bretagne), France September 2021

We are on our way back to England although we probably have another week in France. Our next overnight stop is at Saint Cast le Guildo and the route from Quimper took us through the pretty little Bretagne town of Landernau which a friend, living in Bretagne, suggested we visit – Thanks Ivan.

Landernau is a town of some 15,000 people situated approximately 20 kms north east of Brest. As much as anything it is famous for its association with the Tour de France cycle race. Indeed, it is the finishing point of the opening stage of the race (Brest to Landerneau) and there is much about the town (especially at the Hotel de Ville) which reflects this particular connection. I recall this year the opening stage of the race received considerable media attention after a placard waving female spectator stepped back into the road and caused a pile up of some 20 riders. Last I heard she was going to be prosecuted.

The race was some weeks past as we arrived in the centre of Landernau. It was early afternoon and the town market on the Place de Gaulle was just finishing -shame because both Vanya and I enjoy wandering local markets. No matter, Plan B was to make our way to the Pont de Rohan (bridge) which, to be fair, competes with the Tour de France as the town’s most important feature; and then we would find somewhere to take a spot lunch.

The Pont de Rohan spans the River Elorn and was built in 1510 (on the site of an earlier bridge). It is the buildings on the bridge, most of which date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, that make the bridge famous. The Pont de Rohan is the only bridge in Europe with people still living on it.

There are a couple of bar restaurants on the bridge and it was in one of these that I sampled the local beers. I can confirm there is nothing at all wrong with Breton beer and the bar and the proprietor were full of character. They are very proud of their celtic heritage here.

After a short but pleasant stop in the bar on the bridge (just two small glasses) there was enough time for us to enjoy a last wander around the town. It’s very pretty. One place we missed out on was a small shop opened in 1949 by a certain Monsieur Leclerc. This was his first shop and the start of the giant Leclerc Hypermarket chain which is now to be found throughout France and even Spain.

And so to Saint Cast-le-Guildo…

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the camp site Vanya found. We could only stay the one night but the views from our pitch were as good as we have enjoyed anywhere on this tour. Nice one Van!

Quimper (Bretagne), France September 2021

We were heading for Quimper and actually parked up in the municipal campsite near the town centre but, because the reception was closed for lunch and on a total whim, we decided to move on a few kilometres to the Chateau de Lanniron. Anyway, I’ve seen Quimper.

In 1969, for financial reasons, the owners of the Chateau de Lanniron decided to turn their 38 hectare estate into a leisure complex. A luxury campsite complete with restaurant, swimming pools, waterpark, various playgrounds, a golf course and driving range, etc were built around the 17th century chateau (and it’s garden terraces which drop down to the River Odet) and some of the outlying buildings on the estate were converted to gites. We booked in for the one night but stayed on for a second and were sorely tempted to stay for a third. Leaving aside all the facilities it is a great place to rest up. The pitches are huge and set in some lovely grounds. It is probably one of the best 5 star campsites in France (or anywhere for that matter).

Originally owned and used as a residence by the Bishops of Quimper the 15th century chateau was extended in the 17th century to resemble something like the existing property although; it was plundered and fell into considerable disrepair during the French Revolution and had to be restored. The property is quite beautiful and full of interesting history.

And all for 20 euros a night! September is out of the high season

Vannes (Bretagne), France September 2021

What a place! A sizeable town of 52,000 people, near the Gulf of Morbihan on the southern coast of Brittany, Vannes is one of the most charming towns we have visited during this tour. We only had the one day in Vannes and it would take considerably more than a single day to do this town justice but, we’ll be back.

We parked up close to the town centre and walked northwards down the long ‘finger like’ harbour (plenty of boats moored along both sides) towards the old town.

We passed into the mostly walled off, pedestrianised old town through the 16th century baroque gate of Porte St Vincent (which is named after the Spanish Dominican friar, Vincent Ferrer, who died here in 1419 and subsequently became Vannes’ patron saint) and entered a wholly enchanting world of cobbled streets and pastel coloured half timbered 16th century buildings

I read that there are no less than 170 listed half timbered buildings in the old town centre and although the ground floors of many have been converted into modern shops, boutiques and cafe bars it was easy to imagine we had been transported back into the 16th century.

The Porte Saint Vincent gate took us directly on to the Rue St Vincent which in turn brought us to the Place des Lices. There used to be jousting tournaments on the Place des Lices but, that was a long time ago and as we arrived, a street market was in full swing.

It was a most complete market with the widest range of goods and produce, full of colour and wonderful aromas not just from the many local fruit & vegetable stalls but from traders selling spices, flowers and various differently scented handmade soaps. The market stretched across numerous streets and seemed to have almost everything. There were carpets & furniture, craft ornaments and jewellery and food & drink stalls. There’s also a fish market on the Place de la Poissonnerie.

Of course the street market is surrounded by plenty of cafes and bars and it wasn’t long before we were seated at a table outside of one of them while I tucked into some really delicious local oysters and a glass of muscadet. It was almost noon and it was either that or we would have to visit one of the many Michelin Star restaurants in the town. Next time?

There is so much to see in Vannes. We could have carried on to the Jardin des Remparts with it’s geometric lawns and flowerbeds and topiaries and it’s views of the Garenne Bastion and three towers but Vanya was looking for something to eat (she doesn’t do oysters) and so we turned back to the harbour where she had seen a menu she liked.

On the way we paused at the granite Cathedrale St Pierre. This cathedral took some 700 years to complete and is a real mix of styles (romanesque, gothic, Italian renaissance, etc) with the oldest original feature being the 13th century bell tower. I went inside the cathedral but a service was underway and while that was on I was never going to feel comfortable looking for the tomb of St Vincent which is housed in in one of the Cathedral Chapels. Anyway, there was a pretty good harpist busking outside the cathedral and Vanya wouldn’t mind me listening to just one song.

From the cathedral we left the old town via it’s north west corner; walking past the impressive Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) on our way to the harbour for Vanya’s brunch and for me to finish my lunch. Vanya’s chosen restaurant was right on the harbour – a great place to eat, drink, people watch and admire some of the boats in the harbour. A couple of the boats have some stories to tell too.

Except for the harbour we didn’t really get to see much outside of the town walls; which is a pity because heading south from the harbour (just beyond where we had parked the Van) is the large Parc du Golfe where there’s the Jardin aux Papillons (a glass dome housing hundreds of butterflies) and an aquarium with a huge collection, more than 50 tanks, of mostly tropical fish. Again, maybe next time.

Conleau (Bretagne), France August 2021

We parked up at Flower Camping Conleau just outside of Vannes for a couple of days. Flower is not a bad campsite chain and staying in Conleau allowed us to both take advantage of the Region’s good weather and visit Vannes.

Conleau on the Gulf of Morbihan (Gulfe du Morbihan) is one of Europe’s, if not the world’s, most beautiful bays. ‘Mor bihan’ is Breton for ‘little sea’. It is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a one kilometre wide bottleneck and yet covers an area of about 100 square kilometres (between Vannes and Auray to the north and Arzon and Sarzeau to the south). In different circumstances we would have stayed longer and taken a boat trip around the forty or so islands and islets which fill the bay. The Gulf is a listed Regional Nature Park and the whole area is beautiful.

After checking out the small peninsula next to the campsite for a suitable bar or restaurant for the evening (easy – there are only two and one had shut down because of Covid), I paused to watch a game of Palet Breton that four local guys were playing. The game is played with contestants taking turns to throw cast iron palets (discs), from a distance of 5 metres, at a maitre or jack which sits on a poplar board (measuring 70 cms x 70 cms). The individual or team getting closest to the maitre wins the round and receives one point for every palet which is closer to the maitre than their opponent(s). First to 12 points wins the match. This is not an easy game to play but these guys were seriously good, hardly ever missing the board. Could be a great lockdown game.

Having been suitably impressed by the Palet Breton players I decided to work up a thirst with a long walk. The area is full of walks and the one I chose took me through some beautiful marshland along the banks of the River Vincin almost all the way into Vannes (and back). This is an area of incredible natural beauty full of assorted plant and animal life, especially birds.

That evening we enjoyed a couple of drinks at the restaurant I found earlier in the day but we didn’t eat there – they had run out of oysters! No matter, we drank and reserved a table for the next evening, leaving specific instructions with the “Maitre D” to keep some of the local oysters back for me.

I take Van in the Van to Vannes tomorrow…

Coulon (Nouvelle Aquitaine), France August 2021

Today was about going north (we want to get back to the UK to attend Dave’s funeral) and we decided to drive 3 hours or so to a place called Chauvigny. Then, some time well into the journey, it dawned on us that we had stopped overnight at Chauvigny when going south just a few weeks ago. Ordinarily, Chauvigny would be well worth revisiting but it was too fresh in our minds and we therefore sought an alternative. Vanya found a place just west of Niort called Coulon, on the edge of the Poitevin Marsh (National Park), which looked worth a visit. It was a few miles back the way we had come but, she had also found a half decent looking camp site just a couple of miles short of Coulon in the small town of Magne and; to cap it all, she discovered Magne has a supermarket. Back we went, passing through Niort on the way (Niort could be worth a visit next year).

Having established ourselves at Camping Kingfisher (aka Camping Martin Le Pecheur) I went off to explore the area. It didn’t take me too long to walk the length and breadth of Magne and, yes, there is a Super U store (and there is just about every other type of shop you might need) BUT there is only one bar restaurant (the crepery looks to have shut down long ago) and it shuts early on Mondays! Indeed it was shut by the time I got there.

So off I walked to Coulon to seeif it would be worth a drive there in the evening.

This little village of some 2,000 people is situated on the banks of the River Sevre in the Marais Poitevin (Poitevin Marsh) National Park and is designated one of France’s ‘plus beaux villages’. The riverbank is full of boat rentals (canoes and flat bottom boats that can be rowed, paddled or punted) and for such a small village it has a surprising number of souvenir shops, boutiques, restaurants etc. Unfortunately, it also has a tourist train.

The train did it! I took myself away fron the water to the main square (where there is a nice looking church – the Church of Saint Trinity) and found myself a small bar restaurant that was serving half a dozen local oysters and a glass of wine for 10 euros. Costs really have risen in France during the last 3 years.

Then it was time to walk back to Magne. Coulon is not a bad place to visit but the menus I looked at would not impress Vanya.