And so begins a short impromptu trip (Tour 5?) down through France to Spain.
Life has been all too restrictive in England during the winter months under Covid and with France & Spain now relaxing their Covid rules and opening their borders to the Brits (provided one is fully vaccinated and has a Covid Passport), we decided to go for a drive down to Spain. Currently, the weather in the south of Spain is pretty good with lots of sunshine and temperatures in the low to mid 20’s. If it holds, that’ll suit us. Such a trip also provides Vanya with the opportunity to practise some Spanish.
I’ll not bore you with details of all the last minute organisation needed to get us ready to go (such as collecting the Van from North Wales and making it ready, securing the necessary Covid paperwork to satisfy both the British and French authorities, obtaining paperwork that would enable us to take our dogs overseas, booking places on the cross channel ferry from Dover to Calais because the Eurotunnel trains were already packed out, etc). It will suffice to say that during the afternoon of Friday 11 February we arrived in Calais, raring to go.
It was cold as we arrived in France (seriously cold) and the weather forecast suggests it will get colder still (well below freezing). This, combined with the fact that the cold spell is to be followed by wintery storms across pretty much all of France has prompted a change of plan. We have decided to make haste towards Spain where the weather forecast is considerably more settled.
That being the case, after docking at Calais we immediately set off some 150 miles south west towards our first camping site, Camping Chateau de Bouafles, which sits next to the small town of Les Andelys in the Eure Department of Normandy.
Ordinarily we would have stayed at Bouafles for at least a couple of days. Les Andelys was originally a fishing village on the Seine, dominated by the 12th century castle of Chateau Gaillard. The castle is a bit of a ruin nowadays but it is steeped in history and offers tremendous views over the River Seine and the surrounding countryside. The castle alone would have kept me occupied for a while but add to this the Collegiate Church and; the charming old town with it’s narrow paths and alleys and half timbered houses and; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s association with the town (he and his family lived here for some time with the castle & town inspiring a number of his books & novels) and; don’t forget the Saturday morning market and; well, Les Andalys is worth at least two days of anyone’s time.
Having written all that, the morning temperature of minus three degrees centigrade and the promise of impending rain/snow brought me back to my senses and into the Van’s driving seat. Perhaps the weather will be better in Les Andelys as we return to the UK?
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…
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.
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.
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.
The weather in Bayeux stayed fine long enough for us to take a leisurely stroll around the Saturday morning market but by noon we had started on the 90 mile drive to Mont St Michel. It was fifty-fifty as to whether or not we made the trip to MSM because the weather forecast for the north west of France was not good – thunder storms over the next four or five days. I was in Mont St Michel some two years ago and, nice as the place is, I was all for driving south for the better weather but Vanya really wanted to visit the place and so we went – and very pleased I was too. The weather wasn’t good but it wasn’t as bad as predicted and it stayed dry most of the time we were outside and, more importantly, we had the place almost to ourselves.
We didn’t stay long because the weather was closing in on us all the time but there was always going to be time for me to look in on the St Michael Chapel…
… and walk some of the outer walls..
Then it was time to head back. Thankfully, because it started pouring with rain, we had parked up inside the MSM complex (well worth the nine euros charge) and it wasn’t too far back to the Van.
One final thing, I’m often asked about tide times here. Some people want to visit the island at high tide and others at low tide. Some, like me, want to do both. I reproduce below a tide table downloaded from tideschart.com. One word of warning, if you want to walk around the island, don’t wear shoes (you can easily sink up to your ankles in the sand) and do take a small cloth to wipe your feet afterwards.
This second day saw us move west through wonderful Honfleur and then up the Cherbourg Peninsula through Carentan and St Mere Eglise to the pretty harbour town of Saint Vaast La Hogue. Saint Vaast La Hogue is at the northernmost tip of the Cherbourg Peninsula and in totally the opposite direction to our intended route but it seems our arrival there was entirely my fault – As Vanya pointed out after our arrival, I had requested she find us a camp site to the north of Caen and she took that to mean anywhere north of Caen. That we ended up 70 miles further north looking across the Channel to Portsmouth was my bad. I should have been more precise.
Still, we have now been to Saint Vaast La Hogue and sat outside a cafe with a beer or two watching the world go by. And most enjoyable it was too.
And so begins a third tour in the Van, which I am advised by Vanya is now renamed the “Boomobile”. Having had enough of our lives being put on hold by the lock- down we decided last week to simply collect the Van Boomobile from storage and head for Europe. Not sure how long we will go for but, it won’t be for more than two months this time as Vanya wants to be back in the UK for her next birthday.
So it was was that early on Monday 17 August 2020 we (Vanya, myself and the two dogs) geared up and made our way to Folkestone to take the 35 minute shuttle under The English Channel to Calais. Thereafter, a 172 mile drive from Calais saw us in a small campsite at St Jouin Bruneval, Normandy.
I didn’t realise it until after we had arrived but this is where Operation Biting took place during WWII when British Paras under Major John D Frost concluded a successful raid on a German radar station – The Bruneval Raid. At that time, February 1942, there was not much of a village here; it seems to have sprung up since around the small chateau (yes, it is still there) which figures in just about every old photo I have seen of Bruneval in the early 1940’s…
Back to the present. After checking in to the campsite, we decided to take the dogs for a walk along the cliff tops and then; talk about a stroke of luck; in the middle of nowhere overlooking the English Channel we stumbled on a Michelin Listed Restaurant (Le Belvedere) run by Jerome Geulin. We weren’t dressed for the occasion (shorts & t-shirts) and we had the dogs in tow but he very kindly gave us his last table and served us some great mussels and an excellent duck together with a fine Pouilly-Fume.