It was wonderful to wake up on Sunday morning in a dry, comfortable house, hear the rain teaming down outside and to know that this morning we didn't have to slither across a muddy field in the wet and queue for the communal facilities. We wallowed in the luxury of a lovely fragrant bathroom with hot water and dry towels followed by freshly filtered coffee and baguettes in Geneviève's kitchen as we chatted and watched the rain flooding over the lawn outside.
Later the rain eased and we set off to walk to the Sunday market beside the river Orne. However, the plan was abandoned when Jill's foot suddenly decided to play up and we were obliged to return back home. We are now a day further on and it is gradually improving but will need attention once we are home. The cobbled streets of Europe have a lot to answer for.
Our plans for a barbeque lunch were also abandoned when Rain made it quite clear he wanted to be invited too. Later we visited Geneviève's mother, Germaine who had invited us for coffee and cake, before taking a drive down to the coast to look at the sea.
The coast along this part of Normandy is unlike anything we have seen in England. There are wide open vistas stretching empty to the horizon and as far as can be seen along the coast. From Luc-sur-Mer there are hazy views of the industrial waterfront at Le Havre with the oil refineries somehow looking remarkably picturesque as an indistinct line on the seascape where the Seine reaches the sea. It was along these flat sandy beaches the allied troops landed under heavy gunfire in June 1944.
It was the colours that made the view so enchanting. They ranged from the pale cream of the shore with a line of green seaweed where sand and sea met, the ever-changing blue-green-azure colours of the water and the many different tones of grey in the sky, dark and ominous on the horizon. Brilliantly white against the sea was the cross-channel ferry as it left the nearby port of Ouistreham on its way to Portsmouth, the sky above flecked by wheeling seagulls. On the beach a lone fisherman with his rod and bucket completed the seascape that we longed to be able to paint. Ian's photos cannot remotely do it justice.
The sound of music in the gardens of the Hotel de Ville attracted us from the seafront back into the little town. Here we discovered people dancing the tango to music from a live band. We also discovered a mini zoo with goats, geese and chickens and the skeleton of a huge whale displayed amidst the herbaceous borders.
Today, Monday, the rain has continued but we have spent almost the entire day indoors each working on a different computer as we struggle to catch up with the backlog of photos, emails and blogs. With the rain falling outside it's a really nice place to be. Between the showers Ian climbed the cherry tree in the back garden and relieved it of several bowls of fruit. It has more than enough for us and the entire bird population of the district.
Tuesday 3rd July, Caen
It rained solidly all morning and we spent our time comfortably around the house as far apart from each other as possible relishing the pleasure of having our own personal space and a computer each to work on. As a result we have reduced the backlog of blogs waiting to be loaded and Ian has developed the site for manhole covers which now includes images from Trindad as well as hundreds from across Europe. We know just how addicted you have all become to manhole cover spotting and realise that it is the main reason you look at our blog. Now though you can go directly to possibly the largest site of such photos on the internet! We've even set up a counter so we can see just how widespread interest in this newly revealed art form is becoming. So take a look at http://manholemiscellany.blogspot.com.
During the afternoon the sun came out and we walked – or in Jill's case hobbled – down to the city centre for a stroll around the shops and a very relaxed coffee at one of the sunny street cafés. In the evening, as Geneviève was still living in the rosy afterglow of her retirement lunch with work colleagues, Jill organised a simple supper which we shared together with wine while Geneviève recounted the rather moving events of her day. After thirty five years working with the same organisation there is a lot of emotion wrapped up with saying farewell.
Wednesday 4th July 2006, Caen
All morning we continued to make inroads into the accumulated emails, electronic banking queries, digital photos and blogs while the rain fell and Confetti, the cat from next door, made itself comfortable on our bed in the attic when we were not looking. A lovely ginger colour he seeks peace and refuge with Geneviève – rather like us – and gets annoyed if he is not always allowed immediate entry.
During the afternoon we walked across the city to visit our friend Claire and in the evening Geneviève's brother joined us for a small family diner to celebrate Geneviève's retirement and to inaugurate the Bohemian crystal glasses we purchased in Prague.
Thursday 5th July 2006, St-Vaast-la-Hougue, Cotentin
We have moved on before we became too cushioned against the privations of camping in the rain and we are now happy parked up on a clean, pleasant site from where we can see the tower of the Vauban fort on the offshore island of Tatihou. The campsite leaflet printed in English gives us lots of helpful advice, such as "the worn piles are to be deposited in the reception," (used batteries), and "worn water is not to be disposed in the WC." Ian's favourite is "…animations are proposed. Club children every morning from 10am…"
We have taken ourselves off for a few days to investigate more closely the area of the Cotentin, that finger of land that sticks up into what we call the English Channel and the French call La Manche (sleeve). All along the coast are signs of the D-Day landings during the Second World War and beaches are known today more by their military codenames than their real ones. Thus there are the areas where the British landed – Sword and Gold; the Canadians – Juno; and the Americans, Omaha and Utah. The coastline is littered with the remains of blockhouses hidden amongst the sand dunes, several of which have been adapted to provide military museums and interpretation centres. Just back inland are the war grave cemeteries, quite as impressive and thought provoking as those we saw at Verdun. This area is already very familiar to us and as it was teaming with rain we did not linger. We have recorded our impressions several years ago in notebooks which one day we may edit.
Normandy is a very pretty region and even in the rain it has a definite charm. We drove through the country roads of the bocage with its small fields and green hedges that caused such difficulties for the armoured tanks of the Americans. We passed pretty stone villages of neat cottages, their gardens filled with bright hydrangeas. Reaching the coast beyond Carentan we followed the road northward behind the sand-dunes of Utah beach where the Americans met such violent resistance as they tried to land that there are 9,380 white crosses in the nearby American cemetery at Colleville. Passing through the curiously named coastal resort of Quettehoe we decided to stop here at St-Vaast-la-Hougue for the night in the hope that the rain and wind will have eased by the morning and we can walk to the fort on the tip of the picturesque isthmus of land jutting out to the south of the tiny island of Tatihou.
Friday 6th July 2006, Omanville-la-Rogue, Cotentin
The rain did indeed leave us in peace today and our walk to the fort was brisk and very breezy, accomplished in bright sunlight. We have spent a lovely day, a real holiday amidst the sometimes quite tiring events of travelling and recording everything we have seen.
We have developed a love affair with the north part of the Cotentin. It is a wonderfully peaceful area, devoid of heavy traffic with stunning seascapes that take you by surprise when turning a bend in the road or cresting a hill. It is like Cornwall and Brittany rolled into one. The scenery, after so long travelling through Europe, far from the sea, is pure delight. It is strange to have travelled for so many months and to discover the most wonderful place of all is just across the Channel around Cherbourg!
This area of the Cotentin is granite. The big, crumbling stone houses of the villages around Caen have given way here to rows of granite cottages lining the village squares and streets, or set back slightly within stone walled gardens filled with hydrangeas. The spires of tiny village churches stick up against the skyline seen across estuaries and bays where oyster beds are tended at low tide. The harbours are filled with small fishing boats unloading their catch while local people wait on the quayside ready to purchase their crabs, langoustine and mixed fish – sole, mackerel and red mullet. On several headlands can be seen the tall granite towers of the lighthouses, their beams so powerful the one at Gatteville apparently crosses with the beam from one on the Isle of Wight!
Our day started with a visit to the fort on the tip of the causeway at St. Vaast-la-Hougue. The sea washed the granite walls of the defensive moat that surrounds it, choppy from the strong wind that whipped up a spray from the crest of the incoming waves. We walked around the fort along the top of the wall, too narrow for confidence and buffeted by the wind, to return along a wooded path leading to the fort entrance and back over the mudflats of low tide to the town of St. Vaast with its lively, active harbour where fishermen sorted their nets, washed down the decks of their boats and deftly gutted fish and dismembered crabs.
We have been coming to France for more years than we can remember but on the occasions we have arrived through the port of Cherbourg it has usually been at night and we have driven straight along the main road to Caen, passing through Bayeux and have never closely explored this area of the coast. The little granite towns of St. Vaast and Barfleur are real gems. We are not alone in thinking so. There are many English people walking the streets of both places, some obviously boating people who have their yachts moored in the marinas.
A short distance from the port at St. Vaast, right on the sea shore, we discovered a picturesque eleventh century chapel with a grassy lawn, bright hydrangeas and a war memorial disguising the remains of a blockhouse. Just beside it, overlooking the sea, was our dream house! The one we have somewhere in the backs of our minds been searching for in France! And it was for sale! Our excitement and imagination were both unleashed and it was only after discussing everything over coffee and returning for a further look that common sense gradually took control and we began to notice the decayed state of the house, pockmarked from shrapnel fire and with ominous cracks that had been badly filled on the end walls, and a garden completely overgrown. It has obviously been standing empty for years. The position is perfect and with lots of money to spend it could be turned into a very valuable and beautiful property, but at our age, even if we could afford it in its present state, there is no knowing what it would cost to make it habitable and anyway we would want to enjoy it now not spend years restoring it!
So we tore ourselves away and continued along the coast to the small, pretty, coastal town of Barfleur with its granite church overlooking the sea surrounded by its maritime cemetery. One is constantly reminded of the power and danger from the sea to the village communities who even today still rely on it for their livelihood. All too often we have seen memorial plaques in the churches to those who have disappeared along with their fishing boats. Barfleur was the port from which the Normans sailed to conquer England and it was from here too that Henry 1st of England, Duke of Normandy and son of William the Conqueror lost both his children when the ship carrying them to England was wrecked off the coast in 1120.
After a very windy picnic lunch on the rocks beside the sea we continued around the coast to Gatteville and Fermanville, both beautiful granite villages filled with flowers and surrounded by sea and small fields of vegetables or cattle. Beyond Fermanville is the lighthouse of Cap Lévy and also Fort Lévy, built by Napoleon to help protect the huge Rade de Cherbourg from attack by the English. The rade itself, at the time of its construction, was the largest artificial harbour in the world. Its granite walls stretching out into the sea across Cherbourg seafront seen from the fort on the cliff-tops across the bay are most impressive.
It was too late to do any justice to Cherbourg by this time. It has always struck us as a very pleasant town but today we simply passed through to continue around the coast on the far side until we chanced on this very agreeable campsite on the edge of a village near the most northerly tip of the Cotentin at Cap de la Hague.
Saturday 7th July 2006, St.Germain-le-Gaillard, Cotentin
This morning the wind had dropped and the summer weather was back at last. We breakfasted outside on the very peaceful, sunny campsite at Omanville-la-Rogue before driving through the narrow country lanes edged by high hedges of ferns, brambles and flowers that make it so very like Devon, to the neighbouring tiny picturesque village of Omanville-la-Petite. Here we parked beside the church where the renowned French poet and writer Jacques Prévert is buried. He spent the later years of his life here and a short walk up the road at the top of the village we discovered his home, now a museum. We are not familiar with his writing and as the house was not open until 11am we did not explore inside. The garden though is charming with flowering shrubs, shady pines and azaleas and attractive garden furniture. Back in the village we found our second dream home for sale. This time in far better condition and only a mile or so back from the sea. In dreams anything is possible so we fantasised for a brief while before facing the reality that the owners were unlikely to want peanuts for it and anyway we only had half a packet in Modestine's cupboard.
We have visited several of Europe's extremities during our recent travels so today we headed for the northernmost tip of the Cotentin Peninsula, Cap de la Hague with the tiny fishing port of Gourey. While the interior of the Cotentin may be remarkably like deepest Devon, the coastline is definitely like Cornwall. Here though, the picturesque tin mines of the Land's End Peninsula are replaced by the hideous remains of wartime German block houses. Somebody had scrawled across one "Nie wieder Krieg" (no more war), the only graffiti we've seen all week and something that turned a memorial to the wrongs of the past into a message of hope for the future.
We parked Modestine well back from Gourey, overlooking the lighthouse and the Channel Islands with Alderney so clear on the horizon that we could discern its lighthouse with the naked eye. Down in the fishing hamlet we explored its harbour, and watched a fishing boat return from sea and unload its catch of crabs before we walked along a pebble ridge edged by the curve of the bay with the lighthouse off shore on one side, and long strip fields of cereals on the other. As in Alderney, fields are long and narrow, edged here by dry stone walls, protecting the crops from the force of the sea winds. We were intrigued to discover pebbles on the ridge of a type we have always thought were unique to those to be found at Budleigh Salterton in Devon. They are smooth and rounded by the sea, beautifully mottled and coloured. In Budleigh they have been washed out from the cliffs ready formed and examination of the land along the coast of Cap de la Hague shows the same phenomenon. A look at the map later also shows that tidal currents or the flow of a massive river way back in the earth's history may quite possibly have deposited pebbles in a line linking the two coasts. We are not geologists but it's a theory we will investigate on our return home. Certainly we have never seen these pebbles anywhere else. In the Cotentin though, they are mixed in with the rougher granite pebbles one would expect to find here.
Reaching the semaphore station of the French coastguard service, as we turned inland we discovered a plaque commemorating attempts in 1902 to send telegraphic messages without using wires. Messages were successfully transmitted over a distance of 300 kilometres. The key figure and designer of the equipment was Edouard Branly (1844-1940) but work was halted for years through a dispute with the French government who claimed a monopoly of the telegraph service and impounded his equipment. It was not until the loss of the Titanic that the government realised the true value of such a system and development was allowed to continue. There are still traces of the equipment to be found on the beach and offshore.
We returned to Modestine through lanes bordered by dry-stone walls filled with foxgloves, pink campion, succulent rock plants, ferns and heather, where cattle in the fields raised their heads from munching momentarily to gaze as we passed. We continued towards Joburg, with its massive nuclear power station (Cogema) set on the cliffs overlooking Alderney. Against the skyline in this isolated, windswept area its white chimneys, tanks and turrets looked rather artistic, in the same way as the telecommunications centre does on Goonhilly Downs in Cornwall. There is nothing else on this bare moorland cliff top except the miniscule hamlet of Joburg with its 11th century granite church. The lady arranging flowers inside told us there would be a marine wedding there during the afternoon. In the mairie nearby we discovered an exhibition of local arts and crafts, similar to the ones our late friend Danielle used to organise in her village in Guissény with everything from oil paintings and decorated china to embroidery, hand painted silk, woven baskets, cushions, baby clothes and soft toys.
We parked on the cliffs overlooking the Baie d'Ecalgrain with a view to the Nez de Voidries for our lunch. The sun was warm, reflecting from the white topped waves as they broke on the rocks at the base of the cliffs while overhead we were subjected to whoops of glee from a couple of hang-gliders sweeping almost silently through the air on the thermal currents that allowed them to wheel and dive there for hours.
After so much cold, wet weather the hot sunshine had released pollen and we were both suffering badly with itching eyes and perpetual sneezing. Poor Ian seems to have been sneezing ever since we left England in April! After walking over the clifftops to look down on the Nez de Joburg (almost as massive and wet as le Nez d'Ian) and to the misty outlines on the horizon of Guernsey, Jersey and Sark we drove down into the seaside village of Vauville. Here there is a famed tropical garden on the seashore where we spent a couple of hours wandering its pretty pathways through groves of palm trees through which we could glimpse the sandy beach and the sparkle of sunlight on the sea. It almost had us wondering if we were back in Trinidad or Sri Lanka! The garden surrounds a very English looking castle however with purple, heather covered moorland behind. Within the garden are streams, ornamental ponds, fountains, tropical vegetation, ferns, a Japanese garden and a wide lawn with a border of exotic lilies overlooking the sea.
By the time we left it was getting late so we headed for the nearest small town on the map, Beaumont-Hague, to restock Modestine's fridge and fuel tank. This turned out to be a delightful place, clean and bright, just back from the sea with a wide main street, plenty of free parking and little traffic. There was excellent free internet access, spotless public facilities – as they have all been in this part of France, a modern library and swimming pool and a huge well stocked supermarket selling the cheapest diesel we have found outside Luxembourg. From the charcuterie shop we bought couscous with chicken and lamb to reheat for supper before setting off to find a campsite for the night. Continuing southwards along the west side of the Cotentin we found several sites, all on the beach. Here the granite rocks have given way to long beaches of golden sand which we saw clearly visible as a fringe along the shoreline from Jersey when we cycled around that island some years ago. This coastline is less dramatic and less to our taste but popular for family camping holidays. Thus, in July, campsite charges were 29 euros a night plus four for electricity. Nor were they to our taste as we gave up using bouncy castles some years ago now. So we turned inland and found the small, peaceful, spotless municipal campsite here at St.Germain-le-Gaillard which is costing us all of eight euros a night including electricity and hot showers! The local commune is hardly likely to get rich on it but it is a lovely, comfortable, simple site offering all we need.
We have sometimes been rather critical of the places we have visited so it is only right that we record here that this area of France is clean, beautiful and friendly. It epitomises everything that one dreams of about the country with none of the things that at times can be so distasteful. If you want coffee and croissants you don't need a mortgage to buy them, if you fancy moules et frites on the quayside it will set you back a mere £5. The towns and villages are picturesque, the garden flowers beautiful, the inland countryside green and verdant and the coastline stunningly beautiful. There is no graffiti, no litter and no canine mess. Public facilities are easily found and as clean as you would wish in your own home. Everywhere is within easy reach of the port of Cherbourg, so why hasn't it undergone mass immigration by the British as have Provence and the Dordogne? In the unlikely event of us moving from Devon the Cotentin is where we would go!