Cotentin and Mont St Michel

Sunday 8th July 2006, St. Sauveur-Lendelin, Cotentin
It has been another sunny day with just enough wind to make the day pleasant. We were early up but late leaving the campsite by the time Ian had processed yesterday's megacrop of photos. The site was so pleasant we were in no hurry to leave. Learning from yesterday's experience, this evening we made a point of seeking out an inland municipal campsite. It is green, peaceful and pleasant on the edge of the village. There is only one other vehicle here even in the height of the tourist season. We feel rather sorry for the mayor and the council really as the site is so well cared for and the staff seemed rather depressed when we told them how nice it was and how horrid the coastal campsites are with inflatable dinosaurs at the entrance, bars, saunas and electronic games rooms.

Our first stop this morning was at Carteret, on the west coast of the Cotentin and one of the nearest points to Jersey which could be seen clearly from the cliff top above the town. We parked there for a circular walk followed by a picnic lunch overlooking the water, crowded today with smart yachts and speedboats making their way across to join in the Jersey maritime festival. Carteret is a pleasant seaside town devoted almost exclusively to boating. There are a few restaurants and souvenir shops but generally, apart from the boating fraternity, it is a quiet, rather empty little town though several fishing boats were busy alongside the quay preparing to return to sea. From Carteret there is a regular ferry service to Jersey. It is advertised as offering a taste of British eccentricity right on the doorstep! It is actually a more expensive crossing than going across to England! Beyond the headland with the lighthouse there are long sandy beaches and areas of sand dunes much favoured by glider planes.

Estuary of the river Gerfleur, Carteret

Cap de Carteret with Jersey on the horizon

Some French people fell into conversation with us and were surprised we did not live here, saying they had recently sold their house to English people who had very little understanding of French and they felt they must be missing so much, being unable to integrate.

During the afternoon we drove south, stopping to look at the beautiful Norman abbey at Lessay, harmoniously constructed in the local creamy white stone. It was one of the loveliest churches we have seen with its simple, unadorned rounded arches and beautifully proportioned exterior.

Abbey church, Lessay

Interior of the abbey church, Lessay

While we were the only people inside the abbey this warm Sunday afternoon, outside the streets of Lessay were thronging with people who had travelled from all over the area to join in the vide grenier taking up most of the streets in the centre of the town. A vide grenier is the French equivalent to a car boot sale and, believe us, the French have some weird junk in their attics! If you want a holy crucifix, a calendar for 1963, a knitting machine, a rusty skillet or a chain saw, this is where to look. Space being at a premium in Modestine we refrained from buying the bargain swede mincer and the lobster pot in favour of a collection of DVDs, almost all starring Gerard Depardieu, for ten cents each (6p). (Gerard Depardieu is to the French cinema what Vauban was to its military architecture. No film or fort has ever been created without them! )

Vide grenier, Lessay

We have been talking for some time about plans to visit Sicily with Geneviève. Although we have been told there is a lot of Norman architecture in Sicily, Jill at least has never quite understood why. There is a museum on the outskirts of Coutances that we hoped would clarify this. In the village of Hauteville-la-Guichard, back in the 11th century, shortly before the Norman conquest of England, lived the nobleman Tancrède together with a dozen sons. For reasons of both finance and adventure a number of them set out as mercenaries to help fight the Muslims occupying southern Italy at the time. They gained honours and success in battle and gradually became rulers of the provinces of southern Italy, one of them eventually being crowned king of Sicily by the Pope. This family of Norman brothers and their descendants ruled southern Italy for several generations, establishing a kingdom in Antioch and campaigning against Byzantium and northern Africa. Most ended up being killed in battle. Very much a die nasty dynasty! Over the years they made their mark on the architectural style of Sicily and the toe of Italy, thus Norman churches are apparently seen throughout the region.

Musée Tancrède, Hauteville-la-Guichard

At least we made it worth the while of the lady on duty at the museum and saved her sitting there all alone the entire afternoon, but it was all a bit heavy and complex to tell the truth. There was too much to absorb and understand in French on a sunny Sunday. So we went into the garden to explore the maze, play on the seesaw and listen to the bright green frogs noisily chatting each other up in the garden lake until the lady begged us to leave so she could go home.

Monday 9th July 2006, Montviron, La Manche
During the night the rain returned and we woke to a saturated world and a sky that resembled molten lead. At least the showers in the campsite were hot and we started the day with optimism. By the time we had reached Coutances, found somewhere to park and waited for the rain to ease enough for us to make a dash to the cathedral we were slightly less enthusiastic about the day. However, we explored the cathedral, which is quite lovely having fortunately been spared during the war so the pale stone and much of the stained glass windows are original and undamaged.

Cathedral, Coutances

It was still raining when we emerged but right nearby was a delicious patisserie where we sheltered happily with coffee and croissants while we read the regional newspaper Ouest France. We are now knowledgeable on everything from Wimbledon to the cycling Tour de France and the fishermen's blockade of the port at St. Vaast-la-Hougue in protest at EU fishing quotas.

Guess what the weather was doing as we finally emerged onto the streets again after the baker started making comments about us paying rent? We puddle jumped our way to the public gardens which twice already we have tried to visit in previous years but have always encountered heavy rain. This time we concluded it must always rain in Coutances so we'd just have to get wet. We discovered that the gardens are well worth a soaking, with beautifully arranged herbaceous borders, a flashing lighthouse made from rock plants, typically French walkways between carefully pruned espalier trees, and ornamental ponds.

Public gardens, Coutances

After exploring some of the narrow cobbled streets and spending considerable amounts of time sheltering in shop doorways, we returned to Modestine who is looking wonderfully clean again, and continued our travels towards Granville. We once visited the town for an overnight stay several years ago and were surprised today to realise we had remembered so much about it. Above the town we parked near the former home of Christian Dior. He spent his childhood years in a wonderful 19th century house on the cliff tops overlooking the Baie de Mont St. Michel and the Îles Chausey. The beautiful gardens, some to his own designs, are freely open to the public and the house is now a museum with permanent exhibitions of his haute couture designs up until his death in 1956. On our previous visit we went into the house to see a display of his work dedicated to travel, ranging from costumes for air hostesses to hairbrushes and vanity bags for travellers. Around the garden today we discovered panels explaining the different perfumes he produced and the plants that inspired them. There were even little doors to open so the visitor could experience each of his acclaimed fragrances in different parts of the garden.

Bust in the Jardin de Christian Dior

Christian Dior's home, Granville

Perfume display in Jardin de Christian Dior

Jill opens the dior and sniffs, Jardin de Christian Dior

The rain had mercifully stopped though a strong wind had replaced it. We climbed down the high cliffs from the garden to the sea front and walked along to the town centre, past the casino and up into the historic old town with its narrow passageways and uncomfortable cobbled streets. We are on the edge of Normandy here and the architecture and building materials reflect Brittany rather than Normandy. Grey and black slate roofs, schist and granite have completely replaced the crumbling white stone walls and red, lichen covered tiles generally associated with Normandy. From the old town, high on the cliffs, there are excellent views over the harbour and across the water towards Jersey. From the quayside regular ferries cross to both Jersey and Sark.

Granville – fortified town and casino from the Jardin de Christian Dior

Gateway to the fortified town, Granville

Harbour, Granville

Granville from the old town walls

It was nearly 6pm by the time we rejoined Modestine and set off in search of a campsite. The one we hoped to use had disappeared. Everyone we asked told us exactly where it was but all we could find was a field of overgrown grass and a padlocked gate, so we gave up and drove off in search of another one. At the last minute, on the outskirts of the village, we got caught up in a "deviation" that rivalled the German "Umleitung" for distance and complexity. Somehow, after driving for ages through country lanes, we arrived at this campsite which seems fine and again is almost empty. This is not surprising as most people do not have the same tenacity as us and would probably have given up and stopped off to spend the night in Paris as the "deviation" passed through the Place de la Concorde for the second time.

Tuesday 10th July 2006, Pontaubault, Baie de Mont St. Michel
It rained almost all of last night and this morning the campsite was a quagmire. Still in the rain we returned to the coast and continued around the bay of Mont St. Michel At one point we stopped for a walk along the coastal footpath to the lonely granite building known as the Cabane Vaubin perched on top of the cliffs from where we could see the Mount topped by the high spire of the abbey. It stood alone, far from the mainland amidst the treacherous sands of the bay. The tidal flow is amongst the greatest in the world with a difference between high and low water of about 15 metres. Although the bay can be walked across at low tide, it requires an experienced guide as the incoming tide arrives with terrific force and speed. All around the perimeter of the bay are oyster beds and on the far side lies the little town of Cancale, famed for supplying possibly the best oysters in France.

Cabane Vaubin, Baie de St. Michel

Mont St. Michel seen through the doorway of Cabane Vaubin

Mont St. Michel from Grouin du Sud

For much of the day we have followed the route of the bay, stopping at several of the little granite villages such as Genêts, typical of the region. Our target today was Avranches, still in Normandy but architecturally part of Brittany. It stands high on a defensive mount overlooking the bay and struck us as a very pleasant, if rather austere town. It is certainly the only one we have ever found that bases its entire tourist industry on an excellent exhibition concerning the history of writing and manuscripts!

On the edge of the village of Genêts

Donjon at Avranches

Avranches and the basilica of St.Gervais seen from the Donjon

During the French revolution many churches and abbeys were sacked and their contents destroyed, much as happened in Britain during the civil war in the 17th century. The monastic library of Mont St. Michel survived but its contents, including more than 200 medieval manuscripts were taken from the abbey by the state and removed to Avranches. The scriptorium at Mont St. Michel had been a leading centre for the copying of texts and developed a distinctive style, influenced heavily by Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. Just last year the town opened its Scriptorial, a fascinating exhibition, particularly for us as librarians, on the history of books and manuscripts and their production. Each stage of the process of a manuscript was explained, from the use and preparation of parchment, inks, illumination and illustration of the text and finally the binding in leather and gold decoration of the boards. The exhibition also covered the early development of printing through to the digitisation of early texts before finally leading into an exhibition of some of the museum's greatest treasures with beautifully illustrated manuscripts, religious books of hours and items of particular relevance to the history of Avranches. We marvelled at the minute script of many of the volumes as well as the intricate decoration. To protect the precious originals only about fifteen are on display at any one time in a darkened room.

As a special bonus our ticket gave us entry to an exhibition of the work of Salvador Dali. We were delighted about this as we visited his personal museum at Figueres in Spain in 2006 and found it fascinating. We have to confess however, that we didn't really understand today's exhibition at all. We console ourselves with the thought that it didn't look as if Dali had any more idea than us what it was all about! There is no denying however, his artistic ability or his fertile imagination.

The town is also famed as the place where in 1172 Henry II of England, Duke of Normandy, did public penance to atone for inciting the massacre of St. Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. For this he had been excommunicated by the Pope and his penance paved the way to reconciliation with the Church. The spot at the former door of the cathedral - long since destroyed, can still be seen.

Where Henry II did public penance, Avaranches

In the basilica there is a painting of St. Aubert, archbishop of Avranches during the eighth century. The archangel Michael appeared to him twice in a dream ordering him to build a Benedictine monastery on the top of Mount Tombe, at that time, according to the legend, well inland and surrounded by forest. Twice the Archbishop turned a deaf ear to such a seemingly difficult task, until St. Michael appeared again and, poking him in the head, ordered him to get on with it. Thus the abbey church of Mont St. Michel came to be built. This is all absolutely true and to prove it St. Aubin's skull is preserved in the basilica, complete with a hole about the same size as an archangel's index finger!

We really were both very weary by the time we finally returned to Modestine. There remains much to see in Avranches but tonight all we were interested in was finding a campsite and drying out after a day of rain. The one we have discovered is run by an Englishman who seemed keen to talk and to tell us of the woes of running a French campsite when it never stops raining. He says he is already £4,000 down on his takings this year and has only a third of the number of campers he'd expect to have in July. We feel very sorry for all the campsite owners we have met who are really struggling to cope with their losses and the awful weather.

Wednesday 11th July 2006, Pontaubault, Domfront
This morning it was STILL raining. When we left the campsite owner thanked us for staying saying even the 15 euros we'd paid made a difference! He seemed really cheesed off.

Driving peacefully around the edge of the bay, through the pretty countryside and granite villages we eventually arrived at Mont St. Michel and discovered where all the tourists from both Normandy and Brittany were. There was an entire city of white camping cars parked on the causeway at the foot of the mount and a huge car park filled with coaches and private cars. We left Modestine and walked with the hundreds of other "pilgrims" along the causeway constructed across the sands of the bay to the gateway leading into the narrow, crowded street that wound steeply up towards the abbey at the summit. Either side of this cobbled path were restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, museums and stalls selling takeaway food and drinks. Already at mid-morning the street was crowded and when we later returned it was packed solid.

Mont St. Michel from the causeway

Inside the defensive walls, Mont St. Michel

We made our way up the rock until we reached the abbey walls where we stopped to look out over the bay, back along the edge of the mainland we travelled yesterday and on round into Brittany, with the mound of Dol-de-Bretagne showing above the surrounding landscape, and right on to Cancale at the furthest point. The tide was out and small groups of people, looking like ants on the vast expanse of wet sand, were making their way across from the Mount to the island of Tombelaine.

La Merveille, Mont St. Michel

The bay at low tide seen from the abbey, Mont St. Michel

View towards the reclaimed polders, Mont St. Michel

We paid our eight euros each to see round the abbey and the attached buildings. The whole is a wonderful piece of engineering built on and into the granite rock, indeed the three storey range of buildings to the north of the abbey church, constructed in the 13th century, has always been known as the Merveille. The distinctive profile of the Mount is relatively recent as the spire topped by the Archangel Michael was only added in 1897. The 11th century abbey church was constructed on a platform 80 metres above the bay. Although it lost the westernmost three bays of the nave after a fire in the 18th century the nave with its heavy granite arcades makes a sober and impressive impact, contrasting with the lightness of the flamboyant Gothic chancel built after the Romanesque chancel collapsed in 1421. The great pillared crypt below the chancel shows that the builders were taking no chances of a similar disaster happening in the future. The missing three bays of the nave were replaced by a terrace with magnificent views over the bay. The cloisters with an elegant double arcade were designed to be light in weight as they were built above the refectory. This in turn is above the impressive guests' hall and the Knights' Hall, an airy room which originally served as the monks' study area and scriptorium where so many of the wonderful manuscripts in their library were produced. The abbey became extremely wealthy, having jurisdiction over many estates in Normandy and further afield. Beside St Michael's Mount in Cornwall, in Devon it owned Budleigh, Dotton, Harpford, Otterton, Sidmouth, Stoodleigh, Venn Ottery and Yarcombe.

Interior of the abbey showing the chancel, Mont St. Michel

The abbey crypt, Mont St. Michel

Cloisters, Mont St. Michel

Refectory, Mont St. Michel

Scriptorium, Mont St. Michel

Miniature groups of pilgrims crossing the sands to the island of Tombelaine seen from Mont St. Michel

We returned down and continued to the nearby little town of Pontorsin for a lunch of moules et frites (mussels cooked with onions, herbs and white wine and served with tiny chips) in a small bar where everyone smoked, even the barman! European anti-smoking laws are completely ineffective in France and ignored by everyone. None of the other customers seemed to spend any money. They just sat around exchanging the odd comment, shaking hands, drinking on credit and drifting away. They all looked scruffy and rather bored. Pontorsin is a very pleasant granite town with a wide sunny main street full of estate agents selling properties to the British who seem to have discovered this particular area of Normandy in a rather big way.

The sun returned for the rest of day, which has been really pleasant. We moved on to the American cemetery on the border with Brittany at St. James containing over 4,400 war graves of American soldiers who lost their lives in the early days of the debarquement from June to September 1944. It was beautiful and peaceful with a detailed wall maps in the chapel explaining the American advance and how their approach joined up with simultaneous attacks on other fronts made by the UK and Commonwealth. While the British and Canadians have smaller scattered cemeteries, the Americans have two large ones.

American cemetery at St. James

At the little town of Mortain we discovered La Petite Chapelle, built on the summit of a hill 314 metres high offering stunning views across a wide sweep of the landscape. From here we could see 47 km to the bay of Mont St. Michel with the mount clearly visible.

La Petite Chapelle, Mortain

View from La Petite Chapelle, Mont St. Michel on the horizon, Mortain

Hill 314 as it was code named, is the site of one of the worst engagements the American troops encountered during the Normandy landings. Here the German troops ceased their retreat and fought back inflicting heavy casualties. The fighting is commemorated by an American monument near the chapel to those who died.

In memory of those who died in battle, La Petite Chapelle, Mortain

Finally we arrived at Domfront and found this wonderful municipal campsite. It is amazing value at less than 9 euros including electricity and excellent hot showers. It is peaceful, well managed, spotlessly clean and uncrowded. We have been able to enjoy supper outside and it has been warm and sunny. We have both felt very weary after the day's activity so after supper we moved inside and relaxed as we watched a video.