Basse Normandie

The Scriptorial d’Avranches

very old religious book

Avranches is an old city naturally tied to the looming Mont Saint Michel in the near distance. It is this association that has given much to Avranches, including cathedral, basilica, and botanical gardens to name a few. The town also houses the ancient manuscripts of Mont Saint Michel, however, which are today’s specialty. Because of its association with the Mont, this small town found itself housing one of the largest collections of medieval manuscripts in France. Housed in the Scriptorial d’Avranches, the archives and museum contains nearly 3,000 volumes and 14,000 books. Many of these are ancient collections including 203 volumes of manuscripts from Mont Saint Michel itself and 13,500 books dating from the 1500s. The museum and archives are now housed on the outskirts of the old town in a transformed portion of the old city defenses with modern additions to accommodate the manuscripts special needs. Certainly worth a visit, the Scriptorial d’Avranches is a unique opportunity to see the more functional history of Mont Saint Michel and those who occupied it.

An Ideal Holiday in Carteret


This is a wonderfully picturesque part of the Normandie coast that does not get a lot of attention from foreign visitors (unless by invasion) or the media. But this small town on the Ay river and the adjacent coastal towns provide the perfect opportunity for a quaint holiday experience. The summer temps average 64.2 so this is not a typical beach destination, but the real pull of the area is its natural organic beauty associated with the tidal waters of the Manche as they meet the Ay – in other words dunes caused by the constant push and pull of the sand. The area is gloriously devoid of much development, or even boat traffic interestingly enough. The result is a natural environment that has been described as “exclusive” and perfect for taking relaxing strolls to discover this wild beauty. With no hotels to speak of, the travelers choices for accommodations in the town or plage are only a handful of B&Bs or vacation cottages, so as to ensure that your experience is of the most authentic. Have you been? Share your experiences with us.

Cité de la Mer


Cherbourg was one of the primary destinations for D-Day troops. Indeed, its commercial and military importance originated centuries ago thanks to its prime strategic location halfway through the English Channel (La Manche) on the north shore of the Cotentin Peninsula. But you may be surprised to find out that this this Cité de la Mer is not natural. In fact, it’s the largest artificial harbor in the world, started only in the mid-1600s. To celebrate this legacy, Cherbourg’s prime attraction is the museum housed in the old cruise terminal. The museum is part aquarium, part seafaring museum with the first French nuclear submarine on display, and other marine-based exhibits. By ferry, this northern reach of France is a mere three hours (and 79 euros for passengers and car) from English ports like Portsmouth and Poole.

The Famed Windmills of La Manche


Back to the western coast of the Manche Department is a very small town of Fierville-les-Mines just 6 kilometers east of the charming harbor and plage of Barneville-Carteret. Here stands a reminder of the area’s agricultural heritage, the Moulin À Vent Du Cotentin. Ever since I was a kid, I loved windmills. I don’t know why, but there’s just something authentic about them. I suppose it’s the simple ingenuity of the operation and the window into the past. This windmill was constructed in 1744 and restored in 1997. As we discovered in Stage 1, Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte is known to have constructed the first windmill 17 kilometers due east. What is special about this windmill is that is still works to grind wheat. In a style reminiscent of the famed windmills of La Mancha, this structure is made of stone, conical in shape, and stands 7 meters high. The mill is open to the public from February to November. Why not stop by to see how it works.

Genêts With A View


France is revered for its history, and of course its medieval past. It’s no wonder that Mont Saint Michel is a highlight among the sites that tell this story. It has a magical aura that begins with one’s first glimpses of the monument. But with more than 8,000 visitors daily, it’s often hard to really get a sense for how the Mont must have appeared to pilgrims and residents of old without the distractions of modern tourism. The western coastline of La Manche along the Baie de Mont Saint Michel offers both beautiful views of the Mont and an opportunity to go back in time. From a place like Genêts, visitors see the Mont as it seemingly stands still in time. From here, it is more a work of art that rises out of the flats of the bay, a triumph and fortress of man in the midst of uncertainty and nature. At this point, it is more than a point of interest but truly a surreal part of an extraordinary human tradition. So take a moment to be still and think of the millennia of people who have gazed upon the same awe-inspiring sight. Regardless of nationality, for a moment, we are all French.

The Coastal Charm of the Manche


Granville is a coastal village of only 13,000 residents, this ancient Roman town has its fair share of sights. Situated on a promontory overlooking the northern end of the Bay of Mont Saint Michel, the town sticks out for all the right reasons. Since the ancient days, the town established itself as a strategic military port and was usually one of the first destinations of an invading army. The English and Germans notably come to mind; it was the English who built the town’s walled fortifications during the Hundred Years’ War. But like so many other coastal towns in Normandie, Granville cashed-in as a resort town during the mid-19th century. Today, the old Casino remains on the beach below the fortified walls. This is one town that still revels in its cultural heritage. Complete with its Musée d’Art et d’Histoire and Musée d’art moderne Richard Anacréon, the old town’s narrow streets come with these two outlets for the local history and love for modern art. A little further north is also the birthplace and childhood vacation home of Granville’s famous son, Christian Dior. The family home-turned museum is an elegant Victorian home with resplendent gardens overlooking La Manche. It certainly makes for a relaxing morning or afternoon. If that weren’t enough, Granville hosts Normandie’s largest (and most authentic) Carnival celebration. If the crowds of Mont Saint Michel aren’t your thing, certainly seek out this quiet seaside resort.

Rebuilding the Abbaye de Lessay


World War II had such an impact on so much of Europe and especially the Cotentin Peninsula. Some places like La Havre decided to rebuild in a more modern style while keeping their heritage and tradition alive. Others like Lessay, on the other hand, have taken a much different approach. Lessay is perhaps best known for its Benedictine Monastery and Abbey Church of the Trinity, which were largely destroyed during the War. Following the war, the Abbey was rebuilt using photographs, with original material and methods. Such a painstaking effort. But why? Undeniably, the Abbay church is a towering presence over the small town of under 2,000. It’s been part of the landscape since being founded in 1056 and portions completed by the end of the century. Despite its destruction, the Church remains the purest example of Norman Romanesque architecture in existence today – defined by the Latin cross and long nave but really set apart by the central tower with pyramidal roof and innovative introduction of ribbed vaults which were more commonly reintroduced in later Gothic architecture. Their use at Lessay in the 11th century is one of the first uses of this support structure. Today, the Abbey is open to the public daily and features Les Heures Musicales, a Baroque musical festival each July and August – a great way to experience the Abbey.

Every War has Two Sides


Every war has two sides. As the 2016 Tour de France rushed towards the literal turning point of World War II at Utah Beach to celebrate a triumphant Allied victory, it passes a relatively small German war cemetery only 2 kilometers east of Hautteville-Bocage. It is here that more than 10,000 German soldiers are buried, often 6 to a gravestone. In context, the Allied forces incurred casualties of around 3,500 associated with the Utah Beach landing on D-Day. Often, the heavy number of German dead are not known or mentioned, but this humble cemetery pays tribute to their losses on the front and serves as a reminder of the destruction of war to both sides. The cemetery is maintained by a German volunteer corps that started youth exchanges in 1953 with the motto “Reconciliation Above the Graves – Work For Peace”. In total, this organization, the Volksbund, cares for the remains of 2.7 million dead in 832 war cemeteries in 45 countries, a staggering figure.

A Saint on the Sarthe

Photo by Guillaume Cattiaux, flickr Creative Commons

The river Sarthe meanders through the French countryside, forming much of the border between Normandy and the Pays Loire. At one particular U-turn in the river lies the village of Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei. Labeled as a Les Plus Beaux Village de France, Saint-Céneri is indeed beautiful. Originally an outpost fortification, Céneri fell to William the Conqueror and little of the original fortress remain. Nevertheless, the combination of greenery, river, idyllic homes, and picturesque churches make this a place where people have been coming for decades to paint in the serenity of the village. Like Pont-Aven, Saint-Céneri has become an artists’ haven, although much more recently and to a lesser degree. Still, the village is a magical place that is also easily accessible. A manageable two kilometer walk from the village’s artistic Auberge Moisy past the Romanesque Eglise Saint-Céneri and onto the promontory overlooking the sharp curve of the Sarthe where the 14th century Chapelle Saint-Céneri sits in the middle of a green meadow that offers views of the surrounding Normandie-Maine Regional Natural Park. Back in town, end your tour on the stone bridge crossing the Sarthe. Watch kayakers pass beneath while contemplating the beauty of the village and its church – all of which perfectly define the history and cultural appeal of the French countryside.

Guarding the Manche Coastline


Saint-Germain-sur-Ay sits on the western coast of the Cotentin peninsula, facing west into La Manche, or English Channel. On a small hill overlooking the town’s adjacent marshes is a remnant of the area’s guarded past. Today, a single freestone square building watches over the sleepy coastline, but beginning in 1705 a series of structures occupied the site as a local incarnation of a national border defense. This Corps de Garde, or guardroom was implemented to protect against invasion and deal with customs issues. For good reason local, regional, and national leaders were concerned with invasion and for good reason. Looking at the peninsula, it occupies a strategic location for commercial and military traffic in the channel. The militia, therefore, was instituted as an early warning system, effectively localizing and extending the reach of the national military. In fact, this National Guard likely had its headquarters in each local Hotel-de-Ville with “satellite” stations established as need be. It is likely that the remaining structure at Saint-Germain-sur-Ay dates to as late as 1900, but its legacy as the guardhouse that first warned of the English invasion in March 1793. To this day, the road closest the guardhouse is named Rue du Corps de Garde.

Chateau Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte


As we’ve discovered, the Cotentin Penninsula, what became the Department of the Manche, has been defined by war and military presence. Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte is no different, this time as a strategic trading and agricultural center on the River Douve. The highlight here is the middle ages Chateau Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte, initially built in the 10th century to grow and then protect agricultural interests, forestry, coal mining, the movement of these and other goods, and the sprawling abbey immediately to the south. Owing to the area’s importance, it is also said that Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte built the first known windmill in all of France in 1180. By contrast, the first recorded windmill in England was not recorded until 1190.  The castle was besieged twice during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England that lasted from 1337-1453. The chateau was rebuilt in the 15th century only to again be partly destroyed in the late 1700s prior to the Revolution and then again seeing fighting during the D-Day campaigns of June and July 1944. Today, both the Chateau and Abbey are open to the public although the Abbey is a working congregation, so check times for tours and/or masses.

A Millenia of Contentions


In 2016, the Tour de France started off with a symbolically important stage. From Mont Saint Michel to Utah Beach, Stage 1 paid tribute to the millennia of invasions and defenses that have come to define the Cotentin Peninsula. Where the Grand Depart starts at the iconic fortress of Mont Saint Michel that has withstood invading armies and navies on the west side of the Manche Department, the peloton will finish on the hallowed grounds of the Normandie Beaches, hallowed ground defined by the massive D-Day landings. The beach here was code named Utah Beach where the U.S. 4th Infantry Division landed on June 6, 1944. Utah Beach did not see the bloodiest of the D-Day fighting, but rather exhibited the gamut of issues and successes of the campaign. The beach landing was at first chaotic and problematic but in the end, Allied prowess and military planning successfully took the beach and with parachute drop zones behind enemy lines, proceeded to take the vital port of Cherbourg in the north. Of course Cherbourg is where Stage 2 ends the next day, bringing the tour of the Cotentin Peninsula full circle. There is much to be said about D-Day and its significance, not to mention Utah Beach and the sacrifices made those 72 years ago. I cannot even start to do justice to that event but encourage you to visit the site instead. There is a fantastic museum at the entrance to the beach.

Villedieu’s City of Copper


“The City of Copper.” Villedieu-les-Poêles is a historic industrial town known for its production of copper for all kinds of applications, although originally for cooking purposes. Hence the name poêles, or pan. This industry started in ancient times and only continued to grow and be officially recognized as a hub for this speciality by the King of France. In the late 1700s, it attracted bell-makers as well, which is perhaps their most famous claim to fame today. The town’s Cornille Havard-Founderie was built in 1865 and little has changed since then. It is now one of five bell-makers in France and was honored to cast eight new bells for Paris’ Notre-Dame Cathedral Make a stop at the founderie and take a tour to see its historic workspace and pristine products.

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