First-stop France, first-stop anywhere, is often taken for granted, disregarded as an encumbrance, a delaying tactic by whoever designed the route to wherever you really want to get. We hop off our ferry in Normandy and drive south to the sun. A crepe (and an ablution) and we are on our way.
This is a pity, because even the gateway is worth a linger. Cherbourg has one of the best attractions you could wish to while away a few hours with the kids. The phrase “deep dive” could be invented for La Cité de la Mer, the city of the sea.
It is a vast exhibition of five galleries and a movie theatre built around a retired submarine, Le Redoubtable, once the jewel of the French navy (storyboards and tour guides never lie). Clamber on board for a reminder of how tight living conditions were for those underwater sailors.
Cherbourg was the last port in Europe where the Titanic docked. The Titanic exhibition is big, as the legend demands. It is a story told in different ways in Belfast, Halifax in Nova Scotia, and numerous places with spurious connections with the ship, or none at all (Vegas), as the legend continues to steam on, unencumbered, since the original hit an iceberg.
A thought provoking three-room gallery dedicated to “the ocean of the future” ponders whether the iceberg is as doomed today as the Titanic was in 1912. It showcases the research of the expedition ship Tara in the Arctic in 2008. Prepare to leave that gallery hoping we are not all going down.
Cherbourg has an eclectic collection of somewhat less redoubtable attractions (how many umbrella museums have you visited?) but a port city with a big throughput of 781,400 passengers a year is well provisioned. There are 130 restaurants of various grades.
For the best food, wander 20 minutes east to Restaurant Le Panoramique in La Pernelle. The village’s claim to fame is having one of the smallest town halls in Europe, a swing-your-cat cabin with a magnificent view that dates back to the time when Edward III was also in charge of England, the pale in Ireland and of north east France, the chap who started the Hundred Years’ War. There is a church opposite the restaurant dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, a long way from Languedoc, but not from heaven.
Normandy is bigger than one might expect, one third the size of Ireland. As you pass through the steepled towns you might think it is an extension of Wexford. Even the accent bears a resemblance.
The region trades on a UNESCO-ranked international attraction, Mont St Michel, and an enticing selection of postcard villages and key tourist stops: Rouen, Barfleur, Étretat, Honfleur and six of the most beautiful villages in Europe.
Within a few kilometres of Cherbourg port, you encounter signposts for the beach landing battlefields, somewhat overcrowded and stressed by the number of visitors, and the military graveyards with their mixed messaging of whether past conflicts inspire new ones.
Military history is such a specialist area, it is sometimes difficult to know where to start. There are entire itineraries and 14 museums devoted to it, but there are two lesser known that are worth a peek.
One is the Arromanches 360-degree cinema (a big experience with nine screens and surround sound) and nearby museum. It overlooks the site of a temporary port constructed overnight to be used as a supply base by the invading armies. Troops deliberately did not land there on D Day to leave the way clear for construction of the harbour, which landed 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tonnes of supplies during the 100-day battle of Normandy.
A second is the Civilians in Wartime Memorial in Falaise, which tells the bits you do not see on the History Channel. During The Battle of Normandy, 19,838 French civilians died in the bombings and crossfire, while England’s soldiers raped many of the young ladies they were supposed to be liberating.
Older history is just as bloody but easier to manage. The Bayeux Tapestry Museum gives a well presented overview of our favourite medieval cartoon strip, Halley’s comet, mail coated invaders and horses loaded on ships, with poor King Harold getting an arrow through his eye.
Mont St Michel
Mont St Michel, Normandy’s star attraction with 2.5m visitors a year pre pandemic, is almost in Brittany at low tide.
The cluster of buildings piled on top of each other like an overdecorated cake is famous for the tide that races faster than a galloping horse. It was saved by the tide on numerous occasions, most famously after 26 years of siege. The tide needed to be saved, in turn, by a 760m long hydraulic bridge, built to replace a causeway in 2014, turning the Mont into an island once more after 135 years. Even after nine years, you can see the difference.
The new tide is of tourists. It gets very crowded in August and the government is contemplating congestion charges. Car parking is managed and visitors are bussed to the Mont.
Admission to the abbey costs €11. Keep an eye out for a monk. On average, 30 Benedictines have resided there since the 12th century. CL
Eoghan Corry travelled with Irish Ferries from Dublin to Cherbourg on board WB Yeats. The route is served by both the WB Yeats (1,800 passengers, 1,216 cars) and the Epsillon (1,885 passengers, 300 cars) and sails four times weekly in each direction.
•Weekly sailings from Ireland to Cherbourg doubled this summer. The ships are comfortable and new. Stena Horizon launched in 2005, Irish Ferries WB Yeats launched in 2018 and Brittany Ferries Salamanca launched in 2022. Irish Ferries sail four times a week from Dublin. Stena Line sail six times a week from Rosslare. Brittany Ferries rotate their sailings from Rosslare between Bilbao and Cherbourg.
• Irish Ferries French service changed from Rosslare to Dublin in 2019: 19 hours at sea where the journey becomes the destination and there is an amazing view of the stars at night.
• The WB Yeats has three kilometres of car deck space and space for 1,885 passengers and crew, 435 cabins in 12 categories including luxury suites with their own private balconies on board and a meal in the premium Lady Gregory restaurant.
• My cabin, if that is the word, came with a king bed suite and a TV with on demand video and 50 films, including new Irish releases, on board.
• Pricing for ferries can be tricky. It gets quite expensive during school holidays, but extra supply has helped keep these prices down. Low season, you can get to Normandy for €199 with a car and driver. There are also flights to Nantes 13 times a week, six from Aer Lingus and seven from Ryanair, and nearby Rennes with Emerald Airways. Bringing your car means lots of luggage space.
• Wine is part of the experience. Irish Ferries had some of the retailers on board to give tastings on the journey over and, before we returned, we stopped at WBS Wine Store close to the port, showcasing international as well as French wines.
A quieter place to sample Calvados can be found 10 minutes out of Cherbourg, Ferme de la Sapinière, where Laure Travert will tell you how to taste Calvados and the noble art of storing cider. “If you keep it in a sleeping position the flavour can change.” Yeast never sleeps. The apple never did fall far from Normandy’s tree.