It’s never been easier to hop across the Channel and sample France in a day. BEN LERWILL visits Honfleur, while SYLVIE WHEATLEY heads for Cherbourg, CAROLYN BOYD squeezes in the best of Paris and KATE CHAPPELL enjoys Lille
My father first went to Cherbourg in the late 1950s when he was 17. He had heard much of this large harbour, which could trace its origins back to the Roman empire and had played a key role in the victory of the Allied forces, and he wanted to see it for himself. Being the son of modest, elderly farmers from the deep bocage normand with neither the means nor the desire to take him, he decided to cycle the 50 miles there and back, on his own. And that’s how he managed to see Cherbourg in a day.
Sixty years later, albeit under different circumstances, I decided to do something similar. I set off with an empty rucksack, hopped aboard a ferry as night fell over Poole harbour and awoke to the sight of Cherbourg emerging with the sun from the early morning mist.
Being right at the top of the Cotentin peninsula, Cherbourg’s life and aspect are dominated by the sea and its traffic. If, like me, you think of harbours as places of opportunity and adventure, you will love it. Boats come and go all the time and the locals welcome visitors with open arms.
French trimmings The 15-minute walk from the ferry terminal to the town centre along the quayside is well signposted, pedestrianfriendly and pleasant and although breakfast is available on the ferry, I chose to wait until I reached the seafront caf�s on the other side of the Pont Tournant. I settled for La R�gence (42-44 Quai de Caligny, tel: (Fr) 2 33 43 05 16, www.laregence.com) and enjoyed a copious breakfast buffet with all the French trimmings for €7.90.
My next stop after breakfast was the Maison du Tourisme on nearby Quai Alexandre III, a building with an elegant stone fa�ade, full of extremely useful, detailed tourist information, most of it available in English as well as French. The staff were very knowledgeable and happy to point me towards the activities that would suit my interests and budget. For some tours, such as that of the inside of the Th��tre Le Trident, a beautiful Monument Historique of Italian inspiration built in 1882, you must contact the Maison du Tourisme ahead of time as the building is not permanently open to the public. Thursday is market day and the market is held in two locations linked via a grid of pedestrian rues commer�antes. Some stallholders were still arranging their wares in neat rows and writing their prices on chalk boards while others had started serving queues of gastronomes with eager eyes and expectant baskets. From cheeses to charcuterie, fruits de mer to hand-picked, wild mushrooms, there was much to choose from. I got carried away with the cheeses which perfumed my rucksack.
Once I’d seen the market I turned my attention to the shops. I was particularly charmed by the pretty, traditional �piceries with their alluring displays of local produce. Biscuits, jams, nuts, cider, sweets and all sorts of other treats in colourful packaging were begging to be bought. Next I shopped for clothes, jewellery and shoes, and for friends I bought crockery, linen, luxury toiletries and children’s clothes. Incidentally, if you go to Cherbourg mainly to shop, avoid Mondays when les magasins are closed all morning, if not all day.
At lunchtime I headed for the Caf� du Th��tre (Place du G�n�ral de Gaulle, tel: (Fr) 2 33 43 01 49) where, in exchange for €15, I was served a simple but delicious meal of joue de boeuf casserole and tarte Tatin. Sitting by the large bay windows, I watched market life continue and read a French newspaper offered by the waiter.
For a spot of culture visit the Mus�e Emmanuel Liais, a collection of curious objects from the five continents, set within the botanical gardens with their 400 species of plants; and the Mus�e d’Art Thomas Henry where 300 paintings and sculptures dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries are on display, including some by Camille Claudel and Jean-Fran�ois Millet. Finally, for the pi�ce de r�sistance, I went to La Cit� de la Mer, (Gare Maritime Transatlantique, tel: (Fr) 2 33 20 26 26, www.citedelamer.com) a vast complex dedicated to the history of under-sea exploration, which looks at the oceans from scientific, natural, technological and human perspectives through interactive games, fascinating exhibitions, a myriad of creatures and a large number of bubbles. I had visited before but felt compelled to return because of the soothing beauty of the ten-metre-deep vertical aquarium with its 3,500 fish.
Ocean floor La Cit� de la Mer is housed within the 1930s’ Gare Maritime from which passengers used to board the transatlantic liners headed for America. La Salle des Pas Perdus, which would have been the departure lounge, is not always open but if it is, don’t miss it. You can just imagine yourself back in the 1930s about to set off to New York. Outside the building, in a purpose-built dry dock, lies Le Redoutable, the only nuclear submarine in the world open to the public. The most recent addition to the range of activities on offer is called On a march� sous la mer’. It’s a clever combination of education, imagination, humour and virtual reality that makes you think you’re the one exploring the ocean floor.
Finally I had time for a cup of tea and a pain aux raisins at Brasserie Le Commerce (Rue Fran�ois Lavieille, tel: (Fr) 2 33 53 18 20, www.brasserie-ducommerce.fr) before catching the ferry back to Poole. I had done it. I had seen Cherbourg in a day, on my own, without a car. I called my father and recounted my day. He asked me how much I had spent. Admittedly it was more than he had, but I felt I had enjoyed a great treat at a very reasonable price.
GETTING THERE Brittany Ferries runs regular services to Cherbourg all year round, from Poole, and/or Portsmouth, depending on the season, and offers special day-trip deals. Tel: 0871 244 0744 or visit www.brittanyferries.com
Maison du Tourisme 2 Quai Alexandre III 50100 Cherbourg Tel: (Fr) 2 33 93 52 02 www.ot-cherbourg-cotentin.fr
Contentin Tourisme Tel: (Fr) 2 33 43 21 77 www.cotentin-tourisme.com