CYCLETOURING IN FRANCE - NORMANDY What many people don't realise is that France is divided into many separate and distinct regions. These will have their own character, not just of countryside but cuisine, accent, culture and even language. For example I live in the Celtic heart of Brittany. Here milk is generally turned to butter. Travel 80 kms east and you ente Normandy, here as well as butter you can buy thick cream from a bucket at every market, and pungent smelling local cheeses from every farm. It's this individualism of each area that makes France somewhere you can cycletour for a lifetime without everfeeling you are repeating yourself. Of these distinct regions Normandy has a great deal to offer the first time visitor to France. Its countryside is friendly and cycling not too arduous, its coastline beautiful and it has more history than you can shake a stick at. In two weeks you can cover a great deal of it, from the coast to the tiny farms and villages inland. But Normandy does have a shadow over it, here more than anywhere else in France, the future ofcivilisation was decided and reminders of a bloody recent history are everywhere. The tour described below doesn't take you to the whole area, but will give a taste of most of it, it is a gentle 30 miles per day average and can be easily done in a fortnight. My apologies in advance to the areas not covered, but for a first tour in France this is just perfect.This tour is a loop, bringing you back to the starting point at Cherbourg. This is very convenient for British visitors as they can take a ferry directly there, for others you can either get a train direct from Paris to Cherbourg, or join the loop elsewhere.Cherbourg was knocked about in the war, and was not the most beautiful place before,so it is really only a starting place. From the town head East sticking to the coast towards Tourlaville. If you find yourself climbing away from the coast turn back, as your first three days should be pretty flat. Toulaville, just outside Cherbourg has a nice campsite and hotels and makes and ideal stop for you to recover from the journey.
DAY ONE - From Tourlaville go east along the coast on the D116. Soon the big town will fade in the distance, and this lovely coast road will take you through Bretteville (one horse village...). You can't get lost here just follow your nose and all will be well.The road hugs the coast and is quiet save for the odd tourist. There are a few bars on this stretch but your best bet is to continue to Barfleur for lunch. Just outside Barfleur you can detour to go up the lighthouse at Point de Barfleur, the second highest (by twometres) lighthouse in France, which gives a spectacular view of the coast. At 27 kms it's a long ride to Barfleur in a morning, but you've an easy afternoon and plenty of time to explore this little fishing port and eat out. I had an excellent crepe(savoury pancake) at the Creperie on the quay but there are other eating places to choose from, and shops to buy a picnic. Barfleur is interesting historically, being a launching place for the 1066 invasion of Britain, a plaque on a boulder in the harbour commemorating the moment. In the afternoon just hug the coast all the 12 kms to St Vaast-la Hougue. This isanother little port, but more commercialised with yachts bobbing in the marina. Again plenty to eat including a good place to buy seafood to cook up in the evening. The Campsite is very nice though as you would expect a little pricy by inland standards.Several small hotels are to be found in the centre, and a big supermarket on theoutskirts.
DAY TWO - Again a simple coast hugging route from St Vaast to Carantan, and at 37 flat kms an easy ride. The difference is that for the first time you will begin to feel the weight of history on you. Riding past the D-Day landing beaches effected our group of British, French and Americans in odd ways. We went at the beginning of September when the area is deserted and so there was an eery silence as we pedalled beside the flat stretch of sand that was known as Utah Beach a lifetime ago. We talked of little else for the next three days and our moods swung wildly from pride in achievement,to awe, to sadness, to anger and disgust and back again. There is very little left to show what went on, the odd bit of rusting metal jutting like a sharks fin from the sand,the sections of road named after long dead American GI's robbed of a lifetime, the quiet monuments to different corps and regiments recording their deeds and dead, and the occasional museum full of photographs and slide shows trying to encompass one of the greatest moments in Human history in a few square metres of space. The Museum at La Madaleine is worth a visit, but a walk amongst shattered concrete defences says more. Carentan is quite a busy town with plenty of choice as to where to stay, and you won't starve. The campsite is especially nice set right by the canal away from traffic noise.
DAY THREE Another easy day on the legs but hard on the emotions as the D197a and then D514 take you the 38 kms to Arromanches. Today you pass the Omaha beach where the fighting was at its fiercest and casualties the highest. After 17 kms you go through the village of Grandcamp Maisy and then 3 kms on you come to the Point Du Hoc. Here a small group of American rangers scaled the cliff, captured the battery that threatenedthe whole landing are, and held it for two days against heavy attack. Most died. Just outside the monument is a tiny bar/restaurant. This is where the local workers eat,and so will you if you have any sense. Run by a couple well into their sixties it fed us to bursting and gave us good plonk all for 60 Francs... Just after St Laurent is the main American cemetery with its unending lines of crispwhite marble crosses. As befits the "winners" there is an air of triumph about the place but just reading the names and ages of the dead, leaves you in no doubt of the cost. And afterwards you continue along the coast, in silence at what you see and partially because of what you have eaten. There are a few hills but only one steep one out of Port-en-Bassin, and then you swoop down to Arromanches. The campsite is on your ight just as you enter the town, it's easy to swoop past and miss it. The town itself caters for tourists as you'd expect, but is pleasant with some good bars/restaurants andone of the better museums. But the real star of the show is the Artificial Mulberry Harbour which still remains in part off the seafront. The Germans didn't fear a landing in Normandy because there were no suitable ports to capture in order to supply theadvancing troops. They made the port at Cherbourg practically invulnerable and concentrated their defences further up the Channel. Churchill had the crazy idea of building one and transporting it across the channel. The rest is history.
DAY FOUR I'd Stay in Arromanches for two nights and "do" Bayeux as a quick there-and-back onthe D516 only 10 kms each way. Bayeux is of course home of the famous tapestry depicting the 1066 invasion of Britain, but personally I found the even older Cathedral more interesting. The town was miraculously untouched by the war and is well worththe day long visit.
DAY FIVE Now away from the coast and on to the "Suisse Normand". We picked our way through tiny villages along forgotten lanes a million miles from what the car tourist normally sees. Only the signs in tiny churchyards saying "Commonwealth War Cemetery" reminded us of what we had seen in the last three days. Here British Commonwealth soldiers were buried almost where they fell as the Brits rarely repatriated their dead, unlike the Americans. Otherwise there are no great monuments, just the quietest most beautiful country you could wish for. I can't give you a detailed route plan, it would just be too complicated,but as a rough guide here are the names of the villages we went through or passed:-Arromanches, Ryes, Vienn-en-Bessin, Ducy-Ste-Marguerite, Audrieu, Fontenay,Grainville-s-Don, Gavrus, Evrecy (good lunch stop!), Ste Honorine-du-Fay,Goupillieres and on to Thury-Hardcourt. This little town set in the heart of the Suisse Normande has a wonderful campsite deep in the valley and a good hotel/restaurant init's centre. Oh yes, you may notice the odd hill during todays 62 kms...
DAY SIX If you've time I'd spend another day at Thury and explore the area, otherwise it's off to the West. It's another hilly day, and again up around 60 kms, but like yesterday there is little to stop and see, just the countryside around you as you ride along, so the distance is not so daunting. Again it's country lane cycling so you'll need to follow the map carefully. The list of places you pass is as follows:- Thury (Go due south on the west bank of the river), Mesnil-Roger, Caumettes, St Lambert, Cauville, St Jean-le-Blanc, Montchauvet, le-Beny-Bocage (good lunch stop), Campeux, Malloue, Pont-Ballenger and on to Pont Farcy. Again a nice quiet campsite by a lake and a Hotel/Restaurant in the town.
DAY SEVEN South-west today, and easier terrain to take you the 50 kms to Ducey, within striking distance of Mont-St-Michel. Once again you're cycling in the "sticks", but though there are few "sights" it is some of the best cycling country imaginable. You start off almost due south and the list is as follows:- Pont-Farcy (on the D554), St Martin, le Mesnil Sauvage, Beslon, St Mure-des-Bois, la Chapelle-Cecelin, Le Bourigny, (on theD233) Brecey (good lunch stop), le Petit-Celland (big hill!), Charrurie, Marcilly and on to Ducey. This is a busy little market town with a tiny campsite equipped with the best showers in the universe (what do you mean "better than sex"?). There's a big supermarket, the Eric Clapton Bar (!) and plenty of shops and restaurants. TheChateaux in the town has the most magnificent flower gardens, well worth the visit ifyou like flowers...
DAY EIGHT Today gerd your loins, bite the bullet and do a there and back to see the tourist trap that is Mont St Michel. Even the tacky trinket shops can't spoil this though it looks best from a distance. Walt Disney must have had this place in mind when he designed his castle...
DAY NINE From Ducey take the D78 the 10 kms to Avranches. This is a big busy town full of shops and bars etc. The castle is small but worth a look but much else was flattened in the war. In the square is the war memorial to the dead of WW1 and it is pitted and scarred by small arms fire. As you'll probably spend quite a time here the rest of the ride is quite short, though an longer alternative would be to cut down to the coast at Genets and then take the D35 all the way to La Haye. Basically you go up the D105 and then D575 due north to La Haye Pesnel about 15 kms in all. This is a small town with a campsite and hotel in the centre. There's also a decent supermarket
DAY TEN A longer day through the countryside to take you north 50 kms to the coast at Gouville-s-Mer. The route is easy to find, first take the D35 15 kms to Cerences, then stay on the same road for another 8 kms to Quettreville. Here take the D49 to Montmartin-sur-Mer then the D20 and D650 to Tourville-sur-Sienne. You can then cut down to the sea at Agon-Coutainville and follow the coast road up to Gouville-sur-Mer. The coast here is one long sweep of silver sand as far as the eye can see. You can pick up cockles here to cook up at one of the many campsites that line the shore.Gouville is tiny but still manages to have a small hotel.
DAY ELEVEN Personally I find the coast road here a bit big and busy, so I cut in slightly and followed the little lane that runs parallel north along the coast to Lessay. Here you can't avoid being on the major road for a km or so as you go to St Germain-sur-Ay.Now is time to get back into those Normandy lanes and get lost (as I did...). Don't worry the day is only 43 kms so you have time to go round in circles a bit. Your aim isto get to your lunchtime stop at the town of la Haye. You can see the little lanes on the map, you find the way! Your problems don't end at la Haye as your stop tonight is at St Sauveur-le-Vicomte. You have to take the large D900 for about a km at the halfway point as this is the only way to cross the Reserve Natural de la Sangsuriere et de la'Adriennerie. But to get to and from this section you can again "explore" the lane system, it's not that difficult and you can't go too far wrong.When you finally get to St Sauveur you'll find a lovely, very cheap campsite overlooked by a huge ruined castle. Next to it is an excellent hotel which has rooms starting at about 150 francs for a double so you are spoilt for choice
DAY TWELVE The last leg back to Cherbourg 38 kms and by now your navigation skills should be well honed. Get out of St Sauveur on the Valognes road then in under a km you fork right onto the D15. Another km and you turn left signposted to St Clair. Keep on this road and follow signs to Orglandes. Just beyond this village there is an unassuming sign for the German war cemetery on your left. A short length of wall and a little chapel/gateway mark the entrance. As you walk under its arch spread before you are row upon row of rough hewn granite crosses, the land gently curving down away from you, giving the impression that they go on forever. Here there is no triumphalism, justa stark reminder of the cost of war. Each cross marks the grave of not one, but six dead Germans. It is a place I shall never forget.Soon the road takes you on to Valognes, a town that makes an ideal stop for lunch,sitting outside a cafe eating a huge baguette sandwich while the world goes by makes for a perfect midpoint to your last day. From Valognes take the tiny D87 which is actually signposted all the way to Digosville right next to Cherbourg.On this fortnight I hope you will have felt the history of Normandy, fallen in love with its countryside and paddled in its sea, but most of all it will give you a taste of what France has to offer.