75th anniversary of D-Day Landings focus eyes on "one of world's top places to visit"

This year’s 75th commemorations of the Normandy landings in WW2 have focused attention on this sometimes under-rated part of France.

It’s a region quite often overshadowed by its arguably more fashionable neighbour, Brittany, and that is a shame as it has a lot to offer.

That includes during 2019 because it’s undoubted “star” attraction – Mont Saint-Michel – is also marking a significant anniversary: 40 years since it received its UNESCO listing.

The Mount has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 1979.

The long history of the Mount is thought to date back to 708, when Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, had a sanctuary built on Mont-Tombe in honour of the Archangel.

An unmistakable icon of the northern French coast, the Mont-Saint-Michel is a magical island crowned by a lofty medieval monastery, looming dramatically on the horizon and defying some of the highest tides in Europe.

It was for centuries one of Europe’s major pilgrimage destinations and today, 2.5 million tourists from around the world flock there to see it.

A particularly good, and different, way to view it is by taking a walking tour of the huge bay in which it stands. Different because this is a side of the Mont that you would not otherwise see.

Romain Pilon, who lives locally, provides highly informative and entertaining tours which enable you to discover some of the 100 or so seals in the Bay, the flora, the famous quick sands and lovely scenery. He may also be able to show you the arrival of the tide as it sweeps in from out in the English Channel.

The Bay extends over an area of about 500 square kilometres so there’s plenty to see.

If you happen to visit in the summer (July and August) you should take in the annual night show in the majestic Abbey. This is one of the most picturesque and historical sites in the whole of France but it takes on an entirely different hue at night when modern day technology takes over for a quite brilliant light and sound show.

An excellent base to discover the whole area is the port town of Granville, just a short drive away up the Normandy coast.

  Going under the name “Destination Granville Terre et Mer” (it means land and sea), Granville is made of three cities in one: the old city (Haute Ville), developed from the XVth century; a residential district once connected to Granville in the 1960s and the low city, which used to be a swamp surrounded by the Boscq river but which is now populated by shops.

British readers might like to know of the strong UK links to the town dating to the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) when the British possessed almost all of Normandy. Even so, they still could not take over the Mont-Saint-Michel. Their numerous attempts systematically failed against the civil, military and religious defense settled on the Rock.

Moreover, the  Brit invader’s task was made harder still by the location of the Mont, landlocked into a deep bay regularly filled up by the high tides. Many British lost their lives drowning, trying to fight this natural phenomenon.

Granville harbour was built with Chausey granite from the 18th century and, today, the short excursions to the island  of Chausey by boat are particularly popular (try to go in autumn when the summer boom is over).

From the 16th to 20th century, the harbour at Granville became an important cod fishing port. The fishermen left for the arduous 6-month long fishing campaigns around the Terre-Neuve coasts in Canada.The night before they left was always a time of celebration, which is the origin of the Granville Carnival.Today, the festival, in February/March, is probably the biggest event in the area’s calendar.

Nowadays,the Granville fishing fleet is much reduced, composed of approximately 40 vessels and three types of fishing are employed here.The port is the biggest in the whole of France for shellfish with the whelk being the most harvested shell (it recently received much sought after protected status).

One of the vessels that used to make that journey to Canada is Le Marite which, today, is moored in Granville and can be visited.Depending on the tides and availability, you can also try a spot of sailing on this wonderful old vessel. One of the aims is to share and introduce visitors to the joys of traditional sailing. It is a great way to experience something quite different and admire the rigging from the bridge. Passengers are encouraged to help with the manoeuvres and it makes for a lovely couple of hours or so.

A range of highly informative guided tours of Granville can be organised by the local tourist office which is doing an especially great job in trying to raise awareness of the town and area generally.

There is, of course, rather more to the area than sea and sand and, venturing further inland will take you to another highlight: Chateau le Rocher Portail, a delightful spread set deep in the French countryside.

Built over 400 years ago, this is one of the area’s most beautiful edifices. The work was started by Gilles Ruellan who, at the time, was of the country’s leading financiers, an advisor and friend to King Henry VI, Queen Marie de Medicis and Cardinal de Richelieu. The gardens are classified as a Historic Monument and the gardener’s lodge is also classified. Look out for an exhibition of old photos of the chateau is displayed on panels in the gallery.

This privately-owned chateau enjoys exceptional heritage and is well worth experiencing.

The same can be said of another slice of this region’s heritage: the famous crepe.

This is an area that takes crepes very seriously and there’s no better place to try them than Breizh Café.

Founded by Bertrand Larcher, there are a couple located in the area, at St Malo (which also has a crepe training school) and Cancale. If you  are looking for a higher scale creperie this is the place to go. The crepes are fresh, using local products and located in classy surroundings.

The crepes – and galettes – are inventive and contemporary, with an Asian influence (the owner, Bertrand, is married to a Japanese woman).

The dishes, served with everything from oysters and seaweed to fried eggs and scallops, are very reasonably priced, particularly considering the great quality.

Back in June 1940 the Germans invaded Granville. As part of the Atlantic Wall Defensive System  the Nazis built fortifications around Pointe du Roc and forbade access to the port  in order to prevent Allied ships landing on the coastline.

Today, German visitors are the most numerous to the town and surrounding area, accounting  for 20 per cent of all arrivals last year. The Brits are next at 18 percent followed by the Dutch, 16 per cent, and Belgians at 11 per cent.

Normandy was voted by Lonely Planet, CNN and Wanderlust one of the top places in the world to visit and, looking ahead, the Normandy Impressionist Festival is set to be a highlight of 2020.

Preparations have already started for the Granville carnival early in 2020 and this would make for a great reason to discover this fantastic part of the country. But, really, there’s so much to see and do here that a visit any time of the year is a good idea!

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Martin Banks

Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a highly qualified journalist with many years experience of working within the EU institutions. He is an occasional, and highly valued, contributor to EU today, writing on a wide variety of issues.

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