The Heasley Family Guide to Normandy

I thought I’d try something different this summer. A tentative venture into holiday diary writing.

Contents
Pourqoui Normandie
The Ferry
Jullouville 
Granville
A day trip to Brittany
Carolles cliffs walk
Accidental day of abbeys
Mont St Michel
D-Day beaches
The Finale

Porquoi Normandie?

We are spending our statutory Two Weeks In August in Jullouville in Normandy. 
We are here because I succumbed to the months of relentless ‘airport chaos’ media frenzy, despite having sailed through security in record time whilst flying with EasyJet to Portugal, during, allegedly, the worst week of Easter instalment of airport chaos, and EasyJet was, allegedly, the worst affected airline.

However much our own experience differed from apocalyptic scenes depicted in the papers, I was not prepared to face weeks of stress and uncertainty whether our August flights would be cancelled, delayed or on time, so I came up with a fool-proof plan B, and booked tickets for overnight crossing from Portsmouth to St. Malo with Brittany Ferries. 

Feeling smug and clever, I congratulated myself on my shrewdness and proceeded to book dreadfully overpriced self-catering accommodation in Jullouville on booking.com.  

When I said above that I booked the crossing with Brittany Ferries, I was not being accurate. Brittany Ferries are the company who puts the ferry on the water, but I booked our tickets with Direct Ferries, as they offered not only a more straightforward online experience, but also, bizarrely, a better price. It was only after my payment had gone through and I had received the booking confirmation that I decided to check Direct Ferries reviews online. Oh boy, did I panic! Direct Ferries came across as the worst company to deal with, impossible to communicate with, prone to cancelling bookings at short notice, and, according to some disgruntled reviewers, it was clearly a business on the verge of bankruptcy. 

And so it came to pass that I replaced stressing about flight cancellations with stressing about ferry company going bust for the next two months. 

Somebody once said that anxiety is a fundamental disposition of our existence. I cannot remember who that was, possibly a philosopher with some double a’s and a lot of d’s and g’s  in their name. I am inclined to believe that I embrace this premise more thoroughly than a lot of people I know.

The panic, like the majority of my routine panics, turned out to be unfounded, Direct Ferries delivered the goods and we arrived at St. Malo at 8.30 in the morning.   

The Ferry
17th August 2022

The boat was called Bretagne, or perhaps it was just a fancy name of our destination, which was Brittany. The Portsmouth – St. Malo overnight crossing takes 11 hours. At the point of booking an overnight trip, you need to book either a reclining armchair or a berth.  On arrival on board, we rushed to the bar, as one does, and studied the evening entertainment schedule. We proceeded to sit through a mini disco with Pierre le Bear, and an interactive quiz. Experienced school quizzers as we were, we came 10th out of 15 teams. Who knew Hereford was a breed of cow, and not a type of horse? Or that Panama not only took part in the last World Cup but that we beat them 6:1? Not us, clearly. 

Our egos deflated by failing to win a portable charger set, we called it a night at 10pm, just as Lucy Beasley was welcoming everybody to the cabaret programme.  

At 6.30am the next morning, we were woken up by an instrumental piece, which, in other circumstances, I would consider soothing. As it was, it felt stubbornly insistent and vaguely Big Brother-esque. 

Jullouville
18th August 2022 

It took me a couple of days to spell the name correctly, the pronunciation remains approximate. 

Jullouville is a large village rather than a small town. The centre has a supermarket, an obligatory boulangerie with queues of baguette-hungry locals  forming outside from early hours, a tourist trinkets shop, and several restaurants, all of which serve moules frites, one is a pizza place, and one offers the best food in the world in the form of the most exquisite piece de boucher, which we ordered as we were curious what it was, and it turned out to be a heavenly kind of steak. 

In addition to a reasonable range of catering options, Jullouville boasts a seasonal mini fun fair which comes alive every summer night, a Notre Dame des Dunes church, and a Tourist Information office. 

Jullouville beach is several kilometres long, and about a 100 metres wide at ordinary low tide. During the second week of our stay the low tides became extremely low and the sea receded about 500 metres each afternoon, uncovering a maze of man-made stone fish trap enclosures, which suddenly appeared, the way I imagine Atlantis would, only to be swallowed up by the sea again a couple of hours later. 

The beach is perfectly positioned for dreamy sunsets, which take place directly in front of us around 9pm in August. 

One fascinating place in Jullouville is an imposing mansion on Avenue de Kairon, which happens to also be the street our house is on. When we first drove past it, my family hoped I might have booked us the mansion. 

At first glance it evoked images of witches, broomsticks, bats and hooting owls. On closer inspection, and on reading a plaque next to it, the grey-stoned haunted house turned out to be the previous Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force ( SHAEF), where General Dwight Eisenhower was stationed in August and September 1944.   

78 years turns out to be a very long time. Sic transit gloria mundi. 

Granville
19th August 2022

The day after we arrived, it rained. We did some quick thinking on our phones, and decided to spend the day in nearby Granville, and to visit the Christian Dior museum and gardens.  

The Christian Dior museum is located in the designer’s childhood home, which his parents had bought at the end of the 19th century.  

When we went to see it, it was showing a temporary exhibition Chapeaux Dior! which included over 200 models of hats and some classic Dior outfits too. The exhibition seemed extremely popular with, mostly French, visitors. We queued for about half an hour to get in and the queue had built up quickly behind us. The French either hold Dior in incredibly high esteem, or they simply all had the same idea how to spend a rainy Friday at the seaside. 

A day trip to Brittany
22nd August 2022

Dinan
As soon as somebody says medieval city and cobbled streets, we are sold, so we knew a trip to Dinan was on the cards since the lady at the Tourist Information uttered those words to us. 

Dinan is about one hour 40 minutes’ drive from Jullouville. It is definitely worth a visit, and it deserves half a day at least. Dinan’s main attraction is a long walk down the cobbled Rue du Jerzual lined with wonky medieval buildings, some of them turned into mini art galleries, others empty and neglected. 
The picturesque clock tower, the castle fort and old city walls complete the list of reasons to visit Dinan. 

Dinard is a somewhat old-fashioned seaside resort with a scenic path around the rocky bay area and a small beach. Nice to pop in if you have time, but looking back on the day, I would have stayed longer in Dinan and skipped Dinard. Sorry, Dinard. 

St. Malo
Much more than a ferry terminal. A walk on top of city walls with pretty views into the sea and the port, and a further stroll among imposing grey stone buildings of the town’s Intra-Muros area are recommended. We left it a bit late in the day to visit, so the walk felt rushed and incomplete. It would have made more sense to explore St. Malo for a few hours on the day we first arrived there, but we were all tired from the night on the ferry, and decided unanimously that St. Malo town was depressingly grim and grey. It certainly improved on second impression. 

Carolles circular cliffs walk
24th August 2022

2.5 hours circular walk on the cliff tops around Carolles, passing a Bourbon stone look-out hut on the way, which serves as badly needed air-conditioning on a hot summer day. Pretty views over the Carolles plage, stretching all the way up to Granville. From the viewpoint near the hut, Mont Saint Michel comes to view in all its misty dreaminess. 

Accidental day of abbeys
25th August 2022

If only my daughter’s tonsil hadn’t been playing up so badly that we needed to book her a doctor’s appointment, and if only the only appointment available this week had not been at 4pm, we would not have had to revise our previous plan of spending the whole day at D-Day landing beaches today. Further on, if the weather had been beach-worthy, like it was yesterday, we would not have visited the two local 12th century abbeys, L’abbaye Lucerne and L’abbaye Hambye. Which would have been our true loss. Both abbeys are within about 30-40 minutes’ drive from Jullouville. 

L’abbaye Hambye makes a dramatic statement in its sleepy countryside surroundings with a soaring sky-scraper ruin of the abbey proper and several dwellings and utility buildings scattered around it.  

The ruin of the abbey is a place of solemn grey-stoned beauty. After we had stood in every corner of it, with our necks bent backwards as far as they went, and snapped it from every angle with our cameras, we sat down on a nearby bench and admired its silent majesty. 

L’abbaye Lucerne is much better preserved, the abbey has a roof, walls and windows, and it looks pretty much like hundreds and thousands of other Medieval abbeys. It is surrounded by a number of stone buildings among which a circular tower called Dovecote stands out. It was designed for breeding up to 1500 pairs of pigeons. The description does not do it justice, it has to be seen to be believed. 

Mont Saint Michel
27th August 2022

Today we headed to the Manche region’s star attraction. 

Mont Saint Michel is on every Normandy visitor’s must-see list, which means that  crowds cover every inch of this tiny tidal island at all times, or at least until 6pm, when the island begins to lock up for the day. 

Planning the trip required a fair bit of logistical acrobatics. Nothing too challenging for weathered explorers like us, but beginners might falter. 

Caroline from Jullouville’s Tourist Information office deserves a medal for her dedication to making sure our day worked out perfectly. 

There is more than one way to play the Mont Saint Michel game. This is what we did. 
We booked tickets to see the abbey in advance, at our local Tourist Office. 

We then booked a guided walk from Saint Michel to Tombelaine island, which sits halfway on the 7 km full crossing route from the Abbey to Genets on mainland. 

We parked at the main car park, about half an hour walk from MStM, with a frequent shuttle bus also available. We took the shuttle in the morning and walked the causeway in the evening, turning back frequently to take yet another photo of the Abbey. 

We arrived at the entrance to the main event at 10am and meandered up to the Abbey along city walls and many lots of stone steps.

The Abbey is huge. It took us over 1.5 hours to visit, any less time and you will feel you are rushing it. We walked through one imposing room, crypt, refectory, cloister and chapel after another. Whoever built it, pulled all the stops for greater glory of God.  

The history of how the abbey came to be is a bit hazy to me, as it starts with Archangel Michael appearing to St Aubert in 708 and requesting that the saint, who was not yet a saint at the time, build him a sanctuary there. Angels giving instructions to people is not something I can personally relate to very well, but apparently that is what happened. The first church was built on the site in 966, by Benedictine monks. Why did it take 258 years to fulfil Archangel’s wishes? I have no idea, the plaque did not say, but I am sure whatever the reasons for the tardiness, God had forgiven and forgotten, because the end result is magnificent.

The building really is quite something. Religion-driven architectural greatness and posturing at its best. So much so, that it managed to evoke some vaguely spiritual stirrings in an irreverent non-believer like myself. 

After the abbey, it was time for a break and a crispy baguette sandwich. We had an hour to rest before meeting our guide for the walk to Tombelaine and back.

The place was teeming with people by then, and it took us a while to find a stone ledge in the shade to sit on, and when we did, we had to share it with a family of pigeons. 

Tombelaine is a small island 3km away from the Mont. 

It took us 3 hours to complete the walk there and back, with frequent stops when the guide told us about salt marshes, salt-saturated local vegetation, and how it affected local sheep’s gut bacteria, and how, in turn, it gave local lamb meat a unique taste. Fascinating stuff! My husband was truly blown away by the salt and silt stories and kept asking Bernard, our guide, numerous additional questions on the subject. I could almost hear Bernard making a mental note to himself never to take the bloody British on tour again, but he indulged my husband’s curiosity with admirable patience. In fact, Bernard and his company deserve a proper plug from us.
Chemins de la Baie, www.cheminsdelabaie.com

The highlight of the tour was making us all huddle in one spot and jump up and down as a group, until we all started sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand. One woman took this further than the rest of us, and lost her nerve only when the muddy sand reached the top of her thighs. 

After the tour, all that was left for us to do was to have a crepe, buy a fridge magnet and walk back to the car. Mont Saint Michel – done.

D-Day landing beaches
29th August 2022

Marriage means readiness for compromise, so today we all got up early and headed North to explore 2 out of 5 D-Day landing beaches,  Utah beach and Omaha beach.  

Utah beach is the most famous of the Normandy landing beaches, or at least the one where the French had decided to make the biggest commemorative effort. The result feels like a shrine to American contribution to winning WWII, with the rest of the Allied Forces hardly getting a look in. The Museum of D-Day Landing, signposted as Le Musee du Debarquement de Utah Beach, holds a large collection of artefacts, personal effects of GIs who died during the June 1944 operation, a couple of amphibian vehicles, a B26 bomber, an American army Jeep which was parachuted onto the beach in a box, several German and American uniforms, helmets, machine guns, binoculars, numerous military maps,  documents, and diagrams, and a lot of photographs. The exhibition includes a 20 minutes film on D-Day preparation and execution. My husband looked as if he’d died and gone to heaven. 

To be fair to him, he tried his best to enthuse the rest of us about the place too. With me, he succeeded the most when drawing my attention to a homing pigeon’s parachute and cage set. Homing pigeons from England used to be parachuted down in Northern France with a note asking local people to send them back with any information on German positions in the area. I find this truly amazing. 

The beach itself was very windy, the sea choppy and fittingly uninviting. We went for a short walk along the mostly deserted sandy shore, and stopped for a coffee at Le Roosevelt Brasserie, stylishly decorated in the 1940s mode. 

After Utah, we drove on to Omaha beach, some 45km down the coast. The wind was even stronger there, with sharp sand lashing our faces painfully. We took photos of the imposing D-Day monument on the beach and called it a day, abandoning original plan which was to visit all the five main landing beaches in the area. 

The Finale
1st September 2022

We spent the last two days of the holiday on our local beach, topping up the tan, picking up shells and  making several trips to the souvenir shop to make sure we chose just the right style of beads and string bracelets. However much we tried to stretch each of the final days, they ended fast and we were back on the return ferry quicker than you could say ‘where did the two weeks go?’  

Daytime crossing from St. Malo to Portsmouth took just under 9 hours, which we spent luxuriating in our pre-booked reclining armchairs, foot rests and all. Whilst on board, we consumed the last couple of the copious number of croissants and baguettes we lived on in France. 

We knew the holiday was over as soon as we saw petrol prices on the Portsmouth side of the Channel. 
How soon after one holiday ends is it too soon to start planning the next one?
Asking for a friend. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s