Coming face to face with a hungry albino alligator was not something I realised could happen in rural Normandy.
Luckily, unlike the nearby giant tortoises, this one was not roaming freely at the Alligator Bay complex near the Mont St Michel. Incidentally, some of the tortoises are actually bigger than my coffee table and can move surprisingly fast towards unsuspecting visitors. You will be glad to know that the wildlife spotted around the rest of the Manche region, field mice, crickets and foxes, were a little less deadly.
The Manche is basically the area that stretches from Cherbourg down to the Mont St Michel and takes in some great beaches, historic towns and plenty of rural scenery. We based ourselves in a gite on a farm near to Pontorson. Surrounded by cornfields, the house was recently refurbished to a very high standard and provided a great base to explore the local area.
When we were there, Normandy was at the centre of DDay commemorations and having watched much of the coverage of the anniversary it was both fascinating and humbling to visit places like Sainte Mere Eglise, Utah Beach, Omaha Beach and Pointe de Hoc. There are many museums and monuments in the area which explain what happened, but the most moving places are the war cemeteries which are the last resting place of many thousands of people. Indeed, it is difficult to get a grasp on the size of the Dday operation and the subsequent battles that took place across Normandy, so we picked up an MP3 audio tour called the DDay box to play in the car as we travelled from place to place. The comprehensive guide gave a useful background to each destination as we travelled from place to place. We also visited a former German Bunker at Azeville. The buildings above ground, disguised as farmhouses, hid a huge installation of underground tunnels and communications rooms.
Whilst geographically not too far from the WW2 battlefields, the medieval town of Dol de Bretagne feels like a world away. The majestic cathedral overlooks the historic town and the cobbled streets make the town a very picturesque place to visit. We chanced upon a group performing a traditional Breton dance in one of the courtyards and whilst I held back from joining in, I did get the opportunity to sample some traditional local cider and the local speciality, Moules Marinière.
Regarding food, local markets should be high on the “to do” list in the area. Whilst I took the chance to visit a few on this visit, I can recommend the market in the Jullouville, a beachside resort town near to Granville, as a great example. During the summer, there are hundreds of stalls selling all sorts of products and, as an avid people-watcher, it’s fascinating to watch the customers haggling to get the best deal.
Given the fact that you are not guaranteed wall to wall sunshine in North-Western France, where the weather is similar to the South of England, its always handy to have a few “rainy day” venues in the back of your mind. One such place is the Grand Aquarium in St Malo. What sets this aquarium apart from others is the Nautilus ride, which takes you on a journey under the sea in mini submarine so you can see the aquatic life up close in its own (albeit recreated) environment.
As someone who has visited the area many times over the years, I still find that there is an element of parts of the region being undiscovered. We travelled on roads through beautiful countryside and quaint villages where we didn’t meet another car for miles.
Once seen as a “summer” destination, the area can now be enjoyed all year round as Stena Line operate a ferry three times a week from Rosslare to Cherbourg. On board, the comfortable cabins allow for a good night’s sleep and the buffet restaurant offers a great choice of meals.
With the majority of the route from Northern Ireland to Rosslare Europort being motorway or dual carriageway journey time is around 4 hours, making France closer than you think!