by Adam Ruck, The Telegraph, April 16, 2018
One of the most successful French films of recent years, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, tells of a postman who is relocated from the Côte d’Azur to a small town near Dunkirk as a punishment for a professional misdeed. What could be more bleak than two years in the shivering north? His fate turns out to be a blessing, of course. Northerners are friendly, and funny. He gets used to the accent and the smelly cheese, and joins in the beer-swilling, dart-throwing, bell-ringing fun. Life in the north is warm, rich and colourful, he discovers. He doesn’t want to leave.
From Flanders to Finistère, eight ferry gateways spanning more than 400 miles invite Britons to explore France’s Channel coast and hinterland. For us, it’s not the Bleak North, but a place rich in history and beauty with slightly better weather and much better catering. The battlefields and cathedrals are compelling, the beaches seductive. Temperate northern France suits an active holiday, walking the cliffs or cycling the hills and valleys. The weather and landscape are also ideal for golf, with fine courses all along the coast.
France clings to its regionalism, and variety adds spice to exploring, eating and drinking. Brittany and Normandy are as different as crab and cheese, as are Picardy and Flanders. Wherever you land, a fine dinner awaits. That’s the point of going to France, isn’t it?
Any walking holiday has a spiritual dimension: a renunciation of trappings in favour of simplicity. Something of a pilgrimage, in fact, and Le Mont Saint-Michel, the abbey-crowned granite island at the mouth of the Couesnon that marks the boundary between Brittany and Normandy, makes a good target for a long walk, whether religious or not. As an act of faith, few walks compare with the traditional approach to the abbey, following a guide through the shallows and over the shifting sandbanks of the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel from the Bec d’Andaine, 2/3 mile north of Genêts on the GR223 coastal footpath.
British pilgrims of old landed at Barfleur and followed the “Voie aux Anglais”. It’s still viable, but the GR223 from Cherbourg would be my heathen choice: 160 miles to Genêts. An hour’s bus ride from Cherbourg to Barneville-Carteret cuts that to 100 miles but misses out the best stretch of coast, around the Cotentin’s northern tip. For the guided walk across the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel, see ville-genets.com/fr/tourisme/traversees-randonnees-en-baie.html. The adventure is not compulsory; you can stick to terra firma, adding 25 miles to the walk, or take the train from Folligny (near Granville) to Mont Saint-Michel’s local station, Pontorson.
As for Brittany, the coast is your oyster. The old Sentier des Douaniers (customs officers’ path), the GR34, follows it for more than 1,100 miles from Mont Saint-Michel almost to the mouth of the Loire, posing more questions than it answers unless you have the entire summer. The two most famously scenic stretches are the Pink Granite Coast around Lannion and the Emerald Coast around Saint-Malo. Self-guided walking holidays in both sectors, with luggage transfers between overnight stops, are offered by tour operators including Headwater (headwater.com) and Inntravel (inntravel.co.uk). Doing it yourself, driving or using public transport, is harder on the legs but not difficult. For Pink Granite, Morlaix to Perros-Guirec would fill a strenuous week (100 miles, with hills); a circuit from Lannion would be easier. For the Emerald Coast, you can walk from Saint-Malo to Mont Saint-Michel (45 miles) in a long weekend.
London to Paris is an obvious cycling idea, and a good one – on the French side of the channel, at least. Dieppe is the starting point for the French section of the Avenue Verte, which follows minor roads and car-free voies vertes for 150 miles through green and pleasant parts of Normandy and the Île de France, with few steep hills. The website cycle.travel/route/avenue_verte_france is packed with details, maps and good advice. Alternatively, Sustrans publishes a guide to the entire Avenue Verte, detailing alternative routes/diversions.
The cyclist in a hurry could reduce the length of the ride by a third, to 100 miles (two days, for most of us) by following the most direct minor roads rather than the Avenue Verte. From Pontoise I would consider taking the bike into Paris on the RER train (permissible outside rush hour). Returning to Dieppe by train from Gare Saint-Lazare takes two hours via Rouen. Longer but no less tempting, La Véloscénie (Veloscenic in English) covers 280 miles from Paris to Mont Saint-Michel via Versailles, Rambouillet and Chartres, with mostly gentle gradients on minor roads and cycle tracks. Pedalling on to Saint-Malo extends the ride to 310 miles: achievable in a week, with time for sightseeing. The website veloscenic.com and a new English route guide published by Excellent Books present it as conceived (by Parisians) as heading west from Notre Dame. For a better chance of wind assistance, I would be tempted to do the trip in reverse, starting at St Malo.
Brittany has done as much as any region to tempt the cyclist with family-friendly voie vertes and long-haul véloroutes including a complex Tour de Manche itinerary linking Cherbourg, St Malo and Roscoff and a route through southern England between Plymouth and Poole, with variants including the Channel Islands. The Breton part of the Vélodyssée (velodyssey.com) is car-free almost all the way. Starting from Roscoff, it’s 170 miles through the inland hills and along the towpaths of the Brest to Nantes canal as far as Redon (add 70 miles to continue to Nantes), returning by train via Rennes to Saint-Malo or Roscoff.
Home Counties golfers have been crossing the Channel for a burst of tip-top golf and good living at Le Touquet since the days of the roll-on roll-off air shuttle from Lydd, and beyond. Barely an hour from Calais, Le Touquet can be done as a day trip, but it would be a shame to miss the country house comforts of its dormy house, Le Manoir; or, for a bigger splash, lobster and champagne at the Westminster. Don’t hurry home, there is plenty more golf: 36 really good holes in the sandy pine woods at Hardelot, and a wide open breezy links at Wimereux with big views across to Dover. Belle Dune is an excellent modern course near the Marquenterre bird reserve and the Somme estuary. Dunkirk is worth playing, too, with tee boxes built into the bastions and buttresses of Vauban’s defences. Either side of Le Havre and the mouth of the Seine there is good golf along the cliff tops at Etretat and above fashionable Deauville, with its sumptuous Golf Hotel perfectly placed for the first tee.
Brittany Ferries has a golf department (brittany-ferries.co.uk/golf) offering packages of crossings, tee times and accommodation. My landfall would be Saint-Malo for a game at genteel Dinard, France’s third-oldest golf club (after Pau and Biarritz), then a bigger round at Pléneuf, an hour along the coast. Crossing Brittany to its south coast in a couple of hours often means a better climate. Even so, I wouldn’t advise shorts for Ploemeur, a prickly experience near Lorient. My other south-coast pick is Rhuys Kerver, a flat seaside course near Saint-Gildas on the peninsula that all but makes a lake of the Gulf of Morbihan, with abundant lakes and birds making up for the lack of sea views.
Food and drink
From Calais, the gourmet’s target will be Boulogne, France’s premier fishing port and home (on Rue Thiers) of Philippe Olivier, grand master of all the smelly cheeses of the north, Maroilles the most pungent and famous of them all. Half an hour from Le Havre, Fécamp is another fishing port with an interesting history, and the home of sticky Benedictine, the monks’ consolation.
Northern France is not wine-growing country, although Champagne is easily reached from Calais. The locals drink beer in the north-east: Lille is a fine city for pub crawls and microbreweries. Normandy and much of Brittany drinks cider, often from a corked and wired bottle (cidre bouché), but muscadet or a gros plant from Nantes counts as local, to accompany a plate of flat oysters from the Belon river near Pont Aven, the artists’ haven in southern Brittany. Prized Belon oysters are farmed in the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel, too, and Cancale is France’s oyster capital, with seafood restaurants lining the waterfront and miles of oyster beds exposed at low tide. Make sure you have the right tool and know how to use it before buying a dozen.
It’s not all seafood, though. Salt-marsh lamb from the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel or the Somme estuary is on many menus, and one must hope the appellation is genuine. Normandy’s diet is fat and fruity: something fried in butter with a cream sauce, followed by a voluptuous camembert or Pont l’Évêque, a tarte tatin, a calvados with coffee, and a nap. Ouistreham and Le Havre are your gateways to the delightful Pays d’Auge, home of these sinful treats.