On arrive at Calais is an underwhelming experience. But it is unfair to dismiss the northern coast of France as one big cash and carry. For a short drive away are gastronomic joys, captivating scenery and traditional Norman charm. You may be familiar with the D-Day beaches and the Bayeux Tapestry, but we have found some unexpected delights close by.
Marquenterre Bird Sanctuary
An excellent bird reserve on the north bank of the Somme estuary, it is ‘very popular with the French, but is still sufficiently large that you can usually escape the crowds,’ says Country Life’s Wild Week writer, David Tomlinson www.parcdumarquenterre.com
Chateau de Bosmelet, Auffay
Its ‘rainbow potager’ a colour-themed vegetable garden featuring more than 900 varieties of fruit, flowers and vegetables inspired the first French garden at Chelsea, in 2000. ‘The owner, comte de Bosmelet, is half English and is the perfect guide for British visitors,’ says Leslie Geddes-Brown, author of Chelsea: The Greatest Flower Show on Earth www.chateau-de-bosmelet.fr
The Alabaster Coast’s long-distance footpaths make it ideal for a short walking holiday. A three-day trip with Belle France offers ample time to take in the magnificent views from Le Havre to Dieppe. July and August are the best time to go www.bellefrance.co.uk.
This little resort’s mesmerising rock formations featured heavily in Monet’s work. The adventure stories of the nation’s favourite fictional gentleman thief, a modern Robin Hood, Arsène Lupin, were based here and at the curious solitary pinnacle L’Aiguille (‘The Needle’).
Along the ‘Northern Rivieria’, sidestep busy Trouville and Deauville in favour of this delightful old port, with long-standing artistic connections. Idle away a day in its antique shops and galleries and sample the delicious seafood.
Les Pays D’Auge
Set back from the coast are the hills and valleys which yield Normandy’s famous cheeses, cider and Calvados brandy. This is true Normandy country with lush countryside and delightful little towns, littered with half-timbered barns, distilleries and farmers’ markets. Well-known Calvados producer Pierre Huet www.calvados-huet.com is based in the town of Cambremer, where you can head for the Route du Cidre, which takes in more than 20 cider producers. Clare Hargreaves, author of the Cadogan guide to Normandy, also suggests a trip to the Château de Vendeuvre, and the ‘truly quirky delights’ of its Museum of Miniature Furniture, as well as an intriguing water garden of ‘surprises’ and a collection of exotic birds and animals www.vendeuvre.com
The River Risle
Fish for brown trout on Charles Ritz’s beloved River Risle. GourmetFly organises day trips to the River Wisle and other famous chalk streams, including La Charentonne and La Touques www.gourmetfly.com.
The Contentin Peninsula
St Vaast-la-Hougue, particularly convenient for Cherbourg, is renowned for its oysters. Stock up on delicious local foods at Maison Gosselin www.maison-gosselin.fr, ‘The Fortnum & Mason of the north coast’, according to Sarah Kemp, publisher of Decanter.
In contrast to this busy marina are the endless, deserted beaches of the peninsula’s west coast, which amble towards Mont-St-Michel and its awe-inspiring monastery. The second most popular tourist destination after the Eiffel Tower, it is perched 250ft above the sea. A £100 million project has just begun to remove the build-up of silt that now almost links the island with the mainland, 2? miles away.
Illustration: David Atkinson.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on June 29, 2006.
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