The Channel Coast: Normandy and the Mont Saint-Michel

Five hours before sunset, Intercity 13032 pulled into the station at Caen. The dark clouds made it feel like dusk as I made my way north on the bike route to the coast. I had picked a hotel a few kilometres out of town, so that I could get well along the coast the next day. It was Wednesday, the 26th of July, 2017.

Thursday morning, I opted for the hotel breakfast, because they had eggs and cheese, normally missing from a French breakfast. I tucked a couple of eggs in my jersey for the road. By midafternoon, I was visiting the Juno Beach Centre at Courselles-sur-Mer, the first of many memorials to the D-Day landings of 6 June 1944. Interestingly enough, the Canadians were given the easternmost stretch of the 80-km long landing front. It was almost the same place that they had landed in 1917, when they made their mark by storming Vimy Ridge, one of the few clear victories in that hellish morass of trench warfare. They were back for World War II. On both occasions, they left thousands of dead. I had visited the Canadian cemetery at Calais on my way south. The one with the Juno Beach dead is even bigger.

A shout out to Scott, the supervisor at the Juno Beach Centre, and his staff. Rather than blow me off when I asked about going up to the roof for a better photo of the site, the lady at the info desk called Scott, and he unlocked the gate for me. They used to allow visitors up there, but it was found to violate handicapped accessibility rules (no lift), so they had to close it. Scott also gave me a press kit.

Starting at Juno Beach, I made my way along the beach to the landing site at Arromanches, where the Free French came ashore. I was trying to follow Eurovelo 4, which was supposed to be “developed and signed” at this point. Instead, I found that the route was paved only near the four major memorials, and that there was nothing in between. After pushing my bike through a stretch of deep sand on an animal track, I decided to follow the road on the landward side of the dunes. Twice I went down roads to the coast, to find that there was nothing there but a pleasant fishing village. One of them, Coleville-sur-Mer, occupied the eastern edge of Omaha and Utah beaches. When I made my way to the Omaha Beach Memorial in St. Laurent-sur-Mer, I learned that the big American Cemetery was located in a forest next to Coleville-sur-Mer, which I had long passed. There were no signs for the cemetery! Only the memorial was indicated on the map. Somewhat disappointed, I took pictures of the memorial, and headed west for a campsite at the western edge of the invasion area. However, I saw an attractive campground just west of Omaha Beach (called “Camping Omaha Beach”, of course), which had plenty of room in the tent area. Tired from the headwinds, I pulled in for the night. A delightful German family nearby (with a pavilion tent and three cars) offered me a chair to rest and anything else I needed. I pitched my tent, ate my supper, and took my beer and their chair to their site for a chat. The father, Robert, is a music teacher who also teaches French and English (small world). The whole family spoke excellent English and were happy to practice. Robert’s daughter, Sara, her husband Christian and friend Caroline made me feel welcome. Unsolicited, unconditional generosity like theirs gives me hope for the world.

On Friday morning, I broke camp and headed toward Coutances, about halfway to the Mont St-Michel. There were more D-Day memorials. I was beginning to see a theme. Every town along the D514 highway sported American and French flags, and each has a museum or memorial to some aspect of the invasion.

D-Day is big for tourism in this area, but, more than that, the vastness of the operation has given each town something to put up that will attract a reasonable number of visitors – and mean something special to them. For example, there were special museums and memorials for the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne, for the National Guard, and for the 1st Army. I also noticed that the road out of Coleville-sur-Mer was called Allée de Bedford (Virginie, EU). As a Virginian, I was well aware that the little town of Bedford lost more sons on the beaches of Normandy than any other in the United States.

Rain was predicted for Saturday, but I got sprinkled on from the thick cloud cover as I pushed into the wind to Coutances. Not wanting a wet tent, I opted for the Ibis Budget hotel outside Coutances, so that I could get out quickly between showers.

Stephen Lord, author of the appropriately named Adventure Cycling-Touring Handbook, has some wonderful advice for those who insist on riding even inch of their route: remember that it is supposed to be fun. Take the train or change your plans when it isn’t. Taking the hint, I rode through the rain on Saturday morning to the train station at Coutances. I took the TER to Pontorson, about 10 km south of the famous Mont Saint-Michel, another item on my bucket list. When I stepped out of the station, a local gentleman with a city bicycle volunteered to show me where the bicycle path was to the coast. It was a beautiful, straight, well groomed path that led directly to the causeway. That causeway is now completely elevated so that the famous tides no longer interrupt the lucrative tourist traffic. Less romantic perhaps, but safer for all concerned. Locking my bike at the entrance to the tourist trap area, I made my way up the hill to the 11th-century Abbey. It is a working monastery. I arrived in time for midday mass. The nuns and monks were singing in four-part harmony which was beautiful in that classic space. This is now the fourth time that I have been able to enjoy a great European church under the circumstances for which it was created: singing the liturgies. It is one thing to admire the great art in these churches; it is another to experience them with all five senses.

It took me a half hour to get to the island, and an hour to get back. Such was the impact of a 20-knot southerly wind. However, I was able to catch the afternoon train to Rennes, a city which I had heard much about, but never visited. From there, I used the train to skip the several days of stiff headwinds and rain that were bashing the north coast of Brittany. Pretty as it probably was, I would not have seen anything anyway.

Rennes was not impressive as a downtown. I rode around before supper and stayed in a hotel near the station. The next day, I took the TER to Brest, the major naval base on Finisterre, called the end of the world by the Romans. Brest is a clean, pleasant-looking town, which reminded me of La Spezia. That it is a navy town and a maritime center is inescapable: seafood restaurants abound, and the nautical theme is everywhere, from interior decorating to the names on the stores and buildings. Having seagulls patrolling outside my hotel window was another hint.

Brest rolls up tight on Sunday, and a sudden shower washed out my plans to ride to the French Navy museum. I stayed in and laid out my track down the coast of Finisterre and the Bay of Biscay to Bordeaux. After a hearty supper at the only brasserie open on restaurant row, I came back and sent messages to Warmshowers hosts along the route.

Come back in two weeks to ride the west coast of France. Until then,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

JT

3 thoughts on “The Channel Coast: Normandy and the Mont Saint-Michel

  1. I, too, had never been to any of these. Now I want to return, in a better season, perhaps to ride the pieces that I covered in the train. I rode through Cherbourg in 2016 (q.v., category “Intercontinental 2016”), but it was awash with a terrible storm. Water up over the rims everywhere and the legendary winds. I took refuge in the Marine Terminal to await the ferry.
    Cheers. JT

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I went to Cherbourg I learned, among other things, why all the foreign (non-French) ships used to stop there (very briefly) on their way to or from the US. And how the emigrants were systematically tested and vaccinated in Cherbourg before embarking, to make sure they wouldn’t be turned away at Ellis Island.

      Liked by 1 person

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