Mont Saint-Michel

Mont Saint-Michel, one of the most iconic places in Normandy

After breakfast with pan au chocolat, we are off to Mont Saint-Michel, whose shape stands out to the north of the camper area where we spent the night. Arriving in the area, all the roads come to a large parking lot from which is possible to walk or board one of the many free shuttle buses that cover the 2 km distance to the island. In recent years, Mont Saint-Michel has been subjected to a number of works to restore the maritime character of the site, which had been gradually distorted by the accentuated sedimentation. Now the island is reachable by a bridge-walkway designed to support the sustainable development of the bay and the abbey.

Access to the fortified island through the bridge-walkway

At the date and time of our visit to the site, the tide is very low and we can safely walk around the Mont. Studying the tide cycles in advance, one can enjoy the mountain surrounded by the sea and witness the water tide rising “like galloping horses”. Once past the fortified walls that surround the island, it’s all about a steep, narrow alleyway packed with touristic boutiques that accompany various walkways and terraces overlooking the coast and the sea.

View from one of the numerous overlooks of Mont Saint-Michel on the terraces and spiers below

Despite the chaotic touristic face of the place, the complex seems to have maintained its medieval atmosphere. However, the restoration is perceivable in the excessive aesthetic perfection of the architectures. Moving uphill, we find a tiny alley mentioned in the guide, only 50 cm wide and, after some photographic overlooks, we arrive at the abbey on the mountaintop. The abbey is characterized by ample and diversified environments and its tour takes about 1h to be completed.

One of the interiors of the abbey, covered by an impressive barrel vault

After the tour, we walk down the narrow streets of the village and venture on foot on the sandy terrain around the Mont discovering the prospects and glimpses of the less known side of the fortified island. Occasionally the sand becomes soft and damp, forcing us to walk past the rocks to avoid saltwater pools. By the time we get back to the car lunchtime has already passed.

Mont Saint-Michel saw from the coast
Grazing sheep in Lower Normandy not far from Mont Saint-Michel

We eat a quick bite at the St. Michel Café, a small bar that we find on the way, and start heading towards Upper Normandy on the way back. By browsing the dedicated Meridiani dossier, we find an article on the Route des Chaumières, houses with “the hair” or the straw roof, typical of the area. The area on which the Route runs is along the route we have taken anyway, so we decide to go there.

A “chaumière”, a rural house with a characteristic roof made with wheat straw, rye or with reed stems
Unexpected surprise along the Route des Chaumières

We leave from Marais-Vernier in the direction of Notre-Dame-de-Bliquetuit, through the Parc Naturel Regional des Boucles de la Seine Normande. The route is gorgeous, surrounded by greenery, and crosses small villages, many of which count numerous chaumières. As we stop to take some pictures we get complaints by one owner reminding us that the house is a private property. We conclude the tour with a visit to the really enchanting 17th-century chaumière mill of Hauville.

The seventeenth-century chaumière mill in Hauville at sunset
Geometries of the plowed fields in front of the Hauville mill

The beautiful and intense day ends in Jumièges, a place known for its abandoned abbey, which we can see between the tops of the trees, approaching the town. We arrive around 8pm so we decide to leave the visit to the abbey for the next day and have dinner with galettes at La Bonne Famille . We find confirmation of the idea that we had that in Normandy with the term “crêpes” only the sweet crepes are indicated, while for the salads, the word “galettes” is used; in Provence, we had seen the same term “crêpes” for the sweet version of the dish as well as for the salad and “galettes” for the crusts prepared with buckwheat flour. Anyway, the galette ham and goat cheese is great, like the chocolate crêpes to follow. Drink, a glass of cider.

After dinner we go in search of the camper area indicated by the Furgoperfecto nearby, with no services but no charge. There are already some campers parked at the edge of the gravel area so we stop the van on the grass ahead for a bit of privacy. From here, the upper part of the abbey is clearly visible stretching out above the trees.

 

Tips

Mont Saint-Michel: free. Parking: 6 € for 2h30′, 11,70 € all day. Abbey: 10 €

The Côte d’Albâtre

Beach delimited by high alabaster cliffs near Veules-les-Roses

In order to make full use of the four days available, we leave from Den Haag on Friday evening. The plan is to drive a long way down the road that separates us from Normandy so we will begin to explore the region the next morning. We head to Antwerp and Brussels (A4, then E19, E17), finding some intense traffic near Rotterdam. Just past the French border begins the highway (A1) of which we travel a short stretch before stopping for the night in Curlu, a tiny little village in Picardy, where we have previously found a quiet and safe place to stay, map out on Furgoperfecto.

We arrive just after 11 pm and the atmosphere is pleasant and at this time the roads are deserted. The parking lot where we spend the night is in a clean area, in front of the illuminated village church.

Wheat fields along the way to the coast

After the violent thunderstorm during the night, we wake up in the morning by the sound of the church bells and by the singing of a rooster. We move to the countryside surrounding the village for a quiet breakfast, beginning to plan the day, warmed by a lukewarm sun.

We head towards the coast and in two hours and a half, we arrive in Veules-les-Roses, a pretty village built along the shortest river of France (1100 m overall length). We walk the waterway to the sea, meeting those who once were mills and small locks. At the mouth of the river Veules we find an immense pebble beach and here are the first white cliffs of the Côte d’Albâtre. The coastline so named goes from Le Tréport, just northeast of where we are, and ends before Le Havre. From the wharfs that stand out on the dry beach, we realize that we are at a low tide. The range – that is the difference between high and low tide – in this area can be as high as ten meters. Returning to our steps we cross the village again, crossing the road on the other side of the river where we buy crispy baguettes at the boulangerie patisserie Loue.

The Côte d’Albâtre during low tide

We move on to Fécamp, stopping along the road following the coast to Veulettes-sur-Mer, where we enjoy a Côté Plage crêpes chilling on the seafront, which is still quiet in this season.

We continue and, just before the port town of Fécamp, we follow the signs to Cap Fagnet, a belvedere overlooking the town with ample views of the steep white cliffs. Here are some reinforced concrete constructions, German outposts dating back to World War II. They are just the first of many that we will see the next day, dedicated to the D-Day beaches.

Alabaster cliffs seen from Cap Fagnet
Chapelle Notre-Dame du Salut, Cap Fagnet

Next stop is the most characteristic place of the Côte d’Albâtre: Étretat and its cliffs on the sea. We park in the village, near the station, and walk to the Falaise d’Amont – accessible on foot, by shuttle train or by car – which offers spectacular views. This first high point is north of Étretat while south of the village is visible the Falaise d’Aval, our next destination. We descend from the Falaise d’Amont along the path leading to the beach and walking along the waterfront. The beach is in pebbles that some banners forbid to collect and take away; somebody dares to take a swim.

We arrive at the foothills of the Falaise d’Aval above a characteristic rock formation similar to an elephant trunk. Not far from the coast, there is another notable formation shaped as a pinnacle, made famous by Maurice Leblanc as a legendary hiding place of the treasures stolen by Arsène Lupin (in the novel the pinnacle is hollow). The climb to this second promontory is also worth more than the first, offering good views of the coast, the pinnacle and the trunk.

Alabaster cliffs close to the Falaise d’Aval
The Falaise d’Aval with the pinnacle and the characteristic elephant trunk formation
Seagulls by the seaside

After relaxing into the sun on the grassy cliff top, we get back to the car in the late afternoon and head back to Honfleur, our destination for the night. With a bit of regret we skip the planned stop in Le Havre, a UNESCO site known for the reinforced concrete architecture dating to the post-war reconstruction. The road passes to the Pont de Normandie (toll 5.4 €) that with its 850 m span is the widest bridge in Europe.

On our arrival in Honfleur, we find out that the two campgrounds are already closed, probably because we are in low season. We decide to spend the night in the free parking lot of the Plage du Butin, where we have dinner with crispy baguettes and a selection of local cheese.

Sunset over Le Havre harbor

 

NORMANDY

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It was at least three years that we fantasized about Normandy as a possible travel destination. The information gathered about its weather, often brisk, makes us choose the late spring as the time of the year to try to venture between the Côte d’Albâtre and the Mont Saint-Michel. Once again, since Stefano lives in The Hague, we decide to arrange the short trip in a van, leaving from The Netherlands. Because of the beautiful weather and the few tourists around, we are definitely charmed by this corner of France historically known for the allies landing during World War II. Both the coast, characterized by white cliffs that remind us of the views seen in Sussex, and the beautiful inland countryside, dotted with pastures, farms and tiny villages with straw roof houses, fill our hearts. To crown the short but intense path, the famous small fortified island with the sanctuary dedicated to the Archangel Michael.

Travel log

Period
5 days (19-23 may 2017)
Distance traveled
1600 km
Cost per person
250 €
Transportation
campervan

Tips

Travel planning: Lonely Planet Francia settentrionale e centrale, dedicated Meridiani dossier and Turisti per caso travel logs

We preferred to skip the highway, where possible, to drive on secondary roads like the Route des Chaumieres to appreciate the magic of houses with straw roof typical of this area

Plan the visit to Mont Saint-Michel at the arrival of the high tide to witness the rising water coming “like galloping horses”

Find places to park your van and spend the night on Furgoperfecto