This area is part of the Amorician Massif and lies between the estuary of the Vire River and
Mont-St-Michel Bay. It is divided into three areas:the headland of La Hague, the Cotentin Pass, and the Val-de-Saire and forms the majority of the Manche Départment. The prefecture of this area is
St. Lô, but the largest town is Cherbourg-Octeville; a guide can be found by clicking
here. Some of the more notable towns and villages are: Avranches, Barfleur, Barneville-Carteret, Bricquebec, Carentan, Coutances and
La Côte des Îles (The Islands Coast), as the western coast is known, faces the Channel Islands that are served by ferries from Carteret and Granville. The small French island of Chausey is also served by a ferry from Granville.
Coutances, as it is known today, was originally the capital of the Gaulish tribe, Unelli prior to the arrival of the Romans. During the reign of Constantius Chlorus, in 298 AD the town was given the name Constantia and the whole peninsula the name pagus Constantinus and later became known as Cotentin.
Until the last century, when modern roads were built, parts of the peninsula were inaccessible in winter due to a band of low-lying marshland in the south cutting off the higher ground in the north. This explains why the area is sometimes referred to as an island.
Valognes was, until the French revolution, a resort for the aristocracy and known as the Versailles of Normany. Today, there is little to see of the earlier splendour as a result of the Battle of Normandy in 1944.
The Battles of La Hougue and Barfluer took place between 27th May and 3rd June 1692 (17th –23rd May in the Julian calender then in use in England) at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue near Barfleur. It was the decisive battle of the Nine Years War (War of the Grand Alliance), a war to back the restoration of James II of England.
Due to its comparative isolation, the peninsula is one of the remaining strongholds of the Norman language. The Norman language poet Côtis-Capel described the environment of the peninsula, while French language poet Jacques Prévert made his home at Omonville. The Norman language writer Alfred Rossel, native of Cherbourg, composed many songs which form part of the heritage of the region. Rossel's song Sus la mé ("on the sea") is often sung as a regional patriotic song.
The Three Areas of Cotentin
La Hague & Val-de-Saire area is described in the Cherbourrg guide
The Cotentin Pass
The pass strectches from Lessay to Carentan, some thirty kilometres across the narroest part of the peninsula, a very tranquil and relaxing area that is very close to nature, with unspoiled surroundings.
Lessay, with its wonderful Abbey church dating from the time of William the Conqueror, comes alive with a start on the second weekend in September every year, when the population of 2,000 is swollen to over 400,000 by visitors to the annual Holy Cross Fair. The Champ de Foire at Lessay, for those three days, becomes the biggest shop in Europe with over 1500 stalls on the 32 acre site. To the south of the town is the Bog of Mathon, one of the smallest nature reserves in France.
Carentan, an important cattle market town and important regional centre for the dairy industry, is situated at the head of the Baie des Veys and is the eastern getaway to the northern Cotentin. Interesting are the facades and arcades of the houses around the Place de la République and the gothic Église Notre-Dame with its octagonal belfry spire. The Hôtel de Ville occupies the 17th-19th century building of the old convent. It was this part of the peninsula that played a vital part in the Normandy landings of the last war. It is an area of scattered farmsteads and hamlets that have become increasingly popular with holidaymakers.
La Côte des Îles (The Islands Coast)
The journey down the west coast really starts at Barneville-Carteret, this is an amalgamation of three settlements Carteret, Barneville & Barnville-Plague that have formed a popular seaside resort with a busy little port that is the closest to the Channel Islands. At Carteret there is a majestically rocky headland that protects the Gerfleur estuary and the port from wher ethe ferries leave for the Channel Islands. You should make time to walk around the Cap de Carterat, it takes about 45 minutes if you follow the signposts “La Corniche, La Phare”. In Barneville there is an 11th century church with a 15th century fortified tower. Although there was a restoration in the late 19th century, this work destroyed the original ceiling. On the road out of the township there is a monument commemorating the cutting-off of peninsula on July 18th, 1944 during the Battle of Normandy. Across the harbour is Barneville-Plague with its seafront boulevard of villas and sandy beaches.
Just a thought, if you are staying in Cateret, there is a “Tourist Train” (Preserved Railway) that runs to Port-Bail, a 10 kilometre journey along the Côte des Îles that calls at many small halts on the way. It is an experience you will never forget, the commentary describes the local surroundings and who’s waving to you as you pass, and who’s washing is on the line !!!!!!!!! Drinks are available on board and you can order a lunch, which is served on the return journey. Cost of this enchanting journey is 8€ for adults and 4€ for children under 12.
Taking the “main” road through Le Mesnil-Saint-Martin you come to Port-Bail, a former Gallo-Roman city
that was a port of call on the Pewter Road and the starting point for five different Roman roads. With the Channel Islands being so close trading links were quickly established.
Today, it is one of the most highly regarded seaside resorts of the area, with two magnificent beaches of fine sand, a marina and a sailing school. As this was once a tidal dock and a 13-arch bridge, constructed from stone links the town to the beaches and marina. Be warned, it has no pavement, yet everybody uses it to get to the beach.
Whilst in the town, time should be allowed to visit some of the interesting buildings including Église de Notre Dame, now de-consecrated, that was built in the 11th century on the site of a 6th century abbey founded during the reign of Childebert. The fortified tower was built during Hundred Years War, as the town was a strategic harbour at the time.
In 1956 some of the last remaining vestiges of the only hexagonal baptistery (behind the town hall) that we know about the north of the Loire were unearthed together with fragments of blue schist paving together with the piscine and its inflow and outflow pipes. There are also remnants of the old Roman aqueduct to be seen.
Leaving the town, follow the D903 towards La Haye-du-Puits and just beyond the first level crossing take a left turn into a narrow lane. Just before the houses park on the grass then walk beyond the houses and follow the path to the church ruins and cemetery. There you will find, in a field, the remains of a Roman watch post (Mont Castres) – still a strategic point in July 1944 during the Battle of Normandy. From there you get a panoramic view across the peninsula from Carteret to St.Côme-du-Mont. If you are feeling very energetic you can climb onto the ruins of the watch post, but, be warned, there are a few rocky areas to negotiate.
The next township you come to is St.Germain Sur Ay located beside the salt marshes and has a wealth of flora and fauna. It comprises a village and a beach resort that is one of the many authorized naturist beaches in Normandy. A market is held in the village on Thursday and Sunday mornings in season.
The area surrounding St Germain is known as Le Havre de St German Sur Ay and is one of largest and reputedly one of most beautiful areas of the west coast of Cotentin. As it is marshland it has not been altered by buildings and is still used for sheep grazing. The entrance from the sea is guarded by an old lookout post (the Corps de Garde) on a little rocky headland, which is now a chapel. Several times a year the marshes are flooded at high tide.
Turning inland you come to Château de Gratot, a seigneurial residence, home of the Argouges family for five centuries. Access is gain by crossing a small three-arched bridge over the moat. Jean d’Argouges sold the port of Granville to the English in 1439, thus giving them control of Mont-St-Michel. This brought dishonour to the family but in the next century they redeemed the family name through appropriate marriages and loyalty to the King of France.
Then as you approach the ancient religious and judicial centre of the peninsula, Coutances (Cosedia), which is perched on a hillock and surmounted by its cathedral spire, you will see the overgrown remains of the Roman aquaduct. The town’s history goes hand in hand with the Roman colonization of the area and it was at the end of that period that it took the name of Constancia in homage to the emperor Constantius Chlorus and became the administrative capital of Cotentin until after the Revolution.
Coutances Cathedral was built during the time of William the Conqueror by Geoffroy de Montbray and was given its charter in 1056. In 1218, after the town was burnt down, a new Gothic cathedral was literally erected on the remains of the original building. Thus, you have a Norman-Gothic building.
Église Saint-Pierre, a fine 15th/16th century church built by Geoffroy-Herbert bishop since 1494. The work was not completed until after his death. Around 1581, an octagonal lantern tower was added.
Hôtel de Ville dates from around 1819 and has a magnificent staircase. A little later the municipality equipped the principal frontage (on the left of the office of tourism) with a broad perron, a gallery with arcades and a belfry. The monumental frontage, on the square of the cathedral, was built between 1905 and 1907.
The interior exudes elegance and includes a Marriage Room that is decorated with beautiful murals depicting a Norman wedding. A 1/8th model of the Drakkar of Oseberg was discovered in 1903 and is displayed in the main hall.
Jardin des Plantes Created in 1852 by Minel offers one of the most pleasant walks in the area. Its 47,000 plants make of it a botanical academy in the spirit of the parks of late 19th century of which it is a precursor (registered with the curator of the historic buildings in 1992).
Museé Quesnel-Morinière, at the entrance to the botanical gardens is the former Hôtel Poupinel, a beautiful 17th century residence that was owned by the king’s counsellor of the same name. The museum has paintings dating from the 17th to 20th century (Rubens, Sweat, Vernet, etc.), sculptures from the 13th to the 20th century as well as a beautiful collection of Norman ceramics.
Returning to the coast you come to Regnéville-sur-Mer, really three villages: Regnéville, Grimouville and Urville. The name "Regnéville" is derived from the suffix "- city" which means "field of" and the radical "Regné -", impressed primitive Scandinavian name of the first owner of the places.Situated at the mouth of the Sienne harbour, it was in earlier times one of the most prosperous places along this coast, unfortunately as the harbour silted up prosperity declined. However, vestiges of the 12th century medieval fortress that was destroyed in the 17th century can still be seen. These imposing ruins show the importance of the port in earlier times. A visit to Musée du Littoral et de la Chaux is a must, set up in the former Rey lime kilns it is a magnificent example of mid-19th century industrial architecture and depicts the traditional activities of this coast.
Moving on down the coastal road, you come to Hauteville-sur-Mer, a charming seaside resort, where you will see five cottages called "Chaussemiche", named after the architect and dating back to the early 1900’s. The architectural heritage includes a church with a nave of Roman origin and a castle and houses of 17th –18th century. Next is the commune of Annoville, which has a varied history. As well as the manor houses dating from the time of Héronnière in the 16th century there is a church that dates back to the later part of the 11th century. You will also see a 17th century castle and presbytery. The dunes, here, overhang the beach where you will see at low tide the mussel and oyster beds. Then there is Lingreville and the harbour of Vanlée, where the sheep feed on the salt meadows and you can collect shrimps at low tide. Because of the sandy soil the area is renowned for its vegetable and cider production. Make sure you visit at least one cider producer whilst in the area, maybe M et Mme Fauchon, Village Maire : 02.33.61.61.75 !!
As you head south, you are now into the Bocage, where salt marshes and natural dunes that fringe the
coastline reflect on the surface of the sea. This is where the beaches benefit from the most extreme tidal conditions in Europe and where you will see unique and unusually scenes at low tide. This is
a lush, natural and relaxing place, a place of fine food, come, wake up your taste buds, the succulent meats, the sea-food with the smell of the ocean or even fish cooked in cream and don’t forget to
accompany these delicate dishes with a glass of Pommeau, a good farmhouse cider or an ageless Calvados.
Please see the interactive map provided by our friends at OFFICE DE TOURISME DU CANTON DE BRÉHAL
On a headland is city of Granville, often called “Monaco of the North”, a lively seaside resort with a famous carnival that takes place during Shrove Tuesday celebrations and lasts four days, on the last day a Carnival effigy is burned on the beach to denote the end of festivities, a busy fishing port and marina. The invigorating climate makes it an ideal choice as the location for a seawater therapy centre.
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE CITY
It is thought that a Viking called Gran founded the first settlement in Granville around year 1000 AD. However, a more probable etymology is grande villa (important city), a name, which appeared in the beginning of the 15th century when the fortified city was built.
In 1439, Sir Thomas Scales was ordered by King of England Henry V to build a fortified city that could be used as an operational base against Mont-Saint-Michel. At the time, the fortified abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel was the only place in Normandy that resisted the English conquest. Unfortunately, Granville was seized by surprise by the French three years later.
Granville was granted a municipal charter by King of France Charles VII in March 1445. The city was besieged in 1695 and 1803 by the English fleet and by the Vendean army in 1793, to no avail. Granville was a corsair city, for a while a rival of Saint-Malo, with the famous corsairs Beaubriand-Lévesque, Hautmesnil-Hugon and Pléville-Lepelley. Seventeen French admirals were born in Granville.
From the 16th to the beginning of the 20th century, Granville’s main industry was cod fishing in Newfoundland. There were more than 100 boats registered in Granville, hiring 5,000 seamen. In May 1945, a German commando raid that was launched from Jersey attempted to enter the city, to no avail.
Granville is now a passenger port (140,000 passengers per year to the Chausey and Channel Islands) and the fourth French fishing port.
The Chausey Islands, located 17 km off Granville, belong to the municipality of Granville. It is said locally that 52 islets and rocks (1 for every week of the year) are visible during high tides and 365 (1 for every day of the year) during low tides. Shell and oyster farming was recently developed on the islands.
The famous top designer Christian Dior, inventor of the new look style spent his youth in Granville. His house Les Rhumbs is now a museum.
Allow time to visit Haut Ville and the ramparts, you should allow at least two hours.
Église Notre-Dame - The oldest parts of this austere granite church, with its tower over the transept crossing, date back to the 15th century. The nave and the west front that is adorned with monolithic columns, was built during the 17th and 18th centuries. Inside, there are a few carved capitals round the chancel that has beautiful modern stained-glass windows by Le Chevallier. On the north side take note of David, Isaac and Ezekiel and, on the south, Jacob and Eli. The 14th century statue, in the north chapel, of Our Lady of Cape Lihou - the traditional name for the tip of the Pointe du Roc - is greatly venerated locally. The statue is particularly honoured in the Great Pardon of the Corporations and of the sea.
From the promenade beside the church there is a plunging view of the harbour area, where the boats stand high and dry at low tide.
Polnte du Roc - This is an exceptional place! The point, which marks the northern limit of Mont-St-Michel Bay, is linked to the mainland only by a narrow rocky isthmus. In the 15th century the English dug a trench, known as Tranchée aux Anglais, as part of their fortifications. Shortly afterwards the Governor of Mont-St-Michel, Louis d'Estouteville, recaptured Granville.
The walk (the path starts from the harbour) to the lighthouse offers a fine view of the sea and the rocks. The granite monument shortly before the lighthouse commemorates those lost at sea.
Rampart Walk - Park on the parvis of Notre-Dame Church and go through the Grand'Porte and over the drawbridge. Turn right onto Rue Lecarpentier to follow the south rampart to Place de l'lsthme.The view from the enormous square extends, on a clear day, to the coast of Brittany. Below the square, is the trench dug by the English that Continue along the inside of the ramparts by Rue du Nord.separated Le Roc from the mainland. At this point the town and the landscape are at their most severe but the view is spectacular in stormy weather. The Chausey Islands lie to the north-west. Turn left onto Rue des Plâtriers to reach rue St-Jean, then turn right. Note at no 7 Rue St-Jean, an old house with a ground floor shop and then at no 3, a house dating from 1612, with carved figures of Adam and Eve. The street opposite, Montée du Parvis, leads back to the starting point. Do not miss the large half-timbered house with a two-storey turret.
Les Iles Chausey
About 17 kilometres offshore is the largest archipelago in Europe, made up of granite islands, islets and reefs: The Chausey Islands, which according to legend were once part of the Scissy Forest were submerged by a tidal wave 709 AD. But modern thinking is that it was more than likely overwhelmed by the rise in sea levels after the last ice age.
Over the years there was a ceaseless theatre of competition between the French and the English and this archipelago were the only islands to remain French.
In earlier times
there were quarries that supplied brown granite for such edifices as Mont-St-Michel, today there is a winter population of six that rises in summer to around 100. The vast majority of the archipelago
is in private hands, Société Civile Immobiliére des Iles Chausey, with only 7 hectares owned by the state; that area being around the lighthouse and the fort.
La Grande Île is the only island accessible by the public; as for the rest of the islets access is only available outside of the seabird-breeding season. On this island stands the lighthouse, 37 metres above the sea and with a beam that carries 45 kilometres. As for the fort that was built in the 1800’s as part of the defences against an English attack, however it was never involved in a conflict. Today it serves as a shelter for local fishermen.
Five kilometres south of Granville is Saint-Pair-sur-Mer, a small seaside resort with a breakwater promenade that protects the beach of golden sands, perfect for children. You should allow time to visit the Chapelle Sainte Anne, supposedly founded in the 6th century by two local evangelists St.Pair & St.Scubillien, as the architecture and interior fitments date from as far back as the 7th century. You should also visit Monastère Le Carmel, where you will find monastic crafts.
Continuing south by the coast road, you will pass through Jullouville Les Pins, a small hamlet with houses scattered amongst the pine trees and with magnificent views over Mont-St-Michel Bay.
The next village is Carolles, where the beach is at the foot of the cliffs and village is on the last headland before you reach the wide sandy expanse that is Mont-St-Michel Bay. For the walker there is Vallée des Peintres (Artists’ Valley), a beautiful spot, green and rock strewn. Park your car at Carolles-Plague, north of the village. Another walk, this one takes about an hour, is to Le Pignon Butor, a cliff top where you can see across the bay to Granville Rock in the north and Pointe de Grouin and Cancale in the west. South of the village is Vallée de Lude, an area of gorse and bracken with a footpath that leads to the lonely cove at Port de Lude.
Following the road through St.-Jean-Le Thomas and Dragey-Ronthon, you eventually arrive in Gênets with its 12th century church and 13th century stained glass windows. Rather than taking the main road, just prior to the Calvary turn right and follow the coast road through Le Grand Port and on to Pointe de Grouin du Sud, where you will get a view of the famous salt marshes and Mont-St-Michel. From here follow the D591 until it joins the D911, there turn right and follow the signs for Avranches.
This is a pretty and lively city and one of the oldest in Normandie. During the 9th century, the Celts called the ABRINCATES (people from the Abers) occupied the region: under their domination the town experienced animation and vitality.
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE CITY
After the war of the Gauls, the town became a Gallo-Roman capital, which enjoyed certain prosperity for three centuries. Then the Saxons made their incursions followed by the Franks who settled down in 786. From the early centuries, the country became Christian and Avranches became a bishopric's centre. For over a thousand years, bishops were to become the most important figures of the town. One of them, Saint Aubert, founded in 708, on Mont Tombe, a sanctuary which was to become the west's most famous place of pilgrimage: Mont-Saint-Michel.
Charlemagne is supposed to have stayed in Avranches, but it is Norman domination that transformed the town into a mighty citadel after the Avranchin reunion in the Normandy Dukedom in 933. Hughes "Le Loup"(the wolf), companion of William the Conqueror and Viscount of Avranches, became Earl of Chester in England.
A Romanesque cathedral devoted to Saint-André "the beautiful Andrine" was erected facing the bay. The Italians, Lanfranc de Pavie and Anselme d'Aoste, future archbishops of Canterbury, distinguished themselves by giving lectures around the Episcopal palace. The mighty King of England, Henry II of Plantagenêt, came on the 22nd May 1172 to make public penance, on his knees, barefoot and dressed only in a shirt, in front of the papal legate, at the Cathedral's entrance, for the murder of Thomas Beckett, which had upset the entire Christen world.
After the return of Normandy to France in 1204, according to the King Louis IX 's desires, Avranches became a royal city. Saint-Louis enjoyed staying in the "Good town" and had the walls fortified.
The Hundred Years' War saw the English, the Navarrins and the supporters of the King of France confront each other ruthlessly. During the Wars of Religion in the 16th century, the town took up the cause for the ultra-catholic League and refused to acknowledge Henry IV as the legitimate King. During the winter of 1590, the cannons belonging to the Duke of Montpensier shook and reduced the defences of the besieged town. In 1639, Richelieu tried to impose a Salt Tax on the people of the region who were living on the riches coming from their salt works at the expense of the "quart-bouillon" privileges (system which allowed the King to withhold a quarter of the production of salt). This brought about a revolt by the people of Avranches on the 7th July 1639, this revolt escalated rapidly and armed bands lead by Jean Quetil (a.k.a. John Barefoot) pillaged towns and the countryside. Mortain and Pontorson were held to ransom and it took all energy of Marshal Gassion and the Royal Army to suppress the revolt, including putting the outskirts of the town to to fire and sword. Hence the name "Nu-Pieds" (naked feet) Revolt.
These fratricidal conflicts didn’t prevent the inhabitants of Avranches from participating to the humanist expansion that took place during the Renaissance and then to the main cultural trends, which characterised the Age of Enlightenment. It's the era when Daniel Huet, Archbishop of Avranches, was renowned for being one of the best-educated men of his time (1630/1721).
The French Revolution brought the city some necessary reforms welcomed favourably as well as a series of misfortunes. The rebellious priests were persecuted and the inhabitants of Avranches revolted. Chouans and the French Republican armies fought on the streets. Avranches lost its bishopric and Saint André's cathedral, symbol of these upheavals, collapsed one night during April 1794.
In the 19th century the town benefited from a significant demographic expansion, therefore its districts spread out around the hills. The Empire wars gave to the city its Napoleonic hero: Roger Valhubert who was fatally wounded by a cannonball at the Battle of Austerlitz.
World War II was the last great ordeal: after four years of German occupation, the American bombings destroyed the vast majority of the town. However in succeeding the "breakthrough of Avranches", General Patton's tanks liberated the town on the 31 July 1944 and this became the prelude to the liberation of France.
Allow us to guide you around this historical town
During the French Revolution, all the books from the Mont-Saint-Michel abbey were brought to the town for safekeeping. Among them are 200 medieval parchment manuscripts.Some thirty items (manuscripts and ancient books) illustrating the intellectual and artistic activity of the Benedictine monastery are exhibited in a superb recently renovated old library.
This is one of the best collections from the Norman era in all of Europe, outstanding in its calligraphy and illuminated initials, the harmony of inks and colours, its many exceptional full-page illustrations and the diversity of knowledge it encompasses.
Saint Gervais' Treasure
Because of its rich qualities, the treasure will remind you of the importance of the old Bishopric of Avranches. it is kept in Saint-Gervais church, an imposing eclectic building from the second half of the 19th century. Not to be missed is the famous skull of Saint-Aubert, founder of Mont-Saint-Michel, where one can see the hole left in his forehead by the finger of Archangel Michel.
You will discover the rich past of the Avranches area from the Middle Ages to more recent times. The collection comprises examples of local art and traditions as well as a replica of a rural family home, old costumes and headwear from the Avranches area, workshops of local craftsmen. In a vaulted Norman hall, a monastic scriptorium has been set up with tools, inks and pigments to recreate the atmosphere of medieval book production. This exhibition is a useful prelude to a visit to the Mont-Saint-Michel manuscripts.