Exploring Northern France

With its layers of history, seductive light, warm welcome and strong traditions, Northern France’s timeless coastline calls out to be discovered

Map of Northern France

The winter sun danced across the clear blue waters as we sailed slowly away from the village of Saint Suliac in Brittany. At the helm of our small aluminium fishing boat was Jean-François Arbona and his partner Magali Molla, both dressed in mustard- yellow fishing overalls and sturdy blue Wellington boots. The duo are goémoniers, seaweed harvesters, and we were on our way to their farm in the Rance Estuary.

We soon arrived at a floating grid of white buoys, carefully ordered like lane markers for a swimming race. “This is our farm,” explained Magali. “We have 12 hectares where we grow different types of eco-certified seaweed including wakamé, dulse, kombu royal and nori.” Magali and Jean-François have been cultivating seaweed for 40 years, but this is a regional tradition that dates to the 17th century. For hundreds of years Bretons used seaweed both as fuel and food. What was once regarded as a poor man’s meal, however, is making a name for itself in Breton cuisine.

“Look how beautiful it is,” said Magali as she pulled on a rope submerged just below the water’s surface to reveal long wakamé garlands shimmering in the light. Magali then pulled out a knife and cut off a large frond, which she handed to Maud Vatinel, a local chef who was also on board. Maud – a Norman who moved to Brittany ten years ago – specialises in creating vegetarian dishes using locally sourced seasonal and often-foraged produce, including seaweed.

Once back on dry land, I joined Maud in her home kitchen where she demonstrated this sea vegetable’s versatility. First up was a seaweed tartare followed by a polenta and freshly foraged mushroom-and-root-vegetable dish cooked in a seaweed broth and sprinkled with freshly chopped algae. “Seaweed’s very trendy now,” said Maud. “Lots of people are using it for wellbeing purposes as it has such strong nutritional qualities. But Magali and Jean-François have been farming seaweed for a long time. They’re both pioneers and custodians of an old tradition.”

I had sailed into France earlier that day on the overnight ferry from Portsmouth, arriving in the famous port of Saint-Malo as the sun was rising. My plan was to explore France’s Channel coast, from eastern Brittany to the Pas-de-Calais, and travel beyond the oft-visited battlefields and cathedrals to discover what makes this coastline so rich and colourful. What I soon discovered was that despite very distinct personalities, the coastal regions are all bound together by deep-rooted traditions and a historic communion with both land and sea.

“The architecture in the heart of Dinan remains unchanged – the city’s home to 130 half-timbered houses with some dating back to the 14th century”

Trades and traditions

My second port of call was Dinan. Perched on a hillside overlooking the Rance river and valley, Dinan’s an unfathomably pretty and impeccably preserved medieval town. Once it was a formidable city and key trading centre.

With Saint-Malo just 30km downriver, ships would sail into the port of Dinan where traders would unload their wares including linen, leather and wool, before hauling them up Rue du Jerzual, a precipitous street that linked the riverine port with the heart of the city. Still today the steep cobblestone road is lined with asymmetrical half-timbered houses and shops.

Cobbled streets and stone houses on street

The streets of Dinan (Shutterstock)

The streets of Dinan (Shutterstock)

While the architecture in the heart of Dinan remains unchanged (the city’s home to 130 half-timbered houses with some dating back to the 14th century) the type of trade taking place has evolved. Today, the ancient buildings are occupied by artists and entrepreneurs, many of whom showcase local products and independent producers, from food to fashion.

I stopped by Chez Jannig, a pocket-sized shop with original stone walls and a roaring fire on the go. Opened just over a year ago by three local entrepreneurs, the shop celebrates the history of hemp in Brittany, selling a range of goods all made using this natural plant fibre. On display were local cosmetics, clothing, gin, beer and even recyclable Welly boots made from hemp fibres.

“France has been farming hemp for hundreds of years, much of it grown in Brittany,” explained Sophie Le Roy, one of the owners, giving me a typical Breton warm welcome. “Hemp was one of the goods that used to be transported from the Port of Dinan up Rue du Jerzual to be sold. The purpose of our shop is to educate people about the crop and show how versatile it is.”

Cottage with fishing nets

An old cottage decorated with fishing nets in Saint Suliac (Alamy)

An old cottage decorated with fishing nets in Saint Suliac (Alamy)

Seaweed is a popular dish in France (Alamy)

Seaweed is a popular dish in France (Alamy)

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Cottage with fishing nets

An old cottage decorated with fishing nets in Saint Suliac (Alamy)

An old cottage decorated with fishing nets in Saint Suliac (Alamy)

Seaweed is a popular dish in France (Alamy)

Seaweed is a popular dish in France (Alamy)

Here lies our land

Leaving Brittany, I crossed over the border into neighbouring Normandy and drove along the coast passing signs for Le Mont Saint-Michel along the way. The world-famous abbey-crowned island sits across the two regions, the abbey in Normandy and much of the Baie du Mont Saint-Michel in Brittany. At a curve in the coastline, and opposite the granite island, stands the Ecomusée de la Baie du Mont Saint-Michel, a museum showcasing the history of the bay and people’s relationship with the complex and fragile area.

Nearby is La Ferme des Cara-Meuh! – on a clear day you can see the abbey in the distance – where I met Jason LeFranc. Jason is one of three brothers who now run the family-run farm that was originally established by his great-grandfather in 1929. The farm started with just four cows, Normandy being famous for its native brown and white speckled Normande breed that produces some of
the richest and creamiest milk in France. Today the farm is home to 150 dairy cows who spend 10-to-11 months of the year permanently outdoors.

“We were a pure dairy farm until 2009,” said Jason, “but the French milk crisis of the same year really changed the way that the farm operated.” The crisis, which saw dairy prices collapse, threatened tens of thousands of farmers with bankruptcy.

“My father protested along with other farmers but ultimately decided that we needed a more sustainable way to move forward,” he said. “Our mother used to make caramel in the kitchen at home and one day my father decided that we would use the excess milk to create caramels. We all thought he was crazy, but it worked out.”

Today the organic-certified farm produces 13,000kg of caramel a year, in seven different flavours, the most popular being caramels au beurre salé (salted caramel). They also make butter and cheese.

But it’s not all caramels and cheese in Normandy, the other two big ‘Cs’ are calvados and cider and I couldn’t leave the region without trying one, or preferably both. To help me on my quest I travelled to Le Lieu Chéri, a small family-run distillery in the heart of the Pays d’Auge, an area famous for, among other things, its apple trees. There I met Pauline Desfrièches, wife of Alexandre, the great-grandson who currently runs the show.

According to official documents, Alfred Desfrièches started the distillery in 1935, although Desfrièches family lore puts the start date sometime before that. Regardless, Alfred began making cider using apples from his orchard and business was good.

“He used to deliver the cider in wooden boxes by horse and cart,” said Pauline. “But when the road was bombed during the Second World War, and he could no longer make his delivery rounds, he switched to creating calvados, which is a longer process.”

This is particularly true in the Pays d’Auge area, which uses a double distillation process before being aged in wooden barrels for between three and ten years. The result is a warm, oaky flavour with notes of apple and toffee that, as I discovered, is particularly enjoyable on a chilly winter’s day.

Home to mystical wetlands

The hinterland along France’s northern coastline is home to a number of mystical wetlands. For centuries these marshlands were sculpted and carved by men into a network of narrow canals and ditches. In Normandy, I visited the Parc Naturel Régional des Marais du Cotentin et du Bessin, a vast expanse of waterways, marshes, canals and peat bogs, that lies not far from Utah Beach, the westernmost of the five landing areas of the Allied invasion during World War II. The park is a haven for numerous migratory birds who pass through the marais (marshland) on their way between the Arctic tundra and the African wetlands and bush.

My original idea had been to tour the marshes by electric boat, but recent flooding foiled that plan. Instead, however, I was lucky enough to witness one of the wonders of the park, the marais blanc. This natural phenomenon, the ‘white marshes’, only occurs during winter months when the flooded marshland appears to meet the sky, the water reflecting the crisp, silvery-white winter light.

Later in my trip I visited another marshland, the Audomarois marshes in Saint-Omer, Pas-de-Calais. These are the only remaining cultivated wetlands in France where market gardeners continue to work the land producing, among other things, carrots, endives and cauliflower. Here I did get to tour the canals by boat, this time on a traditional bacôve, a flat-bottomed boat crafted from oak that was designed to transport vegetables.

Canoe on waterway

Pas-de-Calais wetlands (Alamy)

Pas-de-Calais wetlands (Alamy)

“These marshes were originally dug by hand in the 10th century by peat farmers,” explained my guide Benoît Diéval, who had joined me from the Pas-de-Calais tourism office.

“The peat was piled up on the sides of the channels creating some areas that were used as farmland and others that were residential.”

Travel among these marshlands today is still by boat only; even the local postwoman makes her rounds on a traditional escute, the passenger version of the larger bacôve. The last remaining boat maker in the region that continues to produce these traditional vessels, and one of only a handful left in France, lies just outside of Saint-Omer. Their workshop is open to visitors but a family wedding meant that they had clocked off for the weekend when I visited.

“The gently undulating cycle route along the Norman coastline had quiet residential hamlets, small villages, quiet wooded sections
and vast fields”

Exploring by bike

France is home to an enviable network of bicycle paths, greenways, and signposted cycle routes. One of these routes is La Vélomaritime, which runs from Roscoff in Brittany to Dunkirk on the Belgian border. At nearly 1,500km, the route was an ambitious one to attempt on this trip but, eager to see the coast at a more leisurely pace, I opted for a small section of the marked cycleway starting in the port town of Dieppe and finishing 25km away in the village of Veules-les-Roses, one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (‘most beautiful villages in France’).

This turned out to be a truly wonderful way to see the Norman coastline. The gently undulating cycle route had a little bit of everything: quiet residential hamlets peppered with red tiled roofs; small villages home to linen shops and salon de thé; quiet wooded sections; and vast agricultural fields, some apple-green growing sugar beets, others recently ploughed, the freshly harvested crops piled high.

There were views of the sea too. Not long after leaving Dieppe, the road curved downhill and I was greeted by the magnificent movie-poster white chalk cliffs of the Côte d’Albâtre (Alabaster Coast). These cliffs stretch for 130km between the Seine and Somme estuaries. At various points along the cliff, narrow cracks have formed, creating natural passageways for visitors to walk from the coastal road down to the ocean.

A land of artists

If there’s one place that will make you fall in love with France’s northern coast it’s Saint-Valery-sur-Somme. Artists and writers have long flocked to this picturesque town on the south bank of the River Somme estuary drawn by the colour, the light and the bay itself; authors Victor Hugo and Jules Verne, and Impressionist painter Edgar Degas all had houses here at one time. To better understand its attraction, I visited British artist Pippa Darbyshire who, along with her husband, has spent the last 22 years living and painting in the neighbouring town of Le Crotoy.

“The first time I came to Le Crotoy I arrived at night,” said Pippa. “The next morning I opened the window and saw the view of the Somme Bay and I fell in love with it. I’ve been painting that view ever since. The light is very special and the tide goes out so far that the channels give you many compositional possibilities.”

Street of houses with flowers

Saint-Valery (Shutterstock)

Saint-Valery (Shutterstock)

But the history of Saint-Valery is equally compelling. In the medieval quarter stands a stone arch through which Joan of Arc was transported on her way to Rouen in 1430 to be burned at the stake. Near the marina is a monument to William the Conqueror, who assembled his fleet here before invading England. At its heart, however, Saint-Valery is very much a fishing village. Boxy fisherman’s cottages, whitewashed with colourful wooden shutters, sit side-by-side along tiny streets in the Fishermen’s Quarter, overlooked by a le calvaire des marins (seamen’s chapel),
a memorial to those sailors who have been lost at sea.

I enjoyed one of my last – and best – meals of my visit at Le Mathurin, a boat-to-table restaurant in the heart of town. Chef Pierre-Alain Delaby comes from eight generations of fishermen and the restaurant is very much a family affair; his older brother delivers the catch of the day directly to their parents’ fish stall, where it is prepared and transported to the restaurant to serve as inspiration for that day’s menu. I started with oysters so fresh I could taste the sea, followed by superb Coquilles Saint-Jacques. My visit to France happened to coincide with scallop season and while I had enjoyed them regularly during my road trip, the ones at Le Mathurin were some of the best.

Horses on the beach

Côte d’Opale (Shutterstock)

Côte d’Opale (Shutterstock)

I spent the afternoon before travelling back to the UK visiting the Côte d’Opale (Opal Coast), eating frites on a windswept stretch of sand at Audresselles and visiting the Grand Site des Deux Caps. This nature reserve sits between two dramatic cliffs, the Cap Gris-Nez and Cap Blanc-Nez, and on a clear day you can spot the White Cliffs of Dover from the coastal path that links the two. Winter winds whipped around me as I looked out from the observation deck over the marshland and sand dunes, the long grass being thrown about by the icy blasts. As shafts of soft winter light pierced through the greying clouds, shining spotlights on the increasingly restless sea, it was one final wild, woolly, extraordinary showcase of the beauty of this coast.

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