Cherbourg is located in the northern coastof the Cherbourg peninsula and faces westwards towards La Hague and eastwards towards the Saire Valley, two areas that are quite different from each other. Upon first glance from its hilltop, the Montagne du Route, or from street-level at the town’s center, Cherbourg appears to be absent of any architectural interest. And thanks to the famous French film, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”, it is often seen as a very rainy town. Even if these unfavorable associations are true, Cherbourg is still the French province of Normandy’s fourth largest town and an important strategic port.
There are a number of cultural sights in Cherbourg, including the remains of the Church of the Holy Trinity and the Abbey of Notre-Dame-du-Voeu. The most impressive of the attractions, however, is the Thomas-Henry Museum. This museum boasts 33 paintings by Francois Millet, as well as works by Chardin, Fra Angelico, Murillo, Greuze, and Poussin. There is also the Emmanuel Liais Park, a botanical park named after the naturalist and former Mayor of Cherbourg. The park contains about 4,600 different plant species with many of them being tropical in origin.
The Tourlaville Castle is also near Cherbourg. It is a beautiful house of Renaissance architecture, echoing the memories of Julien and Marguerite Ravalet, who were the grandson and grand-daughter of the castle’s founder. Accused of engaging in incestuous relations, Julien and Marguerite were decapitated on the Place de Greve.
Near Cherbourg is the region of La Hague, an attraction by its own right. Many people compare La Hague to Brittany or Ireland. La Hague is a pretty portrait of medieval houses, castles, manors, dry stone walls, cliffs carved by coves, stumpy wind-bent trees, and long wild grass grazed by abundant livestock. Some of the castles and mansions worth visiting include the Nacqueville, the opulent Flamanville.
For scenic views, between Cherbourg and Flamanville or Querqueville to the Nez de Jobourg are the best places to check out. In Goury, you can see the roaring sea gashing hard the shores of the Cherbourg Peninsula. The Gros du Raz lighthouse stands only a few yards from the harbor. Dielette, which is located further south, gets drenched by waves just as much as Goury. For many years, Dielette was an underwater mine of iron deposits but now houses a nuclear power station.
In La Hague is the little village of Gruchy, famous as the birthplace of the French artist, Jean-Francois Millet. This artist often made La Hague the subject of many of his works.
The small but beautiful village of Omonville-la-Petite is also located in La Hague. This village is the site of the grave of the famous French poet, Jacques Prevert who spent most of his life in this region where he got inspiration for most of his poems.
Northeast of the Cherbourg peninsula, you’ll find the Saire Valley, named after the Saire River which flows through it. It is quite different from La Hague. Sheltered from the winds and its accompanying chilly temperatures, Saire is a fertile region where vegetables are grown. For great views of the Saire Valley, the Pernelle Hill and the Gatteville Lighthouse offer panoramic vantage points.
Cherbourg has been protected over the years from naval attacks, especially from the British. The city owes a debt of gratitude to Louis XVI, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Napoleon III. Louis XVI commissioned Vauban to design ambitious fortifications for the city. Napoleon Bonaparte resumed these efforts, and Napoleon III completed them. The 2-mile long, 88 feet high, Grand Dyke, the Hornet and Dutchmen’s Dykes, and a line of forts make up the town’s primary protection. Ironically, however, it was the Germans who were the first to use these forts in 1944. Before the city was liberated, it witnessed the Battle of Cherbourg, which caused substantial damage but freed the town of Nazi occupying forces. On the west bank of the R. Divette, you’ll find an armaments depot, a reminder of the town's designation as a naval base. This bank is home to a shipyard that builds missile-launching submarines. The first one built was the famous Redoutable.
Today, Cherbourg is an important port and fishing town. It also has one of the largest yachting marinas in France, second only to Cannes. This marina also serves the last ocean liner in the transatlantic terminal, perpetuating an old tradition. It is, however, the ferry links to England and Ireland that yield the largest influx of traffic. On Place Napoleon, a statue of the emperor pointing his arm in the direction of “perfidious Albion” sits on display, smiling ironically at the invasion of peaceful British tourists.
Gaudez, René, Hervé Champollion, and Angela Moyon. Tour of Normandy. Rennes: Éditions Ouest-France, 1996. ISBN: 2737317185.
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