Days 3824-38, 6-20 Sept ‘22, Cherbourg, France
We had a splendid final night in Dublin, enjoyed our welcome drinks at the bar and had our first (very small) cooked breakfast in months on Monday morning at the Holiday Inn Express, Dublin city centre. And made a couple of bacon and sausage sandwiches to have for lunch. We arranged a 2 pm check out and ended up nattering with the GM for 10 minutes or so… There was an enormous taxi van in the rank just outside the hotel which was handy but the 15 minute drive to the ferry terminal took half an hour and there was a queue of traffic to get through before we piled into the terminal. There was no signage anywhere for the Irish Ferries service from Dublin to Cherbourg - and there was the dreaded sign 'Terminal 1' which, despite the fact our stonking great ship was parked behind the terminal building, made me question whether there was a Terminal 2 and were we supposed to be in it. Then there was a group of at least 50 mouth-breathers who'd walked in the terminal door and stopped in their tracks, with luggage, dithering. Not sure of the collective noun for a large group of people who are old enough to know better but when I come up with it… it won't be flattering. So we had to ex-queeze ourselves and our massive luggage through the hordes to get to the only queue for Irish Ferries that was actually staffed (albeit marked 'Closed') and had a chat with a European couple who said yes - this is the check-in for Cherbourg - so that's 2 people in the terminal in addition to us with brains. Checked in, got the boarding passes and key to our cabin and then, with relief, breathed out. And watched person after couple after group… stand around for ages before investigating where they should check in. Wouldn't want to be that backwards in coming forwards at an airport these days, you'd never get anywhere.
As is usually the case, there was a lot of hurry up and wait at this point. We eventually surged through the terminal doors and onto a coach, which drove us onto the ferry and then with a fair bit of luggage heaving and lift commandeering, we both eventually got from level 3 to level 9 and stowed our 4 massive bags, 2 small bags and the eats and drinks bag into our little 2 bed cabin. Surprisingly capacious and loads of room to move around. We stowed, freshened up then hoofed it to levels 10 and 11 for a spot of perfume shopping and a general look around. Hideously expensive for food and drink but we'd researched that well in advance and had evening drinks, picnic dinner and breakfast lined up in our eats and drinks bag. The water out of the taps was nigh on boiling so tea and coffee were also not a problem. And the beds were super comfortable. Somehow, unless it's a 5 star hotel, it seems impossible to find comfy beds anywhere and then, the cheapest cabin on an overnight ferry manages to accomplish it. Go figure.
As we settled in, the ship pulled out on the dot of 4 pm. If it wasn't so sad, it would be funny. There was not a breath of air in the city and by the time we arrived at the port there was a howling gale. It's like the weather gods knew I was travelling. The captain bloke was on the PA within minutes warning us it was going to be a rough crossing and the 11.30 am arrival into Cherbourg was now scheduled to 12.15 pm. Yeah right. Lucky those beds were comfortable - it was the best €89 we'd spent in a long while (that and the worlds best seasick pills - Stugeron) as we were as snug as bugs the whole night as the ship variously fell into trench-like potholes and hit every whale in the ocean en route to France. It had calmed somewhat by 10.30 am and we emerged onto the Promenade deck for a lap in the fresh air - almost got blown off. Hilarious. We enquired as to the updated arrival time… now 2 pm. Definitely getting our money's worth on this trip - 22 hours of travel, a bed for the duration, endless hot showers. A lot of people thought wishing would make it so and they had decamped and were sitting in the lounge surrounded by luggage and looking like stuffed ducks at 10.30 am. We went and put our feet up for another few hours and eventually made it off the ship at 2 pm. Through immigration lickety-split. Cherbourg was a very efficient port up until then but not a taxi to be had. Huge failing really - not even Uber. Just some random bloke who eventually turned up (no meter / no app / not even sure he was an authorised driver) - but it wasn't as though we could be picky - we'd waited over an hour as it was, and he eventually got us to our apartment. Collapsing would have been a nice option, but even a short rest would have turned into a marathon siesta so we got out and in amongst the quaint heart of old Cherbourg. Visited Carrefour for a couple of pizzas, a baguette, some juice and what-not then home for an early dinner, early bath and into bed by 8 pm. So yeah… Monday and Tuesday just passed in a blur.
Since we've arrived in Cherbourg we've kept ourselves busy with generally decompressing. After 2.5 months of sitting in Ireland we were over it and ready to do absolutely nothing in as relaxed a fashion as possible. We're utilising all the free/cheap/easy things to do around and about. Starting with Musee Thomas Henry right here in Cherbourg. Usually €5 but free on Wednesdays… and Wednesday was our first full day in town so that was a no brainer. We figured we'd be in and out fairly smartly - how big could it be? Huge as it turns out. Monsieur TH was a son of Cherbourg, an artist, a teacher and a collector and when he did well for himself he sent a box of art to the town hall. They didn't know who sent it or what to make of it but figured they could start a small gallery. Over the years the art art kept coming and the gallery kept going and growing. It was a feast for the eyes and we enjoyed it immensely. We walked across the passerelle/pedestrian bridge later that day and did a big stockup from Picard (all our favourite frozen delicacies such as coquilles St Jacques, fish pie, salmon lasagne and rum and raisin gelato, and also the big Carrefour). With the house stocked up it was time for another stroll and getting to know the old town of Cherbourg.
'Lo and behold, we tripped over a small thrift shop the next block over from our apartment which shall remain nameless - I have to protect my sources. I had such a great run with fabulous jewellery finds in Ireland I wasn't sure my run would continue - but my eyes are well tuned in and I picked a small pair of silvery coloured hoops with diamondy stones out of a box of tatty bits and pieces - including a lot of odd earrings. I did my research when we got home and they were actual silver and from a company called Diamond Concepts in the USA. We had the stones checked the next day and yep, diamonds. So keeping a close eye on the tat jewellery box and have picked up a couple of small, stray items to tuck into the treasure bag. It's only open 3 days a week… so looking forward to more 'hunting in the wild' later this week. It's fabulous to have an eye for a bargain treasure but has ruined me for other shopping - there's no where to go once you have bought diamond earrings for €1.
Like every French town of any size, market day still reigns supreme in Cherbourg. On Thursday we discovered it definitely reigns albeit to a lesser degree when it rains and the gales are howling. Unlike big city markets in Paris, there's not a lot of difference between the market prices and the supermarket offerings, but we found a lady who sells punnets of blackberries for a couple of euro - she's now our go-to berry lady and we tracked her down again during the Saturday market for some more. We're addicted. On Thursday afternoon we took ourselves off exploring and ended up somewhat accidentally at the Parc Emmanuel Liais. This is on the 'must do' lists of Cherbourg and therefore vaguely on our to-do-at-some-point list. This was as good a time as any and we enjoyed strolling around the small park, it's pond and it's very impressive glass houses with excellent succulent and tropical collections. We wandered back through town making a conscious effort to go the other way at each turning - that is, if we usually walk down Street A - then we'd use Street B, C or D instead.
Friday was a super-lazy day and we took care of travel admin which had been on the to-do list for too long. We eventually emerged at about 3.50 pm, a record for us, and trundled off to St Trinite church for a look-see. It was, when we first walked in, an oasis of peace and tranquility so we were momentarily miffed when seemingly a bus load of senior geezers ploughed past us, pounded up the main aisle and filled the joint up. Only momentarily mind you as they wee all wearing matching t-shirts to do with music… and it turned out they were a choir over from England and about to loosen their vocal chords with a rehearsal for a concert the following night. (Oddly the concert was off in some cultural centre - a shame as the church would be a superb venue and had mind-blowing acoustics). We sat, without a word of a lie, for almost an hour enjoying an amazing choral performance. There were about 20 of us in the impromptu audience for the impromptu concert - luckiest people in Cherbourg that day.
We have lugged half a kilo of particularly good risotto rice and a couple of other basics with us from Ireland and our purpose in life during our 2 weeks in Cherbourg is to use up every ounce of everything. Friday night, finally, armed with a decent size pot, a wooden spoon, the aforementioned rice, along with white wine, stock and garlic, I whipped up a leisurely risotto to beat all risottos. The challenge was only eating half and setting the rest aside for Sunday night. We managed. Just.
With the Thursday market a long distant memory, we piled out of the apartment on Saturday morning to find that that's 'the big one' of the week. We picked up some black grapes, heritage tomatoes and some more blackberries and had a good trot around the main square and, well, the other main square, enjoying the vibe of it. Town was packed! Door to door tourists and presumably locals come to town for market day. Even my gold mine of a thrift shop was busy. Nothing too outstanding, but end of the week and all. Finally bought a pair of silver dolphin studs just because they'd been there for days, looking all tarnished, black and unloved. Carted them home happily for polishing, I really am easily pleased. We don't fancy having to visit supermarkets and fruit shops constantly (as much fun as they can be), so ventured over to the big Carrefour and Picard for a stockup. We went via "Les Parapluies des Cherbourg" which is a famous brolly flogger in these parts and discovered I shouldn't be hunting diamond earrings in thrift shops… I should be hunting their brollies and accessories. There prices were madness. Utter madness. Hundreds of euro for a brolly - and not a sun umbrella to be seen.
After the jam-packed town scenes of Saturday, on Sunday everything came to a screeching halt. A few boulangeries were open, the halal butcher was open, the Lebanese restaurant was open and most Tabacs. Bit of a pattern there. Us heathens got out for a walk around town eventually and found a small botanic garden where we were nearly adopted by a black, fluffy and very vocal kitten. We managed to run away before she could jump into a bag and come home with us. Deathly quiet on a Sunday. Can only imagine it during winter - it really would be 'invasion of the body snatchers' territory.
Rather than Monday being an improvement it was essentially Sunday Mark 2. The local folks are going to have 2 full days off each week no matter what anyone thinks. Monday was also the last hot day of the year reaching 26 degrees with rampant humidity. We had a walk in the afternoon and made it home within seconds of the (next) downpour beginning. Great Netflix weather.
Tuesday dawned gray and damp but thank heavens, life has returned to town. People! If not everywhere then at least, here and there. There was a small market in Place Charles de Gaulle - like 1 clothing stall and 5 fruit and vege stalls. We bought a lettuce and tomatoes just to show willing and had a look at the clothing guy's wares. Was keenly priced between €2 and €5 - but nothing jumped out enough to warrant throwing out something else to make space for it. Sad for the market stall holders when Monday was so fine and had blazing sunshine. But, as they say quite often in these parts, c'est la vie.
Wednesday dawned as forecast, grey and damp-to-wet with low-to-no UV so absolutely perfect for us. When we left Croatia back in April we were keen to have warm feet once more but it is safe to say we are both (well) over summer. The thousands of people pouring off the P&O ship Fortuna would probably have disagreed - from the accents it seemed they were 90% from the UK so grey, damp and wet is probably less enjoyable for them than us. Our purpose today was to a) have a nice walk to the other side of town and b) check out the route to the jewel in Cherbourg's tourism crown, La Cité de la Mer, based in the old Transatlantic Maritime Railway Station. We have tickets to visit this Saturday as part of the European Heritage Weekend - usually €19, but reduced to €10 which is much more palatable. The €19 didn't seem to be stopping the long queues at the cash desks today mind you. We were surprised at how much of the site is actually visible without a ticket - including the Grand Hall with it's displays of bathyscopes, submersibles and even the canon from the wreck of the CSS Alabama, sunk in a naval battle near Cherbourg in the 1860s. There's a posh restaurant, a cafe and even a special area for pique-nique - ie. BYO food and drinks and eat indoors. Vive le france! The actual exhibitions comprise the nuclear submarine La Redoubtable, an aquarium and a large Titanic display - but today we were satisfied with doing a lap of the gorgeous Art Deco terminal, taking selfies with the submarine, buying some souvenirs in the gift shop and making (in French!) a lunch reservation at the restaurant. It had barely opened its doors at 11.45 am and there were already a dozen in the queue rip-snorting ready for their lunches after a hard morning touristing. Given the guidelines of how far the queue can go back, and how busy it is likely to be on a heritage weekend, we were more than happy to reserve - that sort of queue would put us off our lunch and this is our only eating out treat in Cherbourg (and for that matter the last 3 months since Ireland has gotten 'un peu trop cher pour nous').
With our souvenirs bought, selfies taken and legs stretched, we headed home, once more against the human tide as the denizens of the cruise ship returned for lunch after their morning in town. All but the folks out on their Normandy day trips encompassing in no particular order Mont St Michel, the Bayeux tapestry and the D-Day landing beaches. All absolutely brilliant things to see - as is La Cité de la Mer - it would almost be worth a 2 day port visit here - we're glad we didn't have to make the choice - it would be a tough one. It was a fine evening and once the sun had set and the golden street lights came on we ventured out for some evening photos of Sainte Trinite and also the Italian Theatre and fountain in Place Charles de Gaulle (pictured). Gorgeous. Aside from a couple of streets with bars, the town is dodo-dead after dark - beautifully peaceful for strolling about.
Thursday saw us with two rare things happening simultaneously - market day and fine weather. Wow! The market grew exponentially over last Thursday's wet, windy, miserable excuse for a shopping expedition. We had a good look around, god help us we're regulars now - one man who sells clothes very reasonably (€5 for a winter coat?) remembered us from when we had a look at his stock in the pouring rain on Tuesday. We had a decent look today and tried a couple of things on just for fun. Bought berries then hoofed it over the water for a final stock up on groceries to see us through our Cherbourg stay. Yep. The lady at Picard knows us now as well. I even tried a joke on her in French - and she laughed. Either it, or my French, was hilarious… win/win.
Friday was a generally quiet day, bit of treasure hunting during our usual meander around the town centre. We were psyching ourselves up for 'the big day out' at La Cité de la Mer on Saturday. We even set an alarm for 7 am so we could have a leisurely breakfast, read the news and get ready before strolling over to the …? What exactly? Not a gallery, not a museum, major exhibition perhaps. As it turns out, after the most astounding day out, we've realised it really is three outings in one. We shot in the doors on the dot of 9.30 am and hot-footed it straight to the submarine tour which was the best run tour of it's type either of us has ever done and a fascinating insight into life under the waves for up to 70 days at a stretch. We continued on to the Aquarium - titled the Ocean of the Future. Incredibly interesting and just got us even more excited at the thought of doing some tropical diving in the next few months.
We haven't been eating out in Cherbourg - there's no reason for it when we have access to a Picard for gourmet treats and good markets. But we decided to treat ourselves and didn't regret our restaurant lunch for a minute. We shared a `moules frites' or mussels and chips and a grilled seafood plate, with a bottle of local cider and followed by a plate of local cheeses (James) and an apple sorbet drenched in Calvados (apply brandy) for me. The waiter even whacked some Calvados in a glass for James to try with his cheese. Just. So. Good.
Rejuvenated we continued on to the old baggage hall of the maritime terminal and down into the Titanic exhibit. There was a film running continuously based on the last three days of the Titanic's existence and the final SOS messages. It compressed all that time into 30 minutes. Positively chilling. It was fascinating and very sad to see some of the personal items from the wreck. Shoes, jewellery, cases for razor blades and broken perfume bottles. Such an amazing ship and experience for so many people, including the 281 people who joined here in Cherbourg. Until it wasn't. Some of the photos in the exhibit were taken by an Irish priest. We saw a lot of his work in Ireland a few years back. It was a funny/happy/sad story in that he had been given a passage on the ship to New York - and he was on it until he reached Queenstown / Cobh in Ireland when his superior ordered him off for some reason. It saved his life and most of the photos of it's small voyage until the sinking came from this man. It was a truly memorable outing and we were on a happy high as we strolled back home. Sunday and Monday being the 'days of the people snatchers' here in Cherbourg, we chilled, Netflixed and walked in the sun. Did some laundry and a bit of packing. Its been fabulous to relax and decompress for a couple of weeks.
Tuesday brought with it more fine weather (so much for Normandy's continuous rain…) and a gentle last day in town. Bring on St Lo! We are ready for a change in scenery.