Marie Aries Groisiller
Marie Aries Groisiller generously shares her expertise on her favorite part of Normandy: the North Cotentin Peninsula. Her heartfelt memories of this amazing area will leave you wanting to explore these beautiful landscapes along with her, as I surely do!
Where did you grow up in France?
I was born in Marseille, in the south of France, but moved to Cherbourg, Normandy, when I was 5. I lived there until my 30s.
The only break was when I was a student and went, first, to the University of Caen, still in Normandy, and then to the University Paul Valery in Montpellier, in Occitanie. When my young brother and I were kids, we used to go back to Marseille every Christmas and summer to visit our grandparents and the rest of the family. Mixed with southern and northern education and references, I am a kind of ” third culture kid” within my own country! I remember particularly one time when I was in first grade and I still had this southern accent, l’accent du midi: some kids were around me during the recess asking me to simply tell them anything just because my accent was funny! Two cultures were meeting - from one sea to the other! From the sun to the rain! I love Marseille and Provence, but my heart still belongs to Cherbourg and Normandy, and particularly to the Cotentin Peninsula where Cherbourg is nestled.
What is there to see and do in your area?
We could say the Cotentin, and especially the northern part, is quite different from the traditional landscapes of Normandy. Of course, you can still admire there the typical bocage with these little meadows surrounded by tall and thick hedgerows that break the wind, but also limit visibility. That same bocage caused huge problems to the allied forces in the Battle of Normandy in June 1944. Today just the beautiful Normande cows graze peacefully in the fields.
The North Cotentin is divided in 3 parts that I love -almost- equally: the City of Cherbourg is situated at the northern end of the Peninsula ; east of Cherbourg is a region called le Val de Saire, and then west of Cherbourg is le Cap de la Hague.
Cherbourg is an active harbour that has been a strategic position over the centuries, disputed between the English and the French! Cherbourg is closely linked to French naval history and to transatlantic ship adventures (the Titanic even made its final stop). I remember when I was a child going to the transatlantic cruise terminal (where is now set a wonderful Sea museum called La Cite de la Mer, in the former art deco transatlantic terminal building). One could admire the beautiful and impressive liners such as the Queen Elizabeth II or the France. There was so much activity! Cherbourg's history is very rich and you can travel through time just walking along the narrow streets of the old town, or sailing along the dykes of the Grande Rade (the Big Bay), which was built under Napoleon.
East of Cherbourg, le Val de Saire is particularly famous for its seafood. What a pleasure to buy a basket of oysters (bourriche d’huitres) directly from the fishermen on the wharfs of Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, or mussels fished off the coast of Barfleur!
Driving from Cherbourg and heading to Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, you have to stop by at the Phare de Gatteville. It’s a still active lighthouse and is the third tallest traditional lighthouse in the world!
Just after Gatteville, stop at Barfleur, adorable fishing and sailing port, from where William the Conqueror left France in 1066 to sail to England and become the first Norman Monarch of England.
When you arrive in Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, you discover a real hidden gem! In 2019 it has been voted “France’s favourite village”. As I said previously, Saint-Vaast is famed for oysters. When the tide is low, you can admire the beautiful landscape of the oyster beds. But Saint-Vaast is also home to the Vauban tower, standing at the entrance of the small harbour. It’s a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Saint-Vaast-La-Hougue Tour Vauban
The western part of the Peninsula is le Cap de La Hague - I have to admit, my favorite part of the North Cotentin! It’s a wild, remote land with breathtaking landscapes, very similar to Ireland.
There are so many places you have to see there! Landemer, the bay of Ecalgrain, the lighthouse of Goury, Siouville and Vauville beaches, the Nez de Jobourg, Port Racine (the smallest port in France),...
Baie d'Escalgrain Nez de Jobourg
Port Racine Landemer
Everywhere you will be amazed by the impressive view from the top of the cliffs that turn pink in fall when covered by heather. You will want to run down the sand dunes. You will enjoy a walk along the drystone walls in this area which looks like Ireland.
La Hague is well-known for its wind-beaten headlands and I suggest you to walk among the many hamlets, with their low houses, nestled away from the wind.
The best advice I could give you is to hike on a part of the famous GR223, the chemin des douaniers (the old customs footpath) which goes along the coastline of the Cotentin and above with its 443km long! You will walk between dunes, cliffs, coves and beaches of fine sands or rocks and you will be taken by the beauty of these preserved landscapes.
Because of this intense atmosphere and its very particular colors, especially at dawn and sunset when the sea and the sky become one, La Hague was and still is home for many artists. So many fell under the spell of this harsh land. Poets like Jacques Prevert, writers like Boris Vian or Didier Decoin, and of course the famous painter Jean-Francois Millet. You can walk in their footsteps in the villages of Omonville-la-Petite (J. Prevert), Landemer (B. Vian) or Hameau Gruchy in Greville-Hague (J-F. Millet).
(Top: Gruchy House of Jean-Francois Millet)
(Bottom: Village of Goury House of Jacques Prevert)
What are the regional specialties in your hometown?
Both land and sea provide the Cotentin Peninsula with a generous bounty of fresh products. We talked about oysters and mussels, but cheese cannot be forgotten, and milk jam, butter “biscuits”, apple cider (with alcohol!) and finally -of course!- the famous “brioche du Vast”! It’s one of my best child memories when we were driving back home after a long walk in winter on an empty beach, beaten by the winds, and we were making a halt at Le Vast to buy this savory butter “brioche” …
Another souvenir you can bring back home and that will always be useful is the famous Parapluie de Cherbourg, named after the Jacques Demy’s movie Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (the Umbrellas of Cherbourg). It’s a top-of-the-range handmade umbrella sold all over the world, but the manufacturer is in Cherbourg. I still have 2 or 3 of them! A beautiful gift!
Do you have favorite restaurants you want to share?
In Cherbourg, le Pily is a fabulous restaurant, one Michelin star. The food is awesome, the decoration is simple and modern, and it is located few steps from the old fishing harbor.
La Brasserie du Commerce is a great family place, where you’ll have a fresh simple food in a relax atmosphere.
In Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, don’t miss Les Fuchsias. And in Goury, while sitting at O P’tit Crabe, you will enjoy the bistro-style food and the view on the harbor and the lighthouse of La Hague.
What do you do now?
I am what we call a trailing spouse! My husband working for an American company, we started our expat life in 2001. After years going back and forth between Asia (Japan and China) and the US, I never had the chance to resume my former job in corporate communication. Most of the time I was a substitute French teacher in international schools, or a volunteer in different organizations. Here in Minneapolis, for four years I had been volunteering at Eden Prairie High School and now, from time to time, I volunteer at the French-American Chamber of Commerce of Minnesota.
Do you have any other advice or travel tips for Americans going to France ?
Yes! Please, don’t hesitate to leave the beaten track! France is not only Paris and the riviera. I know many Americans go to Normandy to visit the D-Day beaches, which is great, but instead of going back to Paris immediately after, they should drive a little bit up North and discover “my” secret Normandy! They will not regret it!
Merci mille fois, Marie! J'ai hâte de voir votre petit coin de Normandie!
Thank you so much, Marie! I can't wait to see your corner of Normandy!