The coastline from the Belgian border to Brittany
The coastline of the Nord Pas-de-Calais region (Départements 59 and 62): welcome to the flatlands…
Turn off the motorways heading south and head west to discover a world of spectacular landscapes. For hundreds of kilometres, from Dunkirk to the Somme bay, passing through Calais, Boulogne and Le Touquet, the Côte d’Opale (Opal Coast) pulls out all the stops over a distance of 240km, with its impressive array of cliffs and dunes backed by countryside dotted with bell towers, windmills and fields of poppies.
Pride of place here goes to Cap Blanc-Nez (134m) and its twin headland, Cap Gris-Nez (45m), majestically overlooking the famous English Channel separating the French and English coasts. The view of the Côte d’Opale is superb, and a delightful hiking path provides stunning views of this wild landscape. In 1987 these two headlands were listed as protected areas under the name Site National des Deux Caps.
Along the coast, you'll pass through the towns of Calais, France's leading passenger port, and Boulogne-sur-Mer, located around 30km south of Calais, a former Roman naval settlement which was fortified in the 13C.
Le Touquet Paris Plage, located at the southern tip of the Côte d’Opale and at the mouth of the Canche, boasts a magnificent sandy beach backed by forests.
The Côte d’Opale is also lined by many smaller yet equally charming seaside towns and resorts such as Le Portel, Wissant, Ambleteuse, Wimereux, Hardelot, Berk-Plage etc.
The Picardy coast (Département 80): cliffs and dunes
The Picardy coastline extends for about 60km from the mouth of the Bresle to the south, to the Authie bay to the north. The coast and its hinterland are characterised by a superb variety of preserved natural landscapes. The jewel in the crown here is the Baie de Somme, a vast bay covering an area of 72km² interlaced by water channels, sandbanks and salt meadows grazed by sheep. For a unique insight into the area, make sure you take the Baie de Somme tourist train which wends its way between Cayeux-sur-Mer and Le Crotoy.
The Normandy coast (Départements 76, 14 and 50): a moving appointment with history
The Normandy coastline stretches for nearly 640km via a series of smaller "côtes" with incredibly evocative names: Côte d’Albâtre (Alabaster Coast), Côte Fleurie (Flower Coast), Côte de Nacre (Mother of Pearl Coast) etc. From Le Tréport to Cancale, the Normandy coast is a long succession of flat beaches and spectacular cliffs.
It is also a region marked by history with a capital H.
The Côte d’Albâtre extends from the charming resort of Le Tréport to the large port of Le Havre, the superb post-war reconstruction of which resulted in the supreme accolade of aUNESCO World Heritage Site listing. Its cliffs form an imposing wall of chalk which rise in places to over 100m in height. As you travel from one place to the next, you'll come across valleys and narrow creeks which are home to fishing ports and tourist resorts.
These include Étretat, known around the world for its monumental arch at the Aval cliffs, Dieppe, a large port within easy range of the English coast, and Rouen, the city of a hundred bell towers.
From the Seine to the Orne, a succession of meadows and apple orchards in the Pays d'Auge makes way for a shoreline bordered by terraces with flower beds, shaded alleyways and elegant villas. The 40km-long Côte Fleurie, meanwhile, is a mix of sandy beaches, cliffs and rocks, as well as traditional seaside resorts with timeless charm and a unique personality, such as Deauville, Trouville, Honfleur and Cabourg, with its "Plage des Romantiques".
D-Day Landing Beaches - Côte de Nacre and Côte du Bessin
The beaches in the British and Canadian (Sword, Juno and Gold) and American (Omaha and Utah) sectors are located one after the other between Ouistreham and Sainte-Marie-du-Mont.
Some of these have retained their wartime names, which have permanently replaced their original names.
Arromanches and its artificial harbour, military cemeteries, the Pointe du Hoc (a symbol of the courage of young American soldiers), museums, monuments, marker stones, cannons and tanks are all a reminder of the fighting that raged here. These sandy beaches will always be a place of remembrance as well as a place of recreation where holidaymakers now come to enjoy a multitude of water sports.
Caen, on the banks of the Orne river, is just a few kilometres from the landing beaches, and was a key city in the reconquest of France from the day after the landings. The famous Mémorial de Caen, nearby, is an impressive museum mainly dedicated to the history of the Second World War, as well as to the history of the 20th century and to the noble cause of peace.
The Cotentin peninsula
Following on from the vague sandy outline of the Baie des Veys, the rocky spur of the Northern Cotentin juts out into the sea. This isolated landscape is dotted with wild cliffs and lined by a shore backed by moorland abundant in heather and gorse. The Jobourg cliffs, rising to a height of 128m, are the highest in Europe. In the distance, to the north, the profile of the coast is more gentle, heralding the extensive beaches of the west coast. To the west of the Cotentin, off the coast of the Manche département, the Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Herm and Sark are renowned for their enchanting landscapes.
The town of Cherbourg occupies a superb strategic location at the northern tip of the Cotentin peninsula, right in the middle of the English Channel.
Sheltered from the winds from the north and east, the west coast benefits from the warm currents of the Gulf Stream. This 100km-long ribbon of sand, punctuated here and there by rocks and small ports with melancholic charm, culminates in the magnificent site of Mont Saint Michel, a marvel of the Western world. Here, the beaches are some of the sunniest in the region and the galloping tides are the highest in Europe.
The Brittany coast (Départements 35, 22, 29 and 56): a Celtic land surrounded by a vast ocean
With a total of 1,772km of coastline (2,730km if you count every tiny indentation), the Breton coastline covers one third of the total coastline of France. Brittany is also a region with a remarkable variety of coastal landscapes, which include rocky escarpments, fine sandy beaches, expanses of pebbles, islands, salt marshes and inlets. It is a mysterious and romantic land of forests which still murmur to the sound of the legends of King Arthur, Merlin the wizard and the Knights of the Round Table.
The Breton coastal adventure begins with the Côte d’Emeraude (Emerald Coast). To the west, Cap Fréhel marks a gentle break in this section of coast. To the east, the coastline widens gradually towards Cancale and the Mont-Saint-Michel bay. The fortified town of Saint-Malo, the historic home of great explorers, is situated mid-distance along the coast. From here, travel the short distance across the Rance estuary to reach the magnificent resort of Dinard, whose traditional architecture of seaside villas, beach huts and yacht clubs retains its nostalgic charm.
Next up is the Côte de Penthièvre, between Saint-Brieuc and the cliffs of Cap Fréhel. Its well-sheltered beaches of fine sand are very popular with tourists and perfect for a family holiday.
The Côte de Goëlo between Saint-Brieuc, Paimpol, Saint-Quay-Portrieux and the Île de Bréhat is a mix of indented coastline and estuaries which extend deep inland.
The Côte de Granit Rose (Pink Granite Coast) is a world apart. Traditional Breton landscapes make way here for a symphony of colour which has established the reputation of this delightful area nestled between Perros-Guirec and the Île de Batz.
The Côte des Abers, also known as the Côte des Légendes, is situated on the north coast of Finistère. Abers are funnel-shaped fjords which open out to the sea and which appear as deep gashes along the coast. In total, there are three in this area: the Aber-Ildut, which marks the passage of the English Channel into the Atlantic, the Aber-Benoit and the Aber-Wrach. The spectacle of tides entering and exiting these narrow estuaries is quite striking.
The Mer d’Iroise (Iroise Sea) acts as a dividing line between the English Channel and the Atlantic. The numerous islands here highlight the most traditional and wildest aspects of Brittany. Sites that are really worth a visit here include the Presqu’île de Crozon, a peninsula which has the shape of a cross lying on the ground, with one arm jutting out into the Rade de Brest, the other into the Baie de Douarnenez.
The well-sheltered port of Brest is nestled deep in the "rade" (bay) of the same name which flows into the Mer d’Iroise. Douarnenez, "the town of three ports", acts as a symbol for the close connection Bretons have with their maritime heritage.
Our journey along the southern coast of Brittany continues to the Côte de Cornouaille. From the Pointe du Raz (nowadays a protected area) to
Pont-Aven, this coastline is a succession of beaches and typical fishing ports. Concarneau, an officially recognised "town of art and history", still bears the indelible traces of military and artistic history which have forged its identity.
The Golfe du Morbihan and the Côte des Mégalithes are the guardians of one of the world's most impressive megalithic monuments, of which the stone alignments at Carnac are the main highlight. Dolmens and menhirs are far from being the sole attraction here, however, as the area boasts numerous beaches, as well as the port of Lorient and the resort of Quiberon.
Our Breton adventure ends in Vannes, a historic town located on the Golfe du Morbihan and the former headquarters of the Breton parliament.