Exploring Northern France

by Ed Forteau /
Ed Forteau's picture
Jun 26, 2012 / 1 comments

France’s northern departments of Brittany and Normandy have long been favourites with holidaymakers making the channel crossing from the UK, or popping across the border from Holland and Belgium. But they’re also a great place for longer term visitors who want to discover the real France away from the big cities like Paris and Lyon.
Here are a few of my favorite spots:


Magical Mont St Michel
The main tourist draw in this part of France gets very busy in the summer months, so time your visit for low season so you get more of the ancient staircases and narrow streets of this remarkable hamlet on an island to yourself. It’s not strictly an island, but it is cut off from the mainland at high tide so you need to check the tide times before you visit. In some ways though, the best part of a visit is your arrival anyway. The spiny finger of the abbey’s spire thrusts skywards from the top of a gaggle of ancient houses and vertiginous buttresses – visible from miles away across the salt flats that line the coast. It’s wonderfully photogenic. Once on the isle, it’s a fairly steep tramp along the main street overhung with ancient gabled shops and houses and up craggy steps all the way to the abbey at the top. Don’t feel bad about stopping to catch your breath from time to time – it’s the perfect opportunity to enjoy the sweeping views back to the mainland and out to sea. Inside the abbey you’ll find a genuinely mystical array of medieval soaring columns and stained glass windows. It’s like walking through a trap door to ancient era.



Prehistoric Carnac
Carnac is located right down on the bottom of the Brittany peninsula facing the Atlantic rather than the Channel. This means its beach offers more sheltered swimming than north coast resorts and there are myriad rock pools for kids to explore - which I remember spending hours sploshing around in as a 9-year-old. But it’s the stuff on dry land that gets people really interested here. There are literally thousands of standing stones scattered in strange formations across the fields and hillocks that surround the town. The largest collection of megalithic stones in the world was carved from local rock and created by pre-Celtic peoples who inhabited this part of the world. No one really knows what they were for – strange religious ceremonies, sacrifices, communication with the netherworld? Along with simple standing stones, there are also unusual chambers created by placing one huge slab of stone on top of a couple of others. They’re known as Dolmens and thought to be burial chambers.




Romantic Dinan
This wonderfully atmospheric ancient city fringed with a thick, brooding wall is a classic step-back-in-time experience and perfect for a romantic weekend break. The unspoilt narrow cobbled streets and wood-beamed houses look like a film set. Unlike Mont St Michel, whilst there is the odd tourist shop, they are pretty few and far between. For the most part it all feels surprisingly real. There’s a good selection of local bars and restaurants serving regional specialities like crepes (pancakes stuffed with all kinds of yummy stuff – caramelised onions and goat’s cheese was my favourite) and lots of interesting shops for browsing. But best of all is the steep descent down to the port-side next to the river with the massive arches of the road viaduct towering vertiginously above you. There are several attractive waterfront restaurants for a long lazy lunch or else why not hop on a pleasure boat and go for a short trip up river?


Getting there: If you’re based in the UK, P&O Ferries offers over 40 daily crossings from Dover to Calais


Article by





Comments (1)

  • pen4hire

    11 years 10 months ago

    We were so happy that we chose northern France for a week's journey after Paris. But we wished it had been a month instead! The places mentioned here are indeed magical (although we didn't get up to Mont St. Michel--just saw it from afar, because it was a rainy day and I already had a cold). But the approach is marred by the rampant commercialization. Too bad. On the other hand, the WWII beaches of Normandy are amazingly clear of exploitation by t-shirt shops and other bad-taste businesses.  Hands down, though, our favorite place was Bayeux and the unbelievable tapestry on display there.



    Vera Marie Badertscher


Leave a comment