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Updated: 15th December 2015
For sure, the fame of Paris draws crowds, and the French Riviera has beaches and fancy film festivals. But the northern part of this country, rich in history, architecture and the highest tides in Europe, is the ideal place to enjoy a weekend in France and indulge in nature, cheese, wine, halftimbered towns and WWII history,
Whether you head to Brittany or Normandy, you are truly spoilt for choice…
The sunrise, which greeted me as I stepped onto the deck of the Brittany Ferry crossing from Portsmouth, was a sure sign of a good start. As fishermen directed their boats and we bobbed closer to the harbour, the cold, crisp winter morning didn’t seem so bad at all.
The beauty of exploring Europe out of season is you usually get it to yourself. This trip was going to be no exception.
St Malo has had a pretty erratic past, at one point declaring itself no longer part of France in the late 1500s. It suffered badly during World War 2, with much of the city being destroyed by American and British bombing and gunfire. Slowly, starting in 1948, it was rebuilt with love and is now full of Crêpières, Ramparts, and historic charm. Except, in winter, it took a while to get fired up.
The cobbled streets, the Fort, Ramparts and St Vincent Cathedral are the main attractions here, making it the ideal place to wander aimlessly and soak up the history. Dropping into one of the many little shops to warm up on route is mandatory. If you stumble upon Couleur Safran, settle on a petite table and indulge in one of the best Crêpe and Chocolat Chaud you will ever taste (And trust me, it is rare for me to recommend somewhere.)
Though there is a beach, sadly, I saw none of it. The highest tides in Europe hit this coast, and all I got was a ten-foot wave bang in the face, making the waterway restaurants slightly less appealing. Back inside the lit walls at night, the streets come alive. Famous for seafood and served in typical French Brassiere style, there are plenty of restaurants here to take your pick from.
Mont Saint Michel
Regularly coming in the top five visited attractions in France by some of its 82 million a year visitors, Mont St Michel during the summer must be sinking under the weight of all those visitors.
This beautiful island was once a strategic fort, abbey and monastery, with the poor living in small houses below. Later in its life, it turned into a prison, much of its insides now bare. The grandeur of this castle-like land is as impressive by day or night as you take the long boardwalk towards it, highlighted even more so when monthly tides return it to an island. Inside these walls are Museums, coffee shops, restaurants and crazy overpriced souvenir shops. Fun fact: Cornwall has a very similar island!
Once an Island, a long bridge now connects the mainland to it. During high tide, however, the ocean covers the road and returns it to its island history. This rock first became home to a church and then settled on over a thousand years ago. It was during the 11th century, however, that the Abbey was founded before the military construction surrounding it was built in the 14th century. After a short stint as a prison during the French Revolution, it was beautifully restored in the 19th century and is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in France.
Looking back from the Island, you can enjoy sweeping views of the Normandy coastline and appreciate just how remote of a position this once was. There are countless souvenir shops, small restaurants and even hotels you can stay in overnight to soak it up once the day-tripping crowds leave. I actually visited Mont St Michel during the winter, and although there was a chill in the air, I was so pleased it was reasonably quiet and not as crowded as some of the summer reports I have read. If you plan to head here, it’s well worth coming later in the day to catch the sunset or match up with the tide schedule to capture it completely as an island.
The ‘Island’ restaurants and bars can be explored for free and accessed by a complimentary shuttle bus or on foot. The Abbey itself is open daily (Excluding 1st Jan, 25 Dec & 1st May). Adult rates €9.
Rennes was one of those places I wanted to love but just couldn’t. On paper, it should have been a winner: crooked houses, exposed beams, cobbled streets. It struck me as uncared for, though, in many parts, perhaps the punishment for visiting in the winter months.
That aside, the historic centre, with its lined-up colourful houses and slightly rocking design, is as quaint as the postcards would have you believe. I am still not sure however how it won ‘the most livable city in France’ back in 2012, perhaps It needs more than a day trip…
Beyond the houses that look ready to tumble, there are large green parks to wander, the previously powerful parliament of Brittany and to be honest, I ducked out after that.
As night set and the train pulled into Caen, there were a mere few hours left to wander this city. I did know that this underrated European city was worth visiting for its architecture.
The final resting place of William the Conqueror, Caen bore the brunt of much of the fighting during the Battle of Normandy, with its most popular tourist site now being a memorial to this.
The Abbaye aux Hommes and Abbaye aux Dames are both grand and intricate in their design and, at night, stole the show. Sadly, being late in the day, I wasn’t able to get inside. It was one of those places that struck a chord. However, it is already booked to be explored further when I return to visit Europe in January.
Sainte Etienne le Vieux, opposite the Abbey is the ruins of a church destroyed during the war and is one of those fantastic deserted and overgrown photography spots.
If you are visiting by ferry then bringing your own car is the ideal option, allowing you the chance to explore parts of the countryside public transport does not reach and it will certainly save you some time. If you want to hire a car on arrival then plenty of companies are available, double check they have offices both at your port of arrival and departure to return the car (In particular Caen, which is a little out of town).
However, if you have made it to 28 and racked up 4 failed driving tests like me, then fear not… Even in the depths of winter (limited), public transport still runs alongside the fantastic French railways. Check out the links below for the latest timetables, paying attention to seasonal changes:
Where to Stay
I checked into Hotel Chateau Colombier, which is about a 10-minute drive out of St Malo. As with most of France, accommodation is certainly not cheap in these parts, so I took it as a chance to splash out on something a bit unique.
Set in its own gardens and with a history dating back to 1715, it is well-known in the local area for also having a first-class restaurant. Personally, I am a big fan of supporting smaller hotels over big chains and hunting down something that stands out from the crowd. Based on that, this is a great option, though there are plenty of historic and unusual hotels across the region.
What to add on
The beauty of Northern France means that a weekend might not be enough to see everything on one trip. The quaint and historic town of Dinan in Brittany and the famous home of that tapestry, Bayeux in Normandy, are just two of those places I would have visited if time had been on my side. Luckily, I am heading back next month to Caen to tick them off.
To book your France – UK crossing, head to the Brittany Ferries website or give them a call on 0330 159 7000.
Getting There with Brittany Ferries: Review
Where do these guys go?
Brittany ferries can take you between Southern England and the North of France. Routes range from Portsmouth, Poole and Plymouth in the UK to Caen, Le Havre, St Malo and Cherbourg in France to Bilbao and Santander in Spain. Essentially, they can offer smooth and easy sailing across the channel to the main hubs. Check out their Routes & Timetables.
Check in and get going…
If you are a serial weekend wanderer like myself, then you must know the annoying reality so well. Dashing from work on a Friday, hanging around at the airport for your start of weekend kicks, followed by rocking up in the pitch black somewhere new to try and find a bar that will have you after the multiple Vodka pouches on Ryanair (Or, just me?)
Problem solved. Overnight sailing! Pick the port you are cruising from, jump on the train or grab the car and be there an hour before. Literally, that is simple. You already have your cabin and keys from check-in, so you can kip, eat or drink as soon as you are onboard. Plus, the cabins are not fluorescent yellow. Sailing 1, O’Leary 0.
Is it like sleeping in a tiny, hobbit-sized hut?
Surprisingly not. Having checked out both the two bed inside cabins and the four bed outside cabins I was actually pretty impressed. Both had enough room to get comfy in, and the larger boats had the sofa/bed change-over combo, which is a winner. There are also ‘Suite style cabins’ I hear on the longer routes, which might be a preferred option if you are heading off for a romantic weekend on the continent.
Alternatively, you can just grab a reclining leather seat in a ‘sleeping lounge’ for a small fee or, on the day crossings get busy around the ship, maybe even take a dip or head to the cinema?
Is the food worse than flying?
I think now is a good time to remind you that Brittany is in France; as such, it is a French company.
Didn’t answer the question? Let me explain. Cheese, pastries, red wine.
To clarify even further: Cheese, pastries, red wine. FRENCH FOOD HEAVEN!
On my outbound journey, the ship had both an A’la carte restaurant and a self-serve. The thing that really surprised me was it was actually pretty affordable based on UK Travel prices. I think a four-course sit-down meal for £25 or Self-Serve for £4. Plus, that cheeky (and great vineyard) bottle of French Vino starts at £12.
All the food was great on both crossings, but the A la carte gets a bit confusing as you can opt to have a buffet starter and dessert. Which, being a fat pig, I went for. I only stopped (briefly) when the table next to me remarked in French that my plate was now the buffet… And then I went and got me some cheese. Merci, for your comments of concern, lady, but hello! I have just spent a year in Asia, and cheese and chocolate get in my belly!
What if you get bored?
Watch a movie at the cinema, head to the slots or gamble the night away at the Casino.
I went straight for the pool, cause, novelty, right? However, on an overnight boat, the sad reality is it only opens during Summer. The bar had some live music going down, a little quiz and a merry weekend crowd brewing. On the other end of the ship was a quieter, chilled-out cafe bar. Coming back and not boarding until 11 pm, it was a smaller, more subdued affair on a slightly smaller ship.
Good to know…
Fact 1: Different routes operate different ships depending on the season. Booking screens confirm which boat you choose before paying so you can check if it suits your needs.
Fact 2: Pay the extra for the outside cabin if you get seasick. As a serial sea sickness sufferer, it did actually help… Though, to be fair, the crossing was smooth enough that it wasn’t an issue. Perhaps the Spain crossing would be different.
Fact 3: If you get seasick, then don’t forget your tablets, as they are not on board. Then it comes down to a wine & cheese self-cure…
Fact 4: During the summer months, Brittany Ferries operates Whale and Dolphin spotting cruises. If you love animals and eco-travel like I do, this is exciting. They are a company truly invested in getting this right, which is one of the reasons I even entertained sailing in the first place. Much of what the company does has a green focus and if you are interested in seeing Whales and Dolphins in Europe just hit that link!
Fact 5: Brittany Ferries is a truly local operator. It was founded by farmers in France and still operates in a similar way. I find it very respectful in the modern world of travel to find a company that boasts so proudly of their history and beliefs.
What’s this gonna cost me?
Actually, not much at all. I would go as far as saying in terms of spending on your European travels, this is serious value for money. Mainly because you skip the airport hassle.
These guys are always running some kind of unbelievable deal. For example, next month, I am heading back. Two people, one cabin and one awesome hassle-free trip for under £70 quid. Not bad, right?
For all the current offers, check out the Brittany Ferries Website.
Would I do it again?
For sure. I have actually already booked for January to nip back. At £70 with the current offer for two people, return and one night’s accommodation, it is a no-brainer compared to flying and hotel costs at the same time. It also skips all that dashing and security hassle for a quick trip, and you can actually wake up refreshed and ready to see the sights.
Book your Brittany Ferries trip on their website.