As a kid I spent many happy holidays in Northern France, but it was only when I jumped on a ferry to France with my wife decades later that I appreciated just how wonderfully romantic many of its lovely old towns are. Here are some of my favourites
Northern France has plenty of pretty, historic towns to choose from, but I think Dinan is my favourite. Its old town is an almost impossibly pretty cluster of narrow cobbled streets with old wood-framed shops and houses. It really looks like a film set it’s so perfect. It’s absolutely wonderful for strolling and browsing and there’s a decent selection of restaurants and bars for stopping a while to watch the world go by. French pancakes (crepes) are the order of the day – eaten both in savoury and sweet varieties. Don’t miss taking a stroll down the steep hill to the riverside where you’ll find more eateries and boat trips along the river in summer months.
Remote Mont St Michel
A fabulously remote isle at the end of a long causeway, Mont St Michel is a monastery and small craggy ancient village surrounded by the sea at high tide. It rises high on the horizon line above the flat hinterlands of the coast, a wonderfully romantic array of robust old fortifications and houses topped with the spire of the abbey. To reach the interior of the atmospheric old abbey you have to climb flight after flight of steep rugged stone steps. But there are lots of spots to catch your breath and look out across the wild dark sea. It’s rightly very popular with tourists and can get quite overrun in summer months. Visit out of season to really sample its unique history and atmosphere.
Most people associate Bayeux with the fabulously intricate and ancient tapestry here which depicts the background to, and the battle of Hastings – when the French Norman King William the Conqueror conquered the English. The tapestry is over 70 metres long and the displays alongside it explain each of the actions being depicted. Horses, soldiers, boats, cattle, kingly thrones and birds of prey are all stitched in incredible detail. But there’s more to Bayeux than the tapestry. The old town is another compact tangle of narrow cobbled streets with the vast Notre Dame cathedral at its centre which was the original home of the tapestry. If you’re visiting in mid-summer go early to see the tapestry as it gets very busy and numbers are limited.
This fantastically attractive old port town is totally charming. A gaggle of narrow, ancient wooden-beamed old houses fronts a delightful little harbour. Many of them are now friendly restaurants and bistros, ideal for sampling some freshly caught fish and a glass of local cider in the bright afternoon sunshine. The town also has an artistic pedigree – the likes of Renoir, Cezanne and Boudin all painted here. Today there’s a host of tiny local galleries situated in the narrow lanes behind the harbour, each turning out interesting paintings and pottery. Much of it is quite touristy stuff, but you’ll still find real works of art here. The town’s lovely old main church of St Catherine is almost totally made from wood. Inside, its roof looks like the inside of the hull of a boat – testament to the craftsmanship of local artisans who spent much of their time building and maintaining fishing boats.