Like most ports, there is a lot more to Cherbourg than will initially meet the eye of the traveller intent on moving on and making their way further south.
First impressions from the ship pulling in aren’t exactly enchanting. The harbour is impressively large. It was for many years the largest man-made harbour in the world (Until some oil-rich kingdom in the Middle East claimed that title). For the statisticians amongst you, it covers 1,500 hectares in total and it took over 100 years to complete. You get some idea of its size as you arrive when you pass the outer walls of the harbour (that stretch some 4.5km across the harbour mouth) and then continue to sail another 2.5km before you get to the more normal-sized inner harbour where the ship docks.
With a port facility of this size, it’s no surprise that it flourished for most of the intervening years. Much of the port area where you pull into is fairly nondescript and its strategic position meant that it got quite a hammering during the Second World War. One of the buildings that may catch your eye to the left is the large pinkish-brown coloured art-deco-style warehouse bearing the name “Cité de la Mer”.
This grand old dame of a building used to be the main passenger terminal – the enormous point of entry for the millions of people that passed through Cherbourg during the days before air travel became cheap and accessible. Anyone who was anyone coming to France from America or Britain passed through the great halls of the interior of this building which was twice its current size before American bombs precipitated its partial deconstruction.Today, it’s a fantastic museum dedicated to the sea and Cherbourg’s relationship with it. A lot of exhibition space is given over to the pioneering work of undersea exploration – an area in which the French, along with the Americans, have been to the forefront for several decades. There are models of the first diving equipment and the generations of underwater exploration vehicles to look at. There’s a massive aquarium and another area where visitors are invited to become part of a futuristic underwater exploration team with a hilarious newsreel video at the end featuring the participants. There’s also the story of the Titanic. Contrary to what a lot of Irish people might think, it was Cherbourg (and not Belfast or Cobh) where the doomed liner made its final call in Europe before heading straight for a large iceberg. The current exhibition there is very large and impressive, featuring recreated interiors of the Titanic.
The pièce de résistance of the Cité de la Mer, however, is its nuclear submarine “Le Redoubtable”. This was one hell of a thrill, to walk through an actual weapon of mass destruction (with its nuclear reactor now removed for safety reasons, needless to say), marvel at the insanity of the enormous engineering effort at creating and maintaining such a piece of machinery, and get an intimate feeling for what it must be like to live on board such a vessel deep under the sea.Back on terra firma and away from the wide soulless boulevards that you stretch before you when you arrive on ship into Cherbourg, there are the chic waterfront stretches, behind which lie narrow winding streets of the town’s mediaeval era. This is getting into an area that few visitors to the port city see, with the core of the old quarter centring around the beautiful Gothic 15th-century Sainte-Trinité Basilica.
The more devoted French film fans amongst you will also know Cherbourg is the location of Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). This cult film starring Catherine Deneuve is worth checking out if you can as it shows off the town at its colourful best, with much of it filmed around the mediaeval and portside quarters. It’s responsible for bringing hundreds of thousands of devotees to Cherbourg to find the locations of the scenes. One of the ironies in making that film was that the film crew allegedly didn’t have a drop of rain while they were here and so any of the rain scenes that you see in “Parapluies…” are made with rain machines.So Cherbourg is worth a detour, whether it’s a stopover on your way back from somewhere else or even for a lost weekend in its own right. It’s a city of many ages – one of the few in France where you’ll see street names revering past kings, short-lived emperors and modern presidents all in one place. It’s a city that looks unappealing on first glance but which holds plenty of charm and beauty and a place where the sea and everything in it is celebrated.
In short, it’s a great place that you should not just pass through the next time you go there.
Get Yourself There: Stena Line is the only ferry company sailing all year round from Ireland to Cherbourg, with a three-times-a-week connection from Rosslare to Cherbourg
Staying There: We stayed at the brand new Appart’City Hotel on Avenue Carnot. Very affordable with secure undergound parking, it’s situated across the road from a major shopping centre, down the street from another one, within walking distance from the town centre and two doors down from Normandie Wine.
Eat out: The Armoire à Délices (Quai de la Hune, Tel 0033 2 33 95 23 02, www.larmoireadelices.fr) by the port has an eclectic vibe that belies its commitment to some great cuisine in a friendly informal environment. It’s also a good place to pick up last-minute gourmet souvenirs/presents.