Prior to visiting this port city in Normandy, our only connection was through the 1964 musical film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg that starred Katherine Deneuve. We had gone there to catch a ferry the next day to Ireland so we had the afternoon and a morning to learn more about why the Vikings were attracted here in the 9th century. Those Scandinavian conquerors sailed into what would eventually become the world’s largest artificial harbor, a fact that would centuries later draw the attention of the British during the 100 Years’ War followed in World War II by the Germans and then the Allies who freed the people on June 30, 1944. Sadly, all of these wars destroyed a major part of the city; however, the history remains and we were happy to trace some of it simply by wandering the ancient streets.
A chateau is known to have existed beginning in the 10th century although like so many other buildings in town, it too has disappeared. What has remained are a few street names that follow the outlines of the original walls, towers, and moat so that’s where we started, as one blogger put it to, “Stroll through the alleys of old Cherbourg”. It was here that we saw the charming courtyard La Cour Marie that appears in the movie. On Rue au Blé we saw entrances to medieval passageways, similar to above ground tunnels that led through buildings to other courtyards. These walkways aren’t necessarily obvious but passing through them transports you from the busy street life to quieter areas behind.
On the way to our next destination we stopped to admire the exterior of the art deco-inspired Ratti department store that opened in 1929 with some of the first elevators in the area. Initially it offered 8000 m2 (86,000 ft2) of sales space but over the years the building was sold several times, including once to the Paris-based Printemps group, with the interior always being reduced, currently down to 1200 m2 (13,000 ft2).
The Italian Theater sits prominently on Place General De Gaulle where it’s been welcoming audiences since 1882. Sharing the Place with the theater is La Fontaine Mouche, a fountain that began running in 1895 with bronze figures representing the 4 seasons accompanied by, appropriately for a seaside town, dolphins and fish.
Just a block from there we discovered the reason why we’d heard of this Normandy city. The factory, Le Parapluie de Cherbourg, is where they hand-make those umbrellas that seem indestructible. Although we didn’t go inside, you can tour on your own for 5€ to see the steps involved in the manufacture of Le Véritable Cherbourg plus visit the museum for a look back at various models created for everyday use and for luxury brands.
On April 10, 1912 the Titanic stopped in Cherbourg to take onboard 121 passengers on their way across the Atlantic to New York. Although that ship used tenders to transfer the people we next went to where most others crossing the ocean would have embarked and disembarked, the former Gare Transatlantique or passenger terminal. This gigantic building has been transformed into La Cité du Mer, a maritime museum. Although the structure is massive there wasn’t room inside to display the 128 meter (420 ft) long nuclear submarine, Le Redoutable. You can tour the inside of this submersible with a half-hour audio guide but we preferred to view it while standing outside.
The view from our hotel room (today’s featured photo at the top) let us see all the way out to the fortifications in the sea that Louis XVI had constructed with Napoleon continuing the work. They wanted to partially block off the access to the harbor in a defensive move against the British. There are 3 forts all connected by the granite breakwater between them and while you can take a boat tour out to see them up close we simply waited until the next day: our ferry sailed right beside them giving us a close-up view.
One blogger said that while she wouldn’t necessarily go out of her way to visit Cherbourg, if you found yourself in this part of Normandy (as we did to catch the ferry) it would be well worth stopping for lunch and as mentioned above, to stroll the alleys of the old town. There are lots of cafés, bars, restaurants and even a casino.