The hilltop town of
Coutances overlooks the Cotentin peninsula in the Manche Departement of the region of
Basse-Normandie. It lies near the English Channel, on the Soulle River, about 170 miles west of
Paris and 16 miles west-southwest of Saint-Lô. It is at the intersection of D2, from Cherbourg, D971 from Carentan and Granville and D972 from Saint-Lô.
The area was originally inhabited by an
ancient Celtic tribe called the Unelli. When the Romans came they called the town Cosedia. They latter changed the name to Constantia, in the 3rd century, to honor the emperor Constantius I.
Coutances became an Episcopal see during the 5th century. During the Middle Ages it became the seat of a viscount. Over the course of the centuries, the town was subjected to a long history of sieges.
In 1940, it was occupied by the Germans. Coutances was one of the first towns to be taken by the Allies after the July 44 breakthrough at Saint-Lô.
The small town was badly damaged during World War II battles between the liberating Americans and the retreating Germans, but the cathedral escaped serious damage. Work started on rebuilding the town, according to a master plan, in 1950. The master plan was oriented towards accentuating the town’s old churches and other monuments.
The mainly 13th century Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame dominates the town. It was originally built upon the site of an older church that was begun by a prominent local family around 1040. The present building, which was constructed between 1220 and 1275, used the remains of the old church. It is a slender example of local Norman architecture and the Gothic style with Gothic stained windows. Its octagonal lantern tower raises to 135 feet and is flanked by turrets. It wasn’t until the 13th century that its double flying buttresses were added.
Several blocks directly west is a Botanical Gardens [Jardin des plantes]. A court of assizes, and tribunals of the first instance and of commerce, are located several blocks to the north of the cathedral.
Coutances’ is a market town for the Manche Departement. Its products are mainly from the tanning and manufacturing industries. The breeding of Normandy dairy cows is centered here.
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Honfleur is a charming small fishing town, yacht harbor and tourist center situated on the southern bank of the Seine River Estuary in the Departement of
Calvados. It is directly south of, and across the Bassin de Retenue from, Le Havre and is directly linked to that city by the Normandie suspension bridge. It is about 45 miles west of
Rouen, 39 miles northeast of
Caen and 125 miles west-northwest of
Paris. It is at the crossroads of D513, from Trouville and Deauville and D579 from Pont-l’Évéque.
Honfleur was founded in the 11th century. During
the Hundred Years’ War, which lasted from 1337 to 1453, Honfleur changed hands many times. The English last occupied this major defensive port from 1418 to 1450. Over the course of the 16th through 19th centuries, the port’s importance increased as a result of its substantial trade with Asia and North America.
In 1608, Samuel de Champlain sailed from the port to found Québec. During the 19th century,
Le Havre became much more important than Honfleur as a seaport. Instead, Honfleur, because of its colorful charm, became a Mecca for artists and writers. Boudin, Cézanne, Courbet, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley all painted there.
The picturesque 17th century Vieux-Bassin is encircled by 15th and 16th century buildings, with six and seven story houses on the western side. On the east side is the town’s old fortified area, l’Enclos. Surrounding the Vieux-Bassin are many varieties of colorful flowers.
The 14th through 15th century Church of Sainte-Étienne houses the Musée de le Vieux-Honfleur. The museum holds folkloric and maritime displays.
The 15th century Church of Sainte-Catherine, located on the northwest side of the Vieux-Bassin, was constructed of timber, by ship carpenters, and appears as an upside down ship. Nearby, is the Musée Eugène Boudin housing many Boudin works and paintings by the likes of Raoul Dufy.
Honfleur is known as a tourist center and as one of Normandy’s most appealing harbors. Its main manufacture is furniture.
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Mont-Saint-Michel is a small, rocky, cone-shaped island in the Gulf of Saint-Malo, located just off the cost of the Departement of
Manche. It is situated at the far northwestern edge of
Basse-Normandie where it borders
Brittany. It is about 11 miles west-southwest of Avranches, 32 miles east of
Saint-Malo, 63 miles southwest of
Caen, 41 miles north of
Rennes and 201 miles west of
Paris. The island is the northern terminus of Departemental route 976 from Rennes, just 5 miles north of its intersection with Route National 175.
Originally, the islet was known as Mont-Tombe. In the 8th century, the bishop of nearby Avranches, Saint-Aubert, had a vision of the archangel Saint-Michel. In commemoration, he built an oratory on the 256 foot high granite outcropping and named it Mont-Saint-Michel.
The Benedictines built an abbey, on this spot, in 966.
King Philip II of France tried to capture the Mont in 1203, but merely succeeded in partially burning down the abbey. Philip paid for his folly by underwriting the construction of the three-tiered La Merveille buildings, on the north side of the Mont. These buildings rise majestically to the pointed spire of the abbey church.
In 1256, the island was fortified. From 1337 to 1453, during
the Hundred Years War, and from 1562 to 1598, over the course of the Wars of Religion, the fortified island resisted many sieges. During the Hundred Years’ War it was the only part of northwestern France to remain constantly in French hands.
During the 18th century, the monastery substantially declined. By the beginning of the French Revolution, in 1787, the French government had dissolved the monastery. At that time there were but seven monks in residence. Under
Napoléon I, who reigned from 1804 to 1815, Mont-Saint-Michel became a state political prison until 1863. In 1874, the
French government designated it as an historic monument and restored it. It was connected to land by a 3000 foot long causeway built in 1875.
During the Middle Ages, the island was completely surrounded by water. Prior to the causeway’s construction, it was only surrounded by water at two high-tides per month. Today, its tides are the highest on the continent, with a low-tide/high-tide differential of 50 feet at certain times of the year.
A massive wall, more than ½ mile in circumference, encircles Mont-Saint-Michel. The narrow Grande-Rue cobblestone street circles up to the monastery in three steep spirals. It is bordered, at its lowest level, by old houses, some of which are from the 15th century. Today, they are mostly hotels, restaurants and tourist shops.
La Merveille was built in 1228. Its powerful walls combine the robustness of a fortress with a religious simplicity. On the southern and eastern sides of the medieval walls is a panoramic view of the bay. On La Merveille’s second terrace is the Salle des Chevaliers. It is a 13th century banquet hall and one of the largest and most beautiful rooms at Mont-Saint-Michel.
The 11th through 16th century Romanesque and Gothic style Église Abbatiale is perched upon the top of the granite outcropping, overlooking the bay. In the 19th century the tower, spire and the statue of Saint-Michel were added.
In 1979, UNESCO designated Mont-Saint-Michel as a World Heritage site. It is France’s most splendid abbey and one of France’s greatest tourist sites. Because of its combination of history and architecture, it has been called ‘the Wonder of the Western World’.
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