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Published: August 21st 2013
I’ve just come back from a week-long trip to Guernsey, St. Malo and Cancale. The only other time I visited the Channel Islands was to Jersey for my 30th birthday, and that was awhile ago! So, after getting back from the Vercors and spending a few days in Paris, I decided I'd visit this Anglo-Normand
(as the French call the Channel Islands) island over the long August 15th weekend.
It's easy to get to Guernsey from Paris: a 3-hour train ride to St. Malo in Brittany and then a 2-hour ferry to St. Peter Port, Guernsey's capital city. I could have gone directly, but I had a nice invitation to spend the night of August 14th in the Saint Servan part of St. Malo chez my friends, C. and L My stopover in this beautiful fortified city, which used to be known for its corsairs (pirates), was delightful, and the weather was sunny and HOT, which is quite unusual for the Bretoncoast. In the evening, my hosts and I went for a long walk and had a lovely dinner on their terrace; and the next day, I was able to walk from their
flat to the ferry terminal.
St. Peter Port is a quaint and bustling little town of 16,500 people. It’s also an active port, with ferries, fishing boats and sailboats tied up at its docks. I discovered that it’s also a popular port-of-call for cruise ships (Princess Line, Holland-America Line, etc.), so several times during my stay I saw those huge hotel-like vessels anchored out in the bay. I asked the “locals” about these cruise ships, which I consider an eye-sore. Apparently, they’ve been coming to Guernsey for years. Guernsey residents don’t really seem to mind them because they help the economy, even though, with the recession, visitors aren’t spending as much as they used to. Because of my American accent, I was often asked, “Are you off one of the ships?”, to which I’d blithely reply: “No, I’m an INDEPENDENT traveler, and I live in France.”
I’d reserved a single room (49£ a night) on hotels.com at a b&b-type hotel. I was a little apprehensive because it was up on a hill above the center of town, but, as it turned out, the hotel was in a residential part of St. Peter Port that I very much enjoyed.
It took me about 15 minutes to walk down to the waterfront, my route taking me through the Candie Gardens with its statues of Queen Victoria and Victor Hugo, and then down the narrow little cobbled-stoned streets of the town. To get back “up” in the evening, I would take the 31 bus or walk back the same way as in the morning or along an equally picturesque route.
The staff of the hotel was friendly and helpful; my room was simple but clean and quiet. I had all the amenities: cable TV, a coffee maker and free WIFI. In the garden, there was a fair-sized swimming pool where I twice took a dip; the English breakfast was copious; and in the evening, between
5 and 7 PM, I could order a glass of the local cider (“Roquette”) on tap from the at the hotel bar. I twice had a salad in my room for dinner; once I had a meal at a nice pub on the harbor, and once I was invited to someone’s house for an evening meal (more about this later). As for lunch, I packed a picnic and ate during my hikes.
view of Condor ferry
with St. Malo in the distance. I took a Condor ferry to Guernsey the next day.
read and enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and being a WWII history buff, I'd wanted to go to Guernsey for the last several years because of its German occupation history. Guernsey, like Jersey, was occupied by German forces from 30 June 1940 until their liberation on 9 May 1945. In Guernsey, about 17,000 out of a total population of 42,000, including thousands of school children, were evacuated to England and Scotland before the Germans arrived. Many of those who remained were involved in passive resistance. Islanders carried on as best they could, but life became harder and harder, especially after D-Day, when everyone, including the Germans, who were ordered to remain on the island, had very little to eat.
While on Guernsey, I visited the German Occupation Museum and a German watch tower. Many of the fortifications and artillery that were part of the German Atlantic Wall, as well as other facilities (including an underground military hospital) are still visible on the island, but not always restored, were built by slave laborers brought from eastern Europe.
Besides walking around St. Peter Port, and doing a bit of shopping (Mark’s and Spencer for
underwear, bookshops for another copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to reread, some souvenir toffee for friends and family), here’s what else I did: I made a trip around the island on the 91 (public) bus; I visited Victor Hugo’s house and gardens;and I went on numerous walks and hikes, mostly along the cliffs on the south and west coasts.
My original plan was to take a guided tour on my first day, but I learned at the Tourist Office that guided tours are only offered twice a week and the next one on Saturday was all booked-up by day-trippers from the cruise ships! So, I took the one-and-a-half hour bus trip (for £4.50—the price of a “day pass” valid on any of Guernsey’s buses) around the island. There was a slight drizzle that morning, so visibility wasn’t great, but it wasn’t cold, and I got a real impression of the size and topography of the island. It also gave me the idea to go back two days later to the southwest coast. Everywhere I looked I saw flowers of all sorts, but it was the quantity of multi-colored hortensias that particularly impressed
Victor Hugo lived in Guernsey with his family from 1855 to 1870. While in exile from France on the island, he wrote several of his major masterpieces, including his epic novel, Les Misérables. He also occupied his time decorating his rather ornate home, Hauteville House, a residence on a hill above town overlooking the harbor. In 1927, Hugo’s granddaughter, Jeanne, donated the property to the city of Paris, which maintains it as a museum, open to the public from April to September. As can be imagined, it is a very popular tourist attraction for French visitors, of whom there were many over the August 15th
long weekend. I arrived at 9:45 a.m. to reserve an obligatory guided tour and was assigned to the next available one, which was at noon!
Later that day, as I hiked from St. Peter Port southward on the cliff path towards Fermain Bay, I was stopped by a policeman and told I couldn’t continue any further. A WWII Canadian bomb had been discovered in a forest nearby and that section of the coastal route had been put off -limits for 36 hours! Hundreds of people were being asked to evacuate,
and the bomb, which was too rusted to be detonated on site, was later transported to, and made to explode in, the sea, to the delight of hundreds of onlookers.
As serendipity would have it, this contre-temps allowed me to make three new acquaintances: a local resident and her two houseguests. They, too, were stopped by the policeman, and S. very kindly offered to drive me further down the coast to rejoin the cliff path. During our ride, she extended an invitation for me to come and have dinner at her place the following evening. I readily accepted. Such a treat to be invited into a Guernsey home my last night on the island!
The next day, I took the ferry back to St. Malo, where I was picked up by my friend S.B. and driven to her lovely home in Cancale, a picturesque fishing village 14 kms from St. Malo. Located in the Bay of Mont St. Michel, Cancale is well-known for its oysters and fish restaurants. I thoroughly enjoyed my two and a half days there: the weather was magnificent, and it was invigorating walking along the cliffs and swimming in the sea. Two
highlights were having a crayfish galette with S.B. at the Breizh Creperie and relaxing in the waters of “the Aquatonic” room of the underground spa of the Hotel des Thermes in St. Malo.
S.B. drove me back this afternoon to the St. Malo train station to get the TGV, and my week away from Paris came to an end. My only regret is that I didn’t have enough time to get over to the island of Sark, which I hear is lovely, carless and unspoiled. But I know I’ll be returning to the area. Guernsey and Brittany are indeed beautiful and have so much to offer!
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