Cherbourg, one of France’s great Channel ports, is closely linked to French naval history, and to transatlantic adventures – the Titanic even made its final stop here on its fateful journey, as recalled at the Cité de la Mer, one of the port’s main tourist attractions.
Known to the British above all as a ferry port, Cherbourg has a gritty history as a naval harbour. It also has glamorous connections with cruise ships and major yacht races. Located at the top of Normandy’s substantial, western Cotentin Peninsula, the deep natural harbour here is backed by steep wooded hillsides. It was an obvious place for a fortified port.
In the Ancien Régime, it was decided to add massive man-made defences to protect Cherbourg from English invasion. A vast system of seawalls was begun. These were extended after the Revolution, under Napoleon, whose ashes arrived back here from St Helena – which explains an evident attachment to the controversial emperor in the town, in the form of a prominent equestrian statue. Eventually, Cherbourg boasted the largest manmade harbour in the world, lined by sea forts completed by the 1850s. Although by this time Britain had become an ally, the seawalls protected the harbour from high seas and storms.
Before the outbreak of World War I, cruise liners would stop in Cherbourg before crossing the Atlantic. In fact, this would be the tragic Titanic’s last stop before it went down. However, liners continued to make a halt here. In 1929 alone, 300,000 passengers passed through. In the 1950s, the likes of Rita Hayworth and Elizabeth Taylor set foot on Cherbourg’s quay.
All Cherbourg’s naval defences could not protect the place from being taken by the Nazis in June 1940. Much of the harbour was destroyed in World War II. After D-Day, though, American troops rapidly took back the port. In a monumental effort, they restored the harbour so that it briefly became the busiest port in the world.
Reconstruction was in modern style. Post-war, French nuclear submarines have been built here. Alongside the ferry port, a yachting marina has been created. In recent times, cruise liners have returned from time to time. As well as many seafood restaurants, there are now a good number of museums and exhibition centres to enjoy in Cherbourg.
Worth a visit
> Cité de la Mer: set in the spacious former Art Deco Gare Maritime building where ocean liner passengers embarked and disembarked, this major marine centre opened in 2002. It offers a wide variety of themed areas. There are parts dedicated to underwater exploration and marine creatures, and of course there’s a section devoted to the Titanic. The issue of immigration are also covered. The highlight for many visitors is boarding the disused French nuclear submarine, Le Redoutable, kept here.
> Musée Thomas Henry: this art museum in the centre of town reopened in 2015 after undergoing renovations. It contains works by celebrated international figures, the paintings given to the town in the 1830s by Thomas Henry, a native of Cherbourg who became a leading art expert at the Louvre. Talented local artists are also well represented, including Millet, who lived near Cherbourg and painted memorable scenes of rural life in the Cotentin in the 19th century.
> Muséum Emmanuel Liais: set beside a fine public garden on the western side of the town centre, this museum has wide-ranging displays of archaeology and ethnography, including Ancient Egyptian works and cabinets of curiosity. Its collections recall the fact that many explorers set out from Cherbourg.
> Le Point du Jour: this photographic centre puts on three exhibitions a year.
> Musée de la Libération, Fort Roule: Cherbourg’s war story is told in a fort perched far above the town, reached via hairpin bends. The coastal views from the fort are magnificent.
> Chalutier Jacques Louise / Musée de la Pêche: this former trawler once went on long-distance fishing trips, but is now a listed monument and permanently moored on a central quay. You can visit the interior in the high summer tourist season, and see the displays on fishing inside.
> Holy Trinity Basilica: Cherbourg’s major church displays a whole mix of styles, as it was added to down many centuries.
> Théâtre à l’Italienne Le Trident: a 19th century extraganza, this is the grandest of three venues for theatre in town.
> Hague à Part sea outings: on board L’Adèle, enjoy a one-hour cruise around Cherbourg’s huge walled harbour, getting close to its forts. There are also cruises along the north Cotentin coast.
> Château des Ravalet Gardens: in Tourlaville, on the outskirts of Cherbourg, visit these magnificent gardens laid out beside a 16th century castle.
> Maison du Littoral et de l’Environnement: at Tourlaville also, this environmental centre organises hiking tours of the area, among other things.
- La Hague and Nez de Jobourg
- Barneville Carteret (website in French)
Not to be missed