Winning tip: the Alabaster coast, Normandy
The GR21 running 186km from Le Havre to Le Tréport takes in Normandy’s classic coastline, green countryside, architecture and second world war sites. I recommend taking the boat to Le Havre and doing the first few days up to the beautiful port town of Fécamp. You will see the best of the stunning white cliffs, vistas painted by Monet at Étretat and a wealth of history. As an official GR path, the walk is clearly waymarked in red and white, but there are handy maps at the tourist office in Le Havre. It’s easy to find accommodation and supplies at the towns en route and buses and trains back to Le Havre are regular and take around an hour.
Le Tréport cliffs
The cliffs around Le Tréport are some of the highest in Europe and a walk along them gives great sea views and bracing winds to energise you for a circular walk. Climb the 120 steps to the top then follow the path – through forests for shade if you need it. Alternatively, be brave and stick to the cliff tops for 20km then descend towards Mers les Bains – the evening aroma of mussels and fresh fish from the cafes will lure you there – try Les Mouttes as you complete your walk on the seafront.
Towpath from Boismont
Part of the Canal de la Somme runs from Abbeville to the Somme estuary. The towpath is now a cycle way, though, if you choose to walk it, relatively few cyclists pass by. Our start point is Boismont, which is on the D3 from St Valery. Drive through the village, always taking the downhill options. The very minor road will take you to a small parking area next to a swing bridge. From there you can walk in either direction or across the bridge into the open countryside beyond. The canal is tree-lined and you will only be disturbed in your enjoyment of the countryside and wildlife by the occasional cyclist or pleasure cruiser. The towpath is suitable for wheelchairs and the proximity of the car park makes it suitable for those with limited mobility. Opposite the car park is a small picnic area. If you want a round trip take the bus to Boismont. You could alternatively hire a bike or a pleasure cruiser at St Valery.
Etangs du Romelaëre, near Saint-Omer
This wetland in Pas de Calais offers great walking all year round, with lakes and marshland perfect for spotting migrating birds. The footpaths and signage were updated last year, and now you can choose a 4.5km route that small children can manage, or a 10km circular walk. It’s a peaceful paradise, and the watery reflections make for great photographs.
With Claude Monet to Pourville
Follow Monet, turn your back to Dieppe and walk west on the clifftops two miles to Pourville-sur-Mer. Within another mile you’ll find the clifftop fisherman’s hut he painted and, inland, the Manoir d’Ango at Varengeville. An option he didn’t have is the Bois des Moutiers garden in spring and graveyard where Georges Braque is buried. Monet loved the view from there and would have been excited by the window Braque designed for the little church.
The Forêt d’Eu, near the Picardy border, is the perfect place to get away from the crowds. The 5km walk, populated by deer and birds, begins at the Poteau Maître Jean, one of the many landmarks at crossroads throughout the forest, around three miles from Blangy-sur-Bresle, a market town just off the A28 motorway. Through ancient woodland, the route (one of the Grandes Randonnées de Pays) follows a pretty track before descending to the village of Mienval then joining a tiny road back up to the starting point.
Custom officers’ path
You can join the Normandy coastal path (Sentier des Douaniers) at any point of its well-marked way but my favourite is the final part for its breathtaking views of Mont St-Michel, stretching out into the Atlantic as the sun sets and haunting shadows stretch across the waves. In spring the heather is in full bloom and the neatly divided 20km footpaths are comfortable for all shoes, ages and levels of fitness. Windswept and wild at times, winding past old churches before tempting you with simple fish cafes or crêpe stalls.
Stop in for lunch at the creperie in this amazing village (make a reservation in summer), then go for a hike through a centuries-old beech forest to a chapel, returning along a different route. The views are spectacular. The hike is mapped here: randogps.net. It’s safe, easy, and lovely. I’ve been going to Normandy on holiday for many years, and Beuvron-en-Auge is one of the most beautiful villages in the region. Note: wear bright clothing on the roads and wear reflective material at night. The roads are narrow, although much of the hike is on footpaths. If you have a dog, keep it on a leash, but dogs are welcome in the village and even in the restaurants. Our dachshund had a refreshing drink at the “doggie fountain” in the village square.
Seine walk from Les Andelys
For a varied four-hour walk that clears your head, opens up superb countryside and hurts your calf muscles, try the route from the riverside village of Les Andelys to Le Thuit. You feel as if you are heading for the mountains, on a narrow mule track flanked by rocks, with great views of the Seine valley. You come back along the banks of the river, with grazing cows for company.
Villers-sur-Mer to Trouville
Place Jean Mermoz is a pretty little square in Villers-sur-Mer that is particularly memorable for its dinosaur made from flowers and its wonderful cafes and fish restaurants. Walk east along the promenade past magnificent beach houses up into Blonville-su-Mer, which has some great old German defences on the clifftop. From here you walk into swanky Deauville, playground of the wealthy Parisians and home to an international film festival. After Deauville you come into Trouville-sur-Mer, a delightful little fishing town where they land the catch on the harbour and sell it in the restaurants opposite. All in all the walk is around 8km and, with a detour up the hill in Blonville to see the concrete bunkers, it is one of the best walks you can do in Normandy.
We cycled from our base in Barfleur past Quettehou to Morsalines (“the dead salts”), where we locked the bikes up. Then we took a little path to the shore and walked south along the tidal flats. Cordgrass thrives in the salty sand and makes for a satisfyingly bleak view over the wide horizon. Eventually we were scrunching over low ridges of shells to take a right-hand lane leaving the beach going up through the hills to the hamlet of Beauvais, then down again through woods and past cabbage fields to a little brook. Turning right again to bear north along the stream we found a stile to eat our sandwiches by, then headed back to find our bikes at Morsalines. It was about a 5km round trip.