Cherbourg is one of those places that better reflects the glory of the past. And it is hard to see how it will ever really be of major significance again. But what an adventure this town in the Normandy region of France has had over the centuries, and especially in the last one. It also has the most remarkable maritime museum. This alone is worth going to the city to see!
The town is inextricably linked to the ocean, and has played a key part on the defence of France against invasion for centuries. It is also where the Titanic started its maiden journey that ended so tragically. More recently it was also where France’s nuclear submarines were built, and is home to the very first one (The Redoubtable) that is now open for visitors to explore. It is definitely something that anyone with a passion for the sea and things nautical should try and get to see. I adored it and found it fascinating, exciting and breathtaking all in one!
Today the port only gets around one or two cruise ships a month at the most in the summer cruise season, but it used to be a critical and major port for people travelling out of France to the USA.
Used to be a major port for Transatlantic Services
It used to very much a part of the massive transatlantic crossing service, before jet airlines destroyed the regular scheduled transatlantic service as a means of mass travel, turning it into a luxury leisure activity that is dominated pretty much by Cunard. Now days, only around 10 or so cruise ships visit the port each year, and Cunard send their ships there once or so a year – usually as part of the 4 or 5 night short Euro hops they run each year designed to encourage people to try Cunard. Looking on the Cherbourg port website, it is clear that cruise ships are not a regular part of the port’s activity.
Now mostly a ferry and small naval port
The port now seems to be more driven by a busy and thorough ferry and catamaran services to the UK and Ireland. But even here it is only the 2nd largest. So once again it falls a bit short.
It is also still a French naval port, and there is also some regular freight traffic.
Cherbourg is home of the French Nuclear Submarine. The Redoutable Class.
Cherbourg is home of the French Nuclear Submarine. The Redoubtable Class submarines were built here, and the very first one (Redoubtable) that went into is now in a dry dock next to the cruise liner dock, and open to visitors. More about this later.
Cherbourg is also used by cruise ships that do call, and also by the ferry companies, as it is the closest major port to the Normandy landing beaches used by the Allies to start the push into Europe in the Second World War. They are about an hour away by car or bus, and Cherbourg was the first major port the Allies took after landing. Though Hitler had ordered it to be destroyed to stop it being used to stock and fuel the invasion.
So with the Transatlantic history, the Naval connection and the Landing Beaches, Cherbourg does have some appeal for the nautical and historically minded. As a fan of travel related things, although I was not very impressed with the town itself which feels and looks shabby and uninspiring. However, the maritime museum focused on submarines was a very remarkable experience.
The town itself feels run down and musty. It feels like a place that lacks momentum and is very much stuck in a rut. Maybe I missed something, but the shops, bars and places to eat seemed to exist rather than have energy. Considering the day I was there having come with about 3000 passengers on the Queen Mary 2, it felt like they had missed an opportunity to take real advantage of the visitors.
So my tips for Cherbourg is actually only three-fold:
1. Le Cite museum and Redoubtable. Which also vividly brings home the fear and investment and approach of the cold war.
2. Visit the beaches if you want to connect with history of world war, and the events that preceded the cold war. They are about an hour ago.
3. Visit the Bayeux Tapestry. This is about 1,5 hours away.
The Museum and Redoubtable Submarine.
If you arrive on a cruise ship, you disembark through a fairly modern cruise terminal and then enter what was the old art deco main embarking and disembark hall. This large building is grand, although a bit hollow and empty but you can imagine how alive and buzzing it must have been in its day. They have retained some of the original luggage and check-in areas and tried to paint a picture of how things may have been with photos. Then you exit and cross to the museum. This is within what was the old railway terminal building. A very well restored and grand building. The huge open space is full of various submarines and exhibits, and after shuffling through the very slow ticket selling process you can explore the main museum which has an aquarium which is fairly impressive and then the main attraction which is the Redoubtable submarine.
A section had been cut out to remove the nuclear reactor, but this massive submarine sits in a dry dock and with the audio tour stuck to your ears, you enter from the rear of the submarine in the engine area and follow the audio guide. You weave through all the various areas and see pretty much the whole thing. It is really amazing and very interesting, and even a bit scary to think how this patrolled deep under the sea and the huge paranoid era of the cold war that this ship went through, armed with massive nuclear weapons. The crew living areas and the control sections for me where the most interesting. You have to admire the men that coped with the long cramped periods they spent in here
This tour was very much one of my all time travel highlights!
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