On 2 July, riders will set out from the stunning Mont St Michel for the start of the 103rd Tour de France - but the beautiful department of Manche is bound to steal some of the limelight from the cycling stars...
Manche is a pretty and wild area of Normandy stretching from Mont St Michel to the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula. Home to charming seaside towns, a rich maritime heritage and many remnants from D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, Manche has a lot to offer visitors. Here's a sneak peek into La Manche to explore some of the key places to visit that are on the first three stages of the Tour de France route for this year's Grand Départ.
Stage 1: Mont St Michel to Utah Beach
Mont St Michel
One of the most famous sights in all of France and therefore a fitting place for this year's Grand Départ, the Mont St Michel is a stunning backdrop for the riders to set out from. Building began on the island in 708 when St Aubert built a sanctuary after the Archangel Michael himself appeared to him and told him to do so. The magnificent, Gothic abbey is an incredible architectural achievement with many underground cypts and chapels having needed to be built to support the weight of the abbey.
Wander through the winding main street, lined with shops and restaurants as you make your way to the abbey at the top. There's over 900 steps to go up but you don't have to scale them as some medieval pilgrims once did - on their knees! Situated in a tidal bay, the mont has recently been restored to its island status and a new walkway has been built so you can walk right out to the mont. If you like outdoor sports, the bay is a great place to go sandyachting and horseriding too.
Towns the stage passes through
As the peloton heads up the coast, they'll pass through Avranches, once a royal city, which has some lovely views of the Bay of Mont St Michel from its surrounding areas. The unmissable attraction in Avranches is definitely the Scriptorial d'Avranches containing medieval manuscripts from the monks at the abbey on Mont St Michel. The race also passes through Granville, where it will return for the start of stage 3.
Before making their way to Utah Beach on the coast, the racers will pass through the town of Saint-Mère-Eglise, famous as the unfortunate landing spot of many paratroopers of the American 505th Airborne Division in the early hours of D-Day who missed their landing site. The event, and Paratrooper John Steele whose parachute snagged on the spire of the church and was left stranded, is commemorated with a dummy that hangs by its parachute from the church tower today.
The 'other' beach where US troops landed on D-Day, those arriving on Utah Beach suffered far lighter casualties than their fellow countrymen at Omaha Beach just a few miles along the coast. Sparser German defenses and successful paratrooper missions in the night to secure key points and bridges around Carentan meant that the Allies advanced quickly off the beach. Fans of Band of Brothers will know it as the landing beach where Lt Richard Winters and his men landed.
The American Airborne Museum and Utah Beach museum are must-sees for anyone interested in WW2 history. Nearby is Carentan, where another significant battle was fought in and around the town and the D-Day Paratroopers Historic Centre in Saint-Come-du-Mont, which contains an amazing collection of objects that belonged to specific paratroopers and has a Band of Brothers section in the museum.
Stage 2: St Lô to Cherbourg
Horse capital of Normandy, St Lô is famous as the home of the largest National Stud in all of France and hosts the Normandy Horse Show every year. The Grand Départ is the first time that St Lô has ever been a stage city for the Tour de France so cyclists will make a change from horseriders for the town!
St Lô is also known for the damage it received during WW2 when 97% of the town was flattened by American bombing. Almost completely destroyed, it earned the town the nickname the Capital of Ruins and some wanted to keep the town as it was as a reminder of the war. Its inhabitants however decided to come back and the town was rebuilt but some of the ravages of the war still exist - notably the main church was renovated with different materials to showcase the scars of war.
Towns the stage passes through
Passing through some of La Manche's gorgeous countryside, the race will head to the historic market town of Coutances, known for its stunning Gothic cathedral. One of Normandy's most famous works of architecture, the cathedral has some wonderful stained glass, especially inside the lantern tower. Further up the peninsula, the pack will head for the pretty seaside resort of Barneville-Carteret where a stunning, long and wild sandy beach stretches for seven miles.
The port at Cherbourg is one of the largest manmade harbours in the world so it's no surprise that the town has such a strong maritime heritage. The final port of call for the Titanic before it set out across the Atlantic on its fateful voyage, it also has a vivid naval history and was a key port for Allied landings after D-Day. Cherbourg does have a softer side though and, if you know your French New Wave cinema, you'll recognise it as the setting of Jacques Demy's 1964 film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Cherbourg's big attraction is the incredible Cité de la Mer, which is all about man's relationship with the sea. Here you can board La Redoubtable, the largest submarine open to the public in the world, and also learn all about life on board the Titanic and the history of European emigration to America in a multimedia exhibition. With other exhibitions showcasing all kinds of submarines and diving equipment, and 17 aquariums (including the deepest aquarium in Europe) this is truly an exploration of all things aquatic!
There's also some impressive coastline around Cherbourg and the rocky, windswept Cap de la Hague is perfect for those who like to get out and enjoy the elements. Teeming with diverse plantlife and and wildlife, it's an important site for migrating birds and a great spot to go hiking along the coastal path.
Stage 3: Granville to Angers
This charming seaside town kicks off stage 3 of the tour and the race will head south into central France. Known for its broad sandy beaches backed by white beach huts, the town was a popular destination for Parisiens in the elegant Belle Epoque era and it is still a well-known resort town today.
Fashion designer Christian Dior was born in the town and his childhood home is now a museum of his life and fashions, a beautiful cliff-top villa with gardens designed by his mother. Off the coast of Granville lies the captivating archipelago of the Chausey Islands. You can take a ferry out to the islands and there are also ferries to the Channel Islands from Granville too.
From Granville's dramatic fortified headland, you can experience astounding views of the Bay of Mont St Michel. Untamed and blustery, some of the fortifications on the headland are centuries old but there are also concrete blockhouses that recall the German occupation here during WW2.
Towns the stage passes through
Heading east, the race will pass through the wonderfully-preserved medieval town of Villedieu-les-Poêles where all sorts of copper objects have been smithed for centuries. Most notably, it's famous for its bell-making foundry, which produced eight new bells for the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris just a couple of years ago.
From Villedieu-les-Poêles, the route heads south and down into Western Loire where it will finish at Angers on the river Loire.
Have you cycled in Manche before? What are your favourite areas and routes to cycle in the department?