There’s nothing much more romantic than the seaside. So what better place to take Nicola for Valentine’s Day than the D-Day beaches of northern France?
This is how we ended up on Juno Beach in Normandy at 7am on a Saturday morning. We stood there, fresh off the cross-channel ferry and shivering a little in the morning sea air. At every village along the coast, there’s a small memorial to the soldiers who died on the beaches, as well as a few relics from the invasion itself; concrete pillboxes and machine gun posts are a regular sight as you drive along to Bayeux from Caen.
We headed to the 360° cinema, which is perched high on a cliff above Arromanches, a few miles from the site of the first Normandy landings. We stood alone in the cinema as the crescendo of battle surrounded us, watching footage of modern-day France merged with images of the same place on 6 June 1944. When the film ended, the doors to one side of the cinema slid silently open to show the Mulberry Harbour in the sea far below us, still in the same place that it was hastily built 70 years previously.
We continued our drive along the coastal road, stopping every so often to admire the view or to wonder how on earth we ended up driving through the middle of a clearly-pedestrianised Saturday market. We stopped off at Mont St. Michel, a monastery perched high on a rock which inconveniently sits a mile out to sea. We explored the winding cobbled streets, dashing between doorways to stay out of the rain as we made our way to the top. From there we did what all proper tourists do, and, surveying the panoramic landscape, worked out the way we had come, before the ultimate triumph: managing to spot the place we had parked the car.
As evening drew in we arrived at our destination, the Breton seaside town of Dinard. Despite evidence that Picasso, Churchill and Oscar Wilde all lived there at one stage, the town has a wonderful obsession with Alfred Hitchcock; locals think he may have visited once in the late 1950s. They have a bronze statue of Hitchcock feeding birds, along with a film festival dedicated to him every year, despite no evidence that he had ever been near the place. Superb.
I’d reserved a table at Au Bouchon Breton, a tiny restaurant on a side street. The waitress took time to find out where we were from, and offered us all kinds of side dishes, aperitifs and canapés. None of which we knew if we were paying for (it turned out we weren’t, which in hindsight made them taste even better). We both ordered the steak, and were pretty chuffed when it came on its own plate as there simply wasn’t enough space for the rest of the food.
The Brittany coast around Dinard is beautiful; jagged rocky outcrops that give way to long sandy beaches. We woke early and walked along the coast as the sun rose, dodging the morning joggers who did their very best to knock us into the sea. We headed up to the huge mansions on the hills above Dinard, and gazed through the wrought-iron gates, trying to work out whether we could put in a bid on our relatively modest salaries. A quick check on the French version of Rightmove showed that the mansions cost upwards of two million euros, which quickly put an end to that idea. We need to spend less on steaks.