Posted by: travelrat | June 24, 2021

The Hill from Hell and the Sugar Loaf

If you disembark at Ouistreham from the ferry from Portsmouth, and drive south for only two hours …… you’re in Switzerland! But, this isn’t the Switzerland of Alps, cuckoo clocks and fondue. It’s much cheaper, for one thing !

Someone once decided that the low rolling hills and the cliffs in the valley of the River Orne, about twenty miles south of Caen, looked vaguely Alpine. Many of the houses are built from the rough, locally-quarried Pont de la Mousse slate. This, in spite of the relatively modest height of the area, gives something of the air of mountain villages. So, to attract the visitors, they called the area Suisse Normande, or Norman Switzerland.

If you didn’t bring a car, buses are frequent, and not too expensive. Or, you could step straight off the ferry on to the GR36 long-distance footpath, and walk there in a couple of days … if you’re feeling energetic.

Centres upon which to base an exploration of the area are Thury-Harcourt (The Gateway to Suisse Normande) and Clécy (The Heart of Suisse Normande), where accommodation to suit all pockets is available. Through it all winds the peaceful River Orne. It’s said to be the cleanest river in France, and offers fishing and boating. But, it does show an occasional fit of bad temper, to accommodate the more intrepid canoeists.

The château gardens are an attraction in Thury-Harcourt, although the château itself was reduced to a roofless façade by Allied shelling in World War II. Veterans of that conflict will, however, find the citizens of Thury-Harcourt quite willing to forgive them! Many short walks, or petites randonnées start from Thury-Harcourt and Clécy. These easy routes, which are also available to cyclists and horse-riders, are marked by balises, or way-marks peculiar to each. From Thury-Harcourt, the best routes lead up the Colline d’Enfer ……. which translates as ‘The Hill from Hell’

Goodness knows why it’s so called. The summit, just 300 ft above valley level, is just a gently-sloping upland pasture, although it’s highly recommended for the views of Thury-Harcourt and the Orne valley.

Every farm-house seems to be surrounded by an apple orchard. These apples aren’t for eating. The best ones go to make cider, and the best of the cider is distilled to make Calvados. And, to ensure the apples aren’t scrumped by passing randonneurs, the orchards containing the most tempting apples are grazed by the biggest, ugliest and meanest-looking bulls.

The walking routes from Clécy will either lead along the placid banks of the Orne, or up Pain de Sucre, ‘Sugar Loaf’ in English, which is another long, low hill on the eastern side of the Orne, overlooking Clécy.

Some routes up this wooded hill are fairly strenuous, but even the easy ones will reward walkers  with an occasional peep through the trees to the Orne, with Clécy beyond.

On a list of “things to do” anywhere in France, eating usually comes near the top. That’s especially true in Normandy. I learnt of something called the trou normand, or the Norman Hole. Apparently, when you’re “full to busting”, you take a slug of Calvados, which they say burns out a cavity for more food!

Even for your lunch-time sandwich, there’s a tempting choice. Pont l’Eveque and Boursin are the better-known Norman cheeses, or you should be able to buy the local  pâté de campagne at the charcuterie. And, while in the charcuterie, you might try le Boudin Noir,

It’s known in other parts of the world as blood sausage, blutwurst or black pudding. Where I come from, in the North of England, we regard a “full English breakfast” without black pudding as a breach of the Trades Descriptions Act. You can also get white pudding, made with milk and/or cream, but I have to admit I found it a bit of an acquired taste.

I got lucky for my sandwiches. I came in early October, when the slopes of the Hill from Hell were covered in blackberries. At the campsite where I stayed, I met a nice French couple, who had come for blackberries. They thought their jam was better, because they made it right there in their tent immediately the berries had been picked. And, they had a tent full of it, which they were quite willing to share!


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