LES GROTTES DE JOBOURG
Le nez is a word derived from the Norse "ness", meaning cape and not as some would think, the French word for nose. The nez de Jobourg is one of the most visited sites along the Channel. The shoreline cliffs are the highest in Europe and peak at over 128 meters. From its adjacent nez de Voidries one can admire the most western tip of the Cotentin peninsula and its breath taking panoramas. During good weather it is possible to see the Channel Islands of Sark, Alderney and Guernsey in the near distance. On July 18, I went with three friends on a guided trip to the famous grottes de Jobourg located under the nez de Voidries which forms a small bay with the nez de Jobourg. The four caves: the “fairy hole”, the “little church”, the “big church” and the “lion’s cave” can be visited as long as one has a qualified guide. Our guide was a man named Cyrille Forafo from the Association EXSPEN who was well versed in local history and legends as well as geology and marine science. In order to visit the caves we had to hike down a narrow path which required us to use climbing ropes and safety harnesses to get us to the bottom and across several small inlets. This was the scary part for all of us. Although we were attached to a safety rope, there was always the chance we could fall into the water and get soaking wet. Using precautionary safety ropes, no one fell into the sea although we all got our feet wet. The path is very steep and the rocks are slippery. Throughout the five hour hike, we explored caves and rock formations stopping every now and then for our guide to show us something and explain its use or its history. It was all very interesting. I learned that the many of the small caves along the coast were used by smugglers during the reign of Louis XIV. Smuggling was a national sport in this area of France because of its closeness to the English-owned Channel Islands. Smugglers would use the caves to store food and goods that could not be found in France but were readily available on the islands. Customs officers, called “les gabelous” were laughed at because they could never find bootleg items in the caves. This was because the gabelous were like cats who did not like to get their feet wet. At low tide, they would explore the caves and find nothing. The smugglers however, knew that the best times to hide things in the caves would be during high coefficients. The most popular product to be sold on the black market was neither cigarettes nor alcohol but silk stockings. The irony here is that the silk stockings were the ones that King Louis XIV really liked. They were all the rage and everyone wanted them. But even though the king liked silk stockings, and 90% of the product could be found on the Channel Islands, trading with England was illegal. Because Alderney is only 16 kilometers away, the illicit trade in stockings became quite popular in La Hague and lasted until 1688 when the king finally authorized the building of factories in France to create these special stockings. The highlight of the tour comes during the visit to the Lion’s Cave where lichens shimmering silver and gold line the walls. It was here that we all ate our sack lunch before exploring the rest of the caves. Many of the caves have their own legends attached to them. For example, some local people believe that there is a tunnel linking the “little church” cave to the church in Jobourg. This is actually impossible as the stone is way too hard for anyone to build such a tunnel. Our guide also showed us the many different types of seaweed and shell fish that thrive in this area and can be eaten as food. My favorite plant was this “crown of thorns” succulent which grows at the base of the cliffs and tastes very much like a mild grapefruit. An excellent source of vitamin C, it can be eaten as is or mixed with a salad. At the end of the hike we returned to our starting point at the parking lot of the restaurant near the nez de Jobourg. Here, our guide showed us several seaweed products that can be purchased from the local health food stores in Cherbourg and Tourlaville. Cyrille Forafo from the Association EXSPEN was an excellent guide and showed us a wonderful time. If you are interested in visiting the Grottes de Jobourg yourself, you might want to visit the EXSPEN website for more information.