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  • Mark Smith

At Home in the Cotentin

The idea that I might refer to a remote peninsula in northwestern France as “home” is puzzling to me. The place is 7,000 miles away from San Diego, where I was born, and at least as far in terms of cultural difference. Yet this is where I seem to have ended up, at least part of every year.

I don’t know if other people do it, but I have always dreamed of finding an ideal place where I would be happy—a hillside or dale with sweeping views, a shady river lined with poplar trees. At least a dozen poplar trees pointing toward the sky, their leaves shimmering in the breeze, were always part of the dream.

But now I know there’s no such place. Hundreds if not thousands of such scenes exist in this world, but when I have inspected certain of them more carefully I have always noticed little aspects that upset the well-lacquered ideal in my head. Something about the angle of the land or the style of architecture didn’t feel right, or some element of the attendant lifestyle was troubling, imperfect. One by one I crossed off dozens of would-be candidates over the years, while the idea slowly dawned on me: I was never going to find the place. There was no such place.

Nonetheless, as recently as six months ago that old ideal still prodded me. After 29 years in the Cotentin, as our peninsula is known, we began to consider selling the house and moving to a warmer clime. We were tired of the long cold season and often wet weather. We traveled south and looked around. Beautiful places were there to behold, but each one held some unidentifiable flaw. In spite of its warmth and clear skies, we decided by default: The south isn’t for us.

In light of this decision, I figured I’d better finally write a few lines about cycling in the Cotentin, since I’ve been doing it there for a long time and it’s easily one of France’s better places to ride, riddled as it is with charming and mostly empty farm roads—even if they are frequently damp. So yesterday morning I set off with my iPhone in search of a few photos that would illustrate the beauty of this remote corner of the country.

Many small roads in the Cotentin lead only to the next small road and its own attendant hay fields. But every now and again you get lucky and end up with a pot of gold at the end of your rainbow.

Come to a sign like this and you have met a friend. The Eurovelo network of cycling paths includes 17 routes covering all of Europe. Route 4 starts in Brittany, winds through the Cotentin, and continues all the way to Kiev. Better pack a jacket.

I wobbled around the hills for a couple of hours like a fat tourist, rolling lazily down lanes I’d never noticed before, or which I’d only ever sped past at top speed, ever in hopes of snagging a PB on one Strava segment or another. Now I was stopping every kilometer or more—to snap a church spire peaking through some poplar trees, hay bales lying in a freshly shorn field, a herd of cows around an overflowing trough, or just a broken barn. And while I was doing all this slow-motion sniffing around, a funny thing happened. I suddenly realized that this was the place I’d been dreaming of for so long. It was here. I was actually in it. I’ve been in it for decades, but I just didn’t notice. Nobody told me I was here, which makes sense. It’s the kind of thing you have to realize for yourself.


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