Guernsey: A Confluence of Cultures
The island of Guernsey provides a delightful mixture of lovely scenery and an intriguing combination of French and English architecture and culture. Fundamentally French until well into the 19th century, it then began to get its overlay of things English, and nowadays this influence is predominant. Nevertheless, old French Norman ways and structures are still alive and well. Guernsey’s legal system also reflects this blending of cultures. It combines Norman French customary law and British common law.
The streets of St. Peter Port, the island capital, are strewn with bistros and boutiques, which line its narrow streets, and the magnificent Norman Cathedral stands out majestically in the old city, much like a reigning prince. The city is also graced with a charming harbour and a long shoreline leading to the yachts, which are a traditional part of the skyline. Many of us enjoyed strolling through town in the afternoon once the tours were finished.
Guernsey belongs neither to the UK nor to the EU. It is rather a British Crown Dependency, which has its own currency and government but depends on Great Britain for military defense. During WWII Guernsey was occupied by German troops, who built in Alderney the only concentration camp ever to be found on British soil. It was used primarily to house the forced laborers. Most of the German fortifications from WWII remain intact, and all our tours passed by them.
A couple of famous personages lived on Guernsey. Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables here, as well as his famous novel Les Travailleurs de la Mer (Toilers of the Sea) during his exile from France. It was this work about the local way of life that he dedicated to the island of Guernsey, where the Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir also lived and worked.
We had the option of two tours, one focusing on the German occupation from 1940 until 1945; the other a visit to the lovely Sausmarez Manor with its exquisite period furniture and elaborate oriental wood carvings and small art objects. These included ivory and silver pickle forks, a 1300-year-old medieval stirrup, solid silver serving dishes, a Japanese paravent and hanging gongs among innumerable other objects. The owner of Sausmarez came out to greet us before we enjoyed an intimate tour of his residence and individual walks in the amazing sculpture gardens filled with exotic and common flowering plants.
Our Historic Occupation Tour explored the rich collection of the German Occupation Museum. After a short film recounting the history of the occupation period, we had time to study the exhibition of weapons, bunker rooms, pictures of the local commanders, local propaganda and post-occupation photos, including a drawing of Winston Churchill in a triumphant pose smoking his signature cigar.
Along the slow island bus ride, we were amused by the numerous “shopping from the hedges” boxes with vegetables, used books or garden plants, where the passersby may make a quick purchase by putting money in an “honesty box.” A “convenience stop” beside the Guernsey Pearl Centre tempted many guests to take home lovely souvenirs.
Both tours made a stop at the Little Chapel, constructed three times by a monk who began work in 1914. The chapel is the world’s smallest, measuring five by three meters. It is decorated with colourful pieces of broken Wedgewood china and some seashells and pebbles.
Our witty driver-guides took us back to the port on a scenic excursion along narrow roads to a panoramic view over the Atlantic Ocean, where he showed us where camouflaged German bunkers had been built. The flora and fauna for which Guernsey is famous were as spectacular as the view of the ocean. Underway we learned that the houses in Guernsey have names but no house numbers, and we marvelled at the memory of the mailmen! Returning to the Silver Explorer, we passed by numerous other bunkers and the site of the former airport, completed in 1939, just before the Germans used it for their invasion in 1940.
Our loquacious guides also pointed out the two famous animals of the island: the Guernsey cattle and donkeys. In fact, one of the island’s delicacies is donkey sausage, which can be found in restaurants and in the market of St. Peter Port.
After a day filled with adventure and good fun, we all retired to our comfortable accommodations on the luxurious Silver Explorer for the final Recap & Briefing, followed by the Captain’s Farewell Reception and Dinner, a splendid finish for the penultimate day.