With our less-than-stellar visit to the city of Cherbourg out of the way we returned to our home for the weekend, the P&O Cruises ship Arcadia, via the large building alongside it on the French dock. This building was La Cité de la Mer (City of the Sea), a large tourist attraction housing a general maritime museum, an aquarium, exhibits relating to Titanic, and a decommissioned nuclear submarine. Opening hours during our visit were from 09:30 until 19:00 (making it a unique place to visit in Cherbourg on a Saturday in that it was open for the duration of our time in port) and adult entry normally costs €18 but with a small discount per ticket thanks to leaflets handed out as we disembarked the cruise ship.
As you approach the main building have any bags on you open for inspection. You’re in a foreign country and the people there will speak their own language before they usually switch to the one you’re familiar with (if they can) and a blank look as you try to replay what you heard in your head hunting down key words you might remember from GCSE French at school will only lead to a repetition of the phrase and gesturing before your wife slaps your arm and says “Let him see inside the camera bag dumbass!”
Inside the main building you’ll discover a lot of exhibits on show without you needing a ticket. These will be submersible craft for the main part that have played key roles in exploration of the undersea kingdom. While these might provide some distraction they weren’t what we were there for. In this area there are also toilets and a café.
Paying for your ticket lets you exit the main building into the enclosed external area where a number of other pieces of maritime history are located and where you can gain access to the Titanic exhibition, the aquarium, and the nuclear submarine. Of these three things it was only the latter two we were interested in during this trip; we’re always fond of aquariums and if we can set foot on a historic vessel then we always will too.
Le Redoutable Nuclear Submarine
The main thing we wanted to see at Cité de la Mer was the submarine museum Le Redoutable. It is the largest and only nearly-complete ballistic missile submarine open to the public and we are always keen to do the firsts, lasts, largests, longests, etc. whenever we travel to places around the world.
An audio guide available in several languages can be picked up as you scan your ticket in at the entrance to the submarine and it provides one of the most informative descriptions of the places you explore as you make your way through the impressive vessel. One thing to note, though, if you’re the sort of person who likes to ignore the audio guide and wander around on your own is that the passageways through Le Redoutable are narrow, often only permitting one person to pass and this, coupled with the guide often telling you to stop and look at certain things, means that you won’t really be able to progress any faster than those with the guides ahead of you on the boat (not ship). You may as well use the guide and you won’t be sorry that you did.
Commissioned in 1971 and decommissioned twenty years later, Le Redoutable was the first of the Redoutable-class submarines constructed for the French Navy. She was fitted with 16 ballistic missile launchers and being in the section where each of the missiles could be independently launched was very impressive. Each missile tube had its own controls, its own computers, and seemingly anachronistic brass tubes to ensure communication could be maintained even in the event of failures there. The audio guide went into some detail about what and how long it took to launch a nuclear missile (something no submarine has ever done), making a mockery of most of the movies or books that might have implied some rogue person might be able to do it on a whim. Did you know that a compressed air bubble is in the tube with the missile so that during launch it expands and keeps the missile completely dry until it ignites its rocket upon leaving the water?
Le Redoutable was a very functional boat for the most part with little room given over to the niceties of life under the water for months on end. The submarine produced its own fresh water and oxygen, could manufacture and replace any part, needed to be able to cope with compression and expansion of the hull of several centimetres when attaching fittings, and had plenty of protection against heat, noise, and, of course, radiation. The reactor section of the submarine had been removed (obviously) but had it been still there and operating it could have powered the entire city of Cherbourg. A walkway allowed you to wander through where the reactor had once been.
My favourite part of Le Redoutable was the very, very 1970s decor of the meeting room area. Looking like something straight from UFO this really appealed to my love of that period’s style.
The audio guide tour of Le Redoutable takes about 35 minutes so you can add on another five or ten to that to cover stepping through doorways, taking photos, etc. Dropping off our guides and stepping away from the submarine we were afforded views of our cruise ship, Arcadia, showing just how close to the attraction ships dock before we made our way to the next point of interest in Cité de la Mer. I can see our balcony in a couple of these photos.
As I’ve already mentioned we are keen on aquariums and you can almost guarantee that if there’s one in a city we’re visiting then there’s a good chance we’ll end up paying to take a look around it. Like everything else in Cité de la Mer the aquarium was on a grand scale, obviously designed to cope with a huge number of visitors at a time. Because of the time that we visited it, perhaps, the place was mostly empty and this suited us perfectly. The aquarium building is set over two levels with a number of marine artifacts and pieces of accompanying information along with some interactive components but it was really the sealife that we’d come to see. There’s something so very soothing about staring into tanks and watching the varied creatures swimming or crawling around.
There weren’t a huge number of tanks but the cleanliness of the glass was superb and the variety of sealife was enough to get a good look around and enjoy what was there. One tank did extend over the two floors of the aquarium building and it was possible to get partially underneath looking up. This produced an unsettling effect in considering just how much weight of water there was poised above you, but unsettling in a good way and one of the highlights of the visit.
Prior to the aquarium in Cité de la Mer the last sealife centre we’d been to had also been in France – La Rochelle Aquarium – and that had been more of what we consider a traditional aquarium. The large tank was impressive but the small number of tanks and apparent waste of space, perhaps simply because we’d timed our visit to an exceptionally lucky quiet period, left us feeling satisfied but not blown away by the exhibit in Cherbourg.
A quick show of our cruise cards as we exited Cité de la Mer allowed us to enter the old cruise terminal and make our way back to the ship.
If you’re visiting Cherbourg then Cité de la Mer is easily the most interesting thing to see with the added bonus of having the most chance of it being actually open. As people who love naval history the price of admission was worth it just to explore Le Redoutable for us. Getting to see numerous other undersea vessels as well as an aquarium and the chance to explore a museum dedicated to the Titanic too should make this a no-brainer decision should you find yourself in the French city.
For another review of Cherbourg and Cité de la Mer including a little bit about the Titanic exhibit which we skipped on this visit please click here: Port Destination Guide: Cherbourg