Portbail, a sought after seaside resort on the Côte des Isles

Portbail is on the Côte des Isles, a coastline that faces the Channel Islands (hence its name), which shelter it from the Atlantic Ocean breeze.

The seaside resort was awarded the label Pavillon Bleu – Blue Flag, as it has committed to protect local nature and marine environment.

Fortified Notre-Dame de Portbail Church by the harbour and sea at low tide
Fortified Notre-Dame de Portbail Church by the harbour and sea at low tide

Its 5km long sandy beach spreads from its harbour to Barneville-Plage; the northern section, which is unsupervised, consists of dunes traversed by a coastal footpath.

The Train touristique du Cotentin (a vintage train from the 1930s) connects the two seaside resorts in summer.

Portbail’s sheltered beach is therefore ideal for sunbathing and swimming, but also sailing, canoeing, kite-surfing, sea rowing or sand yachting …

However, Portbail is also a lovely historic coastal village; its foundation goes back to the Gallo-Roman era, when it developed along the Roman road that ran along the harbour.

The focal point was the temple and its baptistery, which was converted into a church around the 8th century.

Texts of the time mention the existence of this monastery, which was destroyed by the Normans in 856; indeed the Vikings raided the French littoral until 911, when the French king founded the Duchy of Normandy in exchange for their allegiance and conversion to Christianity.

Portbail Baptistery

Let’s go back to the Gallo-Roman era, in the early days of Christianity, when the temple was built.

Baptistere de Portbail
Baptistere de Portbail

People were then baptized in adulthood, which explains the presence of a large rounded baptismal basin (60cm deep and 1.5m in diameter) in the baptistery.

Pipes made of channel tiles (tegulae) sealed with mortar and covered with stone slabs brought water to the baptismal basin; the pipes were connected to a lead pipe that fed the basin.

The water evacuation system consisted of an expansion tank that ensured a constant level of 45cm of water in the basin; another set of pipes, also made of tegulae sealed with mortar and covered with stone slabs, evacuated the overflow.

The foundations of this baptism chamber were discovered during construction work in 1999; the 9m wide hexagonal structure stood next to the temple, of which nothing has survived.

Excavations uncovered that the baptistery’s floor was covered with stone slabs, the walls covered with white-pink mortar and the entrance framed by two apse chapels.

Baptistere de Portbail - vestiges of the baptismal font
Baptistere de Portbail – vestiges of the baptismal font

This baptistery is the oldest and best-preserved religious building from the beginnings of the Christianity known to date to the north of the river Loire.

The monks converted the temple into a church and kept the baptistery, which they integrated to the original monastery  destroyed by the Normans in 856.

They returned in the early 11th century to built a new monastery and a new church between the Roman road and the harbour.

What was left of the old temple and baptistery was most likely recycled in these new buildings, as it often happened in the Middle-Ages.

The fortified church Notre-Dame de Portbail

The 11th century Notre-Dame de Portbail is therefore one of Cotentin’s oldest churches.

However, it was enlarged, modified and fortified over the centuries.

Fortified Notre-Dame de Portbail Church
Fortified Notre-Dame de Portbail Church

Saint-Barbe Chapel and its fortified tower was added in the 15th century; the tower served as watchtower and defense tower; Saint-Jacques Chapel, the chapel of the lords of Portbail, dates from the 16th century.

The church has also retained its 12th century wooden frame, capitals and funerary slabs, as well as 16th century polychrome statues.

It became the village parish church after the French Revolution, but was de-sacralized in 1909; it now serves as a venue for temporary art exhibitions.

As for its fortified tower, in these times of peace, it serves as a beacon for boats entering the harbour!

Department of Manche
Coordinates: Lat 49.334711 – Long -1.700147

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