Tag Archives: Normandy

Postcard From Mont Saint-Michel, France

Mont St Michel Postcard

From the Visitor Centre there is free bus transport to the tidal island but we choose to walk so that we could appreciate the stunning approach much as monks or pilgrims would have had over the centuries and it took us forty minutes or so to reach the entrance.  I thought there must surely be a fee, but no, it too was free and I liked this place even more.

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France, The Medieval Walled Town of Dinan

Even as we arrived in Dinan I was thinking half an hour might be more than enough but I was forced to recalculate very quickly when we arrived in the old town which is a warren of narrow streets where it appears that time has stood completely still.

Dinan it turns out is one of the best preserved medieval walled towns not just in Brittany but in all of France.  After only a moment or so in this picturesque setting I had elevated it straight into my top ten of favourite places even leaping above Santillana del Mar in Spain, Shiltach in Germany and Hallstatt in Austria and before very long we were looking in the Estate Agent’s windows.

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Entrance Tickets – The Sculptured Rocks near Saint Malo

Les rochers sculptés

The entrance ticket is just about as exciting as the attraction!

On a trip to Northern France we visited the delightful medieval town of Dinan and clutching a fist full of property details followed the road back to the coast and St Malo.  We were behind schedule so the sensible thing to do now was to go directly to Mont St Michel but Kim was intrigued by a visitor attraction marked on the map called the sculptured rocks so sensing another unexpected delight we left the main highway and set out on the coast road.

Let me now give you a piece of advice – unless you are really determined to see rock carvings do not take an unnecessary detour to Les rochers sculptés!  We were expecting a stack of rocks standing in the sea pounded by waves into interesting formations but the site is a small area of stonemason carvings in the side of the granite cliff.

Rock Sculptures St Malo

These sculptures were carved just over a hundred years ago by a hermit priest, Abbé Fouré, who had suffered a stroke and lost his ability to hear and speak and the story goes that he began these sculptures as a means of alternative communication. I am not trying to underestimate the value of the work here you understand, what I am saying that it is a tedious detour and unless you want to go round twice which is highly unlikely I have to say the visit is going to be over in about twenty minutes or so.

If you do want to go and see them then I would do it soon because after one hundred years they are seriously eroded by the sea and the rain and it can’t help a great deal that visitors are allowed to climb all over them.

After the disappointing visit I was impatient to get to Mont St Michel but stuck on the coast road progress was infuriatingly slow as we passed through several towns and villages all with inconveniently snail like speed limits.  Out in the Gulf of St Malo we could see the abbey on the island but it seemed to take a frustrating age to get there as the road snaked around the coast and every few miles or so we came across a tractor or a school bus which slowed us down even more.

Several times I cursed the decision to go and visit Les rochers sculptés.

Les rochers sculptés St Malo France

Weekly Photo Challenge: Gathering

Mont St Michel and Sheep

The very rural Auberge where we were staying was situated on a minor road next to a farm and in the morning we discovered why there was so much lamb on the menu as several hundred sheep were escorted past the hotel and across the road for a day of feeding on the sea grass.

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Auberge de Bain Mont St Michel

Brittany, Abandoned Plans

Auberge de Bain Mont St Michel

The very rural Auberge where we were staying was situated on a minor road next to a farm and in the morning we discovered why there was so much lamb on the menu as several hundred sheep were escorted past the hotel and across the road for a day of feeding on the sea grass.

This is a daily event by all accounts as for obvious reasons they cannot remain in the fields during high tide.

After the success of the visit to the delightful town of Dinan we changed our plans today and instead of driving to the busy city of Rennes and, once again based on postcard pictures, we agreed that we would instead go to what looked like another charming small market town, this time nearby Fougères, back in Brittany.

To begin with everything went according to plan and after an excellent breakfast we drove south towards our destination.  The journey took more or less forty minutes and when we arrived there we were surprised at just how busy the place was.  We tried several car parks but failed to find an empty space until we came across a rather remote patch of tarmac with one last remaining place.

The reason it was so busy was today there was a market in town which stretched for almost half a mile all along the main street and everyone from miles around had come to take a look.  Ihad woken up in the middle of a nightmare!   I like local markets but this was a tatty affair selling cheap rubbish and designer fakes and it soon became clear that this was probably not the best day to see the town centre so after a very quick look we left the town and drove instead to find the nearby fortress.

Castle of Fourgeres Brittany France

This is a famous fortress, probably the best in Northern France and the town makes the bold claim that this is the biggest medieval fortress in Europe.  This is a massive claim indeed and one that is challenged by Carcassonne in the south of the country.  In fact neither Fougères or Carcassonne can claim the bragging rights on this one and it is generally agreed that the biggest castle in Europe is Malbork castle in Poland but as I have said before you have to be careful about these claims because all of the contenders seem to apply different rules to suit themselves to gain the advantage.

Unfortunately I am unable to help with this one because although we saw the Fougères fortress from the outside we didn’t get to go inside.  Once again the car parks were packed solid and there was simply nowhere to safely leave the car.  It seems that Fougères is rather fond of cycle racing and today there was a big event which meant that we were about two hours too late to get parked.  There also seemed to be a definite danger that parts of the town were going to be closed off later in the afternoon and so as we were due to fly home today and needed to get to the airport we didn’t need the additional worry of being locked in and unable to get out.

Northern France Wissant

So we were obliged to change our plans and drove out in the general direction of St Malo.  Now we had a potential problem because I wasn’t exactly sure where I was and Kim was in charge of the map.  Kim (she won’t mind me telling you this)  is completely lacking in map reading skills and I always know that I am in trouble when she keeps turning the map round to face the way we were going.  This invariably means one of two things, either we are lost or we have just missed an important turning.  I always know that this is the time to start making preparations for a u-turn.

We always fall out in these situations and today was no exception.  Kim gets tense, I get irritable and she gets moody and then starts saying unhelpful things like ‘take a left in about one inch’ and when I ask her to convert this to miles ‘it’s difficult, the map is in kilometres’.  We generally stop communicating after about five minutes or so, and so it was today.

It was disappointing not to see Fougères but on the plus side it gave us the opportunity to revisit Dinan and find somewhere for lunch down by the river.  As it turned out Dinan was also a lot busier today and parking became another challenge but after we found a space we walked again amongst the medieval half timbered buildings and enjoyed a final pot of moules in the sunshine.

Too soon the short break was over and we were making our way back to the airport but Brittany is a place that I am sure that I will return to.

Brittany Map Postcard

A Previous Visit to Normandy

“I’ve never approved of the idea of twinning, because places are inevitably matched with places like them.  So if you live, say, in a stunningly beautiful medieval town… then you’ll be twinned with your exquisite European equivalent.  If you live in Warrington or St Helens then you’ll be twinned with another industrial casualty.” – Pete McCarthy, ‘McCarthy’s Bar’

Town Twinning became a big thing after the Second World War as people sought to repair relationships with their neighbours and forge new bonds of friendship.

I have often wondered what the process was in selecting a twin town?

Perhaps it was like the draw for the third round of the FA cup when all the names go into a hat to be drawn out with each other, or perhaps it was like the UCAS University clearing house system where towns made their preferred selections and waited for performance results to see if they were successful; or perhaps it was a sort of dating service and introductory agency.

Anyway, the city of Coventry started it all off and was the first ever to twin when it made links with Stalingrad in the Soviet Union in 1944 and is now so addicted to twinning that it has easily the most of any English town or city with a massive twenty-six twins.  That is a lot of civic receptions and a lot of travelling expenses for the Mayor of Coventry.

Perhaps even more surprising is that Sherborne in Dorset, a town of only ten thousand residents has fifteen twin towns.

From 1975 to 1980 I worked at Rugby Borough Council and there was a strong Town Twinning Association with a regular group of Council bigwigs rotating biannually between visiting the twin town of Evreux in Normandy, France and then entertaining French visitors the following year.  In 1977 Rugby twinned with a second town, this time Russelheim in Germany, and this meant new people were required to fill the coaches and provide accommodation for visitors.  We expressed an interest in the Gallic option and in 1979 joined the twinners.

1979 was a year when the French visited the UK so we joined in the fund raising and the planning meetings in preparation.  We were excited about this cleaned the house from top to bottom, manicured the garden and prepared appropriate menus.  In 1979 I had only been to Europe twice, Italy in 1976 and Spain in 1977 and this hadn’t involved a lot of getting familiar with the locals so to have visitors from France staying in our house was a bit of an adventure.

The visitors from Evreux arrived one evening in September and we were introduced to our guests for the weekend Charles and Marie Rose Freret and we had a interesting first evening of  ‘getting to know each other’.  Luckily Charles and especially Marie Rose spoke good English so this happily meant that we didn’t have to communicate through embarrassing nods, pointing gestures and shouting at each other but this was nevertheless an occasion when I wished that I had paid more attention to Pluto Thompson in school French lessons.

To be honest there wasn’t a lot of time for awkward or uncomfortable moments because the weekend was well planned with a civic reception, a garden party, an evening out and the inevitable visit to nearby Stratford-upon-Avon.  The only clumsy time was when I produced a bottle of Piat D’or white wine.  I thought that this would be a winner because the adverts said ‘The French adore le Piat D’or’ but it turned out that they didn’t actually and Charles had never even heard of it.  I showed him the bottle to substantiate my claims and he drank it but I don’t think he was impressed!

Playing host was good fun but it was even better of course to travel to France and be entertained in Evreux and in the following year we joined the coach outside the Town Hall and set off for the English Channel.

Charles and Marie Rose lived in a middle class suburb just outside the town and the house and the ambiance confirmed what we already knew – that Charles was a traditional Frenchman through and through, proud of the culture and the French way of life.  He knew about wine and had different bottles for each course of evening meal (and he didn’t feel obliged to drink the bottle all in one go, which I thought was strange because doesn’t wine go off once the cork has been removed?), Marie Rose knew about French cuisine and prepared an excellent meal and Charles turned out to be an expert on cheese (French of course) and the order in which it should be eaten.

The itinerary of visits was excellent and we visited Paris (my first time) and did the main sights including to trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower on a disappointingly misty day.  On the second day we toured the pretty town centre of Evreux, visited Monet’s delightful house and garden at Giverney and finished the day with a trip to the Palace of Versailles where in the evening there was the most spectacular fireworks and water fountains display accompanied by Handel’s Water Music.

The final civic reception was held in the countryside at a Chateaux some way out the town and there was a sumptuous buffet of dining treats including caviar on wafer thin savoury biscuits.  Now, this was still at a time when my gastronomic experience could best be described as limited and I had never had caviar before, so I took two.  How I wished I hadn’t because to me it tasted awful and with my fist bite I had a mouthful of slimy fish eggs that was beginning to make me gag and it looked certain I was about to make a show of myself.  I tried to wash it down with a generous swig of champagne and somehow managed to get it past the point of no return without serious incident but this left the problem of the one and a half biscuits still on my plate.  I thought about the toilets but it would have looked odd taking my food to the gents but fortunately there was an unnecessary log fire at one end of the room so I casually made my way across to it and discreetly disposed of it in the flames.

In the following year I changed jobs and moved away to Rugby and that put an end to Town Twinning for a while until over twenty years later in 2002.

Brittany, Doors and Windows

Mont St Michel DoorDoor Detail Dinard Brittany FranceDinan Door Brittany

More Doors…

Doors and Windows of 2015

Sardinia – Doors and Windows

Brittany – Doors and Windows

Blue Doors of Essaouira

Doors of Catalonia 1

Doors of Catalonia 2

Doors of Catalonia 3

Doors of Catalonia 4

Doors of Dublin

Doors of Northern France

Doors of Portugal

Doors of Siguenza, Spain

Brittany (Normandy), Mont St Michel

Mont St Michel France

I have always resisted having a bucket list because I couldn’t get one big enough but I am thankful to fellow bloggers Victor (Victor Travel Blog) and Wilbur (Wilbur’s Travels) for reminding me that if I did have one then Mont St Michel would be somewhere near the top.

After taking the tedious coast road route I was becoming increasingly impatient to get there and we eventually arrived at the elusive abbey and made our way to the car park.  Until quite recently it was possible to drive across a causeway (at low tide – very important) and park close to the walls but in 2012 all of this visitor convenience was ended with the demolition of the causeway (due to environmental (some say economic) reasons) and its replacement with a bridge and a new car park and a swanky visitor centre about a mile and a half away.

Having recently visited Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and the horrific National Trust rip-off I was worried about cost but I was pleasantly surprised to find a flat rate car parking fee and no charge to enter the centre.

There is free bus transport to the tidal island but we choose to walk so that we could appreciate the stunning approach much as monks or pilgrims would have had over the centuries and it took us forty minutes or so to reach the entrance.  I thought there must surely be a fee, but no, it too was free and I liked this place even more.

Mont St Michel Normandy Brittany France

Once inside I wasn’t so keen because here was a busy tourist street lined with souvenir shops and bars that reminded me of Rocamadour and Carcassonne in the south of France and I was glad to elbow my way through the trashy commercial parts, which made it seem like more amusement park than UNESCO World Heritage site, until the crowds thinned out and we began our weary ascent to the top.

There were an awful lot of steps but at the top we were rewarded with fine views over the sandbanks of the gulf of St Malo and inland towards Normandy on our left and Brittany to the right.  It has to be said that this is a truly wonderful spot and a great place to build an Abbey and later a walled fortress.

From the Abbey’s highest point we admired the natural beauty of the bay and were convinced that we could see the Channel Islands in the distance. The river below us marked the historic border between the two regions of Brittany and Normandy who have long vied for geographic ownership of Mont St. Michel. In fact, the river used to pass Mont St-Michel on the other side, making the abbey part of Brittany. Today, the river’s route is stable and the abbey is just barely, but beyond challenge, on Normandy soil.

According to legend (and the travel writer Rick Steves), the Archangel Michael told the local bishop to “build here and build high.” and added “If you build it…they will come.” Saint Michael, whose gilded statue decorates the top of the abbey’s spire, was the patron saint of many French kings, making this a favoured place for French royalty through the ages.

I always thought that quote came from the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams but it seems the scriptwriters must have borrowed it because it wasn’t only Archangel Michael who said it but also President Theodore Roosevelt who used it to encourage the financial backers of the Panama Canal project.

Mont St Michel Door

I expected to stay longer at Mont St. Michel but the truth is that it is rather tiny and once you have climbed to the top and then back down again there isn’t an awful lot left to do so after a couple of hours we left through the main gate and made our way back to the car park.

It was getting late and no one was really enthusiastic about the prospect of a walk so we lined up instead for a shuttle bus.  This being France there wasn’t a queue but rather a bit of an unruly rugby scrum that would have had a referee reaching for his yellow card and we wondered how long we might have to wait.  We needn’t have worried because Kim is just as an accomplished a queue jumper as any Frenchman and she pushed her way to the front and dragged us all along with her until we had elbowed our way onto the first bus.

mont st michel Normandy France

One very good reason for remaining longer would have been to have stayed on the island overnight in one of the hotels.  I investigated the possibility of this but when it comes to hotel prices I have a tipping point and hotels on Mont St Michel were way beyond mine so I had made alternative arrangements inland.

As it turned out I was really pleased about that because at a fraction of the cost we found ourselves staying at a local Auberge.  It was only £50 a night, with a magnificent night time view of the Abbey from a restaurant that specialised in lamb dishes fed and fattened on the local seawater grass and over evening meal we watched the sun disappear into the sea and the Abbey slowly illuminated in the gathering dusk.

I had not been disappointed by Mont St Michel.

What is top of your bucket list?

Mont St Michel and Sheep

 

Brittany, Dinan and The Sculptured Rocks

Dinan Brittany France

We had enjoyed two good days in Dinard and St Malo but the next morning it was time to move on.  We woke earlier than planned on account of some seagulls flying past our window and screeching so loud it was as though it was a fleet of police patrol cars driving by on the way to attend an incident with emergency sirens blaring.

Before travel I always carry out careful research but sometimes something just crops up while you are away.  At a shop in Dinard I was looking at postcards and came across one for the nearby town of Dinan and it looked exactly like the sort of place that we should visit.  Kim was elsewhere in the shop and spotted exactly the same thing at exactly the same time.  Simultaneously we said “come and look at this, I think we should go here” and we decided there and then that we should.

Dinan Postcard

It took longer to drive to Dinan than it really should have on account of major road works which required a lengthy and tedious detour which doubled both the distance and the time to our destination but as it turned out it was well worth the inconvenience.

Even as we arrived I was thinking half an hour might be more than enough but I was forced to recalculate very quickly when we arrived in the old town which is a warren of narrow streets where it appears that time has stood completely still. Dinan it turns out is one of the best preserved medieval walled towns not just in Brittany but in all of France.  After only a moment or so in this picturesque setting I had elevated it straight into my top ten of favourite places even leaping above Santillana del Mar in Spain, Shiltach in Germany and Hallstatt in Austria and before very long we were looking in the Estate Agent’s windows.

From the town we made our way down the steep Rue du Petit-Fort, which was Dinan’s main point of access until the eighteenth century. An uneven cobbled street, the stuff of picture postcards flanked with half-timbered houses and arts and crafts shops on account of the fact that Dinan has been designated a Ville d’Art et d’Histoire (Town of Art and History) and is filled with artists, sculptors, engravers, bookbinders, glassblowers and more.

Brittany France Dinan

The road twisted and turned and seemed like it would never end as it spilled half or mile or so down towards the River Rance and the old port, passing through the ancient main gate of the walled town and down to a medieval stone bridge which crossed the river towards another labyrinth of tiny streets on the other side.

The sun was shining and the temperature was rising and there were a string of inviting bars and restaurants alongside the banks of the river so we stopped for a while before tackling the return journey back up the steep hill.

At the mid way point we climbed the fortress steps and took the path around the castle walls with magnificent and commanding views over the surrounding countryside.  The town walls are sadly incomplete so it cannot become my favourite walled city and that distinction has to remain with Londonderry in Northern Ireland.

What a fabulous place, what an unexpected find and if you take only one piece of advice from me then if you are ever in Brittany or Northern France then I urge you to visit Dinan.  At the end of the visit Kim declared it the highlight of the holiday and that included Mont St Michel.

Dinan Brittany France

Reluctantly we left Dinan clutching a fist full of property details and followed the road back to the coast and St Malo.  We were behind schedule so the sensible thing to do now was to go directly to Mont St Michel but Kim was intrigued by a visitor attraction marked on the map called the sculptured rocks so sensing another unexpected delight we left the main highway and set out on the coast road.

Let me now give you a second piece of advice – unless you are really determined to see rock carvings do not take an unnecessary detour to Les rochers sculptés!  We were expecting a stack of rocks standing in the sea pounded by waves into interesting formations but the site is a small area of stonemason carvings in the side of the granite cliff.

Rock Sculptures St Malo

These sculptures were carved just over a hundred years ago by a hermit priest, Abbé Fouré, who had suffered a stroke and lost his ability to hear and speak and the story goes that he began these sculptures as a means of alternative communication. I am not trying to underestimate the value of the work here you understand, what I am saying that it is a tedious detour and the visit is going to be over in about twenty minutes.

If you do want to go and see them then I would do it soon because after one hundred years they are seriously eroded by the sea and the rain and it can’t help a great deal that visitors are allowed to climb all over them.

I was impatient now to get to Mont St Michel but stuck on the coast road progress was infuriatingly slow as we passed through several towns and villages all with inconveniently snail like speed limits.  Out in the Gulf of St Malo we could see the abbey on the island but it seemed to take a frustrating age to get there as the road snaked around the coast and every few miles or so we came across a tractor or a school bus which slowed us down even more.  Several times I cursed the decision to go and visit Les rochers sculptés.

Les rochers sculptés St Malo France

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