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All posts for the month July, 2024

The 16th century church Eglise Notre-Dame de Croaz Batz overlooks Roscoff and its harbor

Our next stop, Roscoff, is on the northern coast of Finistère (roughly, “end of the earth”), the westernmost department of Brittany. Finistère has the longest coastline of any department in mainland France, and it’s the kind of rugged, moody coast that we expected of Brittany. Dramatic tides sweep in and out of these beaches. Seagulls squawk and swoop above. And the long summer days produce big flowers and lush foliage.

The weather is also pretty rough and moody. Cool, gloomy mornings have been yielding to a little sun by mid-day and high temperatures in the low 60s. It’s really not bad touring weather at all, but it’s just not what we expected in mid-July. My mostly summer wardrobe has been packed away for over two weeks in favor of the jeans and sweaters I brought in case it got cold.

The pretty town of Roscoff

Choucroute de la mer — sauerkraut with a pile of local seafood

We went past the church just as a wedding party was entering

And there go the final entrants

Our hotel had a restaurant with a Michelin star. We dressed up a bit and enjoyed a fancier meal than usual.

We don’t have dessert very often. Jim went full on strawberries.

The days are long here, so we had to stay up pretty late to catch the Bastille Day fireworks. It’s even still a bit light, though it’s well after 11:00 pm.

We made one momentous decision here about the rest of our summer in France. We had expected to take a drive outside of Roscoff to see a coastal area known as the Pink Granite Coast. But once we’ve arrived here and parked our car, we can’t stand the thought of getting back into it until we have to. A similar thing happened earlier in Dinard when we wanted to do a day trip to Dinan. We ended up taking an hour-long bus ride to Dinan instead of a half-hour drive with our own car. We so much more enjoy the adventure and relaxation of taking a train or a bus someplace than the ordeal or driving and parking.

We already have plans to return the car we have in a few more days. Then we’d planned to pick up another one 10 days later for the entire month of August. After discussing how much we loathe dealing with the car, we canceled our month-long reservation for August. I think we can swing trains and buses for most of that period, even though it will sometimes add a few hours here and there. We’ll probably need a car for a week or so in the French Alps, but we are thrilled to have knocked off a few weeks of car travel!

Unable to bring ourselves to drive to the Pink Granite Coast, we instead decided to take a ferry to Ile de Batz, just off the coast of Roscoff for the day. The island is home to just 449 residents and is free of motorized vehicles. I was mildly worried about the amount of walking we’d have to do to get around the island, since my knees have degenerated to such a state that walking is very painful. (Not to fear, readers, I have knee replacements scheduled for this fall; this is my last major trip with messed up knees!) But quickly after we arrived we walked past a bike rental place. It is amazing how joyful it is for me to see places from a bicycle. You move a little faster than walking, and it is totally pain free for me.

This turned out to be a perfect day. The was the Brittany that we were seeking — the rugged coastlines, hardy and industrious people, houses and fences made of stone, perfectly manicured gardens. Followed by a lovely lunch at a friendly cafe overlooking the beach.

Our summer in France has been wonderful so far, and it promises to get even better — with less car and more bikes, buses, and trains. That suits us very well.

One of many beautiful stone houses on Ile de Batz

Biking past the lighthouse on Ile de Batz

What a beautiful place

This is how I love to see places — pain free!

Jim looks out at the beach, contemplating whether this is the right take to take a swim in the icy cold La Manche (known on the other side as the English Channel)

He goes for it!

We stayed at the Grand Hotel Dinard, still the grand dame of the city. Here I am, late at night and jacketed to protect from the cold, but perfectly happy on our balcony.

After our two very quick stops in Normandy we crossed into Brittany where we plan to spend two weeks. The first stop was three nights in Dinard, on what is known as the Emerald Coast. It became a prime destination for British and even American aristocrats in the late 19th century and is still considered one of the primier seaside resorts in all of France. A town of just a tad under 10,000 people, the population soars to some 40,000 in the summer.

Now I have to admit, I didn’t quite get it. The town is nice, and indeed has some great architecture presumably as a result of those 19th century aristocrats, but it didn’t seem like such a great seaside resort. First, well, we’ve been to Sardinia’s Emerald Coast and it was way more beautiful and beachy. Second, because the tides in this part of the world are just enormous, for large stretches of the day the tide is too low for swimming. And finally, it’s just too darned cold! Here we are in mid-July and the temperature never goes above maybe the mid-60s. I looked it up and that’s somewhat unusual; the average daily high in July is 72 degrees. That would have been pleasant, but that’s hardly “Oh god, I need to go to the beach!” kind of weather.

The walls of Saint-Malo as we approached on the Corsair

So we didn’t go to the beach in Dinard. There was, however, plenty to do. First off, on arrival we caught a boat across the bay to Saint-Malo, Brittany’s most touristed locale. It is a beautiful old walled city on the English Channel that got wealthy off of pirating. Apparently that was a good business back in the day. (And amusingly, the boat that takes you across from Dinar to Saint-Malo is called the Corsair, an archaic word for pirate. They’re not ashamed of their past!) At any rate, the old city was almost totally destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944, something a tourist like me would be totally unaware of, insofar as it was rebuilt during the 1950s. Honestly, to me it looked like it was all old and historic, when in fact lots of it is no older than I am! At any rate it’s a great place to walk around for a couple of hours and then to sit down to a beautiful lunch. There were lots and lots of probably not-so-good touristy places, but we managed to discover L’Entracte, a lovely and creative place on a bit of a side street. Very pleasant!

Some of the delightful historic buildings in Dinan

The next day was a little laid back, getting some laundry and gym time in, but then our last full day in Dinard we took a local bus an hour south to Dinan. We have a rental car and certainly could have driven but we don’t like driving and hate having to figure out parking in a new town. The bus, on the other hand was simple, cheap, and comfy. Dinan it turns out is an absolutely stunning old walled town above the Rance River. We didn’t do a lot there besides walking around, gawping at the really old buildings and streets and all that. We walked down – and down and down and down – to the river front, where we had a relaxing cup of coffee, before heading back up – and up and up and up – to the main town for lunch. Then back on the bus to Dinard.

So much for three nights in Dinard. Next up, a couple hours west to Roskoff.

Mark up on the ramparts protecting Saint-Malo. It turns out ramparts are great for protecting from ancient armies but not so good at protecting from bombs.

And our charming lunch in Saint-Malo

Here we are in Saint-Malo. A tragic story about that shirt I’m wearing. I bought it in Hawaii and loved it. Just a few hours later I was walking to the gym in Dinard, looking at my map, when some bush reached out and snagged the shirt, ripping a big tear in the shoulder. Sad!

A big highlight of our stay was the view from our little balcony overlooking the Rance estuary

Another view from the balcony. Because we’re still so far north and now pretty far west in the time zone, it stays light well past 10 PM. This picture was under natural light at 10:15 PM.

Perhaps the most complete and perfect rainbow ever

Our room, the balcony, and the estuary

We didn’t get any great pictures, but the northern section of the town, along the coast, had a bunch of beautiful old stone houses and mansions

Some of the “feel” of Dinard

As always, food is a big deal on our travels, like this watermelon gazpacho…

…and these razor clams

Mark liked the way I fit in so well with the hydrangea

A small section of the long walk down from Dinan’s town center to the river, all lined with ancient buildings

Mark at lunch in Dinan. To be honest I liked the setting better than the food…

Just a beautiful street scape in Dinard

Charming beauty everywhere you turn around here

One last view from the balcony

Vieux Bassin, the lovely harbor of Honfleur

Late evening descends on the town

To get to Brittany from the Hauts de France region where we’ve made our last couple stops, we needed to pass through Normandy. We’ve traveled through Normandy in the past, so we made just a couple one-night stops in order to break up the trip. We never like to drive more than 2 or 3 hours a day. These were our only one-night stops of this trip. Both were very pleasant, but we’re glad not to have any more one-nighters.

First was the lovely harbor town of Honfleur, complete with loads of pretty shops, great restaurants, and a very comfortable hotel. And if Amiens offered up the largest medieval building in France, Honfleur tried to compete with the largest wooden church in the country. The Eglise Ste-Catherine was built around the turn of the 16th century after its stone predecessor was destroyed in the Hundred Years War. To save money to strengthen the town walls, local shipwrights built a “temporary” church out of wood. And there is stands today 500 years later.

We had an amazing lunch upon arrival in Honfleur, with the wooden church right behind Jim

The interior of Eglise Ste-Catherine

Taking a break in the beautiful courtyard of our hotel

Walking through a little garden, we were both hit by the powerful scent of jasmine before we even saw it

Touring the abbey

One of the “modern” parts of the abbey, added in the 15th century

Then we traveled a couple more hours to see Mont Saint Michel, one of the most iconic sites in all of France. I was actually there 42 years ago, on a high school French trip, at the tender age of 16. At the time I was blown away by the place — a soaring abbey rising from a rock outcrop surrounded by either sand or sea, depending on the rapidly moving tides. Indeed the bay here offers the most dramatic tidal variation in all of Europe. Water is said to move in and out of this bay at the speed of a galloping horse.

Mont Saint Michel made our agenda because Jim had never been here. So it felt almost obligatory. I can’t even say I was particularly enthused about coming back. But as we were approaching the area, still 5 or 6 miles away, the outline of the island suddenly and dramatically appeared on the horizon, across the fields, under a blanket of cloud and gloom. And we were both pretty stunned by how dramatic it was!

So we spent a night in the adjacent town, La Caserne; this is a mild sacrifice because, despite (or because of?) the huge tourist population here, the town is woefully absent of a decent restaurant. We trekked 35 minutes to the island, climbed the steep, busy streets packed with tourists, gift shops, pubs, and crepe restaurants. We toured the magnificent abbey at the top. And it was actually pretty amazing all over again. I probably won’t get back again for another 42 years, so we made the most of this visit to this magical place.

Approaching the area of Mont Saint Michel, we were pretty stunned when it suddenly appeared on the gloomy horizon a few miles away

Trekking toward Mont Saint Michel

Getting closer!

Much of the abbey was built in the Romanesque style in the 11th and 12th centuries

Tourists wading through the water and mud at high tide. You have to go out with a guide so you don’t get washed away or stuck in quicksand.

One of the charming cloisters in the abbey

One last pic!