I’ve long wanted to visit Mont St Michel in the Brittany region of France so had decided to made it my first destination in Europe.
It had been a long journey with my lunchtime flight from Buenos Aires arriving into Paris late morning the following day. I struggled to keep my eyelids open on the train journey to Saint-Malo, my home for the following three nights, but did manage a few glimpses of the lovely flat farmed fields with their cute farmhouses. It was a beautiful sunny day with the random cumulus clouds seeming to hang off the jet streams through the sky.
I had forgotten how little English is spoken in rural and regional areas of France until I was trying to locate the correct bus for my trip to the hostel. Eventually found a driver who understood where I was trying to get to so I was on my way. Back to square one again on the language front.
Saint-Malo was a lovely town with beautiful old stone buildings and what looked like bouquets of flowers springing from the gardens. It was all so ….. French!
It was a little chilly on arrival that night despite the bright northern sky. I had forgotten about the long daylight hours – more exploring time!
On my arrival to the hostel I met my room buddy, Liz from Canada, who was heading into the old walled city to go out to some of the forts while the tide was low. I took up the invitation to join her, pleased to have the company.
It was around 8:30pm and the fog had well and truly rolled in. We made it out to one of the forts but had to keep watch of the tide – the currents are very strong between the mainland and the forts so its a six hour wait if you’re stranded.
Once back on the mainland we walked the top of the wall before stopping for a scallop galette (savoury crêpe) and cidar in the walled town; crepes being the speciality of the region. Saint-Malo was heavily bombed during the Second World War and so had undergone a substantial amount of renovation to get it to it’s glory of today.
I had a laugh when we were getting our bus back to the hostel and a guy was having a ‘Letitia moment’ – we heard “oh shit, missed it” from an English guy talking to himself at the bus timetable. He’d clearly missed his last bus home but no doubt he’d get there one way or another.
On arrival back to the hostel we met our other roomies – Barbara from Paris and Laura from Brisbane. It was 11:00pm and still light – it certainly felt safe to be out late with plenty of others taking advantage for the extra light but I was going to find it a challenge to get used to.
I had spoken too soon about the beautiful sunny days – awoke to what seemed a pretty set in fog. One of the draws to Mont St Michel was to admire the imposing Abbey from afar so I thought it prudent to delay the visit a day in the hope it would clear.
Liz had planned a boat cruise down the Rance River to Dinan so I tagged along with her. It was a lovely cruise but I wasn’t much of a travel companion as I kept napping on my seat; the flight and long days catching up! Thankfully the fog was lifting as we cruised further inland enabling us to see the lovely houses along the river, the fishing sheds and the local anglers with rods that made it appear they were beach surfing for Taylor!
Dinan was a lovely medieval town, which served as a coordination centre for the local forestry and agriculture activities in the 1500s. The ramparts had been built in the 1200s.
The waterways proved expensive to maintain and so in the 1700s all money was cut off to continue their maintenance – potentially impacting the economy of the town. In response the town proposed it become a prison town (I doubt anyone would propose such in today’s times) and so it came to hold 2 000 prisoners of war (Dutch, English and Spanish) in the prison tower.
We got back to Saint-Malo by bus and popped into the bar/cafe that is claimed (and I believe it) to have the longest name – Le Cafe du Coin de La Rue de la Ville du Port la Java (essentially its location in the town). I’d defy anyone to text that one as their meeting spot! It was very cute with its eclectic collection of figures and paintings. The bar stools were in the form of swings – figured they must have a really good public liability insurance policy or a very strict responsible serving of alcohol policy.
I had another bus laughing opportunity – this time as I watched the same guy from the night before get off and head directly to the timetable – he was a quick learner!!!
I had arranged to go to Mont St Michel the next day with Barbara. Communication was a challenge given her limited english and my complete absence of French. Thankfully Barbara had little trouble understanding English just speaking it so you can guess who did all the talking!
The bus trip into the Normandy region was lovely – again passing farmers’ fields and old stone buildings evoking images of long lunches with family and friends under the shade of the leafy trees. Jim, if you haven’t already been to this region you might like to add it onto one of your trips as I think you’d really like it.
I was impressed by the number of female bus drivers – would have been equal number with males. Barbara indicated it was quite common and in response to them being considered safe and careful drivers. My opinion of the French had just gone up a notch.
There was no fear of fog today, we had arrived at Mont St Michel on a beautiful sunny day. We went our own ways for the visit knowing that we’d each need information in our own languages. I picked up a museum package and started off at the home of Betrand du Guesclin, Knight from the 14th century, and his wife, Tiphaine de Raguenel, who was famous for reading the destiny ore world in the stars.
From the home I visited the historical museum and dungeons, which contained wax figures depicting life within the abbey and its surrounds. There were 600 prisoners detained in the abbey until Bonaparte put an end to it being a prison in 1863 in response to public pressure. There was a display of a fellow who was being starved to death for speaking out against the rulers of the day – note to those of you who’ve done a night or two for the privilege of protesting!
The Abbey was certainly a popular tourist destination – it was a 45 minute wait to get a ticket but well worth it.
The Abbey was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979. It had been constructed in different stages, commencing in 708, on Mont Tomb in honour of the archangel, Saint Michael. The Benedictine monks had settled in the Abbey in the 10th century and the village grew around it. It had been an impregnable fortress during the various assaults by the English and is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architecture as a result of it progressive construction over centuries.
The cloisters of the Abbey were lovely with their views over the bay and the scale of the columns used in the crypts to support the various areas above were very impressive.
I enjoyed my lunch in one of the gardens before following the ramparts to visit the maritime museum and then to meet up with Barbara for our journey home.
With plenty of light left I decided to visit Dinard by bateau bus (bay taxi) from Saint-Malo. The town was established by the English in the 18th century. I enjoyed a stroll down the Clare de Lune Promenade, picturing how Picasso had captured these beach scenes in his paintings – particularly the striped beach tents.
It was 7:30pm and there was no sign of the beach becoming deserted any time soon; in fact it seemed to be filling more in the time I was there. The stretch of beach between the water and line of beach tents clearly illustrated the big tides that are experienced here on the Brittany beaches.
While making my dinner I enjoyed a chat with Steve, from England, and Laura. Laura had recently had her iPhone and wallet stolen so we were onto travel stories. Close theft encounters on buses led us to crazy bus driver stories. Steve relayed his bus experiences in Peru – three accidents in the space of seven days; reaching the point that he couldn’t sleep on buses anymore; I wasn’t surprised but grateful that none of mine had crashed.
I was leaving the next morning bound for Amsterdam. I’d had a lovely short break in France, meeting some lovely people along the way. Brittany had ended up having more areas of interest than I had realised and I had only touched the surface.