July 10, 2013

Beautiful Brittany, Hallowed Normandy

"Just to travel is rather boring, but to travel with a purpose is educational and exciting.”  Sargent Shriver

Carol writes:  By the time we flipped the calendar page over to July, we had arrived in Brittany, that windswept northwestern peninsula of France that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean and along the English Channel.  Bretons have a unique, fiercely independent streak that has strong Celtic ties.  Unlike the rest of France, their highways have no tolls, so that made traveling in that area very efficient. 

We chose the beach town of St. Malo for our stop in Brittany, and it turned out to be one of those visits that ended up far exceeding expectations.  Al is particularly fond of cities with ramparts, so reading about St. Malo had gotten our attention.  Little did we know that St. Malo’s 1-mile walk on its ancient ramparts encircling the city would be so spectacular in terms of scenery and history.

Fortunately, the tide was out and we were able to walk on one of the most interesting beaches I have ever visited.  Tree trunks were planted in the sand to serve as a breakwater for those fierce storms that blow in off the English Channel.

Just off-shore, and able to be visited when the tide is low, were several fortified islands built by Vauban, Louis XIV’s military architect during the Hundred Years’ War.


The famous poet Chateaubriand, whose grave is marked by a prominent cross, is buried on one of these fortified islands.

Eighty percent of St. Malo was destroyed by American bombs in WW II in the campaign to liberate France.  When the city was rebuilt, it was done in an historic style to make it look old once again.

As we completed our circle of the old city on the ramparts, we were able to look down into attractive and inviting al fresco dining areas.

We left St. Malo late in the afternoon with intentions to drive to Mont St-Michel so we could view the abbey late in the day after many of the tourists and large tour groups had left.  Parking for visitors was the most expensive we had come upon to date—the equivalent of $30 for a motorhome—which is more than the cost of admission to the abbey!  Al and I grumbled to each other about the price, but since that was about the only option open to us, we took a parking ticket and drove on into the spacious parking section set aside for RVs.  From there it was about a 15-minute hike to the free “navettes,” shuttle buses that traverse the causeway to the island and drop tourists off a few hundred yards from the portal gate at the entrance to a 20-minute walk uphill to the abbey.  During our navette ride, we got our first really good view of Mont St-Michel, and it was a stunner!

The abbey sits atop what is basically a very small island that at high tide is completely surrounded by water, except for an earthen causeway.  At low tide the island is surrounded by mud flats. 

There is a several-year project going on to restore Mont St-Michel to its original form.  This involves building a modern new causeway bridge above the water, enabling any sediment to be washed out to sea with the outgoing tide.  Unfortunately, the lovely island setting is an ugly construction zone, making it very difficult to appreciate the beauty of the historic abbey that soars above the small village at its feet.

We entered the walkway up to the abbey through a picturesque portal gate,

then started the long, steep climb upward past all the typical tourist shops.

Along the way we met a nice Turkish man who offered to take our picture.

A couple of minutes later we had arrived at the last set of stairs up to the abbey gate when we noticed a prominent bulletin board with a sign that informed us that due to the local workers’ strike, the abbey would be closing 2 hours early at 5 p.m.  Dumbstruck and hoping I had misunderstood the French word “fermé,” I glanced at my watch and with horror saw that it was 5:10 p.m.!   Al found the entrance booth area deserted and closed.  Many other tourists were also starting to understand, and I noticed a lot of stunned visitors with mouths starting to drop open.  Even now, it’s hard to convey the utter disappointment we felt, then puzzlement when we realized that the workers who pointed the way to the free shuttle bus and the parking attendants who told us how much the parking would cost had not deemed it necessary to warn us that unless we could fly, there was no way we could see the abbey before it closed!  Complaints to supervisory personnel about paying an exorbitant fee for parking at what was basically a closed venue fell on deaf ears.  Later, we read that strikes in France are a popular pastime and are a common way for workers to get management’s attention for any perceived grievance.  We took back the pat on the back we had given ourselves for our savvy planning to avoid the worst of the crowds by visiting late in the day.  The only choice left to us was give this huge inconvenience the proverbial Gallic shrug.  Our backup plan is perhaps to visit Mont St-Michel in November, when we come back through this area after spending the summer in the UK.

NORMANDY:  This part of the northern coast of France is most notable for the 75 miles of coast that was involved in the largest amphibious landing in history, which culminated in D-Day.  Al will cover our visit to the D-Day sites in a separate blog.  But first…we made a detour to the city of Bayeux, just 6 miles south of the D-Day beaches.  Fortunately, Bayeux was spared destruction from the bombs of WW II, so what looks old in Bayeux is really old.

First on our agenda was a visit to the Bayeux Tapestry Museum, now home to the precious Bayeux Tapestry, a 70-yard long and approximately 40-inch high pictorial history hand-embroidered on linen cloth.  In a series of several dozen panels, the tapestry recounts the history of William the Conqueror’s ascent to the English throne and depicts his subsequent victory in an historic battle for the English throne in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings, where he was victorious over England’s King Harold.   No photographs of any kind were permitted of the Bayeux Tapestry, so I am left to resort to a pic or two from the Internet.

The identity of the creators of this exquisite work of art isn’t known for certain.  Furthermore, it is a wonder it has survived for a thousand years, considering the stormy history that played out all around it over the centuries.  Only the imploring entreaties of a local clergyman saved the tapestry and all of Bayeux from the wrath of Allied bombing runs.

…which brings us to the most important reason we are traveling along this stretch of the French coast—and that is to pay our respects to the brave men of WW II who gave their lives during the liberation of France.

Our day in Bayeux wouldn’t have been complete without a short visit to the Bayeux Cathedral, where it is believed the Bayeux Tapestry originally hung on special occasions.  I thought the red doors were very classy.


The interior of the cathedral soared with a combination of Gothic and Romanesque arches.

We were happy with our half-day visit to Bayeux, which carries the distinction of being the first city liberated after the D-Day landing.  So…time to back up a bit chronologically, visit the invasion beaches, and pay homage at the American Cemetery to those brave men of D-Day who made the ultimate sacrifice.

“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.”  Mark Twain


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