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Saturday, December 8, 2012

Finistere - Lands' End

Finistere in Brittany is rugged and wild. The coast is dotted with high rocky cliffs and little inlets and coves, some small towns and ports, and inlets. This was what we came to see - really almost the point of the trip and we weren't disappointed.    

There were so many different types of birds living on the cliffs, all I could identify were the hawks, and what I think were puffins and gannets. We saw hawks soaring on the air currents and floating for what seemed like ages without flapping their wings, and then suddenly diving for prey in the rushes along the coast.  

The Celtic nation of Brittany

Brittany is one of the six Celtic nations. (The others being Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man). The road signs are in French and in Bretton.  Some of the town and road names are similar to the the signs that you might see in Ireland, and some of the more southernly town names have a similarity to Galician.

All along our way we found signs and advertisements for Celtic festivals, music, and food.

Sand Yachting in Brittany

With some great Autumn breezes, Brittany is a big center for  land sailing or  sand yachting. There are 56 Land Sailing centers in Brittany and even in September after the hordes of tourists have departed it's still popular along the coast.

The sand yachts are  three-wheeled vehicles that work like a sailboat, the pilot is lying down steers the vehicle by its pedals.  When a gust of wind would hit the beach the sand yachts would go faster than the wind.

Digging for Clams in Brittany

As we drove along the coast through the towns in Normandy and Brittany, we couldn't help but notice that about mid-day when the tide was out, there were people out in the shallow surf. It appeared that they were looking for something but we discovered they were actually digging for clams in the tidal pools.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Art and Tea in Pont-Aven

When you think about the edge or the world  you think about a stark and uninviting brown and gray land facing the cold sea. Pont-Aven located in  Finistère in Brittany couldn't be further from that.

If the sunflowers in the photo trigger a "I've seen those before" thought - it's because this is where Paul Gauguin was inspired to paint his many sunflower pieces.  A number of artists took up residence here around1885   and they were collectively known as  Pont-Aven School of post Impressionism which became known as Synthetism. 

Gaugin's "Sunflowers"

The Aven River runs through Pont Aven and empties into the Atlantic.  In addition to the sunflowers, Gaugin painted scenes of the river basin, the towns 15 mills and waterfalls.
The wooden passerelle over the river.
The Promenade Xavier Grall is a walk named after the writer. The promenade meanders alongside the river in between the former mills now restored as restaurants, upscale shops, and of course the art galleries.

All through our drives in Brittany we saw thatched cottages and so when we were in Pont Aven we stopped in for tea and cakes at La Chanmiere Roz-Aven, a traditional cottage transformed into a restaurant on the ground floor and hotel up above.  The morning was a little brisk so we skipped the outside tables which overlooked the port, but we took a window seat.  The view and the cakes and the service were all excellent.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Abbey De Beauport

Some of the best and most interesting places we’ve visited, haven’t been on any schedule or plan.  We saw a sign for the Abbaye De Beauport  near Paimpo and decided to stop, so of course we missed the tiny drive and small cloistered arch way entrance and drove back. 

The Abbey was built in the 13th Century as a monastery and is now the property of  the Conservatoire du Littoral and hosts art exhibits and concerts and historical tours.  Especially interesting to us is that the Beauport Abbey was a starting point to Santiago De Compostela for the pilgrims coming from England. 

Located on 100 acres the Abbey overlooks lush fields with grazing sheep, rolling down to a sheltered bay. You can see Ile de Brehat from here. It is still a working farm. In its day it was a large trading center.  Today there is a little village outside the Abbey walls and you can find restaurants serving crepes and other tourist fare. 

All through Normandy and Brittany hydrangeas were in bloom in cottage gardens, along the roadside and at monasteries – true reds and deep mauves turning to pinks to whites as they age.

While gardeners can add lime to get pink hydrangea the true reds and deep mauves are only possible in colder climates and so we don’t see them in the American South. 

Normandy Flag

A warm September evening, no crowds, the sun setting and the Normandy flag fluttering in the breeze over Mont-St-Michel.  Notice there is no French flag.  

Views of Mont-St-Michel

Mont-St-Michel is an engineering marvel. It was originally a monastery built above the mont.
Since its construction the Mont-St-Michele has served as a monastery, pilgrimage site, a fort, and a prison, and it is now a UNESCO protected site. It evolved into self-supporting village. And today there are lots of shops, restaurants and souvenir shops. All close early. 

Since we arrived at dusk there were no tourist buses just the two of us, some French couples on holiday, some local teenagers, and the seagulls.

You enter the Mont itself from a small door at the end of the causeway, from that spot there are 900 steps to the Nave of the Church at the top.  The steps wind around houses and shops, through gardens and past the Mont-St-Michele hotels.  Looking straight up it looks formidable, and when you are at the top looking down it’s frightening. But it’s a walk, there’s lots to see along the way.

There is a hotel on Mont-St-Michel and many of the couples strolling in the evening were guests. But we said our good-byes and headed down the causeway taking a few glances back at this romantic site.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


We drove out to Mont-St-Michel just to get a night view and decided that since we were there already we'd go on over, instead of just looking at it across the corn fields of France

Our sons had been 3 years ago and we had heard their stories about the speed at which the tide came in and how cars were suddenly flooded.  Since then things have changed, cars are no longer able to drive out to the parking lot and instead must take a shuttle from the Visitors Center to the causeway. As it had been the Mont St Michele was cut off from the mainland once the tide came in since the exisiting causeway was flooded over. So it will be dismanlted and a new concrete and higher causeway is under construction.  Supposedly it also has to do with tides, and currents, and sealife and bringing back natural vegetation. Seems there was a lot of local angst about the project, but it goes forward and everyone will eventually adjust.  The upside is that forgetful tourists won't lose their cars to rising tides.

Carnac Alignments

Seeing the Carnac Alignments was definitely on our itinerary for this trip. Everyone has their "must-see" – and megalithic monuments and dolmens have always interested us. The Carnac alignments are from the same era as the Stonehenge in England about 3000 BC. 

While the larger fields of alignments are in protected fields there are many throughout the entire region – some standing as tall and alone as sentries in fields that we passed, some in small low groups along the roadside. We didn’t know if at the time but the big fields including Le Menec and Kermario alignments close to the Visitor Centre are closed during the summer until the end of September in order to maintain the natural grasses and vegetation. 

But we got our first view of the menhirs, as they are called in Breton, along the roadside.  We pulled into a gravel parking lot with signs to be careful about leaving valuables in the car and walked through the fields.  There were so many and we made so many stops that we were actually a little disappointed when we got to Carnac – somehow we thought that the Alignments there would be bigger or more amazing.  They were all incredible, wherever we found them.

The Visitors Center presented the history of the alignments and the evolution of mankind from the Paloelithic ear to the Middle Ages and had an interesting film and diorama on the sites. Well worth our time.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Monet's Family Home

The first glance of the garden was like a Monet painting – color everywhere, too much too look at once – nothing orderly.  We decided to stand back and get an overview and to wander around the house first. On the path up we were greeted by the cock-a-doodle-doo of the Garden's roosters  - although someone did tell us that's not what French roosters say. 

If you are looking for Monet's original paintings the place to go is The Orangerie in Paris,  there are few originals in the house, although there were two on exhibit at the NY Botanical Gardens.  The house does have  an amazing collection of Japanese art and engravings that Monet collected.

My favorite rooms were dining room with its vibrant yellow walls offsetting the blue dishes on the sideboards and its massive wood table for Monet's large family and guest artists; and the robin egg blue kitchen with the Rouen tiles, copper pots, large work sink and coal cooker. DH and I both noticed that the kitchen had running water.

Visitors are not permitted to take photos in the house but can take pictures out the second floor bedroom windows. So in place of Linnea in Monet's Garden, you have Mary in Monet's Garden.

Stepping into a Monet Painting

I love gardens and gardening so when we were planning our September trip to Normandy and Brittany, I was happy to see that Monet’s Garden in Giverny could easily be made part of our route to Bayou. In August I had gone with Mom to the recreation of Monet’s Garden in the Conservatory at the New York Botanical Gardens   and now it's September and we're in the original. 

Saturday morning we took the hotel shuttle over to the Europcar Rental office at the airport picked up our rental, entered Giverny into the GPS and off we went.  Getting out of the airport and onto the road gave us the usual challenges, but once out of the Paris traffic we found it an easy ride.

I had been told by a French colleague to make sure to arrive early that Monet’s Gardens are always crowded.  It’s a little more than an hour from Paris, and popular for day trips as well as with people on their way from and to the Coast on the weekends. We arrived about 11am, parking was easy and free. We paid our 5 Euro entrance fee and walked right in to a Monet painting.

Roissey-Charles de Gaulle

From time to time we’ve had to stay at airport hotels. We’ve done it when we’ve had very early flights out in the morning and wanted to avoid getting up at 3M or 4AM for the drive and to allow for the time it now takes to get through most airport security lines. And we’ve also done it when our flight arrived late and we didn’t see the point of renting a car and driving the dark in an unfamiliar city or country.

Charm is not generally a word that would be associated with either airport hotels or surroundings and generally once checked in you’re not leaving the hotel until it’s time to leave for your flight.  

This is not the case at Roissey hotels. Most of the CD hotels with “airport hotel” in their name are in Roissey. This time our reason for staying at an airport hotel was that DH and I had arrived separately into Charles de Gaulle Airport. We met at a hotel in Roissey-Charles de Gaulle on Friday afternoon.

We walked through the Parc de l’Orangerie where we peered into the local bee hives and the cemetery and admired the Alex Labejof sculpture outside the Cultural Center. We stumbled upon an amazing open air photographic exhibit “Eternal Women Around the World” by Olivier Martel in the Town Hall Park.  We saw the vestiges of the southern portal of the original town castle and the walls of the stables which now mark the town walking trails. All together not bad for our first afternoon in France – and all while staying at an airport hotel.

We had our first taste of French food and wine and language and we were ready for an early start Saturday. Giverny was our first stop.