Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Mont St. Michel

When you've seen pictures of something for years, you wonder if the real thing can live up to your immense expectations. In the case of Mont St. Michel for me, it did. As you drive along, this monumental church rises up out of the ocean built on top of an island slightly offshore. It dominates the landscape and fills one with awe of these medieval builders who put together these immense structures.

We snuck a peek in the misty distance as we drove in to our B&B in Avranches:

The next day we joined the masses making their way to the island* on the wide causeway.  As you draw nearer, the words tumble out: spectacular, awe-inspring, fantastic, down to the mundane wow.

The climb to the top was not as difficult as the guide books had claimed and we went right to the top where the views were extraordinary. There was an island in the distance, and streams of the devoted were walking across the sand at low tide as a pilgrimage.

My favourite place on the Mont was the serene cloister

If I had an official bucket list, Mont St. Michel would have been on it. It didn't disappoint. A wonderful day. 

* The logistics of the whole visit were amazing. We were directed to a very large parking lot - number 6 of 13 - and walked over to the shuttle bus stop for the ride to the island. The bus was so clever - there was a driver seat in the front AND the back. Rather than using space for turning these buses, the driver just walks around to the other end to drive the other direction!

You get dropped on the causeway, for a remarkable walk over to Mont St. Michel, with your eyes riveted to the island. 

You pay your parking ticket on the way out, and off you go. There seemed to be hordes of people, but except for the narrow street at the start of the climb, it didn't feel crowded at all. The site is that huge. Of course we were there in a low season. . . But still, it was so smooth. 

Brittany Day Two

Our first stop on our drive north in Brittany was at Sable d'Or, where we gazed and stretched for a long time (something our bodies really needed) on the steps from the dunes down to the beautiful beach.

After another brief stop to take in the rugged coastal scenery

we headed to the iconic Cap Frenel lighthouses (old on the left and new on the right)

As we walked out on the headland, the hill was covered with a prickly yellow plat that a lady said was agonc(?). Great contrast with the deep blue of the sea.

Our next stop was a dramatic Fort La Latte, perched high above the sea with great views over the ramparts.

Fort La Latte was our last stop before heading off to Avranches, our jumping off spot for Mont St. Michel.

But a few last remarks. My memories of Brittany will include so many lovely houses, in grey stone or white stucco outlined in stone as opposed to the honey stone further south, and huge beautiful hydrangeas. Although we were at the tail end of the bloosoms there were still a few to give us a hint of how beautiful it would be in summer. So, a few summary pics of hydrangeas and some pretty houses.

Sunday, September 27, 2015


The highlight of Brittany was staying with an old friend who runs a beautiful B&B in the little port of D'Haouet:

This gorgeous old house was gutted completely and refitted with all the mod cons, while retaining its characters.  The kitchen was to die for:

We had this lovely view out our window:

Our friends took us out to the next town for our first, best, but not our last taste of Breton crepes and galettes.

We took a lovely day trip along the coast. Our first stop was at the serene Beaufort Abbey. The Beaufort monks were the first to finance fishing ventures for cod to the new world, so rather significant for Canadians.

We stopped for lunch on the beautiful square in Treguier with its medieval buildings and beautiful cathedral.

We've seen many churches, but each one is rather different: this one was distinguished by its eclectic mix of stained glass windows ranging from traditional to modern to abstract. Fascinating:

Strange to see all these styles jumbled together in one church.

The signs in this part of Brittany are bilingual - French and Breton (a Celtic language most closely related to Cornish). 

We ended up at Ploumanac'h and took a long walk along the shore, with its tumbled boulders in precarious arrangements. A  beautiful day and a beautiful walk.



There was a beautiful chateau offshore to gaze at

and interesting rocks to walk under

Or to marvel at like these

A  beautiful sunny day with a light wind - just the ticket to whet our appetite for the magnificent feast of fresh food from that morning's market David prepared for supper that night.

Saturday, September 26, 2015


As it happened, while we were in St. Emilion, there was a convention of fireworks manufacturers in nearby Bordeaux. Happpily, there was a demonstration by a Chinese manufacturer in St. Emilion. The town was packed as they set off the fireworks from the old tower. They turned off the street lights in the  town to maximize effect. 

The fireworks were fantastic, as they should be from the land that invented them. They were coordinated with music (not synchronized) and there were varieties I had never seen before. 

The last flurry lit up the whole sky.

A magical night for us, since fireworks have a special significance. 

From our B&B in a little village near St. Emilion, we visited Chateau de Sales in Pomerol for a guided tour. The rather pretty chateau is still in use as a home by the family. The owner's family has owned the property since the 14C but they only got serious as winemakers in the 17C,  The owners have many kids and grandkids and 44 great grandchildren and they visit the chateau a lot.   

Everything was humming, as they were about half way through the three-week harvest. The vines were heavy with grapes; we saw these grapes on the way into the chateau and they were picked by the time we came back out.

The pickers (60 of them for this small property) carry these containers on their shoulders

and they are really heavy. After the workers fill the container by cutting the stems with a special knife and throwing bunches of grapes into the container, they walk to the end of the row where the tractor is waiting, climb the ladder, and dump their grapes into a sort of grape trailer. 

The tractors bring the grapes back and the grapes move up a conveyor belt and then down another one into the destemming machine

where (you probably guessed this), the stems are removed

Then the juice gets extracted 

and the juice starts fermenting in concrete containers. As the fermentation takes place, the wine is shifted back and forth between the concrete containers and oak barrels. I was rather surprised at the casual methods of keeping track of things - just chalk on the concrete containers (don't they know these could be easily brushed off by a passing sleeve?)

The record-keeping at the end of the row was also thoroughly non-technical:

The result is about 240,000 bottles of wine of two different labels from this vineyard:

We asked whether workers migrated among vineyards, but the harvests all take place at the same time apprently, even across regions. So what do these people do for the other 49 weeks? Live on unemployment. Wow.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Cave Painting

After visiting Domme, we headed to Les Eyzies to see cave paintings. And met with the greatest disappointment of the trip. In the guide, I'd missed the fact that you have to book ahead and when we got there we were told they were booked up two months(!) in advance. Wow. Crushed. We made the best of it by visiting their wonderful museum on prehistoric man's activities in the area, but both of us were feeling a off and we really didn't do it justice. This was to have been one of the highlights of the trip.

We were rather deflated as we left the B&B the next morning. However, a short distance down the road, I saw a sign announcing Cugnac, caves with prehistoric paintings, at 300 m. off the road. We headed off with extremely low expectations, only to be greeted by a lovely young woman who said we could visit that very day, and in fact a tour was leaving that exact minute with just one other couple. We'd heard tales of people feeling very rushed through these caves, as the carbon dioxide breathed out by a large group can damage the paintings and so they can't stay long in one place. In our case, with a well-ventilated cave and just 4 of us, we could linger as long as we wanted. What a happy couple we were! How lucky we were for the screw-up in Les Eyzies, as we lucked into a better experience.

We visited a first cave with some spectacular rock formations, including this unusual shower of stalactities. Neither of us had seen anything like this, even in a book.

Then on to the piece de resistance, a second cave with the paintings. We walked more 500 metres and then our guide shone a flashlight on some incredible artwork. We were not allowed to take photos, so once again I took pictures of postcards. This animal was quite realistic and instantly recognizable as an ibex.

We had seen a resonstruction of a prehistoric animal called a megosaurus at the Les Eyzies museum and so we instantly recognized these unusual antlers.

The most remarkable thing occurred when the guide shown her flashlight so as to show us how the artist had used the natural contour of the rock to give a three dimensional effect to the animal's back. I was gobsmacked.

These drawing was produced with a different technique than the others.

What is so puzzling about these paintings is that between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago, someone walked a half kilometre through this cave - in the dark - to find rock smooth enough to draw on and then produced these pieces of art, working by torchlight. Amazing.

Even our misadventures have turned out well on this trip.