Category Archives: Brompton folding bikes

St. Malo, where the Rance river meets the sea

Traveling to St. Malo from Dinan is an easy afternoon’s ride, first up the path along the river Rance, and then diverting inland at Taden. There Bretagne Velo Route 2 continues along an old railway line.

Stopping for a pastry break on the shores of the Rance.

Gerry checks the route on his GPS. We’ve stashed our helmets and baseball caps in favor of our new French Chapeaux.

This former rail house sits at the start of the trail built on what was once a narrow gauge rail line. The path is lovely, overhung with trees, and cool in the shade.

Velo Route 2 ends in Dinard, on the coast, but on the opposite side of the bay from St. Malo. We caught a small ferry or “vedette” for the 15 minute ride across the harbor to the ancient walled city of St. Malo.

Landing on the stone quai outside the city walls we are awestruck by the beauty and drama of this place, its ramparts towering above us, its cobblestone walkways leading to one of the gates to the city.

St, Malo is an ancient city, with a well fortified harbor. Fiercely independent, with the motto Semper Fidelis: Malouin always! It is a center of shipping, fishing and commerce as its been for centuries. Between 1500 and 1713 the Malouin Corsairs roamed the seas looking for ships to loot in the name of the King of France.

Robert Surcouf, one of the most famous of the Corsairs.

A reconstruction of an old privateer sails up the bay between Dinard and St. Malo.

We have been fascinated with St. Malo since reading “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. This beautiful and evocative novel follows parallel stories of a young French girl and young German boy who’s paths eventually intersect in St. Malo near the end of WWII. Thousands of German soldiers were rumored to be entrenched in St. Malo (in actuality there were only about 75). American planes bombed the town in a devastating attack, destroying eighty percent of the buildings in the process. After the war the town was rebuilt, but the grace and character of the old stone buildings sharply contrasts with the more uniform replacements from the 1940’s.

The Hotel St. Pierre is tucked in behind the Ramparts.

Our hotel—one of the small number of buildings that survived he bombing intact — has been owned by the same family since 1936, and sits right behind the sea wall. From our tiny room on the 4th floor we can see over the ramparts to the sea and the islands offshore.

From our room on the 4th floor we can see over the seawall to the ocean beyond.

Children run and play on the beach, and swim in the tidal saltwater pool. Catamarans are lined up under the sea wall, and navigate the bay. Sitting at a cafe on the beach drinking Café Creme we pinch ourselves—what a beautiful spot!

We spent the evening strolling along the ramparts, reading about the history of the town through the centuries, wandering through squares filed with flower beds, restaurants and tourists.

For dinner the first night we skip the fancy restaurants and have a burger Turkish style. Harissa sauce and Chat Malo, a local beer. Yum. Seems fitting somehow.

The Chateau

Double gates lead to a large square filled with restaurants and nightlife.

At night St. Melo is magical, lit by many-colored lights from the restaurants and hotels, its squares filed with people. Tiny streets and hidden gardens reveal themselves as we wind our way back to our hotel. The line between past and present blurs in the twilight.

The buildings below remind me of the “tall narrow house on Rue Vauborel” as described in All the Light we Cannot See. I imagine 16-year-old Marie-Laure here, alone in her room on the 6th floor as the Allied air attack grows closer.

With a 15 foot tide, one of the largest in Europe, the shore is radically changed at high and low tide. Below is one of the islands at high tide.

The next day the tide is low, and walkways emerge to the islands, and are soon filled with hikers, exploring the remains of fortifications, or visiting the tomb of Chateaubriand.

Ancient stone steps, rounded by the tides, lead to the grave of Chateaubriand on one of the islands.

The view back to St. Malo from the islands.

After exploring the islands I visited an old bookshop in a building that clearly pre-dated the war. Browsing through piles of old photographs, postcards, and stacks of books, I felt like I was sifting though remains of St. Malo’s past—photos of ruined buildings, streets filed with rubble, children playing in happier times. In one photo a beautiful old woman gazed back at me from the interior of her salon, a sweet smile on her face.

I asked the proprietor if the building had survived the bombardment. “Yes”, she replied “one of a very few” and showed me a photo of the building standing alone surrounded by rubble. “A miracle” we agreed.

Librairie Septentrion sells old books and photographs, mementos of St. Malo’s past.

The Septerion book shop as it is today, and below, after the bombing in 1944..


On our last night, after enjoying a wonderful dinner of local oysters, fish stew, scallops and tuna, we happened upon two street performers entertaining a large crowd with a two person reenactment of the story of Beowulf. We understand little of what they are saying, just enough to follow along. But the drama of their voices, pantomime, pratfalls, and gymnastic improvisation has us all captivated as they lead us though the tale of Beowulf’s battle with the monster Grendal and other adventures.

Amazing acrobats, they bring this ancient epic poem to life with great energy and humor.

How perfect, and improbable!

At the end, the handsome bearded “Capitaine” requests “Bisous” from the crowd, and a series of small children, young men, and women line up to respectfully exchange kisses on both cheeks with the hero.


Dinan, full of history and full of life

Dinan is a medieval  town, with roots going back to the 9th century. It is a very special place to visit as it retains so much of its medieval character and architecture. It’s known for its half timbered buildings which date as far back as the 14th and 15th centuries. Sculpted wooden pillars support the upper floors which jut out above the street, offering shelter from the rain. In medieval times they also offered relief from taxes, as the tax rate was based on the building’s footprint.

The Celtic heritage of Brittany is very much alive here. The name of the town comes from the ancient Celtic words “Dunos” and “Ahana”: hill of Ahana, goddess of the living and the dead. Britanny’s ancient symbol—three linked spirals—signifying water land and air, is everywhere — on signs, jewelry and sculpted into the valley floor, visible from the ramparts.

On the weekends, musicians fill the streets and squares with music, ancient instruments and melodies echoing through the air. On even years the “Fête des Remparts” is held over the 3rd weekend in July, a great time to visit.

This instrument incorporates a crank, a keyboard, with the sound box of a stringed instrument.

Although shaped differently, this instrument is related to the hammer dulcimer.

Dame Beatrice plays two lutes, a stringed instrument called a Psaltatron, bells and drums all at the same time.

Here she is playing a bird shaped ocarina. Such enchanting melodies!

The Rue du Jerzual is probably Dinan’s most famous street. Steep and narrow, it descends from the old town on the hill to the port below. It is lined with restaurants, shops, and stone houses.  But, it isn’t well suited for riding down or up with skinny-tired bikes!

So instead of taking Rue Jerzual we descended to the port on our bikes barreling down the paved road that winds around the town and under the huge Viaduct spanning the river valley below.

Riding down to the port you pass under the enormous viaduct which frames the village below.

Sail boats, small motor boats and barges line the river on either side, along with plenty of cafés and restaurants.

We got there just in time to see the “Competition Nautique”, featuring long row boats fitted with elevated platforms designed for a nautical jousting match. The object was to be the first to knock the jouster off the other boat into the water. The crowd cheered as the boats faced off on the river until a well placed blow unseated one of the “knights”. Teams from towns all around compete for the honor of winning, with proceeds going to a local charity.

Rowing towards each other at top speed, each team hopes its champion will unseat the other.

We rode out the path along the river, admiring the great variety of boats tied up on the bank. A beautiful old Dutch sail boat with wooden “leaboards” caught our eye. The leaboards look like a fish fin and function as stabilizers much like a center board or keel. These boats are designed to sail in rivers and other shallow waters.

A beautiful wooden Dutch sail boat was among the many boats tied up near the port of Dinan.

A long low canal boat was tied up nearby. Pots of flowers and a couple of bikes stood on the roof. We met the English couple who have called it home for 10 years, traveling the rivers of France. What a life!

According to Malcom and Lucie, living aboard a canal boat is the best life ever.

That night in the square in front of the Saint Sauveur Basilica a traveling troupe staged an amazing performance, juggling flaming batons, tossing them into the air, and blowing great clouds of fire up into the night sky, seeming to summon gods more ancient than the basilica.

The next afternoon the basilica was open and we explored its vaulted interior in the daylight. Rivallon le Roux, Lord of Dinan built St. Sauveur Basilica around 1120, after returning safely from the first Crusade. It was rebuilt and extended during the 15th and 16th centuries, blending many architectural styles.

The huge stained glass windows project rainbows of color into the cavernous spaces below.

It seems as if the entire population of Dinan must have once fit within these walls.

Many of Dinan’s beautiful buildings have survived the centuries intact, and are still part of the living fabric of this lovely town. Its well worth a visit.

Two Bikes + Four Trains = Arrival in Dinan

We left our “Gite” Amboise at 6am, barreling down the steep narrow streets towards the Loire to catch the first of the four trains we needed to take to get to Dinan in Brittany. The Amboise train station is on the opposite side the river, but it only took us about 15 minutes to get there by bike early in the morning. The sun was a giant orange ball as we crossed the bridge over the Loire, and the sky glowed orange pink as we waited for the local train to Tours.

At 6:30am in Amboise, the first train approaches the station.

Our Bromptons are folded and ready to take on the train.

There are bike cars on many of the trains in France, and we settled into the velo (bike) car with our bikes and luggage for the short trip to Tours. At Tours, we were relieved to see that it would be easy to catch our next train, as the platforms were all together except one. The french train system is easy to navigate, especially if you purchase all your tickets in advance and just need to make the connections.

Waiting for the number of the track to be posted in Tours. Our bikes are in push mode, with the bags attached. This makes it much easier to transport our luggage in the station.

The station at Le Mans was busier, and a couple conductors questioned whether we could fit the folding bikes on the train, but we managed to find a spot for them. Someone was sleeping in our reserved seats, so we stayed near the bikes, settling in to vacant seats.

Our train was delayed leaving the station at Dol de Bretagne, but the conductor assured us that local train to Dinan would be held so that everyone could make their connection. Soon we were happily aboard the light rail line that took us the final stretch of our journey, arriving just before noon. Riding from the train station to our hotel the streets were busier and wider than we were accustomed to, but once in the old quarter the streets were narrower with less traffic.

The Cafe – Hotel du Theatre was a great home base in Dinan.

We soon found our hotel, Cafe-Hotel du Theatre, a small bar/hotel on the Rue de l’Horloge (clock tower), a pedestrian street. The proprietors were very friendly and relaxed and we soon felt right at home. The hotel is opposite the Theatre des Jacobins, originally built in 1224. Our cozy room above the bar looks out at the theatre and square below where there is lots of room for tables and is a great place to sit and people watch. Along the street vendors sell crafts, as they have for 700 years.

Theatre des Jacobins

Looking down the Rue de L’Horloge on the right is a beautiful half-timbered building from the 1500s that was moved to Dinan and restored. Down the street is the clock tower that the street is named for.

The view from the ramparts down to the port and valley below is breathtaking.

The viaduct/bridge was built in 1852, and towers above the port.

The construction of the ramparts dates back to the 1200s and protected the town and its status as a center for trade for centuries. The fortifications continued to be improved through the 16th century when Dinan finally submitted to the French King Henri IV during the French Wars of Religion.

We spent the evening wandering the town, happy to explore its many narrow streets and ancient buildings.




Cycling to Chenonceau

With one day left in Amboise we decided to make a trip to Chenonceau. This Chateau is often referred to as the women’s chateau, as several women played a key role in the design and construction as well as its history. It is beautiful and grand, and one of the most popular in the Loire region.

We found a map at a local bike store showing a Loire Velo Route that would take us on the opposite side of the river from the tourist entrance, but would give us great views of the castle. This way we would not have to deal with big crowds and lots of walking.

The Loire Velo route from Amboise to Chenonceau

The forecast was for a sunny day in the 90s, so we decided to get a very early start. Riding through the empty streets of Amboise early in the morning, we were grateful to find that it was cooler and overcast. Soon we were traveling through the countryside on our way south. Our route took us through small villages, and alongside rivers where fisherman sat on the banks hoping for a nibble.

The river Cher on the way to Cheonceau

Crossing a narrow one-way bridge we found our way to the trail along far side of the riverCher. As we rode along the wooded bank it felt as if it could have been 300 years ago. Rounding a bend we caught our first glimpse of the castle and a small sign roughly translated as: ‘You are now in the territory of Chenonceau castle, no fishing.”

NO barbed wire, no fences, just a quiet path extending before us towards the most beautiful chateau I have ever seen. La belle France!

Our first glimpse of the Chateau Chenonceau.

The Chateau spans the river, connecting the right and left bank.

Between July 1940 and November 1942 the river Cher was designated the dividing line between occupied and unoccupied France.  During this period the castle was used by the resistance to smuggle people to the opposite side.

This wooden door leads to the small draw bridge over the river.

Standing on the drawbridge I felt a visceral connection to the people who used this clandestine route during WWII.

Some of the women (and men) who played important roles in Chenonceau’s history:

Katherine Briçonnet, wife of the Chamberlain to King Charles VIII supervised the initial design and construction while her husband was a way on the King’s business.

King Henry II appropriated the château to give to his mistress Diane de Poitiers, who built the arched bridge joining the château to the opposite bank of the river Cher. After King Henry II died in a duel in 1559, his widow Catherine de Medici forced Diane to exchange it for the Château Chaumont.

In 1773 the château was purchased by Claude and Louise Dupin. Louise’s literary salon at Chenonceau attracted Voltaire, and many other leaders of the Enlightenment. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was Dupin’s secretary and tutored her son.

Rousseau, who worked on Émile at Chenonceau, wrote in his Confessions: “We played music there and staged comedies. I wrote a play in verse entitled Sylvie’s Path, after the name of a path in the park along the Cher.”

The widowed Louise Dupin saved the château from destruction during the French Revolution, preserving it from being destroyed by the Revolutionary Guard because “it was essential to travel and commerce, being the only bridge across the river for many miles.“ (Excerpts from Wikipedia)

Heiress Margurite Pelouze purchased the château in 1864 and spent her fortune restoring the estate and furnishing it lavishly before going bankrupt in the process.

The Henri Menier family (owners of Menier’s Chocolates) purchased the estate in 1913 and own it to this day. During WWI, Simone Menier oversaw a hospital in the château entirely financed by the Menier family, Over 2000 wounded soldiers were cared for there. During WWII Simone’s bravery led her to carry out numerous actions for the resistance.

The Chateau suffered damage during the Wars from both the Germans and the Allies. After WWII the Menier family contracted with Bernard Voisin, to rehabilitate the structure and the gardens.

Looking back at Chenonceau.

In the Presence of Leonardo Da Vinci

The Chateau Clos Lucé in Amboise France was Da Vinci’s home for the last 3 years of his life.

The Chateau du Clos Lucé, where Leonardo Da Vinci spent his last years (1516-1519) is truly a magical place. Surrounding the chateau is an extensive park filled with trees and winding waterways. It has been transformed into an outdoor exhibit featuring full sized working models of Da Vinci’s inventions based on his sketches. Groups of school children move between the models, each getting a chance to turn the cranks which activate them, as their teacher describes da Vinci’s purpose and methods.

Paddleboats, one of many Da Vinci designs on the grounds of the museum.

The grounds of Clos Lucé are beautiful.

Sunlight and shadow filter through huge translucent banners of Leonardo’s drawings and paintings. Sitting on a bench in the park we listen to da Vinci describing his fascination with flight. A sudden breeze lifts the drawings of the flying machines Leonard imagined as his words float around us.

Banners of DaVinci’s drawings exploring the possibility of flight sway in the breeze.

Light filters through banners featuring DaVinci’s drawings.

After the garden we tour the chateau, including da Vinci’s bedroom, studio, and workshops. I am fascinated by the display of pigments and mediums used to create paints in Da Vinci’s time. A loaded palette and brushes sit below a reproduction of a Da Vinci painting. Scientific models line the shelves along with natural examples of mathematical principals—such as the spiral of a ram’s horn—reminding us of Da Vinci’s curiosity and breath of interests. A series of small sketch books are on display in a glass case. Could they be original? It almost seems impossible they could have survived.

The recreation of Da Vinci’s studio is filled with examples of his materials and interests.

A palette and brushes sit ready to use beneath an easel.

Da Vinci’s science library and desk.

DaVinci’s notebooks, filled with ideas and possibilities.

Another room features a holographic recreation of a conversation between Da Vinci and the Cardinal of Aragon inviting Leonardo to be the king’s guest in Amboise. They speak about Da Vinci’s work, and admire the Mona Lisa sitting on a easel behind them, before dissolving into thin air leaving us with just the room and its contents.

In a holographic recreation Da Vinci receives an invitation to pursue his work in Amboise, France.

In the lower floor we wander through rooms of working models and animations, finally emerging into the bright sunlit gardens, carrying with us a new appreciation of Da Vinci’s genius and endless curiosity about the world around him.