Tag Archives: France

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.

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. 

Gordes is Glorious

Gordes is beautiful, but very popular. Cars and tour buses make the climb every day, and the grand promenade begins from the parking lots along the wall into the town.

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The town empties out at night, and that’s when we enjoyed Gordes the most. In search of a World Cup game we found ourselves in a bar (that was supposed to be closed) in the middle of a spontaneous party with new friends from Brussels, England, France, and Italy.

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Luckily we were walking home! Our home in Gordes was Mas de la Beaume, an oasis of calm across from the old city. Just the place to rest and relax after our marathon ride the day before. Wendy and her husband were wonderful, and the time we spent at their beautiful home was magical.

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She’s Got a Ticket to Ride!

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Its steeper than it looks! But I got up it, and so can you!

 

So what does it take to be able to go on a bike trip… around the block, or overnight, or… to France?

Give yourself permission to dream. Then, give yourself permission to just go ahead and do it!

I am not a particularly strong bike rider.

I’m almost 63, reasonably fit, but far from as fit as I could be. I’ve had trouble with my knees, my hips, my ankle. In fact, I’ve been walking around with a taped up Achilles tendon for the past 3 months, an old injury that just won’t go away.

Before we went to France last year (our first trip to Europe) the longest rides I had done were a couple of 3 day inn-to-inn trips with my husband Gerry in the Champlain Islands in Vermont.

My husband is braver, and a more dedicated cyclist. He’s also a bike-trip-blog junkie, following cyclists on amazing adventures all over the world. Itching for an adventure himself, a couple of years ago he rode from Vancouver Canada, to Portland Oregon, a trip of 400+ miles one rainy week in November. Check out his blog Vancouver to Portland. Here’s the link to the map of his ride.

So it was—by putting out the possibility of a bike trip—I was able to entice him to consider a trip to France. Once he agreed, I was in a bit of a panic. Could I do it? My Achilles was really acting up, I had actually been riding a recumbent bike with a Bionx (power assist) motor to help me keep up with friends and family. I was far from fit. For the back story on electric bikes read: How I Became a Bionic Woman on the NYCe Wheels (Electric and folding bikes) site.

After you dream, you need to plan.

We began to research ride options including guided tours, and the availability of recumbent bikes in France. Unfortunately recumbents are very rare in France and rentals even rarer.

Our research focused on Provence, as we were pairing the bike trip with a pastel workshop which was going to be held near Avignon. The internet is a great planning tool. You can find local information about places to stay and services all over the world. I researched hotels and B&Bs, contacting people directly via email whenever possible. Looking for places that rent bikes, I found Luberon Biking. They have a great assortment of kinds of bikes for rent from touring to hi-end racing bikes, and electric bikes. Although initially I was attracted to the idea of an electric bike, I decided to train for a ride on a touring bike.

Meanwhile Gerry found a great 6 day route through Provence on Ride with GPS. He used this ride with modifications to create our route. He added in the hotels and B&Bs that I had booked, and was able to download the route to his Garmin GPS, so that we had all of our navigation at our fingertips while en route.

Getting in Shape

I was determined to get in shape. I ramped up my physical therapy, and decided to go to my local YMCA and find a personal trainer who would help me get stronger without re injuring myself. I was lucky enough to find Conrad, a trainer and avid cyclist. Before long I found myself in his power spinning class doing interval training, which really helped build my endurance. I started to swim, and borrowed a friends touring bike. Then on Mothers day my son Peter came up from New York with all the parts to rebuild my old road bike! Within a day I had a beautiful “new” bike, and took to the road in earnest.

Conrad and some of my fellow members of the Power Cycling class post-workout. “Who turned on the lights?”

This year I had to ramp up again, and returned to the spinning class at the Hyde Park YMCA. As we puff our way though whatever workout Conrad has cooked up for us, he reminds us that “this is where the work its, this is when you get stronger”. It’s a good group, with lots of camaraderie, and joking around, which helps keep me from listening to my legs say “what on earth are you thinking?!”

I know I probably should have started earlier, and I certainly could be stronger, but I I’ll manage in France as we set our own pace, and ride with lots of breaks for coffee, croissants, conversation and photos. For us its all about having fun, and experiencing whats around us, not about how fast we can go.

Quand en France…

Merci, Marie-Laure!

Here I am with Marie-Laure in front of her grandmothers beautiful paintings of France.

It’s important to know at least a little of the local language when traveling. My french was very very rusty, dating back more than 40 years to my elementary and high school days. I’d always struggled with the language anyway, and had no confidence in my ability to speak it. I asked my friend Marie-Laure—who is French, and a teacher in the french immersion program in Milton—to help me out. Last spring we met at her house on Saturday mornings for conversion and tea. With her help I was able to remember some of what I had learned so long ago, and learn enough survival french to get by. This year I am part of a weekly conversation class she offers at the library. I found I love the language, and have continued to work on growing my vocabulary, and ability to speak. Marie’s support and counsel have been invaluable, and a great confidence builder. I have learned that its okay to make mistakes, and stumble around looking for the right word. Most people appreciate that you are trying to communicate in their language. Most Europeans speak some English, and will help you out if you need it.

But what if I don’t have …

Yes, it does help to have a riding partner with the confidence and experience with routes and GPS. But, Ride with GPS makes planning a route easy. There are lots of existing routes you can review online, and with Google Earth you can even do a virtual preview of the route.

If you’re not ready for that challenge, or are traveling alone, you can go with a tour group, buy a self-guided tour with maps and support, or hire a guide. There are also lots of bike paths in France if you are looking for a ride away from traffic, and lots of places to rent bikes.

Ride ON!!

The main thing is to go. Even if it’s just around the block. Get out there and ride. Or paint, or learn French. Follow your dream, whatever it is.

And this is where I break into song… I am thinking of Marie singing Edith Piaf’s song “Je ne Regrette Rein”. “I regret nothing”. That’s what I want to be able to say at the end of my life. Instead of always being cautious, and safe, I want to put myself out there!

So thank you Marie, and Conrad, and all my wonderful family and friends, for sharing your skills and your love and support! I’ve got my ticket to ride!

 

 

 

 

Powered by croissants!

It’s been a very hot ride so far, and if it wasn’t for croissants and cafe creme and lots and lots of water we probably wouldn’t have made it!! Our route has taken us through many little squares with wonderful cafes and fountains. We catch our breath in the shade, and fortify ourselves for the next leg of the journey. Fortunately much of the ride is shaded by the giant plane trees that line so many of the roads, or our route sneaks us down narrow paths next to ancient walls still cool from the night.
It’s been such a treat to discover these special hidden spots.

 

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