1. Oregon to Paris 2. Notre Dame 3. Versailles 4. Mt. Saint Michel to Carnac 5. Chenonceaux and Le Mont Dore 6. Vers 7. Maison de Martin 8. Carcassonne 9. Chamonix 10. Lausanne to Paris 11. The Itinerary 12. A Note on the Photographs And a Plea for Feedback!

Journal From a Journey to France
Part Four: Paris to Mt. Saint Michel, Vannes and Carnac

Sunday, 6 June 1999

We are up early and ready to go. It’s surprising how many people are on the Metro at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning, but it’s an easy trip to Gare Montparnasse with no transfers. We enjoy a good continental breakfast at the station. Not remarkable in the context of eating in France, but still an excellent treat at 45F each.

This is our first experience on the TGV, so I go to inquire about the process. The fellow at the information office gives me back a stare – it’s so simple, why would anyone ask, just get on the train and find your seats! But seeing turnstiles in front of the tracks, I wonder how all five of us can get through on one ticket. Silly me, I realize the turnstiles are for Metro, and we just walk around them to get to the trains. We stop to ask directions and a friendly official points us in the right direction. We climb aboard and stow our luggage in the overhead racks.

The train departs on schedule and heads for Rennes in Brittany, with stops at Laval and Le Mans, whisking us through the French SNCF Dieselcountryside. The venturi effect of the high speed train causes pressure changes as we pass through tunnels and even underpasses, and the telephone poles (which are cast concrete instead of wood) whizz by as unrecognizable blurs. I try to engage Gabriel by quizzing him on the differences he sees between here and home, but the overall appearance is so similar, it is surprising. The curious water towers, shaped like nuclear power plant cooling towers, is one major difference,Mt. St. Michel we agree.

Rennes is a major city, the provincial capital, and a busy place even on a Sunday morning. We stand in line to buy tickets to Pontorson, our destination near Mt. St. Michel. Unfortunately, the agent speaks no English, but someone in line behind us does, and helps to translate. We have a couple of hours to wait for the train to Caen, so we have our picnic lunch on the plaza outside the station, with entertainment provided by someone learning to skateboard.

The local to Caen is a diesel, unlike most of the rest of the rail network we've seen, which is electric. It is also quick and punctual, dropping us at Pontorson on time. We inquire about service to Mt. St. Michel from the ticket agent, the only employee in evidence at this small stop. Our choices seem to be the bus which meets the train (40F each) or a taxi. As it turns out, the taxi is about 110F for the five of us – such a deal. We check in at the Relais Clemenceau, just a few blocks from the station, then return to the station where the agent had promised to call a taxi for us. Probably the folks at the hotel would have done the same, but Nolie wants to take the ticket agent’s offer.Mt. St. Michel

It’s a quick trip to Mt. St. Michel, and the driver gives Nolie a card and says to call when we are ready to go.

I hadn’t been overly eager to see Mt. St. Michel, but it is an impressive sight as we approach, looming over the grain fields along the coast. Once one gets beyond the gauntlet of souvenir shops below the abbey, it is fascinating to tour the abbey, which is actually several layers of abbeys built one on top of the remains of another over the centuries. We get separated and lost in the labyrinth of passageways, cloisters, and other rooms jumbled together atop this small rock out in the bay. Gabriel, of course, wants to see the “dungeon,” but when we find a clerk in the gift shop who speaks some English, she explains that the whole abbey was a prison until the Revolution, at which time the whole complex was returned to the Church. But I suspect that there are a lot of areas we haven’t been able to see.

We return through souvenir alley, we find some postcards and Gabriel finds a little medieval figurine and a Mt. St. Michel medallion to take home. With some difficulty, Nolie figures out the credit card phone, and is able to reach our taxi driver, who arrives in about a half hour, giving us time to explore the rock upon which the abbey is built. The taxi arrives and drives us back to our hotel, making a little scenic detour. If the weather had been better, we would have had a great view of Mt. St. MichelMt. St. Michel over a little arched bridge, but the rain is starting again and it blocks our view.

We are pleasantly surprised to find that Matthew and Sandi have arrived before us, but are out exploring the town. We leave a note for them and headout for dinner. The hotel restaurant is closed, but they recommend the nearby Le Cave, which we are able to find without too much difficulty.

At Le Cave, we enjoy an excellent dinner of trout (which Nolie suggests is more like Kokanee). MB had been looking forward to sampling Calvados, the apple brandy for which Brittany is famous, but the proprietor refuses to serve it after fish. The service is also excellent with cloth napkins and tablecloths, and the silverware is changed after each course, after the table is cleaned with a miniature hand-held “carpet sweeper.” Clearly one of our most memorable meals in France.

Returning to the hotel, we settle in for the night, and compare notes with Matthew and Sandi, who have been to Bayeaux, seen the tapestry, and nearly missed being over-run by a D-Day reenactment, in observance of the anniversary.

Monday, 7 June 1999

Relais ClemenceauAs I write this, we are at Hostel du Roy in Chenonceaux, and a truck is passing by on the narrow street in front. So narrow, in fact, I think that I could easily step out the window and onto the top of the truck in front of the hotel.

But back at Pontorson, we are up early again, and enjoy our breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Our table, though noisy enough with the seven of us, is the only one occupied. After a few minutes to explore this wonderful Breton town, we tread back the few blocks to the train station and wait for the train, which this time is a couple of minutes late.

Back in Rennes, we get directions to the car rental office, and walk out of the station onto the busy streets of Rennes. It is an ordeal navigating to the car rental office with all of our luggage and less than clear instructions. The names of the streets on the map MB got at the station are almost totally illegible. But eventually we get to the river, which is not visible from a distance since it is confined to a narrow course by stone walls. And then we follow the river west through various construction zones and complex intersections until we get to the office.

It turns out that our car is a station wagon instead of the sedan with a trunk for concealing our luggage which we had specified. By this time it is nearly noon and too late to try to exchange the car. The staff is ready to shut down for lunch, and all the other locations are doing the same, so we drive off to Fougeres to see the castle there, reputed to be quite spectacular.

Once we get out of Rennes, a major accomplishment in itself, we spot a “Leader Price” discount grocery. Curiously enough, however, there is no direct entry from the highway, so it takes some navigating back and forth through the neighborhood to find the cleverly concealed entrance to the parking lot. MB and Gabriel go in for supplies while I watch the gathering thunderstorms rolling across the landscape. They return with groceries including a sealed basket of strawberries, half of which turn out to be rotten, and some flaccid apples. This is clearly not the place to buy fresh fruit!

On to Fougeres – but by the time we get there, we have gone through several torrential downpours. In Fougeres, we circle the town and castle, but the car is too big to park easily, so we stop a bit further on and eat our bread and cheese and fruit.

Continuing on, we take another route back to Rennes. As we approach the city, we are getting desperate for a public toilette. The train station, we decide, would be the easiest place to find one, so we circle around the station a few times trying to find a place to park. Eventually we head for the car park, and find the WC. Refreshed and ready to go, we snake our way through what seems like every lane in the garage following the “sortie” (exit) signs until we see the exit gate. We stop to slip our parking ticket into the machine, but it just spits it out saying “no value” (or something of the sort) on the screen. Fortunately, there are three gates and little other traffic at this time, and two ladies walking by figure out our predicament, and lead me over to what looks like a vending machine. Using sign language, they explain that the ticket gets fed into the machine, and an illuminated screen says to insert 4F. We then take the validated ticket back to the exit gate, which then lets us back out onto the streets of Rennes.

By this time, any way out of Rennes would be most welcome. More than once, it seems, the signs direct us off the correct route into a labyrinth of neighborhood streets from which we then have to find a route back to the main thoroughfare. But after several such wrong turns, we find our way to the freeway headed south. Soon enough we find the exit which will get us to the ancient stone alignments at Carnac. The narrow country roads take us through one lovely village after another, many built around some kind of medieval citadel. We stop at one hotel where there is a lady who speaks perfect English. They have two rooms available, but Gabriel would have to sleep in a separate room. They think it unlikely that we will find anything else until we get to Vannes, so we head on to this coastal town, where we find a small hotel with a room available. The proprietor speaks no English, but we do well enough to find a room at 210F, with a secure parking lot off the street. It’s on the third floor over a bar, but we’re tired of driving, it’s late, and we’re not eager to look farther.

With our belongings stowed away, we walk down the street in search of dinner. We are deep into Brittany here, and most of the bars look like Irish pubs, or at least they are giving it their best try. We learn later that Irish pubs are the “in thing” in France these days, but these places have the well-worn look of tradition, as opposed to designer trendyness. The whole of the countryside is, in fact, very reminiscent of Wales. The local specialty is galettes (or crepes) so we find a creperie for our dinner.

They don’t have Guiness on the menu here, so I ask for “bier noir.” As the waitress is getting our order, it occurs to me that I should have asked for “dark beer” instead of “black beer,” but as it turns out, the beer she had pointed out on the menu says “noir” on the label. A local beer, it is different, but good. The waitress tries to explain that they have only one bottle, but we’re not quite sure we understand what she is trying to tell us. Another woman who is eating alone at the next table turns around and offers to help. She doesn’t want to intrude, but of course, we are happy to have the help. MB invites her to sit with us, but she declines, explaining very politely that she has just come from the train station and has little time to eat. (As it turns out, she is still there when we leave.) We enjoy our crépes and the “bier rouge” which MB orders in place of “bier noir.”

After dinner, we continue walking around the corner to the walls of the old city. The drawbridge is gone, but it makes a quaint entry where the moat has been filled in and paved with stones. A short walk brings us to yet another old gothic cathedral. Along the side, apparently the remains of an old cloister, is part of a wall of short columns. At the top of the hill, and around the corner is the front of the cathedral. The tower on the left is apparently much the oldest part, and a fairly modern (20th century) statue of Stone Alignments at CarnacSt. Francis adorns the front. Around the other side, a rather unique gargoyle appears to crawl out of an upper balustrade.

We continue on through the crazy cobbelstone streets to the eastern wall, and through another gate which overlooks extensive and well-tended gardens below and between the wall and the road. It is pleasant to stroll along the outer wall above the garden, but by the time we get back to the hotel, it is already quite late and we fall asleep quickly.

Tuesday, 8 June 1999

In the morning, its breakfast in the small dining room adjacent to the bar, where the proprietor is already entertaining his cronies with creme de menthe and other libations. It is clear that most of them are regulars.

With some help from the proprietor, we are able to extract the car from the narrow confines of the parking area, and head on our way to Chenonceau. But first, we head west to the stone alignments at Carnac, past small fishing villages and large fleets of boats, many of which are clearly pleasure craft.

We are disappointed to find a fence around the stones, where an attempt is being made to restore the natural vegetation. In fact the stones are all but submerged in a vast ocean of scotch broom and other weeds. In the distance we can see and hear some of the workers clearing the scotch broom, so we head in that direction. Here we find another end of the stone alignments with impressive large stones, about 10 ft. high, standing in rows.

The rows continue over some 14 km. In each group they seem to proceed from tall stones to smaller stones. Some are piled to make small covered areas. One stone, which we don’t get to, is apparently 60 ft. tall. There is also a “tumulus” on private property with a small admission charge, which we skip for lack of time.

Then it’s back to Vannes, and on to Chenonceaux. It is unfortunate that we don’t have more time to explore Brittany. It would certainly be a high priority it we were able to return.

The Photos: the SNCF local diesel to Caen; Mt. St. Michel and the cloister; the supply lift and the human squirrel cage winch used to pull up the sledge (visible at the top of the ramp); interior views; Relais Clemenceau in Pontorson (delightful accomodations a couple of blocks from the station!); standing stones at Carnac.

1. Oregon to Paris 2. Notre Dame 3. Versailles 4. Mt. Saint Michel to Carnac 5. Chenonceaux and Le Mont Dore 6. Vers 7. Maison de Martin 8. Carcassonne 9. Chamonix 10. Lausanne to Paris 11. The Itinerary 12. A Note on the Photographs And a Plea for Feedback!

Text and photos copyright 1999 Meredith L. Bliss