Brittany and Normandy: France's Northern Coast

After about a month and a half of being inland, we finally got our first "beach days" of the summer during the last stretch of our bike tour!  Granted, beach days in Brittany and Normandy, the two regions lining the English Channel, are not quite occasions for tanning or catching some surf.  Just remember that England is right across the water, and you'll have an idea of typical summer weather on France's northwestern coast:  cool (like 60 F), windy, and frequently drizzly.

Nonetheless, we were incredibly excited to arrive first at Saint-Malo, located in Brittany.  As I said in our previous post, we had been longing to visit St-Malo since finishing All the Light We Cannot See, so we were itching to explore the old walled city!  Our campground was a few miles east of St-Malo, situated between two private beaches.  It was pretty exquisite to see the sea from the comfort of our tent site!  After settling in, we took the bus back to the city and explored the whole "Intra-Muros" area, the part of the city that has been a walled fortress for many centuries.  As you can imagine, such a city was very desirable to the Germans when they occupied France and attempted (ultimately in vain, of course) to secure the Atlantic seawall against an American invasion.  Thus, most of the city was destroyed by American and British bombings during the war, although they have since rebuilt it to exactly the same specifications!  (Side note:  Something that I hadn't realized before, but that now obviously makes a great deal of sense, is that it was mostly the AMERICANS, not the Germans, who bombed out so many of France's great cities.  This was obviously in an ultimately successful attempt to sabotage German occupiers and weaken their supply chains, so the French are grateful for it, but still.  It does make you feel kinda bad!)

We loved walking around the cobblestone streets, enjoying an outdoor dinner with live music, and surveying the ocean from the magnificent ramparts.  We especially enjoyed hunting out locations from the book:  the house where the female protagonist lived at #4 Rue Vauburel, the old dog kennel in the rampart walls where she collected snails and hid from Nazis, etc.  It was so special to have this beautiful novel come to life right before our very eyes!  St-Malo was PACKED with visitors, but it was still enthralling to be there.  I was reminded of Spring Lake, on my beloved Jersey Shore, due to the prevalence of grand beach houses (outside the city walls) and cute little candy shops, ocean-themed attire, etc.  Meanwhile, Adam was reminded of the Oregon coast, with its rocky outcroppings and dramatic weather.  You can understand why everyone wanted to see it!

We had three nights at our St-Malo campsite, so we began our second day there with a hike out to the end of the little peninsula next to our campsite.  It was finally gorgeous and sunny, even if it was windy as heck out there!  Along our hike, we discovered several concrete bunkers buried into the cliffsides, which we determined must have housed German artillery back in the days of the war... so crazy!  Afterwards, we decided to explore Cancale, the touristy little fishing town on the eastern side of the peninsula.  Cancale is known as the oyster capital of the region, and for good reason:  the entire bay, which has an incredibly low gradient and thus extends out FOREVER at low tide, is FILLED with oyster farms!  We ate at a restaurant right on the water, Chez Victor, where we tasted oysters that were fresh from those very farms.  It was divine!  Visitors are welcome to wander around the muck and peek into the endless cages and racks of shells (which, of course, we did).  That night, back at our campsite, we saw the most MAGNIFICENT sunset of our lives over the English Channel, with a double rainbow behind it.  It was absolutely unreal -- a true blessing!

Our last day in St-Malo was VERY rainy... like torrentially so.  During breaks in the downfall, we made our way to the walled city via bus again, and then holed up in a cafe for several hours, where we wrote postcards (which hopefully will be arriving soon!), caught up on our journals, and read.  It was pretty great to have such a quiet, relaxing day!

From St-Malo, our next stop was Mont-Saint-Michel, also known as "La Merveille" (The Wonder), located on the other side of the bay.  I had longed to visit ever since I was a little girl and my mom would share her memories of visitng it during her Parisian study abroad in college.  For those of you who don't know, MSM is a tiny city (consisting mostly of a giant, gorgeous abbey) built on a small, rocky, mountainous outcropping located just off the mainland.  This part of the bay has the highest tides in Europe, and thus, when the tide is really high, the Mont becomes an island, completely surrounded by water and inaccessible from the mainland.  Over the years, irrigation inland has caused sediment to build up around the Mont and prevent this "island effect;" however, a few years ago, the French government undertook a huge project to reverse this trend and restore the Mont's island nature.  So, when my mom visited, it was possible to drive all the way to the Mont on a causeway (except in times of highest tide); now, that parking lot and causeway have been destroyed and replaced by a bridge that allows water to flow underneath it, with thousands of pedestrians (and also a few shuttles) bringing people back and forth from the much-farther-away parking lot.  There is also a new dam on the river that is essentially "sucking up" the sediment and releasing more water back into the bay to help with this whole process.  It is fascinating to see the extent to which this beautiful place has inspired such innovative projects to keep it as awe-inspiring as it's always been!

Our ride to the Mont from St-Malo was dramatically beautiful in and of itself.  The bike path goes along the whole length of the Bay of MSM, where we rode past small fishing villages, even bigger (and less touristy) oyster farms, char a voile (kind of like go-karts powered by a sail, so you can race around on the beach? fascinating), and long, shallow beaches where we hunted for sea glass and shells.  At the end of the ride, we went alongside a long canal that led directly towards the Mont, towering ahead of us off in the distance.  I can think of no more epic approach to this incredible place than biking along this path!

Our campsite was just at the foot of the new bridge, which made it easy for us to walk over just in time for sunset.  Once on the island, we climbed through the narrow, steeply pitched "Main Street" of the tiny town to watch the sun go down from a quiet, abandoned courtyard in front of the abbey.  It was unbelievably serene.

This divine serenity was quite a contrast to what we encountered when we went back to the Mont around lunchtime the next day, planning to visit the abbey.  The Main Street was absolutely PACKED in the worst possible way -- it felt like Disney World on New Year's Eve!  I've never seen anywhere in France as crowded as that, and it was especially shocking to us after having spent so many weeks in so many uninhabited areas!  The line for the abbey was probably at least 45 minutes long, confirming our decision to return after dinner instead for their nighttime tour.  This turned out to be an excellent choice, because not only was the abbey practically empty by the time we were there, but its mazes of rooms, grand Gothic exterior, and beautiful overlooks on the ocean were all incredibly enhanced by the interplay of the encroaching darkness and the well-designed lighting display.  This building truly is a marvel in every sense of the word (how is it so beautiful?  How has it lasted so long, through countless wars?  How did MONKS design this place?  How did these same monks then build it, carting stones from deep inland, across a channel that is only sometimes traversable, and up a rocky mountain?  So many questions...).  We couldn't have been happier to finally see it with our own eyes!

From the Mont, which sits right on the border between Brittany and Normandy (and is apparently a constant source of contention between Bretons and Normans over who owns it), the last stretch of our coastal journey would take us through the Normandy countryside up to the coast, where we planned to visit the D-Day beaches.  We camped in two middle-of-nowhere towns (Mortain and La Ferriere-Harang) on our way up to the coast and saw a whirlwind of countryside treasures:  German and British war cemeteries, waterfalls that looked like they belonged in the rainforests of Oregon, an amusement park in a deep gorge (out of which we had to climb on a 20% grade; ahh!), teenage pilgrims hiking their way to the Mont, and endless acres of what Normans call "bocage:"  basically rolling hills of farmland separated by large hedgerows and deemed, for a great deal of Normandy's history, inaccessible.  We also experienced our first flat tire of the entire trip:  somehow, a piece of steel wire was tiny enough to poke itself through the weave of my Kevlar tires and puncture my tube!  Fortunately, we had the supplies and the time to fix it.  Our third day of biking through the bocage, ending at the D-Day beaches, was one of my favorite bike days of the entire trip.  Rather than bike paths, which (though wonderfully flat and free of cars) are typically kind of removed, we spent the whole day riding on small country roads.  This was "slow exploring" at its finest:  meandering past small dairy farms (Normandy is the home of Camembert cheese), over rolling hills with dramatic views of the country side, and next to magnificent abbeys or old manors.  Despite the constant up-and-down, we LOVED it!

Our beachside campsite was in Colleville-sur-Mer, home of Omaha Beach, one of the five beaches invaded by American, British, and Canadian forces on June 6, 1944 (D-Day, or Jour-J in French!).  We walked the whole length of the beach and marveled at the sandy cliffs -- how on Earth were Allied troops able to climb them with all of their gear?!  The remnants of concrete German bunkers abounded.  It was truly difficult to imagine the sands full of soldiers in combat, the seas full of warships, and skies full of bombers on this beach where the sun was shining and tourists were picnicking in the dunes.

We also had the most traumatic dining experience of the trip on Omaha Beach when Adam ordered andouillette, the daily special, at a beachside restaurant.  He thought it would be similar to andouille, the sausage famous in Cajun cuisine.  FALSE!  Immediately after I tasted his meal (and noted the rather awful smell), we did some Googling and learned that, while andouille is your average spiced pork sausage, andouillette is made from PIG COLON.  Think of everything that implies, and you'll understand why I suddenly felt sick to my stomach.  Adam, who abhors wasting food, amazingly ate the entire thing, while I have sworn to return to a strict vegetarian diet when we return home next week...

After lunch, we visited the American Cemetery dedicated to the THOUSANDS of Americans who died during D-Day and the subsequent months of the Battle of Normandy.  The visitor center was extremely impressive and gave an excellent overview of the mechanics of the battle (as well as the historical context).  I couldn't help but cry after watching a video about some of the young soldiers who perished there.  The contrast between the America of 1944, whose president dedicated our resources towards freeing Europe from the clutches of Nazism, and the America of 2017, whose "president" openly collaborates with violent neo-Nazis, was too much for me to handle.  I felt such shame -- shame that had been building up since Election Day, for sure, but that had just reached its peak this week -- at being American.  There have been plenty of times when I have mused about moving to France ever since I first lived here in 2008, but never had I felt so upset about the thought of returning to my homeland as I did then.  If it weren't for the many family members and friends that we miss so dearly, it would be a lot harder for us to come back next week!

The cemetery itself was beautiful -- crisp and orderly in that classic military style -- with an incredible overlook of the D-Day beaches below.  We enjoyed wandering around, reading the gravestones, and noticing which ones had fresh flowers decorating them.  We continued this exploration of D-Day the next morning at the brand-new Overlord Museum, which has an incredible collection of real tanks, boats, weapons, uniforms, and even aircraft that had been abandoned and ultimately retrieved in the Normandy bocage over the years.  They used these supplies to create wonderfully realistic, life-size dioramas of photographs from real D-Day events.  It was incredible to be plunged into the history like that!  It was also especially rewarding to read about the invasion into the countryside after having ridden through that very countryside ourselves.  Having traversed all those hills and twisted around the hedgerows ourselves, it was easier to imagine what it must have been like for these truckloads of soldiers (or, worse, the ones bushwhacking on their own).  I was really grateful to have had that experience prior to arriving at Omaha Beach!  Sure beats driving on the straight, flat highway :-)

From Omaha Beach, our last (!) day of bicycling brought us the short distance to Caen, the capital of the Calvados departement in Normandy.  There wasn't a real bike route for us to follow during this stage, but we found the bike lanes in the quiet country roads to be perfectly sufficient.  We had an awesome AirBnB in Caen, close to the center city (home of William the Conqueror), and we spent our two days there just TREATING ourselves after having completed our long journey!  We slept a TON (I had no idea how exhausted I was until we hit that real, non-camping mattress...), ate Lebanese and Iranian and Vietnamese food, and just relaxed -- it was glorious :-)

From Caen, we took our last train of the trip (thank God!) back to Paris, where we spent this past weekend in the enormous, beautiful apartment of my dear friend from high school, Deirdre (who has been in France and Guadeloupe for the past year on a Fulbright scholarship for her history PhD).  As always, she was an AMAZING host!  We went to her favorite French bistro (with a famous never-ending cheese plate... incredible!), tried Szechuan Chinese food (to make up for the lack of spice in our diet this whole summer), picnicked in the beautiful Parc des Buttes-Chaumont on the outskirts of Paris, explored streets that no tourist has ever walked down, and just relaxed in her apartment over bread and cheese, American comedies on Netflix, and political debates.  We also turned her living room into a temporary bike shop, where we dismantled Buddy and Charlotte and packed them up for their return trip (in boxes that we had gotten for free from a sports shop but that we had to cut down so that they would actually fit in a car...)

Having learned from our stressful experience of getting from the airport to our AirBnB in Paris two months ago, we booked a huge taxi to take us straight back to CDG this morning -- no dragging involved :-)  (Why didn't we do this in June...??)  And now we are waiting to board our flight back home!  I will reflect on the end of our trip in a final blog post, but I wanted to get this one out now because we've had no wifi for days... so, a toute a l'heure!  See you soon, USA!


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