A long weekend in Brittany

Ker Lhor - Chambre d' Hotes

Ker Lhor – Chambre d’ Hotes

I’m not sure what my dearly beloved was thinking as he set off for a weekend in Brittany with three women: me, my belle-soeur (that’s his sister, my sister-in-law) and Doris the GPS navigator.  There was only one occasion when it was one woman too many.  It was a toss up between me and Doris as to who was most at risk of being evicted from the car.  But what goes on tour stays on tour so you will have to wait until one of us writes a tell-all memoir to hear about the white-knuckled navigational oopsy we landed in.  Our fearless driver (DB of course) was up to the challenge and it made for hilarious dinner conversation half an hour later.

As for the practicalities, Brittany is very easy to get to.  We took the train from Paris to St Malo (and return) and hired a rental car at St Malo.  The Bed & Breakfast accommodation – Ker Lhor – that I had booked just out of the township of Dinan was great; our hosts Hugh and Liliane who happened to have a connection with NZ (their daughter is a winemaker in Marlborough) were very friendly and the breakfast of yoghurts, fresh croissants, bread and homemade jams and jellies (quince jelly…mmm my fave) made for a perfect start each day.

Brittany bears the brunt of bad weather and bad weather jokes.  It rains a lot, although we struck it lucky with only a little rain.  The weather does make for beautiful scenery with every shade of grey and green featuring in the land and sea scapes.  The buildings are mostly constructed in grey stone and the farmland was bright with spring green growth and fields of lurid yellow canola flowers.  The area from Mont Saint Michel around to Cape Frehel is known as the Emerald Coast as the sea takes on shades of green with the algae and plankton found there.  These factors also enhance the cultivation of oysters, particularly in the coastal area around the fishing village of Cancale.  On the waterfront you can buy locally harvested oysters and have them shucked there and then.  The oyster trade has been at the heart of the town’s commerce for centuries.  There is a significant tidal flow in the Baie de Mont-Michel area (more than 10 metres) so at low tide we could see the oyster beds on one side of the jetty and on the other boats lying askew on the vast area of exposed sand.  Over dinner at “la mere champlain” right on the Cancale waterfront we watched the water wash in and set the boats to right again.

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The Mont Saint-Michel is the big attraction in this area; strictly it is in Normandy not Brittany.  On any day it is picturesque; when we visited the sky provided a brooding grey backdrop for the imposing historic monument in the grey-green sea; beautiful shades of grey on grey.  Mont Saint Michel is a rock on which was built an abbey surrounded by ramparts and village fortifications.  As an island roughly 600 metres from land its position allowed defenders to use the tidal change to their tactical advantage.  Opponents could be pinned under attack in the sands below the ramparts until the tide came in stranding, and even drowning the attackers.  All in all it proved a very successful strategy over the years.

It is a very interesting and enjoyable tourist site; well worth the visit.  It was good to see the major restoration works being carried out to ensure the protection of the environment, the historic site and the well being of visitors.  We smiled at the now out-of-date sign warning visitors to heed the time when the incoming tide would reach the car park!  The new car park is some distance away with the choice of a pleasant walk or a (free) shuttle bus to reach the Mont.

At the other end of the Emerald Coast is Cape Frehel with its lighthouse.  The coast is steep, rocky (pink/red rocks) and just the place for bracing walks.  In the distance we could see Fort La Latte another of the impressive coastal defence monuments.

At Cape Frehel

At Cape Frehel

In between these points (Mont Saint-Michel and Cape Frehel) we visited the towns of Dinan, Dinard and St Malo.  Dinan is a fishing village a short way inland up the Rance River.  The old medieval town was built on the hillsides above the port on the river banks with steep narrow cobbled streets linking the port and the town.  The ancient wooden buildings that line these streets are now restaurants and quaint boutiques.  All very picturesque and well worth a visit – on foot.  (Ahem…it’s best to avoid programming your car’s GPS to find historic rue Jerzual mentioned in the guide book.)

Dinard is right on the coast on one side of the mouth of the river Rance.  (St Malo is on the other side.)  Dinard was the “in” place to holiday during La Belle Epoque, particularly for wealthy Americans and Brits.  There are elegant villas overlooking the waterfront and once-glamorous hotels that suggest what the atmosphere must have been like at the time.  Information stations along the beach walkway display pictures of bathing huts on wheels that were towed onto the beach.

It was sunny and warm enough when we visited to decide on an impromptu picnic on the beach with local produce we had bought at the Saturday morning market.  A few hardy souls were swimming, most sufficed with a paddle.  The range of colourful bucket and spade gear was quite tempting; in fact I’d like to spend a summer holiday in Dinard.

Our last stop was St Malo.  The old town is surrounded by the city walls between the town and the sea.  These fortifications afforded the Malouins control of the Rance estuary and the sea beyond.  St Malo is famous for its history of swashbuckling corsairs – essentially pirates.  From the middle ages until the First Empire corsairs (called privateers) could be granted a letter of authority by the French Crown to raid shipping vessels of the nations France was at war with.  Seizing ships and cargo on the high seas was a lucrative venture for both the crown and the corsair captains.  Robert Surcouf was a famed corsair from St Malo and is celebrated by a statue on the city wall walkway.

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We walked the full circuit of the wall, and as it was low tide walked across the sand to the Fort National.  Inside the city walls there are hotels and hundreds of cafes and restaurants.  I’d been told we must eat crepes in Brittany so we found a cheap and cheerful café and did just that; savoury galettes (buckwheat pancakes) with ham cheese and egg and sweet crepes with sugar and lemon – very traditional, very tasty and a fitting end to our lovely long weekend in Brittany.

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