We had been jumping from city to city for the last two weeks. Montréal, Quebec, New York City and then 5 nights in Paris so the transition to the French countryside was welcome. We headed out along the Paris Perimeter freeway, the Peripherique, past Versailles, heading for Honfleur and ultimately, Juno Beach.
First stop Giverney, where famed impressionist artist Claude Monet lived. This small town has one street going along it called, you guessed it, Rue Claude Monet. They have completely turned his estate and surroundings into a tourist destination. There is a museum, his home and garden, the little church with his resting place and a gift shop. Or two. That said, it was very calm, quaint, in fact the setting was gentle.
As we arrived, there were numerous arrows pointing to many parking lots but the feel of the area was not pushy. There are a few Gites and centuries old buildings that have been gently crafted from barns and forges or old farmhouses into tasteful, artful accommodations. We walked the path to the church first. It was modest. The graveyard was small. Monet’s plot was full of flowers that were overgrown. He was laid to rest with his loved ones. Pretty normal.
We walked back to his home, paid for entry and then the magic truly began. His house is a museum of his motivations. There were many prints of Japanese influence and some of the other artists of the time. The furniture was still displayed as if he lived there and the garden was fully visible from the large windows. Most of the European houses and accommodations that we have stayed in have small shuttered windows with thick walls. Monet’s house had large windows on all sides of the building allowing natural light to brighten even the darkest room. Then he layered colours and patterns throughout.
His dining room was bright yellow in contrast to the adjoining kitchen that was blue and lined with copper pots and pans. The walls in the hallway were a soft pastel green. We were in his colour palette!!
The garden has been maintained and continues to be an inspiration for many visitors. If you could sit on a bench, it was yours and there were a couple of people painting “en pleine air”. We walked through the colours, textures and themed displays. There is a tunnel that goes below the road and when we exited on the other side we were at the famous Monet pond. This pond had a lot of people taking pictures on the bridges, the trailways and the benches. Everywhere around that pond was beautiful. The reflection, the stillness and the colours made everyone speechless, and it was quiet even with the many people touring around the grounds. To have been there when it was a private garden would have been soothing and ever-changing depending on the light, the season, the weather, or the mood. Monet’s tribute was well worth the stop and could be a beautiful place to stay, en Gite, for a few days with day trips to nearby towns or hikes in the countryside.
From there we were on our way to Honfleur. This little seaside town is across a massive bridge from le Havre.
Honfleur was a major a shipping hub until le Havre took over. It was a very quaint seaside town that had the most remarkable wooden church, St Catharine’s Catholic Church, near the boat basin. The northern coast of France saw alot of destruction during the world wars and much of it has been rebuilt. So to see this church still in tact was a surprise.
We walked the many tiny streets and found the old prison, where pirates and nasty folks spent their last days in chains with their friends the rats. Honfleur has many restaurants that line the boat basin with good drinks and mediocre food. We were directed not to eat there by the woman who checked us into our accommodation. We found the restaurant she suggested and we were not disappointed. Luba and I had the Moules et Frites and wished we’d had the platter of langoustines.
We rented an apartment that was hidden away between a bunch of buildings in what was probably a courtyard at one time. Our apartment had a small window in each bedroom and a sky light.The foot print was about 40 ft by 10 ft. It was 2 floors high and remarkably light inside with white walls. The bedrooms were on opposite ends of the top floor. The architect managed to allow light through the floors with a spiral staircase and glass floor panels between the bedrooms. Unique, but no opportunity to look out a window so a bit claustrophobic and happy we were staying just the one night. Such a contrast from Giverny and Monet.
The road to Juno Beach has many signs of the battles won and lost. There are mini memorials along the route and what are now large fields of corn, hay and sunflowers, was mud and destruction before our lifetimes. There were references to the allies, the resistance, the names of locals who died in the wars, and the many graveyards with the military crosses in rows. We arrived at Juno Beach on a cloudy windy day. The English Channel was grey and foreboding. It was easy to imagine the action and the museum display at the Canadian “Centre Juno Beach” was also immersive.
When we walked in, there was a woman with an Anglo-Canadian accent. We asked where she was from. She said Victoria. We said Parksville. She said she went to school in Parksville. Her mom taught there. Turns out Haley was a year older than our kids, knew them a bit and her mom was Elly’s favourite teacher. Ha! She talked about her opportunity to work there as a tour guide and staffer. The Centre is funded by a foundation but her employment and that of others is through a federal government student employment grant program. She was 6 months into a 7 month contract. The Centre was staffed with bilingual Canadian youth, who were post secondary students between levels or taking a gap year. She was over the moon and loved the work she was doing, the people she met and the paid opportunity to improve her French…IN FRANCE!!
Juno Beach is one of a number of points of land that was occupied by the Germans during WWII. The area is flat and the beach is long. 150,000 allied troops advanced on the Germans from 5 different beaches spanning about 80 kilometers. On D-Day 14,000 Canadian troops were responsible for advancing on the beach codenamed Juno. There were heavy casualties that day with over 10, 000 allies including over 1000 Canadians being hurt or killed, but the sheer number of troops overwhelmed the Germans and was the pivotal moment for the allies against the Nazi occupation. The remains of Nazi bunker and tunnels throughout the region are still evident and at the Centre there are tours through the ones near the building.
We went down to the sandy beach where the sand is a tan red colour sprinkled with many scallop shells. We dipped our toes into the English Channel, acknowledged the losses and proceeded to Brittany and Saint Malo.
Normandy is known for orchards and spirits derived from the apples. Calvados and Cider are featured in many roadside markets, farms and shops. The coastal foods of both Normandy and Brittany feature oysters, whelks, mussels, scallops, cockles, limpets, various fish and the famous Agneau pré-salé, Salt Marsh Lamb. The fish are caught, cooked and eaten, but the lamb is famous for it’s diet. Sheep that graze on the marshy lands along the sea produce a meat that locals say has a much richer flavour. Sadly, we missed tasting the lamb while we were there but we did have some lovely meals. A New York Times article that I read says that the lamb is marketed and available, though very expensive, throughout the world. It also mentioned that other seaside communities around the world are growing lamb this way, including in BC. I would love to know who. We will find it…we will!!
In the town of Saint Malo, we went to find the butter. A while ago on Mind of a Chef, I saw the excerpt of Bordier Butter from Saint Malo. So this was my one and only planned food pilgrimage. Google it. Watch it on Netflix. Find the show. The fine craft of handmade and shaped butter. I bought the salted butter and the seaweed butter. We waited a few days to taste it with our friends….
Saint Malo was built by opportunists (pirates) who ravaged the working seafarers that shipwrecked along the rocky coastline. The fortified wall around the town now serves as a touristy walkway above the town where at one time it housed cannons and muscle. The richest merchants (pirates) built their multi story armed homes into the walls of the city in order to watch for wayward trading ships in order to steal their loot.
The church is dedicated to the many maritimers who spent their lives on the sea. Jacques Cartier, a resident of Saint Malo, was sent to find Asia and wound up finding the Saint Lawrence. He mapped it and contributed to the forming of New France. His crypt is in the church in Saint Malo along with a story of his legacy. I am not sure if I should be happy about this, the colonization of North America and the treatment of our aboriginal people, but I love where I am from and this a part of our collective story.
One of the reasons for the stay at Saint Malo was to visit Mont Saint Michel. There is a large cathedral built on top of an island and a surrounding walled town snakes up the mountain to the cathedral. It was formerly an island at high tide but now there is a dyke road that shoots out to the bottom of the island. Surrounding the road are fields of salt marsh and SHEEP!! Many of the massive tourist centre hotels and restaurants along the road advertise the “Agneau pré salé” . Who knows if they are legitimate or just serving regular lamb? The obvious tourism this landmark has produced is overwhelming.
We were advised to arrive at the island at 5 to avoid the crowds. The massive parking lots have large shuttle busses that ferry the tourists to the gate at the base of the mountain. We walked up to the cathedral only to find that it doesn’t let people in after 5. WHAT???!!! So we poked around. There are a couple of old hotels, many tourist shops, some overpriced mediocre restaurants and lots of stairs. We left there and went back to Saint Malo. We weren’t really disappointed. It is pretty spectacular, but not seeing the cathedral was ok. We have seen alot of beautiful old churches along the way. The crowds were similar to pushing our way through Versailles the Louvre and any other major tourist attraction.
We spent two nights beside the walled city of Saint Malo in an apartment on the isthmus called La Cité. We could see the walled city from our small village across one of the bays. across the street from us was a small restaurant that had two staff. The front and the back. In the front was about 25 seats, a wood fired brazier/grill, a small bar and a window through to the kitchen. The old brick, stone and mortar walls had a blackboard with the daily offerings and another wall had green leafy branches in water in glass tubes hanging from a few sticks. It was cheap, effective and gave a feeling of a fireplace in a forest beside a stone wall. Very cosy. In fact the name of the restaurant was Cozy Braise. The man on the grill also did the bartending and service, while the apprentice in the back prepared the plates for the grilled items and the salads. It was excellent! So simple and so tasty. The menu was small with steak, lamb chops, duck breast, local sausages and scallops. I ordered the lamb, unfortunately not the marsh fed lamb, but it was excellent and cooked to perfection. Luba and Bill had a mixed grill and Albert had the duck magret. Side dishes were roast potatoes that were cooked in duck fat and a salad. We shared two skewers with scallop and prawns. So simple. The guy was a master at keeping his coals perfect, working the full room, mixing drinks, opening wine then pouring the first glass, and making sure the food was done just the way the customers asked.
The next day our destination was near Carnac on the South-West side of Brittany. En route we hugged the norther coast along the English channel and went to see an old light house at Cap Fréhel. It was fairly remote and when we got there we parked and headed down the path to the large lighthouse structure. Arriving at that lighthouse we saw the old one and headed to it. There are very few trees here and the landscape is covered in heather and prickly gorse.
There are trails that hug the coastline and we could have hiked along to the next point of land 5 k away, but we were still a long way from our final destination that day. France, and probably most of Catholic Europe, is covered in trailways that have been used for millenia. The local lore said that the trails along the coast were part of the pilgrimage trails that lead to the many monasteries, churches, cathedrals that dot every town, mountain and valley throughout Europe. The Spanish Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a Hollywood-famous (if you have seen the movie “The Way” with Martin Sheen you will understand the reference) set of trails that accommodates thousands of hikers from around the globe every year. These trails join the trailways that also lead past this gorse infested French trail and the route to the Mont Saint Michel among others. So if you want to walk and walk and walk, there are plenty of pilgrim trailways to be had.
We set off away from the Cap and headed inland to cut through to the Atlantic side of Brittany. We stayed at a Gite (France’s agritourism accommodation) in Plouhinec. We brought a dinner of charcuterie, wine, cheese and bread. The garden party was on.
Next morning we headed out in search of the Carnac stones; France’s Stonehenge. The Carnac Megalithic Alignments are part of a series of large granite stones that have been placed in long rows or as dolmens throughout the region. When we left our Gite, we saw many homes and yards with similar granite displays but we were not convinced that these were authentic. Suddenly there was a series of about 80 enormous rocks in rows beside the road. We quickly pulled over, took pictures and continued on to find the rest.
Our car GPS and our friends GPS in their car obviously had different satellites to work from because that was the last we saw of them and they missed the visitor centre, interpretive centre and the road that skirts along the 4 kilometres of the rest of the stones.
In the area were also some temples, dolmens, and other structures that we had no time to find, but if we had planned to stay longer we would definitely have tried to see all the 5 areas that had these Neolithic displays from over 6000 years ago.