Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bumming around Brittany

A trip to Bretagne (or Brittany, for you anglophones) has been at the top of my French "to visit" list for several years now, and thanks to trustfundergrad tuition I was finally able to make my pilgrimage to the land of crêpes, cider and cobblestones. Our first stop was Didan, a picturesque but otherwise unremarkable town known for its crêpes. I had a savory sausage and potato crêpe, followed by marzipan and salted caramel à la mode crêpes for dessert.

The next stop was St. Malo, a tidal beach town encircled by a medieval wall. A popular tourist destination during the summer (especially for British tourists, who can take a ferry across the English Channel), it's apparently not so balmy in March, giving us a chance to experience Bretagne's infamous and incessant wind and incessant rain. We shivered as we followed our great local tour guide aro und the rocky coastline, envying her outfit that wouldn't stand up to Parisian fashion standards but was definitely more practical: a windbreaker, a warm winter hat and rain boots.

The coolest thing about St. Malo is the fact that its waters are extremely tidal, meaning that huge stretches of beach and even a salt-water pool magically appear at low tide (the pool's diving board is still visible above the waves at high tide, to rather comical effect). Low tide also reveals a "path" (sandy ridge) leading to the tomb of writer Chateaubriand, who was a town native and fought for the right to be buried on a small island just offshore. Although I'm not a huge fan of Chateaubriand's work it was cool to once again witness the appreciation the French have for their literary legacies, which was also evident at the Hôtel Chateaubriand that we stayed at, located right next to the shrine-like site marking the writer's former house.

We also found a cute, childhood-themed bar, whose walls were adorned with dolls and old games and whose barflies sat not on stools but on swings! I was in love with the ambiance and the non-Parisian prices, although I was a little sad that we couldn't stay late enough to find out what happens when drunkenness and swings come together.

The next day put us just over the provincial border into Normandy for a hayride-esque romp through the tidal swamps with a few local fisherman. A tidal trap and seining net allowed us to examine some of the local sealife (see the skate pictured here), and the fresh sea air satiated my recent nostalgic longing for the Chesapeake Bay. Accompanied by a bunch of land-lubber NY-ers, I also realized how much practical aquatic knowledge I acquired as a result of my years camping with my family and studying at St. Mary's. I quickly found myself explaining how crabs breathe and how to pop off a shrimp's head and tail and the difference between flounders and dorade to a bunch of clueless underclassmen.

Our last stop on the tour was Mont St. Michel--a beautiful fortified island topped by an impressive abbey and cathedrale. This also gave me a chance to witness the Brittany/Normandy rivalry (ownership of the Mont has been and still is contested) as well as their fierce regional pride...natives of both places referred to their provinces and France as if the two were separate entities, as in fact they were in fairly recent history. (Both, however, are united in their scorn for the British, who were historically the reason for such intense stone fortification.) The Mont was pretty amazing, although more touristed than I had expected--apparently it's the top tourist destination in France after Paris. We wandered through steep and narrow shop-lined streets, enjoyed a shellfishy lunch, and toured the religious sites at the top, leaving in time to reach the mainland before the meter per second tide came rolling back in to cover the road and once again cut off the island.

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