Monthly Archives: October 2013

On Safari

DSCF4956I feel like I’m back in Africa. I’ve just driven past a herd of zebra and wildebeest and am now staring down a large male lion. I’m attempting to get the perfect photo when a small yellow Citroën drives in front of me. It’s a reminder that I’m still in France and the animals are fenced into 80 hectares of land just south of Nantes. The other giveaway is the fast food picnic stop and the souvenir shop selling stuffed animals and fridge magnets. Well it was good to dream for a while.

DSCF5151I found myself with time on my hands and decided to while away the day at Planete Sauvage – France’s answer to Longleat.   I‘m taking Trixie through the self-drive Safari Trail and she is glad that the rhinos and elephants are separated from us by a deep ditch. The animals don’t seem very happy, but that could just be due to the horrendous overnight weather. Strong winds felled trees and the heavy rain has yet to be soaked up by the rich fertile earth.  The Madagascan Lemurs don’t want to play and the meerkats are all huddled in a wooden box filled with straw. Only the dolphins seem unperturbed by the rain as they put on a spectacular show for the determined, but damp audience.

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The Walled Cities of Brittany

During my tour of Brittany I have discovered some spectacular coastlines, some calorie-laden cakes, some well preserved, ancient villages and a lot of standing stones. However, the biggest surprise for me has been the walled cities of Concarneau and Guerande.

I hadn’t originally planned to visit these cities; in fact, I didn’t have much of a plan at all. They seemed to just appear on my route and as the guidebook mentioned them in passing, I decided to stop and have a look.

DSCF4710Concarneau is the third most important fishing port in France, but it was the Ville Close (walled city) that I really wanted to see. Built on an island in the port and sealed inside the fortified 17th century ramparts is a delightful cobbled maze of souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes. I imagine that in summer the streets can be very crowded but in October it was pleasant to wander around the ramparts and pop into the art galleries and biscuit shops. I decided to take my lunch outside the walls at the Café D’Atlantique where a sweet young waitress bought me the ‘plat du jour’ of chicken in a garlic cream sauce, with goat’s cheese potatoes.  It was warm enough to sit outside on the terrace and I had a lovely view of the Ville Close ramparts.

DSCF4904Guerande is located further south on the edge of the Grande-Briere marshes. It’s main claim to fame is the production of sea salt from the oeillets (salt pans) and many shops within the walled town sell the salt, sometimes mixed with chilli, herbs and even seaweed. Before entering the walls I drove a complete circuit trying to find a suitable place to park. Not always easy in a motorhome. The 15th century ramparts and surrounding moat are rather intimidating but once inside you find a warm and welcoming town with a strange mixture of tourist and practical shops.

Cars can still be found in both walled cities and this is an indication that people still live within the walls. However, I wonder how long it will be before the streets are pedestrianized, the houses become self-catering holiday flats, and all the shops sell products that only the tourists would wish to buy.

Carnac – A lot of old stones

According to my guidebook, the megalithic sites of Carnac are a model of monumental architecture unequalled in Europe. Having been to Stonehenge more times than I’ve wanted to, I thought I should see what all the fuss was about.

DSCF4783Most people leave Stonehenge feeling cheated. “They’re not as big as I expected!” Certainly, the megaliths of Carnac are even smaller, but what they lack in size they make up for in number. It is estimated that there are almost 3000 stones in the alignments of Carnac and I think during the last two days I’ve seen most of them.

 

On day 1, I decided to walk the length of the Alignments, a round trip of 10km. It is also possible to cycle or even ride a horse around the sites but the stones are fenced in and you can only enter certain areas on a guided tour or out of season. Luckily it’s October so there are several areas where I can wander freely among the stones. Those with less energy or less enthusiasm can drive from car park to car park, hopping out to take photos along the way, or take the little train for €7 – a 50 minute tour with guided commentary.

DSCF4800 - Le QuadrilatereThe highlights of my own personal quest were the view from the top of the ruined Kermaux windmill, allowing views of the alignments in both directions, and the site of Le Petit Menec, hidden in a forest of oaks and sweet chestnuts. The lowlights were finding children using the Manio Quadrilateral stones as a playground and a Frenchman pissing on the Manio Giant, one of the largest Menirs and one that certainly deserved more respect.

Day 2 was to be more relaxed starting with the Visitors Centre, followed by a wander through the town and ending at St Michael’s Tumulus, a large Neolithic burial chamber on which the locals decided to build a church. The visitors centre proved to be very informative but failed to answer the burning question of why people placed the stones as we found them. Popular theories are that the site was a temple and burial ground based on astrological alignments. More interesting is the theory that the stones acted as some kind of seismic early warning system. But my favourite is that Merlin (of King Arthur fame) turned the attacking Roman Legions to stone.

DSCF4842Day 3 found me driving to the nearby peninsula of Locmariaquer where an unusual assortment of Neolithic monuments can be found. The Grand Menhir Brise (big broken long stone) once stood at a height of 18.5m and weighed 280 tonnes. It now lies in four pieces having probably been toppled by an earthquake. The Er Grah tumulus was a huge cairn built over a tomb for someone of importance, according to the rare items found inside. Finally the Tables des Marchands is a dolmen containing some interesting carved stones. Being able to walk inside the stone chamber and see these carvings was worth the €5.50 entrance fee.

I don’t think we’ll ever really know why the alignments were put there or why such elaborate burial chambers were built but the mystery is part of what draws people to the region, along with the breath-taking coastline, historic towns and amazing local food.

Aires and Graces – Part 2

It seems that I have found yet another perfect spot. This time on the southern coast of Brittany.

If I hadn’t got lost trying to find the Ostrich Farm I may never have seen the coastline at Guidel. A huge expanse of dunes, sloping down to the sandy beaches, rocky coves and crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. The 10km coastline is a haven for hikers, cyclists and surfers. Nestled in the dunes, halfway between Guidel Plage and Fort Bloque is Fort du Loc’h, built in 1756 to protect Lorient Harbour from the British Navy during the Seven Years War.

Next to the Fort and hidden behind an ugly concrete apartment block is a simple aire, which I  shared with only two other motorhomes. Protected from the Atlantic winds by the apartments and the bramble bushes it is very comfortable and quiet. Except when a fighter jet takes off from the military airbase at Ploemeur, but then you can’t have everything.

By the way, I did find the ostrich farm and had some delicious ostrich fillets for dinner the next day.

The Enclos Paroissiaux – A Religious Competition

Between the 16th and 18th centuries a competition amongst the religious communities of Brittany ensued with each village building walled churchyards incorporating a cemetery, calvary and ossuary. This led to some of the most impressive religious structures in France.

I based myself at St Thegonnec, not far from the city of Morlaix. The centrepiece of the village is the church, carefully enclosed by a tall stone wall which includes a large memorial to those lost in the First and Second World Wars. The calvary is simple and the large square ossuary (house for the bones) dominates one corner. Not far away, in the village of Guimiliau is a much more detailed calvary featuring more than 200 figures, carved into the granite rock. It tells the story of Christ from his birth to his death, including the last supper. Inside the church, it is wood that is beautifully carved to feature the organ, the font and the pulpit. Finally, within the church at Lampaul-Guimiliau there is a 17th Century entombment carved in tuffeau and the 16th century ‘Beam of Glory’ depicting the crucifixion.

My final destination is the hilltop village of Locronan. It too has a walled churchyard, but more interestingly, it is a fine example of original medieval architecture. Originally the town was a centre for linen production, making sails for the French, English and Spanish Navies. Now it is a tourist destination and occasional film set. Most notably, Roman Polanski used it to recreate a Dorset village from a Thomas Hardy novel in his film ‘Tess’.

Aires and Graces

I’ve only been on the road 10 days but I think I’ve found the perfect spot.

The aire at the viewpoint on the Corniche de L’Armorique in Plestin-Les-Greves is currently number 1 on my list of favourite aires. The view is spectacular, high above a sandy cove with walks along the cliff top through pine trees or along the beach at low tide. It’s also a rather exclusive spot with only 6 places available and a maximum stay of 24 hours so that everyone has the chance to enjoy it. Facilities are limited to simple concrete toilets and the parking area is on a steep slope that even the levellers fail to rectify, but who cares when you can be lulled to sleep by the waves crashing on the rocks and wake up to a rise-hued dawn that matches the colour of the granite rocks down below.

The Tourist Trap: Mont-Saint-Michel

What’s the difference between a tourist and a traveller? Well, I believe that a tourist visits the popular, well known places in order to send the postcards back home and pick up a fridge magnet or tea towel. While a traveller is content to aimlessly wander through places that no-one has heard of, seeking out the local culture and, in my case, the local food and drink.

However, despite my best intentions not to follow the tourist route, it is inevitable that my path may cross it. This is how I find myself at Mont-St-Michel. My last visit here was on a school trip and it seems that several schools are visiting today as children run rampant round the ramparts with questionnaires on clipboards. They are learning about Bishop Aubert’s Abbey and Monastery, William the Conqueror’s grandfather – who married here – and the treacherous sands which surround the island and swallowed many a pilgrim. It’s still possible to take a guided walk across the sands today and, as it is low tide, I can see several tiny dots out between the mainland and the island. However, most choose to take the shuttle bus across the causeway and soon there will be a new bridge to replace the causeway.

DSCF4454The sun is blessing me today, so I sit on a café terrace and bask like a lizard, trying to make the extortionate cup of coffee last as long as possible. I’m joined by Lisette, from Denmark, who is on a 10 day whistle stop tour of Belgium and France. Across from us, in the shade, are Denise and Lexi from The States. They are touring on bikes and stayed the night on the Mont, savouring the tranquillity after the coach parties and school trips had left. Denise orders cider and is surprised when the waiter returns with a jug and, what looks like a teacup. This is obviously the traditional way to drink cider here. In fact, I see several cider teacups in the tacky souvenir shops on Le Grand Rue. ‘Grand’ it might be in name, but the main street is not really that big.

DSCF4472By 2pm the overpriced restaurants are full and the Japanese groups are arriving en masse, so it’s time for me to leave. I catch the shuttle bus across the causeway and then walk the 2 km along the canal, back to the village of Beauvoir, where I am staying. En route, I stop at the village patisserie to buy some Far Breton. This is a typical Brittany cake made with prunes. It’s the perfect coupling with a cup of coffee as I watch the sun sink over the poplar trees.