By Laura Glendinning
If you are determined to see the second most visited site in France, the monastery at Mont St. Michel, you might as well include the Brittany coast, too.
That was our logic as we set off via rental car from Charles De Gaulle, me fresh off a coach flight from Los Angeles, husband John with a head start on his jet lag having arrived about 36 hours before. We were in a jaunty 5 speed diesel Renault rental, shockingly roomy inside, and with that awesome heating capability you absolutely need in Northern Europe, even in March. Maybe especially in March.
As the guy whose sleep was mostly caught up, John was the driver. Should the navigator have been jet-lagged? Well like it or not, she was. We sat in bumper to bumper ring road traffic trying to leave Paris, basically alternating between "Hey is that the lane we need?" and "Oops, I think that was our exit." As much fun as it is to get off an American freeway in an industrial area to re-find the road, double that when doing it in France near heavily-grafittied high rises. Hey, was that a burning car in the distance?
In any case we were eventually on the right highway, the only non-toll, free roads in France. The region makes a point of doing road signs in French and Bretagne, the Celtic-like language of the area. We could not easily read either one, so it was a win-win. We listened to French deejays playing an absolutely eclectic mix of ancient Led Zeppelin, breathy French pop chicks and maybe a bit of jazz? Yes, in French, you can still tell when a caller is a winner! Deejays are eternal wherever you are.
Brittany is a place of well-tended farms and misty old villages, but it's also got fancy spa hotels along the coast offering Thalassotherapy, a kind of sea water cure much-loved by the French. There are even casinos, but nothing like the Cote d'Azure when it comes to luxury.
Brittany was part of Great Britain for a century or 3, and in fact has a sizable Irish population, complete with a pub culture and their own newspapers. Irish farmers have been emigrating with their families since the '80's, happy to raise lamb in a country where food growing is both prized and subsidized.
The Brittany salt lamb is deservedly famous, the oysters raised along the coast are served all over France. We tried both in a memorable business dinner of 4 courses which is a blur in memory. Champagne, beer, white wine, red wine and port will have that effect. Suffice to say it is considered rude not to toast and taste along. I have never, and will never, have that kind of alcohol tolerance. Maybe that's what happened at the Treaty of Versailles. . . .
As we neared the coast that first day, we stopped at a highway rest area and napped in the car while a rainstorm passed through. We stopped to fuel up and noted the French convenience marts have a full supply of junk food. Let's call it junque food. The chocolaty goodness of cheap sugar will taste classier. And they have those wacky potato chip flavors the British love, like shrimp, beef and other frightening chemical concoctions.
At Mont St. Michel we parked in the nearest lot, slated for closure over the next couple of years as the rock and monastery are getting pocked and dinged by fossil emissions and acid mist. There will be buses taking you from far lots one of these days, but not as yet. I think those committees have another few years of meetings ahead of them. The lower area is on the tatty side, but the monastery itself is stunning and special. Down below we had a $50 omelet at Mere Poulard - you read that number right - dessert included, but wine was extra. As you eat, you gaze at signed pictures of former diners and 20th century titans like General Omar Bradley. Outside your little bubble, orange-hatted groups throng the t-shirt shops.
We stayed along the coast in St. Malo, at Perros-Guirec (kind of a Carmel By the Sea of Brittany). The Agape Hotel there is built into a cliff side. We took the steep stairs down to the casino, and bought 10 euro glasses of champagne while marveling at the French slot machines. We watched a French workingman throw a lot of euros at roulette - in the land where it was invented, I guess, and he lost everything. The only gambling we did on the trip was the next day, and not in a casino.
They talk about the famous rushing tides of Brittany and we found out how true that was. We walked way out on the tidal flats the next afternoon. We passed folks digging for clams in waders, filling buckets with perhaps the freshest seafood on earth. Did we especially notice we were leaving them behind and maybe they were tending to walk closer to shore as we walked further out? That would be a "no.'
We were dawdling among rocks and tidal pools when John noticed what had been sand behind us now had a foot of water. Oops. Better head back. Hey. Now it is 18 inches of water and 8 seconds has passed. Hmm. I started to take my shoes off to save them and John pointed out the sharp rocks and I said goodbye to my best European walking shoes. They were going to be waterlogged. Better them than us - as the water was by now up to my waist. John's a lot taller so he was doing better. We made it to shore and looked back. Now about 6 feet of water where we had been. At dinner later that night, we made out the top of a rock where we would have been spending the night if we had hung out another 7 or 8 minutes. Whew.
Brittany connects to Ireland, Britain, Jersey and Gibralter via regular ferries, all of which bring families of summer holiday-makers renting a house for a week so they can cavort on the rocky shore in freezing waves. Bring your wet suit! Buy a classic Brittany blue and white striped sweater - and wear it - in August!.
It's Brittany. It will never be luxe or fancy. It will always have dramatic wind and weather, be family-friendly and charming and one the most hospitable regions of France.
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