Our first days of May were spent in Jarnac, still waiting for parts to be delivered under warranty for our camping car. Warranty parts are always the last to be sent and take a few months to arrive. ADRIAs hold their value well and we’re trying to keep our camping car in tip-top shape so we can get a good re-sale price when the time comes - hence all the waiting around for warranty parts. And really, spending a time in Jarnac in spring is no hardship. It’s unbelievably beautiful, although the spring this year has left something to be desired as far as the weather goes. Last year at this time Michael was swimming in the Charente but this year we’re still huddled in down jackets for much of the time.
The beautiful camping ground in Jarnac was finally opened and we were just about the only ones there so Grubie got to be off-lead and made new friends of the three ducks and an otter-like creature called a ragondeau.
We celebrated Premier Mai (May Day public holiday on May 1st) with an Aussie ‘Woolly’s Bar & Grill’ BBQ at our camping car. The weather was gorgeous and we had a good day with Thomas (wine-maker, bon vivant and our host in Jarnac), Liam Higgins (cartoonist), Stephanie Stenou (artist) and Tania Simpson (real estate).
We also entertained Fred, Stephanie and their children to dinner one evening and Fred, the owner/chef at la Comedie restaurant really liked the Aussie-style bbq lamb and the white asparagus cooked on the bbq.
We enjoyed a visit from some of Thomas and Michael’s winemaking friends, who were on their way to Vin Expo in Bordeaux. Michael has known Leigh Eldredge since their early twenties and they did business together in the wine industry. They had a great catch-up and we all enjoyed a lovely dinner at Thomas’s Maison de l’Ecluse.
As well as long walks along the Charente we had a couple of day trips to Angouleme about 25km away. It has wonderful ramparts with beautiful views, some lovely architecture and terrific shopping.
The weekend before we left Jarnac was the Fleuve en Fete, celebrating the River Charente. Food, trips on riverboats, ‘come and try’ kayaking and a classic car rally. There was a lot of infrastructure put in place for what was essentially a village festival, but after all the incidents in France in recent years there are now all sorts of security requirements for any event expecting 1000 people or more.
Finally we left for Brittany with a drive of over 400km (that’s what we consider far enough in a day) and arrived in Vannes. What a gorgeous city! It has a lovely port and marina as well as ramparts and several gates into the old city. The ‘old city’ refers to the medieval streets of half-timbered houses. Then there are the beautiful Renaissance buildings that are outside the ramparts. The area that would have been the moat has been turned into a wonderful garden promenade. There was an interesting market there on Wednesday that took up nearly the whole town and included lots of food as well as clothes, household items and artists’ work. Vannes really was such a pretty town and we were able to ride there along the coastal cycle path through the pine forest.
After 3 beautiful days in Vannes we drove less than 40km to Carnac, home of the famous megaliths. This is a large Neolithic site with megaliths erected 5000 years B.C. There are three or four ‘alignments’, or rows of stones marking individual tombs as well as some ‘dolmens’ or collective tombs. We visited one alignment that had 1050 stones over a length of 950 metres. Some of the stones are 3.5 metres high and weigh as much as 3 tonnes, although the average is 2.4 tonnes. The fascinating question is how they were hewn, moved and placed so carefully before the wheel was even invented. The answer to that is still a mystery. What were all those stones for? The arrangement suggests converging paths towards an enclosure that was probably a worship area, or temple. Get that – a Neolithic temple built by cave men!! The whole thing was mind-boggling.
Carnac also has lovely beaches, marinas and restaurants because it’s a big summer holiday destination. We visited the neighbouring (and basically linked) town of Trinity-sur-Mer with its huge harbor and miles of marinas. There were thousands of boats including some serious ocean-class racing yachts, lots of boating stores and some very wealthy people. The homes right throughout the Carnac region are lovely, with steeply sloping slate roofs. The upper story is in the roof and skylights, windows and balconies often pierce the roof. Even the modern houses stick to the plan, although they often use fake slate now. The architecture, combined with the landscape makes the whole area incredibly pretty.
Brittany has cycle paths all over the place so we were able to ride our bikes to all the attractions, although the cycle path to the megaliths was more than we bargained for – we really are too old to take up mountain biking!
Our next stop was the little village of Pont -Aven. This was a fishing and mill village until discovered by American artists and then Paul Gaugin and Emile Bernard in the 1850s. It soon became a thriving artists’ colony and still has more than 60 galleries and several art schools today. It is 13km up a tidal canal from the ocean, yet the canal is lined with moored boats. There is a gorgeous little river flowing through the centre of town (hence the old mills) that is now lined with gardens. It’s all so pretty, even without the terrific art museum and all the galleries. Sue was in her element, visiting the art museum and then walking the Bois de Amour to see where the important paintings were set. The modern art in the galleries was of a high standard rather than tourist trash so that made popping in and out of the galleries lots of fun. It bucketed with rain late in the afternoon, with just enough of a break to get back up the hill to the aire where we stayed.
In Brittany there are lots of gorgeous villages all very close together so we started to travel like the French – we got up earlier and saw several things along the way, often parking in special motorhome car parks and then arriving at the campsite or aire late in the afternoon. We often stayed only overnight or for two nights and then moved on.
From Pont-Aven we travelled 131km to Roscoff on the northern coast of the Finistere region of Brittany. The houses in the village were all of granite and topped by the slate roofs of the region. Just wandering the streets was an experience! It had a beautiful harbor and a busy fishing fleet that specialized in catching big crabs. The cathedral was fascinating and displayed the maritime heritage, with five ships carved into the granite exterior. The interior roof of the cathedral was unlike anything we’ve seen, being plain wood with painted ribs and the statues were leaning out like ship’s prows. The cemetery was also interesting with all graves facing the ocean. After a rainy start to the day we sat in the sunshine enjoying a late lunch of prawns and oysters before going to our camping ground at the nearby village of St-Pol-de-Leon.
Onwards from Roscoff we headed towards Lannion and then did a scenic drive along the Cote de Granite Rose. This wasn’t at all what we expected after having seen so many photos of Brittany that featured huge seas lashing the rocks. We were expecting wind-lashed natural vistas but instead it was one pretty village, inlet and harbor after another. There were definitely pink rocks and we imagine the seas can get quite rough at times but it was a mix of natural and architectural beauty enhanced by lovely trees and gardens. After doing the Route 788 corniche we moved on to St Brieuc and then to St-Malo.
In St-Malo we stayed in the village/suburb of Madeline and on a couple of days rode our bikes along quite a challenging and busy bike track into the old town.
The port town has been popular with tourists for decades and has the highest tides in Europe, being 14M!! The old town is a walled city called Intra Muros with the ramparts started in the 12thC. The town was important as a merchant port in the 17th & 18th centuries and as a hub for privateers/pirates. The pirates built a lovely row of terraced houses that were paid for in Mexican pesos as well as other loot and booty. We wandered round the old town, checked out the cathedral and also ventured by ferry across to Dinard where the rich merchants built their elaborate summer homes along the lovely beaches. Grubie is an intrepid tourist and thought it was about time that she got to have her own ferry ticket!
From St-Malo it was only a short trip to Mont St Michel. Like everyone else we had seen a myriad of fantastic photos and drone shots of this double-rated UNESCO site. We had also heard that it had been ruined by commercialism. We loved our visit and were lucky to experience it in the off-season. Can’t even imagine what it would be like in summer! After a couple of false starts locating places we didn’t really want to stay, we eventually parked up for the night in a 24 hour camping car parking place right at the shuttle bus depot. Perfect for our visit and we had a really quiet night’s sleep.
Mont St Michel exceeded our expectations. Once you get past the tacky tourism businesses in the narrow streets leading to the abbey it is just amazing! The legend is that in 708 Aubert, Bishop of Avranches had a visitation from the Archangel Michel who instructed him to build a fortified sanctuary on Mont-Tomb. Aubert certainly did a great job and the mount became a pilgrimage destination. It proved to be impregnable during the 100 Years War against the English and this added to the legend of the Archangel Michel. Also known as the “Bastille by the Sea” it was a prison from 1793-1863. The history aside, the sheer brilliance of the architecture is so clever and a marvel of mathematics. Layer upon layer of crypts, chapels, barrel-vaulted ceilings, cloisters and the stunning gothic spire topped with the gold statue of the Archangel Michel. We constantly found ourselves asking ‘how could they have built this?’
Bayeux is a small town 10km from the D-Day beaches and is also the home of the famous Bayeux Tapestry. It is the 75th anniversary of the D-day landing on June 6th and there is a big-deal ceremony with dignitaries including Donald Trump attending. We were there on May 26-27th but weren’t very big deal!
In fact, we were extremely fortunate to be able to book a place on a tour – everything was full and we squeezed into the last 2 places on a Sunday afternoon mini-bus tour of the Omaha Beach/American sector. We rarely take tours but knew that this time we needed more information and stories than we could source ourselves. We started at Pointe du Hoc, not far from Omaha beach. This is where 270 of the US 2nd Rangers Battalion scaled the cliffs, seizing the German artillery which would have been so detrimental to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches. It was an amazing achievement where they navigated the hazards of buried obstacles, mines, artillery and machine guns to take the area and then hold it for 2 days before the promised back-up arrived. They had run out of all food and supplies and even used German weapons to hold the ground. To add to the difficulty they all had food poisoning before disembarking to begin the assault.
From there we went to the famous Omaha beach and the American Cemetery where we witnessed the evening taking down of the French and American flags. The 173 acres of rows of marble crosses/stars of David really made the scope of loss come home. There were 9378 soldiers resting here and its only one of the three American cemeteries in the area. To say nothing of those of all the other nationalities!
Another big draw for us in coming to Bayeux was the famous tapestry. Commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux to tell the tale of the ascension of his brother William the Conqueror to the throne of England, it is one of the first comic strips in history. The wool on linen embroidery is amazing for its time – showing a fantastic understanding of perspective, sense of movement and clever drawing. And the story told!! Harold was shown as brave but untrustworthy and nothing was depicted of the unpopularity of William. Sue loved the frieze comments on the main action – the headless corpses were a surprise!
The tapestry is 70 metres long and nearly a metre tall and while commissioned for the Cathedral of Bayeux it was only displayed for 2 weeks every year, so that probably that explains why it is so well preserved.
Still on the WW2 theme we drove to Dunkirk, where we had hoped to see the Dunkirk 1940 Museum. Unfortunately it was closed until June. The city of Dunkirk isn’t very interesting as it was totally razed by bombs in WW2 and rebuilt very cheaply and quickly, although there is some very interesting modern architecture from the last decade. It was a public holiday and very quiet so we toured the town on our bicycles using the miles of bicycle paths.
Ypres, just over the border in Belgium, is a place that has fascinated us for many years and everyone else too, it seems! It was a public holiday and we couldn’t get in to the parking places or aires and ended up at a very busy campsite about 11km away and counted ourselves lucky to get in even there.
The countryside of Belgium in West Flanders is very pretty and very rural, with lots of cows and pigs, hedges and green fields. The area of Kemmel where we stayed was popular because it had miles of walking tracks between the hedges. We walked to the local little village one evening after dinner (it’s now light until 10pm) for a beer at the local pub. The walk was so quiet and pretty. The civilian cemeteries here are different – they are all around and right up to the walls of the church. Definitely consecrated ground.
It’s hard to believe that none of the beautiful buildings in Ypres are older than 90 years. The town was totally flattened by bombing but has been faithfully restored and is really beautiful. The Cloth Hall, cathedral, ramparts and theatre were absolute highlights.
We enjoyed the museum ‘In Flanders Fields’ in the beautiful Carillon Cloth Hall. The museum was very interactive and incredibly detailed and told new stories of WW1 from the perspective of civilians and medical workers. It was in this area that mustard gas was first introduced as a weapon, the first biological weapon. How cruel and horrific!
In the evening we went to the Last Post Ceremony that has been held at 8pm every evening of the year, regardless of weather since 1928 at the Menin Gate (except perhaps for a few years in WW11 when the town was occupied by the Germans?).
There were thousands of people there to witness the ceremony, which was far more elaborate than we were expecting. As well as the Last Post, minute’s silence and Reveille there was a march of various regiments to the gate and a regimental band that played as wreaths were being laid. And this happens every night! It’s heartwarming to find that after so many years the motto ‘We will remember them’ still holds true.
The Menin Gate was fascinating in itself having the names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers who died in this area from the beginning of the war to August 1917, including 13,000 Australians. The Lions that guarded the gates were presented to the Australian people and are now in the war Memorial in Canberra with copies here in Ypres.
It was a 15km ride on very safe cycle paths from our campground into the city of Ypres and you ride past many memorials and little cemeteries. So many dead in that dreadful war!
It was only an hour’s drive from Ypres to Brugge where we were meeting up with our friends from Adelaide, Tom and Marnie Raggat. We are looking forward to seeing them and having some tourism travel buddies.