France - Brittany - Where Artichokes Grow
Jun 7, 2004
|There are many things in life that I've never tried to figure out. I still don't know why the grass is green or the sky is blue. How they get the caramel in the Caramilk bar remains a mystery to me. But travel is a wonderful thing; it enriches our lives and teaches us many things. As a result I now know how rice is grown and what mangostine fruit tastes like thanks to my trip to Southeast Asia, and I now know that artichokes grow in field after rolling field right here in Brittany.
My previous trips to France have been to Paris. Always in the city. Never in the country. So my plan for this "tour de France" was to avoid Paris completely (which is difficult as it's the centre of the universe when it comes to train connections throughout the country), and to focus on the sights, sounds and tastes of rural France. Starting in Brittany.
For those of you who don't know, Brittany is a region in northwest France. A peninsula projecting into the Atlantic Ocean, the region is bordered on the north by the English Channel and on the south by the Bay of Biscay. It is distinct from other French regions because of its Celtic heritage.
I was met at the ferry terminal by my friend Daniele, who happens to be my former French teacher. Born in Brittany, but more recently from Calgary, Daniele and her family moved back to Brittany about a year ago ... hmmmm, how convenient for me!
I'll admit I was a little nervous about traveling alone in France. After all, the French do have a reputation for being not too friendly to foreigners, especially those who don't speak their language, and although I had an excellent teacher (thanks Daniele!), I wasn't sure how much French I'd remember when the need arose. So staying with Daniele and her family for the first few days was the perfect way to ease into the country. And of course having my own personal interpreter came in very handy on many occasions, especially when I needed to get a Rabies vaccination (prep for my next trip after Europe). I'm not sure I could've managed that on my own.
For a few days Daniele dragged me around the countryside of Brittany (okay, so maybe I dragged her). We visited the town of Morlaix, with cobbled streets and charming half-timbered houses clustered around the Grand Rue, and a beautiful viaduct way above the town centre carrying trains from Paris to Brest.
Our main mission for touring the countryside was to investigate Parish Closes, something apparently quite unique to the Breton area. Now, being a non-Catholic and a non-Breton it gets kinda confusing so I'll try not to mess this up too badly. It seems that around the 16th century or thereabouts there was quite a lot of competition and rivalry among neighboring church parishes. The way I understand it, there were certain features typical to the parish closes of those days, such as a "triumphant arch" which I believe is the entrance to the church yard, the "calvary" which is a large and ornate cross-like structure in the close, and the "ostuary" which I think is where they threw the dead bodies. If one parish built a new calvary, then a nearby parish would build a bigger or better one, and so on. Apparently size mattered in medieval days as well!
A few days later it was time for Daniele to drop me off at the Morlaix train station. I was now on my own. In France. Where they speak French (gulp!). But somehow I managed to buy a train ticket to St. Malo, change onto a connecting train enroute, catch the correct city bus once I arrived in St. Malo, check myself into the Auberge de Jeunesse (hostel), and do a bit of sightseeing ... all in French, or at least my version of it. Whew, what a great but stressful day!
St. Malo is North Brittany's top port and a very popular summer destination, and a popular sailing destination as well judging by the number of yachts in the harbour. The old town is surrounded by a wide medieval wall from where you can appreciate great views and promenade around the old town centre. The town was largely destroyed during WWII but was later rebuilt to its original design and architectural characteristics. Inside the wall are wonderful shops and churches to snoop through, and plenty of cafes and restaurants for food or refreshment breaks along the way. Just outside the wall and along the waterfront are a couple of little islands that you can walk to and hike around, but you must be careful as during high tide the access to these places is completely under water and you're stranded on the island for about 6 hours. And the tide comes in quickly ... believe me I know, as I almost had the pleasure of being stranded on one of the islands!
I also did a day-trip to nearby Mont St. Michel, which is an amazing place and a must-see if you're in the area. Located at the border between Brittany and Normandy, Mont St. Michel is a small quasi-island, separated by water from the mainland at high tide, but at low tide the water recedes leaving a sandy seabed that can be walked on. The tides here are the highest in Europe with a swing of up to 40 feet between high and low tides. It's said that the rising tide comes in at the speed of a galloping horse...not sure I believe that but that's what the book says!
When you first see Mont St. Michel from a distance, and see the Abbey perched high above the village, you know one thing ... there's gonna be lots of stairs to climb. 350 stairs to be exact. It's said that pilgrims visiting the Abbey in medieval times used to climb the stairs on their knees ... I was soooooo not going to do that!
The story behind Mont St. Michel is that the Archangel St Michel appeared to St Aubert (a bishop at the time, I believe) in a dream and commanded him to build a mountain sanctuary, giving him pretty much the exact construction coordinates which happened to be on top of this rock in the middle of the ocean. Construction started soon thereafter, somewhere around the 10th century, but after a few fires, lack of funds, wars, and various other hardships, work was not completed until around 1230.
You have to cross the original drawbridge to enter the town (how cool is that!) which is filled with narrow upward-spiralling cobbled streets. Unfortunately some of the lovely old houses and shops have been converted into pricey restaurants and tacky souvenir shops - and filled with tourists the day I was there - but even that could never detract from the beauty and magic of this lovely old fortified town.
Well, that wraps up my time in Brittany, which I've really enjoyed, but it's now time to move on to Normandy...