09 February, 2020

Au Revoir a Paris...

Not being the type to rush things, we gave ourselves another four nights in Paris, staying at the Hilton Paris-Opera, just to enjoy the ambience of this great city as it heads into spring. Maybe spring is coming early, but the February weather was fine and sunny, with temperatures about 5C, with the Parisians obviously determined to enjoy the glorious sunshine. Now that the sun is out, south facing icons enjoy the benefit of fabulous bright but low-level light, irresistable to photographers.

It was a pleasure to be in Paris this time because the public transport strikes are over, and the Metro and other trains are running normally. Workers' disputes with the government are still current, but the unions are orchestrating things to distribute the grief, and maybe minimise the harm to their popularity. Now, professionals are on strike, and we saw a huge protest at the Opera by laywers and medicos, noisy but peaceful without violence, we're happy to say. We took advantage of the stunning weather these few days by wandering the streets, partaking of occasional crepes, cocktails and coffees!

What better place to stage a protect, on the steps of the magnificent Opera.

The forecourt of the Opera hosts a noisy protest by lawyers and medical professionals.

We never quite came to terms with the short 9 hour days in France. Where we were was close to due south from London, but an hour further east in time zones. Daylight never truly arrived until about 09:00, and sunset was about 18:00. Being dark outside meant we slept in almost every day, and had to rush to make it to breakfast (which usually closed at 10:00). In Paris and the bigger towns, it was evident that workers and early birds where up and fully active (in the dark) from about 06:00, but not much happened until daylight in the villages.

Busy but very informal flower market just off the Rue Saint-Lazare.

We didn't fully relax in Paris, but spent one day getting to Villers-Bretonneux in the Somme river valley, so we could go to the new Sir John Monash Centre at the Australian War Memorial. Plan A was to catch a train to Amiens, and rent a car for the half hour drive to V-B. Amazingly, the rental car offices in Amiens were open such restricted hours that we could not make this work and give us enough time at the SJMC. Trains run to Amiens fairly regularly, but the rental car companies are running to some other playsheet. So Plan B, which we followed, became to drive the whole way (about 160km) from Paris in a rental car. Once we found the Avis office in an obscure underground carpark under Le Madeleine, this plan went off without a hitch. Our car, a Renault Megane had its own GPS, but someone had set its preferences to "avoid tolls" which caused it to recommend a bizarre route. Luckily we had our own navigator which gave more helpful directions. Once we were out of chaotic Paris, we followed the A16 autoroute almost the whole way, at a cost of EUR9 each way, a fabulous road with a speed limit of 130km/hr and not too much traffic.

The Australian war memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.

Graves of 2100 Commonwealth soldiers, many still unidentified. Four hundred died in the Battle of Amiens.

We have made a pilgrimage to this war memorial previously, in 1981, when we were touring Europe with our son. In that long-ago trip we trained to nearby Corbie (with a Eurailpass), could not find a bus, and hiked about 5km to the memorial. Our drive this time was easier, but the memorial is in an obscure location, not very well signposted until you are very close, and we had to zig-zag a bit to zero in on it. Luckily, the memorial is quite tall and visible across the fields. Then no signage to tell us where to park or get in, but once we found the entrance, we were told that signage is controversial but discreet improvements are coming.

Signpost from the Somme battlefields.

The SJMC is a new museum (opened 2018) which is designed to be "subservient" to the war memorial. It is. It is behind the memorial and effectively underground. Its AUD100M was totally funded by the Australian Government, and tells the Australian story of the Western Front in the First World War as well as being a homage to John Monash (1865-1931), "one of the best allied generals of the First World War and the most famous commander in Australian history" (Wikipedia) who planned and co-led the pivotal Battle of Amiens fought and won on these very hills in 1918.

Inside the SJMC, an emu scultpure made of barbed wire on the right.

Top half of an AIF poster.

There are some artifacts of war (documents, uniforms, weapons etc) in the SJMC, but it is mostly a state-of-the-art interactive multimedia display. Visitors are guided through it using an app you have to download to your own device and listen to with earphones. It's all very impressive, and would take forever if you watched and listened to the entire program. But with connected screens on all walls and the floor, the visual effects are fantastic, and, of course, sad and depressing. The museum covers everything from call-up to repatriation, and featured some really great imagery. We spent a lot of time in the museum, took a lot of shortcuts, and eventually retreated to the cafe for a pleasant lunch.

The main (of many) animated multimedia displays in the SJMC.

Ceremonial entrance to the underground SJMC.

We asked and were told that there are about 50,000 visitors to the SJMC, mostly Australians of course. At the time of our off-season visit, there were maybe a dozen people there. It's out of the way and hard work to get here, so we're not surprised that visitor numbers are less than original expectations. Battlefield tour groups must boost the numbers in warmer seasons and around Anzac Day. For us Aussies, it's a pretty moving place to visit.

Floor plaque at the SJMC, together with what must be the motto of nearby towns.

We drove back to Paris after calling into Villers-Bretonneux, a town devoted to Australia even though none of us can pronounce its name correctly. Famous signage says "Never Forget Australia" and kangaroo emblems are here and there. The museuem is barely a few kilometers out of town. We hope the schools of V-B have excursions to the SJMC, there could be no better way of showing the children what happened in their neighbourhood hardly more than 100 years ago.

A copy of "Mercury riding Pegasus", (1701) by Antoine Coysevox (1640–1720) in the Tuilieries Gardens, original at the Louvre.

Parisian elegance in architecture, the fabulous buildings along the Rue de Rivoli.

And below, their magnificent colonades.

The Vendôme Column at the centre of the square was originally erected by Napoleon I to commemorate the Battle of Austerlitz but was torn down on 16 May 1871, by decree of the Paris Commune, to be re-erected later.

Statue of Jean d'Arc in front of the impressive Saint-Augustine church near La Madeleine.

Rather lonely florist stalls in front of La Madeleine, a church now but originally designed as a temple to the glory of Napoleon's army.

Finally, it was time to depart Paris and France, back to London on the Eurostar, from the majestic Gare du Nord. Luckily, this time we did not have to walk. The city was operating smoothly, the taxi fare was EUR10, a far cry from the EUR30 we paid to travel a mere 100m in traffic gridlock on our arrival. We enjoyed our last Parisian sunset on a crystal clear evening from the roof of Galeries Lafayette, later with cocktails and champagne!

Au Revoir to Paris - our last sunset.

The magnificent facade of the Gare du Nord railway station, our departure point for London.

From the waiting room, passengers pour off our Eurostar as it arrives at Gare du Nord.

08 February, 2020

End of the Road (Trip)...

It was sad to leave Le Mont-Saint-Michel because it marked the end of our driving trip and really the start of a rather convoluted journey home. Only about 60km to Rennes where we returned the rental car, and spent the night at the Saint-Antoine hotel again, so we could catch the TGV back to Paris the next day.

Our entire almost four week drive around Brittany was only 1625km in our rented hybrid Corolla, a mere 63km/day. We topped it up with E10 sans plomb twice during the trip, and again coming back into Rennes. Petrol stations are mostly "pay at the pump" and easy to use. Once we were on the coast, we were mostly on country roads (Departmental D roads) which wind through the centre-ville of dozens of interesting small towns. These towns were nevr meant for motorised traffic! Other times we were on higher grade National N roads which were sometimes divided and tended to avoid towns. All the places we stayed at, and reported in this blog, are really quite close to each other, which is why our total mileage was not so great. For this trip, including insurance, Avis charged us EUR1768, or EUR68/day.

We never quite came to terms with the short 9 hour days in France. Where we were was close to due south from London, but an hour further east in time zones. Daylight never truly arrived until about 09:00, and sunset was about 18:00. Being dark outside meant we slept in almost every day, and had to rush to make it to breakfast (which usually closed at 10:00). In Paris and the bigger towns, it was evident that workers and early birds where up and fully active (in the dark) from about 06:00, but not much happened until daylight in the villages.

Counting Rennes, in our driving trip we stayed in 10 different hotels over 26 days, some modest, some luxurious; some spacious rooms, some very tight; some modern, some very old; some busy, some virtually empty; but in all of them we had clean sheets and hot water. We loved the common heated towel rails some of which were powerful enough to heat the whole bathroom and dry our washing. At every place, we enjoyed a pleasant reception with competent English (which was just as well) and they all provided breakfast, mostly for a fee - in some towns, this was our main meal of the day, so difficult was it to get fed. We bought a baguette and cheese at local markets for lunch. Most of the hotels had cable TV, and we were often able to get BBC, CNN and the English language France24 channel, so we were able to keep up with novel coronavirus, Australian bushfires and floods (and tennis), Trump's impeachment trial farce, Boris' Brexit, the weather and the state of the strikes in Paris. All hotels offered free WiFi, it even worked in most of them. Car parking was always a great unknown, but we managed it everywhere without great drama, sometimes 200m up the street.

The Lightroom map shows where we have been by the number of photographs taken. We think we have covered Brittany, but really, we've only done the coast with a strong emphasis on Belle-Ile-En-Mer, the Saint-Malo + Mont-Saint-Michel area, and the three peninsulas of the far west coast. There's a lot of Brittany we have neglected.

07 February, 2020

Overwhelmed at Le Mont-Saint-Michel...

This driving trip has had many highlights, but we may have saved the best until last. From Saint Malo and its walled city we drove for less than an hour around the edge of theBaie du Mont-Saint-Michel, , having our first glimpse of Le Mont-Saint-Michel in the foggy distance from a point near Cancale, and as we approached it, the island commune grew in size on our port bow. The countryside was flat, but the bay endures 10m tides, so the tidal wash area is vast. Roads and towns stay cautiously above the high tide mark, but we noticed a lot of levy banks as storm precautions. During our drive, the bay's water line was always kilometers away.

The magical Mont-Saint-Michel and its abbey.

As we arrived, it was immediately apparent that Le Mont-Saint-Michel is geared for massive influxes of visitors, with a complex network of secured carparks. Our hotel, Le Relais du Saint-Michel was chosen because of its proximity to the island, its view of the island, and as such, we had privileged access to a nearby carpark. The code the hotel had given us months ago didn't work ("that often happens!"), so we had to ring the property for a new one, which did let us in, and we stayed there for four days. Our room had a direct view to the Mont, about a kilometer away as the crow flies, and, it wasn't actually raining, so even though we had plenty of time, we immediately set out.

Our first glimpse of Mont-Saint-Michel was through a lot of gloom from Point du Grouin.

The hotel was not perfect, but you can't beat this view!

Easily the best placed hotel opposite Mont-Saint-Michel.

It's a two kilometer walk along a boardwalk which culminates in a causeway (a bridge, really) across the sandflats to the island. There's a free shuttle bus which runs every 12 minutes from the public carparks to a point on the causeway about 200m from the island. It was getting dark and the weather was threatening, so we waited for the bus, but when it arrived, it was already overloaded. This was the moment we discovered that Mont-Saint-Michel is unlike everywhere else we have been this trip - it's a tourist destination year round. That bus was full of Chinese visitors, and we were later to understand out that tour coaches come every day from Paris, a 14 hour round-trip, including a sumptuous lunch somehwere and 3-4 hours at the Mont. We couldn't get on that bus, so we walked. It's a delightful experience to approach the Mont slowly so you can truly absorb the growing monolith and study the grey sandy floodplain. We repeated this walk several times during our stay here, but used the bus frequently as well, especially when rain fell or threatened.

Some tourists like to approach the Mont via the 2km causeway this way.

View from the back of the abbey looking across the bay.

Flock of ducks, judging by the noise.

The tides at Le Mont-Saint-Michel can go up and down an incredible 10m. At low tide, the water retreats a long way, and a famous recreation here is to walk on the dry sandflats. For safety reasons, licensed guides are recommended for walks of up to 13km and 6 hours. They say "you can't outrun the rising tide", and there's quicksand. We stayed off the sand - at low tide, it looked grey and soggy as far as we could see. Some people ventured a couple of hundred metres. It was preparing for this trip that we learned of tidal coefficients viz: the size of the tide in relation to its mean, usually varying between 20 and 120. Iconic photos of Mont-Saint-Michel surrounded by water are taken at coefficients over 100, and only occur several times a year. We didn't see that, coefficients were 50-60 during our visits, so no really high or low tides. We could see tidal flows, but they weren't dramatic.

Getting dark and the Mont lights come on.

Looking out to the bay, canons (bombards) were apparently installed by the English during their brief occupation.

We saw lots of rain but not too many rainbows over Mont-Saint-Michel.

It all started in 708AD when Aubert, the bishop of the nearby town of Avranches> had a sanctuary built atop a 1km offshore rocky island called Mont-Tombe at the mouth of the Couesnon River in honour of the Archangel. The island was small, a mere 7Ha in area. The unusual location made it a focus for pilgramage, and over centuries it was expanded again and again. Buildings were built over the top of existing buildings, sometimes not very well it seems, by reinforcing or demolishing the prior structures. The first mention of an "abbey" there was in the 9th Century. Models on exhibition in the abbey show the first signs of a village being spawned in the foothills of the rock by the 11th Century growing to take all available space by the 18th Century. The abbey looked substantial by the 11th Century, but it continued to grow in stages several times thereafter. Louis XI used the abbey as a jail in the 15th Century and in the 18th Century, the French Revolution did away with religion and made it a state prison. By the 19th Century, the mont and the abbey were seen as national treasures, and Napoleon closed the prison in 1863 and it was declared a monument historique in 1874. As part of a massive restoration project (~1890), a huge steeple was added to the abbey with a gilt statue of the archangel Saint Michel, and excavations discovered some lost chambers of the abbey. Somewhere in this complicated history, Mont-Tombe came to be called Mont-Saint-Michel.

The huge and most spectacular spire atop the abbey.

Saint Michael, the archangel, tops the 32m spire. Sculpted in 1897 by Emmanuel Fremlet.

It's free to visit the island and the village, after all, it's just a regular town, and for a fee (10EUR, the Tourist Office offers discounts) you can follow a clearly marked and interpreted trail through the abbey. This was well worth it, and, having climbed the steep paths, we spent a long time exploring the abbey gradually coming downstairs through various layers. It's truly fascinating. Like hundreds if not thousands of huge churches in France, it is an architectural masterpiece, although few would have the complexity of this one, having been expanded so often on such a small footprint. The abbey itself still operates as a church, we saw nuns and monks (or lay-people, what would we know?) wandering around, and at 12:10 were lucky enough to see and hear one gentleman ring the main abbey bell as a call to a mass. He then led a few devotees into a private chapel.

Great tiled floor in the abbey nave.

To the side of the abbey church, the cloisters, a place for monks to meditate.

The central abbey bell is rung as a call to prayer.

Dripping water tap high up in the abbey grounds, complete with the abbey seal!

The abbey refectory where monks would dine in silence.

The guests hall underneath the rectory was where royalty and nobility was received.

The great pillared crypt dates from 15thC and supports the abbey church built above it.

The knights hall with two huge fireplaces, columns holding up other structures.

The abbey's role as a prison is interesting. It was closed in 1791 to convert it to a prison, initially to hold clerical opponents of the republican regime (up to 300 priests at one point) when it was nicknamed the bastille des mers. Over time, up to 700 prisoners worked in a workshop set up in the abbey, making straw hats, which started a fire in 1834. The prison population included high profile political prisoners and influential figures, including Victor Hugo, who (from inside) launched a campaign to restore what they saw as a national architectural treasure. The prison was finally closed in 1863 with 650 prisoners relocated and the abbey was transferred back to the church, until it was declared a monument historique in 1874. The only sign of this prison history during our tour of the abbey was (a replica of) an intriguing hoist system used to bring in provisions. No doubt the prisoners themselves manned the wheel driving the hoist!

The incline used to hoist provisions up to prisoners.

The pulley system and sled, used to hoist provisions to prisoners when the abbey was a jail. It's a replica of middle age systems used to haul building materials.

The village, which clings to the eastern slopes of the Mont, is crammed into a miasma of steep, narrow, twisty lanes. A "main street", about 3m wide, is where most commercial establishments front, including hotels, cafes and souvenir shops. The cafes get bad reviews, but we found them welcoming enough, if overpriced, and a great place to rest weary bones for the price of a beverage. We also had several meals within the village.

Village homes overlooked by the abbey.

Panoramic view of the village from higher up in the abbey.

Tiny cemetery at Saint-Pierre's church.

Narrow lanes and lots of steps to get around the Mont's village.

Relatively modest interior of the Saint-Pierre parish church below the abbey and in the village.

The Auberge Saint Pierre was a great place for an afternoon drink. It had the only open fire we have found on this entire trip.

We didn't eat upmarket too often, but this restaurant on Mont-Saint-Michel was an expensive exception.

At Mere Poulards, the signature item is omelet cooked on a wood fire.

The inside of Mere Poulard's backs onto the natural wall of the Mont.

Roofing detail within the Mont's village.

The Couesnon River runs into the bay directly opposite Mont-Saint-Michel, and centuries of human meddling with it (farming and agriculture) have caused it to deposit silt in and around the Mont threatening to landlock it. Grassy meadows either side of the causeway are evidence of this. To preserve the tidal flats around the Mont an impressive and expensive adjustable dam, le Barrage, has been built at the mouth of the river. It fills up at high tides, and manages the low tide outflow in a schedule to reduce silting. The barrage was directly over the road from the Relais, so we were able to have a good look at it. And nearby, is a small village of hotels and shops, including a supermarket, as well as the vast parking lot.

Le Barrage, a complicated series of gates opposite Le Mont Saint-Michel designed to manage tidal flows to prevent sedimentation and weed growth around the rock.

Decorated cows abound in the shopping precinct on the mainland.

Cute jigsaw of chocolates on sale in the market. The white Breton capped sheep are a local delicacy, spiced by the salty environment they live in.

Meanwhile, the free shuttle buses kept rolling across the causeway, bringing in loads of vistors. Some buses were packed, coinciding with the arrival of a tour bus, others were nearly empty. Mont-Saint-Michel was the one place on this entire driving trip where we encountered tourists in serious numbers, even though its winter. Sometimes those tour buses stayed overnight at our hotel, others were just day trips. Our three-night four-day sojourn here seems very relaxed by comparison, but we like to take things slowly. The tourists were Chinese and Japanese who have clearly discovered this location - we hardly saw overseas tourists from anywhere else at Mont-Saint-Michel.

Free shuttle buses run frequently from the car park to within 200m of the Mont, but nothing beats walking to absorb the grandeur.

While we were at Mont-Saint-Michel, French TV news was obsessed with the moment of Brexit at midnight one night.