day 3 :
wednesday, 29 april
We awoke in Brittany today to our first blue skies of the trip, dotted with big, poofy clouds. Combine that with a honest-to-goodness stand-up shower in our room (a rarity at many B&Bs in France, which more frequently offer a hand-held shower head in an open tub) and a filling breakfast (croissants, bread, jam, yogurt, soft-boiled egg, fresh-squeezed juices, including Dawn's favorite, grapefruit), and we're off to a good start! Along the way, Eric learned how to ask our hosts for a sèche-cheveux (hairdryer) for Dawn since there wasn't one in our room.
With a borrowed Michelin Green Guide from the bookshelf in hand, we had three goals for the day: tour the city of St. Malo, buy sweets in Cancale, and revel in the majesty of Le Mont-Saint-Michel. Well, it mostly worked out.
St. Malo, a short drive from Dinan, is a beautiful walled port city. The city was a German stronghold in World War II, and was 80% destroyed during the liberation battles of 1944. The French rebuilt the city afterward to look the same as before, and what a fantastic job they did; Eric had no idea it was rebuilt until Dawn clued him in as we were walking along the ramparts, pointing out how you could see the original walls in places, rebuilt with new stonework above. We spent a few hours walking around the walled perimeter, taking in the architecture, enjoying the sunshine on our faces, and watching the waves crash against the embattlements. Just before leaving town, we stopped in a random epicerie (spice shop) filled with cookware and gourmet foods of all kinds. We couldn't leave a place like this empty-handed, but we exercised restraint and only bought jars of locally-made caramel sauce (the French seem to be in love with salted butter caramel, we saw it everywhere on our trip) and confiture de cassis (blackcurrant jam). And when they said the products were local, they really meant it: we saw the caramel maker along the roadside as we drove out of town.
The town of Cancale, just east of St. Malo, is best known as being the oyster capital of Brittany. And talk about history: oysters have been harvested here since Roman times (500 B.C.), and were in such demand that freshly harvested oysters were shipped all the way to Rome. But we were really there to find the sweet shop Grains de Vanille. We had no idea where it was, so as we entered the town, Eric stopped the car and asked an elderly gentleman walking along the road if he knew how to find it. He smiled and quite helpfully answered our question, in French of course. We must say, we've had great luck getting directions from strangers all over Europe, and it certainly adds to the sense of adventure.
So, following our newly-acquired directions, we drove around the église (church), parked, and walked a block to Grains de Vanille. And after all of that... it was closed. The sign hanging on the door said that it would be open tomorrow, so Eric thought, "Well, too bad, we're driving to Le Perche tomorrow and won't be back here." But Dawn's thought was more along the lines of: "Oh, this isn't that far out of our way! We could easily detour back here tomorrow." Read tomorrow's journal to find out who was right!
It was now early afternoon and we were getting hungry. Our Green Guide recommended a crêperie right across the street from where we were standing, so we figured, when in Brittany, eat crêpes. But, that turned out to be a poor line of reasoning. Unlike the amazing crêperie we ate at last night in Dinan, this one served burnt-tasting crêpes (which did not appear to be burnt themselves, but tasted as if they had been made in a burnt pan). Ah well, not every meal can be perfect. We took a stroll afterwards, and found a beautiful foot path overlooking the ocean on the east side of the town, which more than made up for the lackluster crêpes. The sun was still with us, so we enjoyed a view of Le Mont-Saint-Michel far off in the distance under bright blue skies.
Eric has wanted to visit Le Mont-Saint-Michel for a long time. Built over many centuries starting in the 8th century, the monastery ascends from a rocky island on the Atlantic coast, and is surrounded by mud flats. Eric first saw it in the movie Baraka 15 years ago; the film is sped up so you can see the tide come in and cover the tidal flats as the sun races across the sky. The cathedral looked so otherworldly in that scene. As we were planning our trip to France, Eric realized we would be just a short drive away, so it went straight to the top of our "must see" list. When we told our friends at dinner the previous evening that we were going to Le Mont-Saint-Michel today, they replied, "Really? Oh. You know there will be a lot of people there, right?" They advised us to visit St. Malo today, which indeed proved to be a great suggestion, but a few tourists wasn't enough to deter us from making a stop at the famed cathedral-on-a-rock.
Now, if only we could have teleported Riven zip-mode style to Le Mont-Saint-Michel from that perfect vista in Cancale; as we drove through the countryside and little towns, the skies got progressively cloudier. We arrived just as the sun was about to disappear. We walked past tour bus after tour bus, through the parking lot to the main entrance, and our friends' warning proved true: we felt like we were at a medieval Disneyland attraction, with hordes of people crowding every foot of the narrow, winding street up to the abbey. The endless kitschy shops along the entrance path further detracted from the experience, but then again, there have probably been shops in these stalls for many centuries.
Fortunately, it didn't take too long for us to squeeze past the most densely-packed parts of the crowd, likely because the ascent to the abbey got quite a bit steeper. We took a little breather ourselves on the way up, and before we knew it, we were there. The abbey was surprisingly large. We had imagined it as being essentially a large church, perhaps with a few rooms surrounding it for the monks. But no; the monastery is many-leveled with chapels built on top of chapels, subterranean chambers carved deep into the rock, and ceilings upheld by enormous columns and intricate vaulting. We traipsed from room to room, cathedral to cloisters, up and down stairs, admiring carvings and stained glass windows throughout. Across from the church was a square with a panoramic view of the mud flats and ocean surrounding the rock; far below us, we could see ant-like groups of schoolchildren and tourists leaving footprints across the mud flats. We eventually hit our sightseeing limit, and left with only one small section of the abbey still unexplored.
Back in Dinan, we decided we wanted to have another go at the amazing crêpes at Crêperie Ahna. Ah, but this time we had to wait an hour since we hadn't made a follow-up reservation. (We took note of this and learned to make dinner reservations for the rest of our trip.) Friends had mentioned a good pâtisserie on the outskirts of the walled city, at the bottom of a long, steep hill. So, although we knew it'd be closed, we thought we'd scope it out for the following morning. We walked all the way to the bottom of the hill, wondering with each step how far down it would go. Admittedly, it was a lovely walk down the deserted, rain-glistened cobblestone street, flanked on either side by flowering trees and beautifully-preserved centuries-old buildings. We found the bakery for tomorrow, but then had to walk on sore feet up the uneven street, back into town. We arrived famished at the crêperie, and tucked into another mushroom crêpe, a smoke ham crêpe with leek sauce, a Pêche-Melba crepe (with chantilly, almonds, vanilla ice cream, raspberry coulis, and poached peaches), and a Gateau Ahna (an unusual but fantastic mille-feiulle-like dessert with alternating layers of crêpes, chocolate, and candied orange, with a sweet cream sauce on the side). Eric finished with a glass of aged Calvados (apple brandy), and then we rolled ourselves into bed – happily stuffed and exhausted from a great day of sightseeing.