Finding our way through the historic French countryside

From afar, the manmade hulk of rock appeared as a pyramid crouching off France’s north facing coastline; a shimmering mass rising in the early morning sun as we sped towards it, the historic crème de la crème of Normandy.

Having only arrived in Guernsey a week-and-a-half prior, we were once again whisked away by boat on a second surprise trip planned by my parents, as a holiday within a holiday, to my Island’s continental next-door neighbor – France.

After approximately two-hours sailing across the English Channel on Condor Ferries’ car & passenger ship, we arrived in the deeply historical seaside city of Saint Malo, Brittany. From where we’d eventually depart for a day to explore the Frenchies answer to the pyramids of Giza. And no, it’s not the Eiffel Tower…

Exploring the medieval walled city of Saint Malo

Saint Malo Walled City Panorama

Out of an imposing and all encompassing stone wall built in the 12th century, church spires and traditional French houses with elongated chimneys grow into bright blue sky.

The saint for which this city was named is said to have taken part in an incredible intrepid voyage that may well have ‘discovered’ America some 1000 years before Christopher Columbus. Hundreds of years later in the 17th century, pirates in Saint Malo were granted licenses to go ‘coursing’ after enemy vessels in return for a percentage of the plundered profits, earning them and their city the nickname of ‘corsairs’.

To me, the most incredible piece of this little city’s adventurous bygone puzzle is a discovery by one of its most famous sailors, Jacques Cartier, who’s credited with discovering and naming a great land after its Native Indian word for ‘Little Village’ – A.K.A Canada.

His statue can be seen while on a stroll atop the ramparts, where, during the 30-minutes it takes to come full circle, the area’s impressive past is truly and tangibly brought to life. 30ft down on the cobbled streets below, boulangeries and Crêpeies ply tourists with sweet scents of freshly baked goods.

Arriving late in the afternoon, Mum, Dad, Kaleigh, and I wandered through the citadel’s quieter back streets in search of something a little more authentic for dinner. We eventually stumbled upon Bistro De Jean, a small family run restaurant, featuring a menu penned only in French. Antique sporting memorabilia adorned its inner walls while dark wood shelving sported fancy cutlery.

The tiny eatery packed a large culinary punch, with a hand sized slab of duck breast – slightly pink, certainly succulent – swimming in rich onion and mushroom gravy, complimented with potatoes roasted to crispy perfection, presumably in said animals fat; all washed down with a fine section of red wine from one of the regions many vineyards.

Riding back in time along the River Rance

Next day, we whizzed by bus through the countryside, vaguely following before crossing the Rance River. Even the motorways in France are lined with antiquity, as every other building appeared as a rundown farmhouse still in use.

We’d driven an hour from our walled city base to another history steeped but sleepier town.

France 1Dinan’s almost millennium old buildings have sagged under the weight of time, their wooden facades bowing and even leaning at precarious angles. The old-school timber builds were constructed at a time when housing taxes had to be calculated based on square footage of the ground floor, which is why some homes here blossom outwards as they grow upwards.

On our venture inwards, we first came across an old, impressive looking church, whose chiming bells reverberated through the narrow streets, calling locals for the christening of a baby. It’s gargantuan sanctum filled with shattered multicolored light streaming in through beautifully detailed stained-glass windows.

After Kaleigh lit a candle in prayer, we exited through thick wooden slabs hanging on rusty hinges. Two old men munching baguettes while sipping beer sat surreptitiously on the outer back steps, half grumbling, half listening, as the French priest delivered his sermon.

It all went downhill from here, so we paused at the top for a late morning espresso and goblet of the local bière, in the midst of the town’s immersive historical center, Place des

France
Kaleigh and Mum enjoying a momentary break riverside

Merciers. Onwards we found creatives of all kinds at almost every turn, plying their trade by painting pavements or hiding just inside the darkened doorways while working their canvas. There’s also an abundance of Celtic music, that until just 40 years ago, was forbidden to be played or sold.

 

For me, Dinan’s Pièce De Résistance is its river level. Where little boats chug gently beside restaurants with terraces stretching out over the Rance’s meandering waters.

However, there was no time for us to stop and dine, as we realized the last bus returning to Saint Malo would depart in just 20-minutes. At almost a sprint back up the beautiful but steep hill, we had to ignore our rumbling tummies and the delightful smells of fresh baguettes wafting from busy boulangeries. Instead, contenting ourselves with the thought of a late lunch back at home base – crunching into crispy bread to find a soft center stuffed with three choice kinds of cheese – the picture in mind enough to make my mouth drool profusely.

A pyramid castle born from flowers

After another early morning hour-long bus ride, we were still an hour walk from reaching

Mont Saint Michel wooden gate
Kaleigh at the modern gates of Mont Saint Michele

Mont Saint Michelle, but I was already blown away by the ancient, as yet undefined, pyramid rising ahead.

We emerged onto a long winding bridge, along which horse and cart clip-clopped towards the ever defining ancient wonder. During that sixty minute walk, I paused more times to say ‘wow’ than I had in the entirety of my 29-years.

Stood at the gates, every intricate detail of the 1300-year-old pyramid screamed ‘Game of Thrones’. It’s seemingly impenetrable stone walls born from mud flats that flood at high-tide, medieval buildings with windows peaking above the ramparts, before the buildings staggered upward closely packed behind one another, eventually turning into green gardens from which the castle-like Mont Saint Michele grows sunward, pinnacling in a glistening golden spire – WOW!

Once this medieval stonework beast swallowed me whole, body and mind were transported back in time, despite the madding throng of tourists stuffing up every street. With eyes open, the setting made it easy enough to erase every person, imagining only a few robed monks striding across the cobblestones.

Pushing through the heavy foot traffic, past authentic facades disguising modern shops and restaurants, we wound our way upward to Mount Saint Michelle proper. The structure of its humongous halls, with fireplaces big enough to roast entire cows, have changed little in hundreds of years – except for the addition of an occasional modern art sculpture which did somewhat ruin the vibe in some areas.

However, the vantage point at the peak is a real spectacle to behold, testament to the mount’s continued timely significance. Mile-upon-mile of flat French countryside broken only by the coastal mudflats, over which ocean races at the speed of galloping horses during the large spring-tides.

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