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France - Part 1 - May

FRANCE | Wednesday, 1 June 2016 | Views [819] | Comments [1]

This is where it all started. Shortly after completing my school years I read Peter Mayall's famous book "A Year In Provence" and since that point have always wanted to spend a year in France, it would undoubtably be as full of crazy locals, obscure rules, endless sunshine, amazing food and wonderful sites as covered in the story. To this end I have maintained my schoolboy French at as high a standard as I could with the hope of eventually visiting for a decent length of time. It is interesting how little of France I had seen prior to this trip considering that it was the closest country to mine for such a large part of my life.

We arrived to petrol blockades, train strikes and continuously bad weather!

Petrol strikes

Tamara took a little more persuading - "What are we going to do there for a whole year?" Our initial thoughts on this were to follow the example of the Mayalls and buy a renovation project in the sun filled south and spend the year turning it into a wonderful des res for either re-sale or retention as a rental property / holiday home. Our internet search took us to a number of locations including one or two very attractive possibilities. Ironically though the property that we came closest to making an offer for was just over the border in Spain (refer our chapter on Spain for more details). Eventually my brother talked me out of it on the basis that if it's that cheap to buy how cheap is it to rent? Eventually Tamara negotiated me down to three months in France and that is where we are now, one month in.

We plan to follow a giant zig-zag through the country, starting as my Grandad did on the beaches of Normandy then winding through Brittany, the Valley de Loire, up to Paris and around the north east of the country before heading into Les Alpes. From there we intend to swing back across the Massif Central to Biarritz before crossing briefly into northern Spain then zipping quickly across the south of France to Nice for a family party. From there we will explore a bit of northern Italy before making a beeline from south to north and crossing back via the channel ferries.  If we are able to get sufficient petrol of course! 

Retro Vintage Carousels Abound 

Retro Vintage Carousels Abound

It was a joy to finally get to use the funky wee car that we bought especially for the French section of the journey and it happily sped us on our way to Portsmouth from where we were able to take a ferry directly to Caen in Normandy. We arrived at sunset and looked over the very smooth sea to the beaches that were anything but peaceful when my Grandad spent so many days there on an LST (Landing Ship Tank) acting as a sick berth orderlie. In those terrible days his role was to triage the casualties and treat / stack them accordingly. While we were in the locality we took time out to visit Luc-Sur-Mer Beach where he was based as part of the British "Sword" beach. We were able to read aloud his memoirs of the war while there and it was great to spend some time in reflection. Just up the road from us was Pegasus Bridge which was the first target for the allied paratroops as it was so important to the initial advance from the beach head. Here six gliders were piloted incredibly accurately in the dead of the night to land very close to the bridge itself. The mission was successful and the bridge was soon in allied hands.

Just up the coast from Caen is the lovely port town of Honfleur. We have set ourselves the goal of avoiding the major roads as often as possible and so we meandered our way up the coast through many a small town. One that grabbed the attention completely was Houlgate where every house seemed to be a mansion. Each residence towered above the street and was embellished with turrets, elaborate gables, carved stonework and all manner of completely unnecessary and yet totally captivating embellishments. Honfleur itself was a lovely old town centred around an ancient inner harbour. We spent some time wandering the streets and enjoying coffee and later dinner on the harbour front. From the shelter of the restaurant we were able to watch a very impressive thunderstorm sweep through lashing the seven story high medieval buildings even as the late evening sun tried to illuminate the place too.

Café chic with swing chairs at bar - St. Malo

Cafe chic

We drove west along the battlefield beaches towards Bayeaux where we were fortunate to be able to view the famous Bayeaux Tapestry. I had wanted to do this many years ago while at school but never got the opportunity. Perhaps this is for the good as the experience now includes an audio guide which takes you through the story told by the medieval comic strip in great detail, scene by scene. Undoubtably this brings the whole experience to life. It is always easier to trace one's lineage if one can link in with that of a famous person or persons and some time ago my father and I were able to do this with the Furneaux family tree which then takes us speedily back to just before the Norman conquest of England in 1066 which is of course the subject of the tapestry. It was strange to view the respect that the locals had for one of my ancestors leaving Normandy to invade Britain and at the same time view the respect they showed for another of my ancestors returning from Britain to invade (liberate!) Normandy 900 years later!

The end of that day saw us arrive at Mont St. Michel. Until this point we had been subject to very poor weather and this location was no different! Nevertheless our visit was intriguing walking on streets little changed for hundreds of years. It was interesting to see a sequence of models showing the construction of the village and abbeye over the first few centuries. Built first then destroyed then rebuilt with donations from the army that destroyed it - a little bit of a guilt trip there methinks! When we entered the abbeye itself it was at the start of a communion service which we stayed around for. It was lovely to see the building alive and active even after all these years.

Beautiful Lehon


I had visited Brittany before and enjoyed my time there so we allocated a week and a half to explore it fully. After a couple of nights in the lovely town of Dinan we then based right in the centre of Brittany from where it was one hour's drive in every direction until we came to the coast. Each of the places we stayed were booked via AirBnB and the hosts spoke very little English which was great for our language development. Before long we were able to chat in French for reasonable conversations, helped on the first night by the Eurovision song contest and an irrepresible hostess who just kept chatting away. She was recently retired and uses AirBnB both to supplement her pension and to ensure human contact. Dinan itself is a town full of half timbered houses largely untouched by the wartime destruction. We contented ourselves with a Gallete each (a savoury pancake made with water not milk). Mine was filled with canard and escargot butter (duck with snail butter) and went down a treat. We took a walk down to the small river port and followed the river along to another abbeye and tumbledown chateau which are located in Lehon, one of Brittany's villages of significant beauty.

Fortunately we had timed our visit to coincide with the Fete de Brittanie which meant that for the time we were in the area there were a number of festivals to choose from. We went up to Saint Malo which was rebuilt entirely after the war in its original unique style which was more defined by the needs of the buccaneers it housed (walls and warehouses) than by the more common housing types at that time. From there we drove up to Cancale to join in with the seafood festival even though Tamara has recently abstained from shellfish. Reluctant to try a dozen oysters myself I managed to negotiate a price just for one but ended up with two. I have to say, previously I have hated the taste of oysters but with a dash of lemon these ones tasted great. Combined with the seafood dish that I ordered in Honfleur these were a great advertisment for the seafood of the region. Delicious!

Gorgeous Chocolate!


When you meet up with an old university friend after so many years it is always with a mixture of delightful anticipation and a little trepidation; wondering whether the friendship will still be relevant or awkward. I had managed to get in contact with one such friend Catherine who is a native of Brittany and now lives in Morlaix. When we walked towards each other it was the first time apart from a couple of weddings that we had seen each other in almost thirty years. "I'm sorry, I must cry a little" she said as we had a lovely hug. Later she and her partner Robert treated us to a lovely meal out. Her generosity was amazing. We had originally asked whether there was a spare room at their home or space to pitch a tent. In the end we had heard nothing so had booked our own accommodation and sent her an update - which she had not received. She had neither space available so had booked a local hotel at her own expense. When she heard that I liked chocolates she immediately dashed out and returned with a gorgeous box of homemade chocolates. Although we no longer needed the hotel room and she was able to cancel at the last minute such generosity of spirit is hard to match.

We alternated our Brittany visits between longer drives to the coast and shorter stays in the local, central area. The Canal Du Midi flows past nearby to the homestay and we had a good wander around there and at a hydro lake the Lac de Guerledan which forms part of that system. At the foot of that dam were a few lovely but delapidated buildings which completely fitted with what we had considered renovating during our "year" in France. They looked out over the river and the canal and for once we were blessed with a bit of fleeting sunshine which revealed what could have been. Being close to the base of a dam though is perhaps not the most sensible location for a house though so maybe things worked out just fine!

 Moulin De Marin - Ile de Brehat

Moulin de Marin

On one of our coastal trips we popped over to the Isle de Bréhat. This is located on the pink granite coastline of Northern Brittany and our ferry had to thread its way through multiple needle shaped rocks both covered and visible dependant on the tides. There were three wharfs at either end of the journey. At low tide, when we arrived, we had to walk around half a kilometre from the wharf whereas at high tide, when we returned, we were able to use the wharf immediately adjacent to the village. The reason we were visiting the Isle de Brémhat is because it is the site of a Moulin de Mer (Sea Mill) which is used to grind flour. Due to the high tidal differences a low barrage has been formed which is filled at high tide but which then traps the sea water to form a lagoon once the tide retreats. The difference in height between the two water bodies creates a "head" which can be harnessed for energy and so a sluice gate is opened and the water runs out turning a water wheel and grinding the wheat. Very clever thinking and dating back to the 16th century. All across the island were small groups of children on a school trip. They had been set challenges to solve including one where one of the teachers dressed as a Pirate was signalling a message via semaphore which they had to read and interpret from the other side of the lagoon. I'm convinced that when these things are well planned children learn more on these days than they would in a week in the classroom.

Dinan Port 

Dinan Port

There was so much more in Brittany, from the boulder strewn Gorges du Toulgoulic, where the river is entirely concealed beneath round lichen covered rocks the size of a lorry, to the lakeside town of Huelgoat; from the expansive view from the Chapelle St. Michel set high on a mountaintop overlooking a lake and nuclear power station to the view from the rocky southern coastline towards Belle Isle. It was time to move on though and the Châteaux of the Loire Valley beckoned.

The first château we had picked out was a particularly warlike looking one in Angers. Constructed mainly using very dark black stone highlighted by white bands this one was impressive to look at but even more so for what it contains. The Tenture De L'apocalypse is an immense tapestry created to illustrate the revelation of St. John. It is utterly fascinating and, together with the further illumination brought by the audio guide, is something that I would highly recommend to anyone visiting. Not quite as old as the Bayeaux "tapestry" this one is at least a real tapestry as opposed to the Bayeaux version which is more of a medieval embroidery. The sheer skill of the 14th century weavers to set up their looms so as to produce these works of art in absolutely beyond me. At 104m long it took just eight years to produce which is far quicker than could be achieved these days using traditional methods. One thing I learned which I felt like I should have already known is that the word "apocalypse" does not mean "end of the world" or "final battle", instead it means "revelation". Your fascinating fact for the day! You're welcome :-)


photo credit to Villandry themselves, we didn't have blue skies!


Knowing that we would be visiting the legendary Versailles Palace gardens later in our trip it was a toss up whether we went to the château at Villandry which is also based around a formal garden. We are so glad that we decided to go as the Villandry gardens knock Versailles into a cocked hat! The Villandry story is a typical brilliant (poor) Spanish boy scientist meets brilliant (fabulously rich) American girl scientist / heiress. They fall in love, get married, decide with all that money they are wasted dedicating their life to the sciences and instead buy an ancient and run down château and set about spending a good portion of the inherited steel fortune recreating the original gardens then opening them to the public. The result is a great success and the visit was one of the most rewarding of all of our visits.

Other châteaux that we visited came in all shapes and sizes from the relatively unknown Château Rivau and Château d'Azay-le-Rideau to better known châteaux Longais and d'Ussé. One of the big benefits of staying in homestays is that the locals know their area far better than any guidebook and we were duly advised about the Loire Valley by our lovely host Robert who is struggling to keep looking after his daughter after his wife was hospitalised with major mental issues. He provides all meals from his own garden with home made everything. His daughter is an absolute treasure and he is doing an amazing job but carries an undercurrent of sadness which is desperately sad to see.

Of course we had also planned our time to take in the two heavyweights in the Loire, Chambord and Chernonceau. You will remember the time we spent with our Kiwi friends Allan and Lisa up in Whangarei Heads. We knew that they were visiting Europe at the time and contacted them to see whether it would be possible to link up. What are the chances? They had booked to visit Château Chambord on exactly the same day that we were to be there! With a bit of tweaking of our accommodation plans we were able to spend three days in their company which was most excellent! One place that we loved visiting together was Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise. This is another tale of a great friendship. This time between King Francis 1st of France and the aging Leonardo Da Vinci. In very much the same way as King Solomon sought wisdom, Francis invited Da Vinci to join him in France, promising to care for him throughout his old age and in the meantime absorbing as much of his knowlege and wisdom as possible. He appointed Leonardo as "First painter, architect and mechanic of the king" and put him up in Clos Lucé where he often spent time with him. Frances really was the first of the selfie generation and portraits of him abound in most of the châteaux that we visited. One of the most famous is Leonardo's death bed scene where the king clutches the old man to his bosum in a very tender embrace. Throughout Clos Lucé and its gardens are exhibitions of Leonardo's inventions and it is fairly true to say that in his world he was pretty much the best at pretty much everything. His biggest regret was not concentrating more on the arts but his scientific conceptualisation was so advanced that it forms the basis of a huge amount of our current mechanisation. Tanks, machine guns, the first car, bicycles, helicopter, water pumps, canal locks, cam shafts, gears, ball bearings and many many more inventions are shown in model form. What a chap!

Chatres Cathedral Renovation - before and after. 

Chatres Cathedral Renovation

Until this point we had not been particularly blessed with the weather with heavily overcast days and rain every day of our visit. This was about to change - for the worse! Now the heavens opened and we found when we arrived in Versailes that the very next day the road we had followed was impassable and there was extensive flooding. We were only in Versailles for two nights and so the show had to go on. On our main day we duly walked to the palace to find absolutely no queues. Versailles is known for its queues which snake back and forth across the parade ground so to walk straight in was quite something. Inside it was incredibly packed even so, so I would hate to think what it is like on a busy day. Well the interior of the palace certainly lived up to the hype but the gardens were not available to visit without substantial extra payment due to there being music piped throughout. This did not appeal, articularly in the torrential rain so we returned the next morning for a quick walk through. We shouldn't have bothered. The gardens were very tired and full of weeds, the hedges all needed a trim and the paths were potholed and puddled. A major let-down, particularly when compared to some of the wonderful gardens we had seen.

And so it was that Paris beckoned. But more of that later.......

Until next time.....

Tags: brittany, byeaux, castles, chateaux, d-day, loire, normandy, versailles




I like the look of Retro Vintage Carousels and I loved visiting the Chateaus of the Loire Valley we only managed 6 for the few days we were there but loved them all the same.

  Frances Jul 13, 2016 12:53 PM

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