France 2017


August 8 – Back to France

A few hours before we were to leave for the airport, Air France sent an urgent text announcing the cancelation of our flight. This was not considered good news. Many hotels, including tomorrow’s, were booked and paid in full without refund. Our agent immediately scrambled to determine the cause and explained that we might be routed on KLM through Amsterdam. In the end, we travelled Air France several hours later on a smaller jumbo jet, less luxurious than expected.

This was good fortune in one sense. Only the night before had we rented 133 Varennes and there were details to finalize. We arrived at the airport a could of hours early and rested in the lounge, convinced of a pleasant experience. A passenger on the plane agreed to swap seats with one of us so that our flight could be taken together.

August 9 – Arrive in Paris

Our hotel driver was delayed by Parisian traffic, the likes of which concedes nothing to San Francisco’s horrific snarls. His excuse was given credence by the view of a congested outbound highway as we moved slowly toward the city at only slightly better speed. The handsome, young chauffeur’s car was clean, new, and roomy. His collapsed baby stroller offered no inconvenience to our carry-on bags. He had lots to say about France and politics, amusing us with how our absurd Trump earned the contempt of the French by arriving 20 minutes late at the Bastille Day Parade, a guest of the newly elected Macron.

When asked about homelessness in Paris, he explained that there were some, but that they were recent refugees, who managed to enter the city without papers and had not been yet handled by the authorities, who would doubtless find them shelter. The resident French, however poor, do not sleep under in the cramped shelter of a generously donated appliance box tucked under a dirty freeway, the domicile of choice in California.

Our small hotel, The Wilson Opera, two blocks west of Gare Saint-Lazare, in the 8th arrondissement of Paris was a kick from the moment we met the gregarious, cheerful, and welcoming desk clerk. He claimed to be upgrading our room and from the 5th floor balcony (‘6th floor’ in the states, as the ground floor is “0” in sensible countries), we had a clear view of the Eiffel Tower, across the city.

First time visitors to Paris will doubtless want to stay a euro’s toss from the Louvre or Notre Dame, but repeat visitors can explore the less well-known districts and this visit of ours proved the wisdom of exploration. We had only time for a light dinner and evening stroll, but time enough to see that the 8th is a wonderful neighborhood of working professionals of every race. We found a pleasant corner café with a red awning that matches about 2,000 others as ubiquitous on Parisian streets as honored in impressionistic paintings. One cannot help wondering whether the style would have been so insistent if not committed by oil-on-canvas records.

August 10 – Rouen and Honfleur

The Gare Saint-Lazare train station is grand. These trains feed Normandy and Britany and probably other places I know nothing about. Each concourse is cavernous, easily serving thousands of people milling about in more certain paths than the overwhelmed tourists we were. Monet paid tribute in a painting that hangs, ironically, in the Musee Dorsey, a retired train station put to a new use.

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The trip is about an hour to Rouen, and it is a worthwhile excursion for a visit to the city where the English burned (they’d say “burnt”) Joan d’arc at the stake, like a steak. Good place to have lunch, but think of something else, if carnivorous.

We rented a car at the station. The parking garage is adequately secure, so that were we to do this again, we would put out luggage in the trunk and walk a few streets unfettered. There’s no time requirement on removing the vehicle.

The drive to Honfleur was a little longer than expected, but the roadway is wide and modern. The streets only narrow when within the city limits of this marvelous fishermen’s village. There was a serious mixup in our hotel accommodations, but a hotelier in the heart of town offered us a room with off-site garage parking for a discounted price. He suggested, perhaps out of misplaced politeness, that we could get a cot, as if the double bed and side daybed in this huge room might require outspoken discretion.

“This is France, is it not?” I asked our blushing host.

Our first dinner had been secured before we left the US, based upon web recommendations. This was entirely unnecessary and wrong-headed. The meal’s pace was painfully slow and I dozed between the second and third courses. We paid the full prix fixe and braved the cobbled streets, weighed down by my heavy eyelids. The second night’s dinner, chosen peripatetically, was more enjoyable. I had a big bowl of mussels; Rod had food.

IMG_1659The little town of Honfleur, across an inlet so wide the opposing docks and cranes of Le Havre are barely visible, was spared the indignities suffered by its neighbors during the D-Day invasion and subsequent battles. Gobs of tourist families fill the colorful umbrellaed tables that perch on the stone harbor’s edge eating delicious meals in the brisk night air. A series of impossibly old six-story homes provide the diners psychological shelter from the channel winds. I snapped a photo of a playful, enlarged figurine of youthful disregard. The art was neither discreet nor fashionable: Who mixes polka dots with army boots? Tres gauche. They make all passers-by smile.

The oldest wooden church in France was built in Honfleur by shipbuilders in the late 1400s, its architects made the nave an inverted hull—build what you know. When they outgrew the original, a second hull was constructed next to the first, catamaran style. The roof never leaks.

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This gentleman’s scarf, beret, and warm jacket stand in stark contrast to the prodigious blooms of summer that brighten apartment windows everywhere. Patched cobbled streets show a durable advantage over the gullied lumps of macadam that San Francisco’s streets become a few short months after being rolled flat. (One wonders how much of the ancient mortar packed between the stones is compressed horse shit.)

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Half-way through a sunny stroll of those neighborhoods in Honfleur that survive untrammeled by other tourists, we stumbled upon the disheveled home of the Eric Satie museum, restored from the quirky, two-story house of his grandparents’ that served as home for a half dozen his formative years after his mother’s death, when Erik was six, until the death of his grandmother at age twelve—Erik’s age, not grandmama’s.

IMG_1664Of all the places we visited in Normandy, only Honfleur begs for a return visit, if just to enjoy a walk around the town.

August 12 – Bayeux

The drive to Bayeux is on a simple, American-style, divided highway, including stop and go traffic. The sound road surface, bright lane divisions, rust-free overpasses, and orderly vegetation are a give-away that this is Europe. Oh, and the campers! The French have families. They take the kids everywhere. Somehow they manage to attach campers to their Peugeots and drag them around the August countryside, but where these campers are housed in the off season is a passing mystery. They would not fit in a Parisian apartment, failing the demands of space and style.

The inaudible GPS of our rental car guided us, without a wrong turn, to the gates of the Le Tardif, Noble Guesthouse, a centrally located chateau that was sadly limited to a two-night stay. Most people visit Bayeux to witness the invasion of Normandy from a safe distance, both in time and space. The History Channel has allowed us alternate priorities.

The 1000-year-old Bayeux Tapestry, once housed in the magnificent cathedral and exhibited once a year like a nativity crèche, now rests permanently in a modern museum, protected from selfie-flash and human breath along a 230′ circuitous wall. It is a graphic novel patiently embroidered (yeah, it is not really a “tapestry”) in a folksy hand that varies imperceptibly in scale or refinement from start to finish. The story is propaganda to awe the unwashed, simple masses; now it hangs to charm the overfed, stumbling tourist hoards.

After a fine dinner we took the wise advice of our hotelier to stand for 30 crepuscular minutes in the cooling Atlantic air anticipating nightfall. At darkness a light show was projected onto the wide trunk of “The Tree of Liberty,” centered in a courtyard free of arboreal competitors, bathed in creative graphics, and animated to high-fidelity sound. Its paean to our home, San Francisco, was not to be missed, but it is only described with a crudely made iMovie:

August 14 – Mont Saint-Michel

The drive from Bayeux was deceptively like the drive to Bayeux, except that the traffic congestion was saved, like sports time-outs, until we were within a glimpse of the monastery and a French nose of the sea air. Here the line of auto pilgrims sat motionless in envy of weathered old folks who spryly sped by on rusty, gearless bicycles. The edge of mainland that dips before the island’s surrounding tides is blanketed with parking lots that beckoned like mocking oases under an abnormally hot sun. Our lot was nearly the most distant, which proved a boon.

During the planning of this trip, I daydreamed of spending a smart night in one of the few hotels on the island, booking a rare room with a cost far exceeded the price of any two nights in Paris. It was non-refundable and I regretted that I could have stayed in the next hotel for an extra night so as to visit Mont Saint-Michel more cheaply as a day-tripper. That option past with the click of the “Accept” button, months before and thousands of miles away at my desk in California. Our fate was sealed.

After an hour of this crawl, the road forked. To the right, a clogged artery of carriaged plebeians sludge through a crowded marsh while a clear road to the left was protected from the masses by uniformed sentries, verifying hotel commitments. Salvation.

The shuttle busses from the parking lots are engineered to permit the last leg of this journey be achieved without a roundabout. The busses can be piloted from either end. We were disgorged halfway across the causeway to allow a record of the stunning approach with our cameras.

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The fat man in the photo, portfolio in hand, pretends to have business with mother inferior.

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The island was packed with tourists. Our hotel, to the left of the French flag, perched like an Iwo Jima memorial atop Rod’s head, was busy, but exceptionally accommodating. A young man with splendid English gave us tips, cautions, and dinner reservations while his younger, French-speaking cohort fumbled through the bookings on a tight-fitted computer at the reservation desk. Real estate on a pointed island is not squandered on lobbies or a concierge counter, but to our amazement, our room was spacious with two large, double French windows separated by a writing desk. And such a view!

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[All images can be enlarged by simply clicking on them.]

Mont Saint-Michel is claimed to be the second most visited attraction in France, Notre Dame being first (it’s free). The Eiffel Tower flounders in third place undoubtedly due to its limited capacity, higher cost, long lines (or lines that one must stand in rather than by sitting in a car), and the steep competition from an astonishing replica in Las Vegas, which has been said to have everything the original has, except originality.

Our desk clerk’s advice was to put off climbing to the monastery until the mobs retreated, taking their children and elderly parents with them. Following that advice was wise, given that following the clerk himself was sadly off limits. The nameless streets seem to have struggled for definition and lost against the irregular verticality of the island. For miles around the earth lies flat. Even the water’s edge is weakly confined by a great expanse of mudflats. The island stands defiantly against the forces of erosion. So tourists clamber up and down steps to learn, like mice in a maze, that these paths do not circumnavigate the mont. Thousands while away the afternoon in a penguin-like march around the base of the island on an expanse of mud that has sought its own level with more tenacity than water. (And I bet it ain’t all mud—see cobble stones, above.) We demurred.

The hotel’s dinner menu was so limited that I feared the cause was similar to the frugal man with a purple house who bought the color with the most aggressive mark-down. Not so. The salads were fresh and Rod’s chicken was reported to be moist, tender, and flavorful. I chose the second option, an omelet. An exceptional omelet.

One stands in line before an open kitchen where two costumed “chefs” beat egg batter in rounded bottomed copper bowls at a frenzied clip with a mesmorizing musicality that defies this author’s metaphors and similes (as so many other things have). When served, the brown, folded semi-circle seems four inches (about 10 cm) thick—a daunting challenge laid down before our rigorous climb to the monastery. My apprehension melted away when I discovered that between the thin crusts that had touched the pan, the ensconced egg had less mass than cotton candy.

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The once-jammed streets of this village were our oyster.

Like all of France, the monastery is no longer consecrated. Much of it has been modified to suffer the little children to come unto the mountain. Hardly Christian.

Long ago after seeing pictures of Mont Saint-Michel, I longed to visit, but its remote location made that trip seem unlikely. Pictures of this place are so etherial they conjure the derisive smirks of those who tell the story of some elderly bumpkin who, upon seeing New York City, the Grand Canyon, or any vast ocean for the first time, remarks, “It’s not as big as I thought it would be.” But the story reflects the smallness of the teller.

When the unimaginable is made real, our witness diminishes the sight; our grasp can squeeze out the magic. Familiarity restores the place with charm and warmth, placing it on a higher pedestal. So it shall always be with Mont Saint-Michel and me.

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August 15 – Denan

When leaving Mont Saint-Michel, turn right and you can’t miss Britany. Finding the hotel in Dinan was less simple, but worth the effort. My impression is that 800 years after it was built, two gay men with Zen proclivities and respect for the ancient turned this simple, three-story structure into a shrine of peace and tranquility.

Photos of hotel rooms diminish the impression of a traveller’s priorities, but this exceptional spot deserves notice. When logged into a review site to complement La Maison Pavie, there were about 900 five-star comments before me. That should be convincing enough. (How many people have even heard of Dinan?)

To say that Britany is a culinary desert is to mock sand for its lack of variety. Meals that originate here are of two varieties—buckwheat crepes, called “galettes” and a dessert crepe made in the common fashion. Neither is disappointing, until the third consecutive meal. Together, they are too much for one meal. Separately, they are too little. And they are served with cider. Did I mention that? Cider in France? Like driving to Napa for beer.

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There are hundreds of towns in Europe with a similar vibe. The surfaces are hardy enough to have withstood an average of 700 northern European winters, but the effect is soft, cordial, inviting, and human. The impression would not be improved by having three SUVs vying for a parking space where picnic benches should be. This street did not look like this in 1301, but the caretakers of Dinan carefully groomed what was left to them.

After lunch we happened upon a street that wiggles down the side of the hill that our hotel in Dinan apparently sits upon. Dinan_hill_05-08-03

This inviting stroll looked innocent enough, but it’s a trap foretold by Alice in a Jefferson Airplane song. Around each bend is another, beckoning the curious like the temptations of my youth to which I eagerly surrendered, leading my hapless life to this remote village in a rural corner of northwestern France…on second thought, lead on McRod.

We must have dropped 300′ to the banks of the Rance River. A viaduct, ⅔ of the height of the hilltop from which we must have begun,  gave us a measure of the climb ahead.IMG_1766

Intrepid, we crossed the river (employing a bridge) and began the climb to the causeway above. A word of advice to those who keep what is charmingly called a bucket list: throw it away. These lists are for people who presume they know what they have never seen. Our most memorable visits have been to places we did not know existed.

When we finally got to the top of this hillside, we could see our hotel across a simple park serving a few readers and a young couple enjoying a light lunch. I had anticipated a three mile hike. It’s a small world. A word of advice—put Dinan on your bucket list.

August 16

Quality La Marebaudiere Spa Vannes

One should not wait two years to decide what to say about a trip. I recall backing into a Mercedes when leaving, but the plastic bumper did no damage to the victim’s car. My rental had a big dent in the bumper that popped back into proper shape before the car was returned, so no biggie. Vannes is a nice enough town and meant to be a home base for further exploration. One day it did serve that purpose.

August 18

Our drive to

August 19

Hotel: L’étable Givernoise

August 20

Return to Paris

August 23

Train to Bordeaux

August 24

Drive to San Sebastian

August 26

Drive to Dordogne

August 28

Train to Paris

August 31

Flight home

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