France: Normandy and Brittany
My recent trip to northwestern France with a select group of travel professionals was a lovely experience in a lesser-travelled region of the country. I chose it especially for that reason. Over the last few years, I have visited the Loire Valley, Provence, the Cote d’Azur, the Dordogne and Burgundy – and of course Paris many times!
We met at De Gaulle airport and bussed to Deauville on the northern coast. This is a famous beach resort popular since the 19th century and host to the America Film Festival. Here we were treated to a great lunch by the Lucien Barriere Normandy Hotel, a classic establishment on the beach. Of particular note was the veal with pecans and the fennel mousse. After, we toured the hotel which had lovely views of the beach and unique rooms all decorated in a traditional style. We also took the very short walk to the beach and viewed the famous beach cabanas complete with names of movie stars prominently displayed outside. We also did a site inspection of their sister property, the Royal which was quite similar in style.
From there we moved west to Port en Bessin and our stop for the next two nights at the Chateau la Cheneviere. This was just fabulous and surrounded by lovely countryside. We had a reception at the pool house where I could have just moved in and lived for a while: a luxurious “”greenhouse”” with glass above and around abutting a white brick wall. Grape vines grew through the walls from the outside and climbed up toward the roof! Each room was different and all were stocked with Occitane amenities and equipped with heated towel racks and great tubs.
The next day we went to see the Bayeaux Tapestry which was, of course, a big highlight for me. It was far more impressive than I had even imagined. You have to have advanced tickets and then you are assigned an audio handset before entering the Tapestry room. It is an excellent way to view the tapestry (actually, it is not a tapestry, but an embroidery) and understand the various scenes of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England. Be sure to see the movie that goes on continually on the upper floor. If you have time to visit the town, it is well worth it. The Cathedral is Romanesque/Gothic and the main street has many shops and restaurants (and the visitors center as well). Highly recommended is the restaurant La Fringale.
In the afternoon, we visited the Normandy beaches made famous during WWII. First stop was Point du Hoc and a short walk to the bombed-out bunkers and bomb craters. Without a guide it would be impossible to appreciate and we fortunately had a real history buff on our hands that day. From there we stopped at Omaha Beach and were able to get a first-hand perspective of that fateful period in European and American history. But the real attraction here in this area is the American memorial cemetery. The visitors’ center, with its wonderful and thoughtful displays, brought it all home. From there one enters the cemetery on the bluff overlooking the ocean and a memorial shrine. There was not a dry eye among us. It was extremely moving even for those of us who had no family or dear friends buried there. It is certainly a worthwhile stop for anyone visiting the region and especially so for anyone with an emotional attachment to the War. Note: you do not need a guide for the visitors’ center and cemetery unless of course you want one.
We said goodbye to our lovely hotel and headed west to Mont St. Michel, one of the most famous and most visited sites in France. This is not a place for anyone who can’t do stairs. It is one long walk up to the top but you are rewarded with spectacular views of the surrounding tidal marshes and flats. Our tour started at the top in the cathedral and then we moved down through the labyrinth of rooms. We were especially lucky in that the resident monks and nuns were giving a special mass and we were able to attend part of it. The street is medieval charming, but the restaurants and shops left much to be desired. Touristy with mediocre fare…not to mention being packed with long waits. (I understood from the guide that it is best to avoid Mont St. Michel on the weekends in the summer months. It just isn’t worth the crowds.)
We continued our journey along the coast and entered Brittany, the land of lovely coastal villages. We made a stop at Cancale and an oyster farm. From there, our next stop was St. Malo. This was a pleasant surprise given that it was nearly completely destroyed in the WWII bombing. It was very vibrant, good shops, good energy. And the reconstruction was extremely well done, using the materials they dragged from the rubble.
Our final destination for the night was Dinard where we stayed at Le Grand Hotel Barriere, the sister property of the hotel in Deauville. It was a lovely property with nice water views. Our room was huge, especially by European standards. The baths were also enormous and well appointed and we had two little balconies with partial ocean views. The hotel’s casino is not at the hotel but down around the block on the beach. On the same street are a number of restaurants if one does not want to pay the high prices at the hotel. We did eat at the hotel’s restaurant (the Blue.b) and found it quite good. The service was excellent, albeit, a bit stuffy.
This day ended up a whirlwind tour of the heart of Brittany. We began with a coastal panoramic of the northern coast and a stop at Cap Frehel overlooking the Channel. We took a little walk out to the lighthouse for a photo op. From there we headed inland and had a way too brief pit stop in Dinan. This is a town that deserved more attention that it got from us. It is a classic medieval town, where the big tours rarely visit at all because of its lack of adequate hotel space. Very charming with what looked like nice shops.
From there we headed inland, crossing over to the south of the peninsula. We made a stop for lunch at a very contemporary restaurant called Roi Arthur. I understand that it was the only decent restaurant on the area that was open on Sunday, but it was a good choice. We enjoyed the food and the staff was very pleasant. we had a decent amount of time at our next stop, Pont Aven. This was just fabulous with its shops, galleries and gardens along the little river. I now know where to rent that little place I want when I am old and gray and have time to hang out in Europe for extended periods. This was the town where the artist Paul Gauguin spent time and was purported inspired to paint his “”Yellow Christ,”” based on a wooden sculpture in a little chapel up the hill. We even went up the hill to see it for ourselves. Loved it … We enjoyed our free time meandering around the riverwalks and galleries, promising to return someday. But alas, all good things must come to an end so we boarded our bus and headed to Concarneau.
Medieval as it is, Concarneau just didn’t do it for me. Walled city on the water, yes, but the main street was a dreadful bore. The shops were ugly and nothing begged me to come in and spend my money. (Blessing or curse?) That night we checked into the Hotel Villa Tri Men in Combrit. This was another great choice but I must warn you that it isn’t for everyone. It is NOT a full service, luxury property. Yet neither is it a hokey mom and pop. It is a great building on a little bluff overlooking the sea. The rooms are spacious with great baths. The decor is a clean modern look. Our room had a little balcony overlooking the sea but we discovered that we were the only lucky ones on that note. There is a restaurant, but it is only open for dinner during high season and even then not every day. You have to hike over to the beach (5 minutes) to find food. Because it was low season for us, the restaurant was not open at all. If you come back late at night, you have to have a special key to get through the gate. Translated: the front desk is not 24/7. But all in all, it was delightful and if you were a very fussy, high end traveler who needs more than this, then you probably wouldn’t be travelling to this neck of the woods anyway. We stayed two nights here, exploring the countryside and the villages of the Far West of France.
Great day. First stop was Quimper which is the home of the world famous faence works, some dating back to the 17th century. This proved quite a delight even for those who have little interest in this kind of pottery. We had a tour of the facility and met with the sales director who gave us a special treat: we got to go up to the attic and see the racks of the original models! These dated back to who knows when and was great fun. One note about Quimper: although the faence works are the main attraction, the cathedral is hilarious. The front and the back were constructed separately. When the builders finally got around to connecting them with the main body of the church, they discovered that they did not line up. So they had to add a “”piece”” to one side to compensate and the whole building is noticeably crooked! I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
After Quimper, we drove on to the little village of Locronan. Here we had another special treat. The creperie that is normally closed on Monday’s opened for us. We had a set menu of crepes: a buckwheat with ham and cheese, one with sugar and lemon and one with salted butter. I’m hooked now and am the proud owner of a new crepe pan and 10 pounds of buckwheat flour (available through Amazon.com if you can believe that). After lunch, we waddled over to Point du Raz, the most westerly point of France. It is a rocky outcrop that hangs 70 feet above the water. On our way home, we did the scenic route and passed through a number of villages.
We checked out of the hotel and started our return eastward journey. We moved along the coast to Carnac. It is famous for its Neolithic stones, one of the great mysteries along the same lines as Stonehenge. We spent a few minutes with our guide discussing what little is known about them, how they got there and who might have arranged them.
For lunch we stopped at Auray. The town is fairly modern but across the river is the old village located along a bend in the river. Legend has it that this is where Ben Franklin landed when he came from America during the Revolution. There is a variety of little restaurants. Afterwards, we enjoyed a little cruise in the Bay of Morbihan. OK but not a highlight.
Our final stop was the town of Vannes. This is another walled town. Again, we were short on time and it was raining so we did not mind cutting it short. During our brief walking tour, we saw some great gardens growing along the walls. The shops were good but with the weather, no one was particularly interested.
Our hotel for the night was the Lodge Kerisper in La Trinite sur Mer. This was more like a B&B than a hotel but a very nice one at that. No portage. Decor is modern country. Our room was under the rafters and had hardwood floors. The amenities were nice but it had one of those handheld showers in the tub which Americans hate. (I don’t mind them at all personally.) There is no restaurant but they do serve a nice breakfast. There is also a bar in the lobby area along with a fireplace. All very cozy. Smelled great too. For food, you just trot down the hill. There are plenty of restaurants within a 5-10 minute walk. We ended up at the one closest called Le Bistrot du Marin.
Our final day was the journey back to Paris CDG punctuated by a couple stops. The first was the Forest of Broceliante. This is supposed to be the legendary site of King Arthur and his famous Court, faeries and all. I loved it. Our guide looked like she came straight from Central Casting. She was everything Gueneviere must have been: the hair, the cheekbones, the smile, the charming accent. She had a habit of acting out the stories in French which was very intriguing.
Second stop was Rennes where we did free time for lunch followed by a walking tour of the city. We visited the Parliament building and the Royal Square. The cathedral is very well known but unfortunately, it was closed the couple hours that we were in town. We had lunch across the street from it in a little creperie called La Motte Piquet.
From there, we did the long schlep back to Paris CDG. Our last night was at the Millenium at the airport. It was more than adequate for anyone needing a place to stay before a flight. It also has a shuttle to the two terminals (be sure to get on the right bus) which leaves about every 10-15 minutes.