France 2016: The start of a round-the-world trip

The world is a magnificent place and it’s now possible to go right around it in much less than 80 days … though how good would it have been to have had many more on this trip in 2016. Everywhere was equally wonderful, meeting up with old friends along the way, and making lots of new ones.

CHARTRES France: 3 September 2016

It’s now my second day in France, and about 72 hours since I left Adelaide.   I’m in a shabby-chic kind of AirBnB apartment in Chartres, waiting for Nelson (English friend from the Pyrenees) to arrive, after spending the earlier part of the day exploring this charming old city by myself .  Still haven’t quite got my bearings…but who cares?   Just wandering through a maze of medieval lanes and streets, and around the famous 12th century cathedral has been a joy. 

Yesterday ( Sept 2) was spent almost entirely in just getting here.   After a seemingly endless flight from Singapore, arrival in Paris should have been a relief ..  but it wasn’t.    After being herded through the cattle run of Immigration Control  I found myself in an unrecognisable terminal so had to walk miles , then take the crowded shuttle train to Terminal 2 to get to the Airport railway station.  Having then found a ticket machine to retrieve my booked-online ticket to Chartres,  I discovered there was no way I was going to have time to change trains in the middle of the city.   My mistake, perhaps, for not checking the details very carefully when I booked. But one assumes that a reputable online booking system like Capitaine Train would not issue two legs of the journey with the first train arriving at Gare du Nord, and the outward train departing from Gare Montparnasse on the other side of the city, with only 20 minutes changeover time. Quite impossible.  So, I had to scrap the first ticket and then make my way to Gare Montparnasse via the ordinary suburban train, plus Metro, which involved more tunnels, stairs to lug bags up and down, and considerable fatigue and frustration …not to mention wasting 47 Euro.    Capitaine Train will be hearing from me in due course.

On eventual arrival in Chartres, the next hurdle was finding the BnB I’d booked there .  Should have been easy to follow the directions and walk about 800 meters. But I was hot and tired.   Eventually found it with the help of a lovely female taxi driver who drove me the last block –  free of charge.   By this stage I was really looking forward to a shower and a cup of tea …but then found I couldn’t get in.  I knew that Sonia, the owner, was away but there was no key in the key safe.    Fortunately rescue seemed at hand when a friend of Sonia’s just happened to arrive to check for mail.  She didn’t have a spare key but tried texting Sonia (who was in Vietnam !) then phoning her parents, then checking with neighbours and eventually even offering me the couch at her place if we couldn’t get in.   In the course of all these attempts to Find the Key, she discovered that the car of the previous occupants was still in the back garden, so we assumed they had to be still around town somewhere.  Best option seemed to be Sit and Wait….and wait, and wait…..  Sure enough, more than an hour later a young couple arrived back from their walk. With  the key!!  They’d had no idea I was booked in to stay and were hugely apologetic.   So all was well at last and one very hot, thirsty, tired traveller found her home for the next 3 nights – about 48 hours after leaving Adelaide.

Skipping back to the beginning, the next day was lovely.   I found my way to the cathedral, the oldest Gothic cathedral in Europe, built in the 12th-13th centuries, rebuilt after fires and listed as a World Heritage site.  The stained glass windows are wonderful. And Chartres is still renowned as a centre for glass work. I resisted the possibility of climbing 300 steps to the top of one of the towers, and opted instead for the very touristy activity of taking the little train around the old part of the city.  (Well, it was hot and I was still a bit jet-lagged..) Anyway it was worth 6.50 euro.   Got to see lots of ancient houses, churches, bridges and quirky corners of the historic quarter without having to climb hills and cobbled stairways, and I learnt more in the process.   I’m quite captivated by the charm of this city and the friendliness of the people.  My attempts at speaking French have been met kindly and I was able to do a bit of market-shopping in preparation for Nelson’s arrival.   Definitely walked more than 10,000 steps exploring the town, so wandered ‘home’ to have a snooze during the afternoon.  

Nelson rocked up on his bike around 6pm, having traveled by train from England during the day.   Was great to catch up and unwind over a simple dinner at home with my market purchases, before we set out to walk to the cathedral again after dark to see the amazing illuminations of many of the old buildings.   The colours and images displayed were phenomenal and everyone watching from nearby bars, restaurants, gardens and footpaths was  quite awe-struck.   This display has been happening every night throughout the summer and must be a huge tourist draw card for Chartres.   It was a warm, balmy evening last night so we thoroughly enjoyed strolling around and coming across more beautiful lighting effects and the very pleasant atmosphere of a late Saturday night in this lovely city.

Camino way marker outside Chartres Cathedral

September 4: A lazy start today.  Nelson set off on the bike to locate the essential baguette and croissants for a French Sunday morning breakfast and then we continued to catch up on news of activities since we’d last seen  each other at Jocelyne’s place in the Pyrennees.

We ambled off mid-morning to the old centre of town again.  Came across a huge Mass in progress in the cathedral -something to do with Mother Theresa’s canonisation.  We were surprised for a brief moment at seeing security officials checking bags at the door until the penny dropped and we realized that this is probably now happening all over France wherever there’s a large crowd of people.   We were able to go inside and move quietly around the side chapels with a backdrop of chanting, prayers and organ music.   Then walked some more down to the river

Had dinner out in a quaint typical little French restaurant…old beams, gingham tablecloths and great food! Really enjoyed having company for the weekend.

September 5:

It was au revoir to Nelson this morning. He’s heading back to his canal boat somewhere in the beautiful French countryside.   I took the train to St Malo for the next phase of this Round the World trip….

September 6:  Elyane’s home @ Plouer sur Rance, Britanny

What else could I ask for?   Elyane is extremely kind and generous, she’s showing me the very best of Britanny, and I’m getting to practise a bit of French every day.    Her attractive home is tucked amongst trees and a pretty garden, with cows in a small field next door.  Raspberries are growing around the side and herbs by the back door.   Quite perfect, and would be even better if only I could speak French properly. (Elyane is a friend of Ann and Normand, my French Canadian home exchangees, whose place I’ll be heading to in Ottawa later this month. Anne and Normand also met Elyane through a home swap)

France is such a beautiful country,.  Everything I’ve seen in this region is up there with the best….the coast line and bays around St Malo and Dinard,   the wide river Rance, the gracious old stone farm houses, small villages and historic towns such as Dinan, where we spent several hours today.   But it’s so, so HOT, like the middle of summer, with everyone in their lightest summer clothes.  In contrast, my bags are packed with jumpers, jeans and jackets ready for Canada and the US.  I didn’t expect this glorious weather here in Brittany in September.  Had to buy a sleeveless top today.

Step back to yesterday (Monday 5 September)

Elyane at St Malo
St Malo fortifications

The train trip from Chartres to St Malo was easy, with changes at Le Mans and Rennes.   Elyane met me at the station at St Malo and we drove straight into town.  It’s a hugely popular tourist place to visit, so on a bright, hot sunny day it was chock-a-block.  The entire old town is surrounded by high stone walls for protection from the sea and marauding armies., but despite the massive fortifications , the town suffered severe destruction at the end of WW2.   It was occupied by the Germans for much of the last part of the war and life must have been very difficult for the French inhabitants.   (A fantastic book set in this time is “All the Light we cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. Highly recommended!)   St Malo’s been completely restored since the war and today it was all sunshine and happiness.   After walking around the ramparts – with great views of the sea, the old port, hundreds of boats and the high stone houses inside the walls – we enjoyed some traditional gallettes (crepes) and Breton cider. 

Then it was a scenic drive to Elyane’s home and settling in for the next few days. 

Skip forward again to September 6:

Beautiful little Dinan
Down by the river in Dinan

As mentioned above, this was the day we visited Dinan, a medieval town with streets and houses dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries.  Unbelievably gorgeous!   One ‘main’ cobbled street climbs steeply from the pretty little riverside port up to  the main town square and commercial area at the top.   It was good to take a breather several times on the way up just to admire the old timber-beamed cottages, bending and twisting at all angles,  and all the pretty flower boxes in their windows.   Some are now little art shops or studios, but many still seem to be private homes  There’s a photo opportunity everywhere you look.   At the top of the street are the restaurants and postcard shops, but it’s all still very pretty and colourful.    Mussels were being advertised as the ‘plat du jour’ in many of the little bars and cafes, so we enjoyed a huge pot full each. Cooked in cream and white wine, sprinkled with shallots and parsley…yum! !  Dinan is a a treasure …I loved it. 

A typical old house
Elyane walking down through Dinan

September 7:
Mont St Michel, Normandy
The jewel in the crown in northern France is Mont St-Michel, the island monastery and abbey – actually just out of Britanny, into Normandy.  It’s like a huge rock built on vast tidal sands and river flats, but when the tide comes in it’s like a floating castle cut off from the world.    It’s a holy place that’s been a place of retreat and pilgrimage since the 8th century. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the monastery is visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.  The car park on the mainland can accommodate 3000 cars!  You have to park in the official (and expensive ) car park,  then go across to the island on a free shuttle bus.  There’s now a kilometre-long causeway built to take buses and pedestrians. Some enthusiasts make the return trip across the sand with a guide, but it’s apparently very treacherous with quicksand in places.   It looked like a very long, hot walk, so we opted for the shuttle both ways.  Exploring Mont Saint-Michel requires lots of walking and stair-climbing, but it is worth it  Unfortunately the abbey high up on the mount had closed by the time we got there, but after returning to the car and driving to a nearby village for dinner, we returned to a vantage point to see this beautiful place by night.   Even from a distance it looks magical all lit up.

A day in Rennes: September 8

Typical house in the old part of Rennes

Rennes is an old city, approximately 50 km from Elyane’s home.  Today she’d organized for us to meet an official city guide for a walking tour of the most historical parts.  We also met Elyane’s brother who came along on the walk.  It was fascinating to see the very oldest medieval houses and follow a route through the centuries, with a constant stream of facts and stories….almost entirely in French.  Although the guide could speak English, she obviously found it much easier to communicate with Elyane and Christien in their own language,  and only gave the occasional brief nod to me in translation.   Fortunately the old houses and walls were beautiful to look at, but I had a splitting headache after 2 solid hours of walking in the sun and straining to understand anything.   If I ever want to know anything about the history of Rennes from the 13th century I’ll look it up on Google.  It won’t be detailed in this here journal.

After the walk, we enjoyed lunch on the terrace of a busy restaurant, along with many locals enjoying their lunch break.   A hearty meal in the middle of the day seems to be the custom here – as well as more food and wine in the evening , of course. 

To fill in time before meeting Anne and Normand (above mentioned home exchangees) at the station, we strolled through part of the very extensive botanic gardens in Rennes.  Was good to see so many people enjoying the lawns, flowers and shady places.  We’d come across a big rally and demonstration in the city earlier in the day and many students were still gathered together in the gardens, replete with flags and banners. But there were no longer dozens of police and military on the sidelines.   Security is definitely big-time here.

Elyane, Anne and Normand – my home exchangees

Anne and Normand arrived at 4.25 by train from Switzerland.   So good to see them both again and to have the pleasure of their company at Elyane’s for the next 24 hours.   Strange to think I’ll be in their house in Ottawa in about a week’s time.   (They stayed in mine in November last year while I was in France….we met briefly and they teed up my stay with Elyane,  one of their previous home swappers!   This home exchange network is fantastic…)   Back home, we shared a superb feast of oysters and salad in the garden, followed by cheese, wine, raspberries and chocolate.   Once again, much of the conversation was in French, but I could follow  bit more of it. I guess the ear tunes in a bit over several days.   Still extremely difficult for me to join in in any intelligent way, but one or other of these lovely people would often break into English  for the poor Australian in their midst.  I feel I need about 6 months immersed in the language to become even mildly fluent.   Will just have to keep  coming here, I guess…

September 9: Lazy day at home with a BBQ lunch and more chat.   Lots of tips from Anne and Normand about Ottawa too. But eventually the time came for me to say Au revoir to France and take the ferry from St Malo across to Jersey .   Fond farewells at the ferry terminal, and I was off to a world of English again in the Channel Islands.