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The last four days was a whirlwind road trip through Normandy and Brittany with my Harvard friend Zhizhong Joël Yao. The itinerary sounds exhausting, but it felt rather relaxed, except for hitting a few evening deadlines:

  • Thursday
    • Rouen, the historic capital of Normandy. Monet painted its impressive cathedral in many moods.
    • Étretat, one of the favorite seaside sites of the Impressionists.
    • Honfleur, an ancient port and fishing city.
  • Friday
    • Trouville-sur-Mer, a beach resort, also a port and fishing center.
    • Caen, the capital city of my ancestor (and probably yours as well), William the Conqueror.
    • Mont-St-Michel, which has enchanted me — despite my atheism — since childhood.
    • Dinan, in Brittany, a gorgeous hill town with a steep drop down to a charming river valley.
  • Saturday
    • Cancale, famous for its oysters. It’s the origin of Au Rocher de Cancale, a restaurant on rue Montorgueil mentioned several times in Balzac’s novels.
    • St-Malo, a former pirate haven, defended by a medieval city wall fringed with sandy beaches. The old city was intensively bombarded by the Americans after D-Day, so nearly all its buildings were reconstructed after World War II.
  • Sunday
    • Rennes, the capital of Brittany.
    • Three-hour drive back to Paris, culminating in the usual fin-de-weekend bouchon (traffic jam).

The weather was chilly and intermittently rainy. This is typical for the region, however, and there were enough sunny moments for us to dry out and take pictures. I’ll post full photo sets on Google+, and add links when they’re ready, but here are a few highlights.

We were impressed by Rouen, which seemed to have many Gothic structures in addition to its massive cathedral.

Cathedral of Rouen.

Cathedral of Rouen.

After an inexpensive gourmet lunch in Rouen we took some smaller roads at random and stumbled upon the town hall of Mont-de-l’If, which must be one of the tiniest municipalities in France.

The town hall of Mont-de-l'If, a tiny hamlet we stumbled on because of its obscure-sounding name.

The town hall of Mont-de-l’If, a tiny hamlet we stumbled on because of its obscure-sounding name.

Continuing off the beaten track we tried to find a cup of coffee in Godeville. We did find an open bakery but the owner said that there was no coffee to be had in the entire town due to the holiday! Zhizhong mentioned that the rain made the view through our windshield look like an impressionist painting, so I took a snapshot.

IMG_0930 Med Impressionist Godeville

The storm was at its height when we got to Étretat, but we got photos with the two favorite motifs nevertheless.

Bob in typical Normandy weather at Étretat.

Bob in typical Normandy weather at Étretat.

Zhizhong in typical Normandy weather at Étretat.

Zhizhong in typical Normandy weather at Étretat.

Fortunately the rain let up by the time we got to Honfleur, our destination for the night. It looked positively lovely the next morning.

The harbor of Honfleur, Normandy.

The harbor of Honfleur, Normandy.

We crossed the mouth of the Seine on a magnificent bridge and had lunch in Trouville-sur-Mer, a fishing port and beach resort.

On the waterfront at Trouville-sur-Mer.

On the waterfront at Trouville-sur-Mer.

Coquilles St-Jacques in the fish market at Trouville-sur-Mer.

Coquilles St-Jacques in the fish market at Trouville-sur-Mer.

Zhizhong with a seafood appetizer in Trouville-sur-Mer.

Zhizhong with a seafood appetizer in Trouville-sur-Mer.

Our next stop was Caen, the home city of William the Conqueror. We both really liked it, and thought it might be a fun place to spend more time in another time.

William the Conqueror's castle at Caen, Normandy.

William the Conqueror’s castle at Caen, Normandy.

The cathedral at Caen from the ramparts of the castle.

The cathedral at Caen from the ramparts of the castle.

L'Abbaye-aux-Hommes at Caen.

L’Abbaye-aux-Hommes at Caen.

A ruined church at Caen.

A ruined church at Caen.

We had reservations that evening at Dinan, in Brittany, and our plan had been to see Mont-St-Michel the following day. The route took us nearby, however, at around 7 pm. It’s recommended to visit early or late to avoid suffocating crowds, so we decided on the spur of the moment to see if we could go. It turned out to be both easy and cheap. We parked in one of many massive lots and a free shuttle bus took us to the island. There were others there but it was never a crush, and after we took a side path to the cemetery we sometimes had the place all to ourselves!

Your first view of Mont-St-Michel is surreal.

Your first view of Mont-St-Michel is surreal.

A shuttle bus carries people to Mont-St-Michel from the many parking areas over a causeway (soon to be replaced by a bridge).

A shuttle bus carries people to Mont-St-Michel from the many parking areas over a causeway (soon to be replaced by a bridge).

Zhizhong gazing out to sea from the ramparts of Mont-St-Michel.

Zhizhong gazing out to sea from the ramparts of Mont-St-Michel.

Mont-St-Michel casts a long shadow.

Mont-St-Michel casts a long shadow.

The profile of Mont-St_Michel from the ramparts.

The profile of Mont-St_Michel from the ramparts.

The only flaw in our visit was the fact that the abbey at the top was closed by a strike. There was a silver lining, though, since we would have been too late for our hotel if we had lingered. Fully satisfied, we continued on to Dinan for the night. The hotel was superb, and they found a restaurant that was still open at 10:30 pm, which was inexpensive and delightful.

This mi-cuit chocolate cake in Dinan was (almost) too beautiful to eat!

This mi-cuit chocolate cake in Dinan was (almost) too beautiful to eat!

The next morning we explored Dinan, which is, for good reason, one of Zhizhong’s favorite places in the world.

Dinan, Brittany

Dinan, Brittany

View of the river valley from the ramparts of Dinan.

View of the river valley from the ramparts of Dinan.

This is the winding road from the upper town to the river at Dinan.

This is the winding road from the upper town to the river at Dinan.

The old bridge and viaduct over the river Rance at Dinan.

The old bridge and viaduct over the river Rance at Dinan.

Zhizhong at lunch in Dinan, with Breton cider.

Zhizhong at lunch in Dinan, with Breton cider.

Bob at lunch in Dinan.

Bob at lunch in Dinan.

Flowers on a wall in Dinan

Flowers on a wall in Dinan

After lunch we drove over to St-Malo, via Cancale — all quite close together. I was moved by the evocation of a shipwreck, and the consolation of religion, in this stained glass window from the little cathedral in Cancale.

This stained glass window in Cancale vividly evokes the danger of seafaring, and the comfort of religion.

This stained glass window in Cancale vividly evokes the danger of seafaring, and the comfort of religion.

And here are a couple of scenic shots.

A doorway in Cancale.

A doorway in Cancale.

An old well at St-Malo.

An old well at St-Malo.

I made a minor planning error when I reserved in St-Malo. The modest but pleasant hotel was located a block from the cathedral, but two long miles from the walled city that is everyone’s destination. We had a car so it was no problem, but I would have preferred to stay within walking distance.

St-Malo is a peculiar place. It has a storied history as a powerful seafaring city and pirate haven, but nearly all of the buildings within the medieval walls were destroyed in World War II. They were rebuilt in a 20th century style strongly resembling Paris — including a street of posh shops — but with sandy beaches on three sides. While I found the view from the jetty unsettling I felt right at home on the city streets, and I’m sure it would be even more fun in beach weather.

The land approach to the old city at St-Malo.

The land approach to the old city at St-Malo.

View of St-Malo from a long jetty. The old city was destroyed in World War II so all the buildings are postwar.

View of St-Malo from a long jetty. The old city was destroyed in World War II so all the buildings are postwar.

St-Malo is hopping at night.

St-Malo is hopping at night.

We had a great dinner in St-Malo (after trying a place that looked nice but was really too expensive) at L’Ancrage, which has 4-1/2 TripAdvisor stars. I had a delicious plate of Cancale oysters as my appetizer, and snapped a photo of the owner with a full-fledged seafood platter.

Oysters from Cancale, at L'Ancrage in St-Malo.

Oysters from Cancale, at L’Ancrage in St-Malo.

A breathtaking fish platter at L'Ancrage, St-Malo.

A breathtaking fish platter at L’Ancrage, St-Malo.

The next morning, perhaps inspired by that amazing fish platter, we visited the Grand Aquarium of St-Malo. It was ok, including a dramatic ride through their big fish tank, but I would only recommend it for a rainy day. I preferred the Monterey Bay aquarium I had visited some years back, where I took these little video clips of jellyfish swimming:

Jellyfish Swimming 1
Jellyfish Swimming 2
Jellyfish Swimming 3
Jellyfish Swimming 4
Jellyfish Swimming 5
Jellyfish Swimming 6

Rennes, the capital of Brittany, was an easy diversion on our way back to Paris. It was a nice enough provincial town, but nothing to write home about.

I had tried once again this year to avoid city driving by choosing a rental site on the edge of Paris, in this case in the northwest near our route to Rouen, but also convenient to métro line 1. The departure worked beautifully, once we figured out what our French GPS was saying: the difference between tenez la gauche (keep left) and tournez à gauche (turn left), for example, initially escaped me. But what I failed to anticipate was the fact that returning via Rennes brought us into Paris from the south, thus embroiling us in a massive traffic jam going back around to the northwest. The cherry on top was the fact that the Hertz GPS died just as we entered the city, and Google Maps then took us via l’Etoile, the absolutely insane traffic circle around the Arc de Triomphe. I barely escaped getting hit, and was very pleased to return our rental car, more-or-less intact, a few minutes later.

Mot du jour: faire le pont. Literally, “make the bridge,” this means to take off Friday as well when there is a jour férié (holiday) on a Thursday, or Monday when the jour férié is on a Tuesday. May 8 celebrates the liberation of Paris in 1945, so Zhizhong was able to take a four-day weekend using a single vacation day.