Nos Vacances en Bretagne et en Normande

Way back in the spring Grahame organised himself a sailing trip from Dartmouth in Devon to Roscoff in Brittany. It didn’t take me long to come up with a scheme that involved taking my car and my dog across the English Channel so that, like Penelope* and Argos, we could be waiting to greet him on the quayside. I still have a lot to learn about sailing though and, despite all my careful organisation of ferry tickets, canine passports, breakdown insurance and guest house bookings, I could not contend with the weather. Grahame and the rest of the crew decided that they would not risk a 45 foot boat in gale force winds and instead had a lovely time messing about on the river Dart. I am assured that they were well placed in several races but no doubt there were also various local pubs to be inspected.

But a French holiday was what I had promised myself (and Molly) and so a French holiday it was going to be. I booked an extra berth for my man on the ferry without too much trouble but I can’t say I enjoyed navigating my way into the little port of Dartmouth in order to pick him up. You couldn’t move for boat trailers and bunting, chip shops and chandlers, yachting caps and……yes, well, the complete maritime palaver. However, Grahame took the helm of the Silver Chariot and successfully steered our way through these treacherous narrows so that we could reach Plymouth in time for our night sailing with Brittany Ferries. The Armorique, at 29k tonnes and 168 meters, was probably more my sort of boat.

The first week in September turned out to be the perfect time for this little Gallic (or perhaps I should say Celtic) sojourn because most of the family groups had already departed while thecvisitor attractions had not yet shut down for the season. They say everything you remember from infancy looks smaller when you re-visit it as an adult but I’m not sure my family even got as far as Brittany during all those rain-soaked childhood holidays in Normandy. Nonetheless, it is tiny. Brittany is, of course, as pretty as the ubiquitous picture postcards (tea towels, decorated ceramics, painted seashells, fridge magnets etc.) but it is undeniably bijou and to visit in full tourist season would probably be a mistake.

As well as the picturesque coastline and evocative medieval towns, I was interested to make my first visit to Carnac, the greatest concentration of Neolithic standing stones in the World. This may be one of the most important archaeological sites in Europe but there is little ceremony.  Sheep graze amongst these long straight lines of upright menhirs, whose ranks are interrupted only where someone has placed the odd road or village during the intervening centuries. The main concentrations of stones have been fenced off since 1991 to prevent them being used for camping but the local museum is somewhat parochial and no one seems to think that the site will get World Heritage status any time soon.

There are more than thirteen thousand stones in this small district alone, believed to have been erected sometime between 4,500 and 2,000 BC. If that sounds a little vague then it’s hardly surprising to find that little cutting-edge excavation is being carried out here these days. In fact the museum display seemed to imply that not much new research had been done since the days of a certain Saint-Just Pequard, one of the last people to be executed as a Nazi sympathiser at the end of World War II.

This part of France shares deep Celtic roots with the county of Cornwall and both lay claim to the origins of the Arthurian legends. It may be a comparatively modern fancy but the story that Merlin the magician once turned a whole legion of invading Roman soldiers into stone is an affecting one. Especially as they rise from the mists on a damp Autumn morning.

The featured photograph for this post shows Grahame and Molly crossing the causeway to Mont St Michel: another thing that links this part of the world to Cornwall and definitely not a place to enjoy any time away from the crowds. To get here we had crossed into the more familiar territory of Normandy but it wasn’t long before we had left the crowds behind and were enjoying some of the special, out-of-the-way treats for which rural France was once so justly famous. In these days of satellite navigation and television programmes promising to find quaint country properties just ripe for renovation it is still possible to turn down a country road and find a little ruined chateau half hidden by the trees. The notice board beside the honesty box at the entrance tells you that its history goes back more than 700 years but if you want to climb the Rapunzel tower you must do so at your own risk.

Normandy has a great deal in common with Kent, as my parents used to observe while we children traversed yet another muddy field or windswept beach. Yes, of course it does: they are part of the same geological formation and during their defining period of history they were each part of the same country and ruled by the same nobility. And during this trip I was able to become reacquainted with that incomparable contemporaneous document of the Norman conquest of England – The Bayeux Tapestry. It is some decades since I saw it last but it retains its power to shock and awe, just as William the Bastard’s merciless troops did to my countrywomen nine hundred and fifty years ago. The audio guide to this seventy meter long narrative embroidery wasn’t working properly but that was Okay. After all, I know the story.

(* Actually, I think Penelope may have been otherwise occupied at the time of her sailor’s return and I should probably also point out that this voyage was closer to two weeks than Odysseus’ two decades.)

Categories: Europe

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