Adventures in Brittany (feat. Canadians)

29 May

Last Wednesday night, around midnight, I arrived by train at a cold and very dark Newhaven Harbour. I could see a line of vehicles waiting to board the Seven Sisters ferry to France, but in the dark and unfamiliar place, it took me quite some time to find the foot passenger entrance. When I found the waiting room, it was housing just a handful of French backpackers and a couple of Americans. Nobody else was crazy enough to take a boat across the English Channel at 1:30 in the morning.

I assumed that the French backpackers were Normans, simply because they had very odd accents, but I’m not entirely sure where they were from. Part of the weirdness was due to the fact that they kept using English words. Presumably they’d been in England for some time.

At any rate, once aboard the ferry, the ship seemed completely dead. There was hardly anyone on board. Not that I was looking for socializing or anything — I needed sleep. So I overcame the temptation to play the ship’s arcade games and tried to get some sleep in one of the ship’s ‘salons’ (the ‘Devil’s Dyke’ to be precise – everything on the ship was named after a landmark in Sussex, including the ‘Beachy Head Bar’). Although the chairs were more comfortable than airplane chairs, it still wasn’t exactly the best sleeping position. Also, the lights remained at full power, and announcements were continually made over the ship’s loudspeaker, which were always preceded by an incredibly loud series of beeps. Yes, thank you for telling me that the ship store is open – but I was kind of hoping to sleep.

After a couple hours of very unsatisfying sleep, I awoke to watch the sunrise over the Channel and await our arrival in the port of Dieppe. What I wasn’t anticipating was the immense amount of fog, which made it somewhat difficult to find my way to the centre of town and the train station. But it did make for some neat pictures:

To see all of my pictures from Dieppe (both the arrival and the return journey), click here.

Once at the train station, I purchased a ticket for Paris, and was soon off through the countryside of Normandy. It was actually quite lovely, with many picturesque villages, chateaux, wooded hills and ponds. Even the outskirts of Paris were fairly attractive, although I suppose the northwestern part of Ile-de-France is the most bourgeois.

A quick hop on the Metro took me from the Gare St-Lazare to the Gare Montparnasse, where I waited for the TGV to Rennes. In retrospect, I realize that it probably would have been cheaper to take the train from Brighton to Portsmouth, and take the ferry straight to St-Malo, but IIRC the schedule for that route wasn’t very convenient.

I pseudo-slept through most of the train ride, and by the time I got to Rennes, my lack of sleep was really catching up to me. I eventually got my brain to figure out how to get to my hostel in Dinan, but I still had some free time. I decided to do some sightseeing in Rennes…until I realized that there really wasn’t much to see. It wasn’t a *bad* city by any means (like Metz…lol), there just wasn’t anything spectacular about it.

The vast majority of my traveling within Brittany was done using the Ille et Vilaine departmental coach service, “Illenoo”, which was significantly cheaper than using the train and provided access to more areas. Each trip cost 2.40 Euros, including a reduction for being under 26 – a couple of the coach drivers had to ask for ID. I don’t look that old, do I?

Since the coach was signifcantly more comfortable than a regular bus, I nearly fell asleep and missed my stop in Dinan, but fortunately I woke up in time to see the beautiful town. Situated on a hill, with streets leading down to the port on the Rance River, it was a very picturesque place. It looked something like this:

The whole city looked like it hadn’t changed much in the past 500 years. It was a very pleasant surprise, especially considering Dinan wasn’t one of my original ‘must-see’ places, but the hostel ended up being the only one available for my dates. From the charming old town, I took a narrow street called “La rue du petit fort” to the port on the river. This street looked almost entirely Medieval, with virtually no modern construction whatsoever – a narrow cobblestone street on a hill surrounded by stone and half-timbered houses – it was the idyllic image of France, and it was wonderful.

From the port, a very pleasant walk along the Rance and then a source stream brought me into a heavily wooded area where my hostel was located. It was very nice, and reminded me of home – there isn’t much forest left in England, really.

In the morning, the smell of the forest combined with the semi-salty smell of the air (being not too far from the sea) reminded me very much of mornings spent in Maine. The first couple of days in Brittany were actually very sunny and quite warm, however, and my pants and sweatshirt were too much. But I survived.

That morning marked the start of market day in Dinan, which was certainly a charming affair full of French foods and the like. I decided to try a Breton dish for breakfast, which consisted of “galettes saucisses” – essentially, sausages wrapped in crepes. Perhaps not as refined a breakfast as one might find in other parts of France, but it was filling.

To see Part I of my photos from Dinan, click here. To see Part II, click here.

Taking advantage of the sunny weather, I decided to head somewhere that would be best in the sun – Mont Saint-Michel. Although it would have been cheaper to take an Illenoo bus, I couldn’t find the local timetables, so I ended up taking the Rennes-to-Mont-St-Michel direct service, which cost me over 10 Euros for the outgoing journey and about 8 Euros for the return journey, after I realized there was an under 26 discount. But hey – I got to go to Mont Saint-freaking-Michel.

Sadly, I only got one shot of the Mont from a distance, which didn’t come out well at all, so the best photo I can offer is from the parking lot:

It really was an impressive sight to behold, especially from a distance. One of those, “omg, there it is” feelings. Of course, much of the charm of the place is destroyed by the fact that it’s crawling with tourists, but it was wonderful to be there nonetheless. Although I found the abbey itself somewhat underwhelming (I much preferred the little church with St. Michael’s shrine), the whole history and layout of the place was fascinating.

There was a brief moment where I thought someone had stolen my wallet. I felt panicked, violated, and angry – but mostly afraid of what my mother would say to me. Fortunately, I had just put it in a different part of my backpack. Crisis averted.

While waiting for the bus back from Mont St-Michel, I sat down near a group of Spaniards. I was actually amazed at how much of their conversation I was able to understand. One of them was describing her travels in America, particularly the West Coast. She noted that San Francisco was fairly easy to travel around in, being situated on a peninsula, whereas Los Angeles is enormous and thus difficult to travel. For someone who’s never studied Spanish, that was pretty good. Romance languages ftw!

To see all of my photos from Mont St-Michel, click here.

The following day, my itinerary called for using the train, which unfortunately was more expensive but allowed me to get where I wanted to go – a town called Vitré. It too had some charming streets with colourful half-timbered houses, but the centrepiece was undoubtedly the Medieval castle. If this isn’t France, I don’t know what is:

When I first arrived, the castle museum was closed for lunch (as many things are in France between 12 and 2), but I had plenty of time in the town, so I did a little bit of exploring. After checking out the picturesque locations, I returned to the castle and was met by a friendly woman who sold me my ticket (a good deal at 2.50, including entrance to 4 other museums in the area, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to go to them). She asked me where I was from for her records, and commented that there had been quite a few of my “compatriotes” who visited that day (although initially she asked me which département I was from…heh).

Although there wasn’t much to see in the castle, there was one exhibit room called “La chambre des oddités” or something to that effect, which was the most terrifying display of taxidermy I’ve ever seen. I believe that most of the animals were preserved in the 1800s, so they didn’t look too great. The birds were particularly frightening after the horrifying events of Conwy Castle, but the creepiest were undoubtedly the tubes and tubes full of snakes. Eek. The bugs were pretty disgusting and terrifying, too.

Geez, I’m such a girl sometimes.

To see all of my photos from Vitré, click here.

After I returned to the train station, and while waiting for my train back to Rennes, the warm, sunny weather changed rapidly. It became cloudy, cold, windy, and I could feel some light raindrops. It even thundered once – which, I believe, was the first thunder I’ve heard since I’ve come to Europe. Why are there never any real storms here? I could hear a bunch of kids screaming exaggeratedly after the thunder struck.

Upon arriving in Rennes, I changed for a fairly crowded train to Saint-Malo. It wasn’t exactly the best weather for visiting the resort town, but what can you do?

I decided to walk the walls around the old town, which gave good views of the surrounding sea and the fortified islands and whatnot. It was here that I met my first pair of aforementioned Canadians, a couple from Hamilton, Ontario (I restrained myself from referring to their hometown as an armpit). They asked me to take a picture of them, and then we talked for a little bit.

We discussed the Franco-Canadian connection that was particularly evident in this part of France (a statue of Jacques Cartier commemorating his departure for Canada was nearby, as well as the “Maison du Québec”). They also noted that the architecture in Brittany was similar to that in Quebec (which I explained was due in part to the fact that most of the original French settlers of Quebec came from the northwest of France, although it’s also because granite is a major building material in both regions). Of particular note was the woman’s comment that the accents are similar (although I think it’s more evident in Normandy), allowing her to happily nullify the notion that Canadian French is ‘inferior’ to European French – an idea which she attributed to some “pretentious Anglophones.” Haha.

I picked up a sandwich and an apple beignet for supper – that beignet was better than any doughnut I’ve ever had. French food is ridiculously good.

The hostel in Saint-Malo, although a good walk from the old town, was pretty nice. The receptionist was very nice (a true Breton, I think – she had red hair.) The beach was only a short walk away, where the coast looked like so:

At the hostel, I met my next Canadian, Matt (hello Matt!), from Calgary. Ironically, his alma mater is the very university that owns Herstmonceux Castle…talk about strange coincidences. We talked about everything from South Central to French culture to American politics to European travels to accents… oh yeah, and 28 Weeks Later. Well, Matt, I wish you luck on your long European adventure.

To see all of my photos from Saint-Malo, click here.

The next day, I debated whether to stay in Saint-Malo (even though I’d already seen most of it…) in order to guarantee easy access back to Rennes for the TGV, or whether to take a coach to Fougères, one of the locations on my original list. I eventually decided to go with the original plan, and it was definitely a good decision.

Actually, I almost missed the coach to Fougères, thanks to an Englishman. Saint-Malo is particularly full of English people, and I met a group of English “ramblers” (hikers I guess?) at the bus stop. These were older (50+) people, and they were spending quite some time trying to figure out which bus they were going to take. I believe this prompted one of the women to ask me, “Vous habitez ici?”

I explained that I was American and wasn’t familiar with the local buses, to which she replied, “You look very French.” Having French blood can be a mixed blessing – on the one hand, it makes me stand out less as a tourist, but on the other hand, people automatically assume that I’m French and so begin talking under the assumption that they’re conversing with a native speaker.

But it is remarkable how this assumption is made entirely upon appearance. On the ferry ride back to England, a French girl asked me if I had a lighter in French, and then went to the group of English and Australians next to me and asked them in English. Heh.

Anyway, the English woman was a lecturer at Southampton University, so she had lots of questions about my studies at Sussex and so forth. Of course she chided me for traveling during exam period, which made me laugh. At any rate, when my bus began to approach the stop, I hailed it, as did one of the Englishmen, who apparently thought that this was their bus, too.

Once he realized his mistake, he signaled to the bus driver to keep going. When I saw that the bus driver wasn’t going to stop after all, I felt like hitting the guy with something. Fortunately, the woman with whom I’d been talking informed him that it was my bus, and after some frantic hailing (and a dramatic “Well, pardoooon” on the part of the Englishman), I was able to get it to stop. Phew. Another crisis averted.

English people are hilarious.

So, it was on to Fougères. It took me a bit to find the old part of the town…I first passed through a small market in the high town area, where a costumed Native American music group was playing. That was pretty cool, albeit the last thing I expected. When I did find the old town, I was blown away. Lots of very picturesque areas, particularly around the Medieval castle. Here’s one picture of it:

I spent some time walking around the area and just taking pictures while soaking in the awesomeness of it all. I was going to pay for entrance to the castle, but unfortunately it didn’t open until 2pm (closed for lunch!) and my bus back to Rennes left at 2:45… it wouldn’t have been worth it. So instead, I decided to get lunch – at a restaurant, even, which I hadn’t done during the trip since I was already spending so much money.

I got the cheapest dish on the menu – steak haché avec frites for 6 Euros, which was really good. I even splurged and decided to get a crêpe sucre for dessert, at just over 2 Euros.

The hostess was Irish, but of course assumed I was French so spoke to me accordingly. The table next to me was full of a mixture of English Canadians and local Bretons…I think there may have been a family connection, but I’m not sure. It was interesting to hear the mixture of French and English and the transmission of cultural and linguistic knowledge. I felt like adding my own expertise at times. :p

There were also some remarks about the Breton language, which I don’t think I heard during my entire trip. The only time I remember seeing it written was on the road signs for Rennes (Roazhon in Breton), but the Celtic element was visible in some Celtic-styled writing here and there, as well as Celtic-looking faces and the scattered red hair. Mostly, though, I think that the northeastern part of Brittany (where I did all of my traveling) is the most Gallicized (although Francisized might be a better word…the Gauls were Celtic, too, after all).

It is pretty weird to think that the Breton language is the most closely related living language to Welsh, though (except for perhaps Cornish, if that still counts as alive). My travels come full circle. It’s also strange to think that the Bretons are, in a way, more “British” than the current Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of England.

Well, it was time to leave the “Petite” Bretagne and return to the Grande Bretagne, so I headed to the coach stop and waited for the coach back to Rennes. Along with me at the bus stop were two other people. I listened in on their conversation, and after a few seconds I knew that they weren’t French.

French-Canadians.

So inexplicably overjoyed was I by the fact that I’d discovered two French-Canadians next to me in a small town in France that I approached them and said, “Excusez-moi, vous êtes canadiens?”

“Oui. Québécois.” Of course that modifier was obligatory, but I didn’t want to make any assumptions in case they were Acadian or something.

They were from Montreal, so the conversation that followed consisted in discussing how long it takes to get from Montreal to Concord, etc. They might have mentioned Old Orchard, too. Naturally. At any rate, it was just really cool to talk to them, and to realize that a few years ago I would have had no way of telling that they were Canadian, never mind be able to hold a conversation with them (I only had to say “comment?” twice after the guy used some whacky Québécois turn-of-phrase). It’s also weird to think that our homelands are so much closer to each other than either is to France or England. In a lot of ways, we have more in common.

Funnily enough, the guy looked frighteningly like Gilles Duceppe. It could have actually been him, except I don’t know why he’d be using public transportation. But you never know.

He was quite friendly (well, Canadian), and he seemed to know a lot about England, too. I guess he’d been to the Brighton area before, and also recommended going to Cambridge to see the campus there. Unfortunately, I won’t have time.

To see Part I of my photos from Fougères, click here. To see Part II, click here (the last picture is from Rennes).

Anyway, after getting back to Rennes and getting on the TGV, I felt like my little Brittany excursion had been a success. My last night was spent in Paris, in a budget hotel in the 19th arrondissement. And it really deserved that “budget” adjective – there was no shower on my floor, and the ‘toilet’ was just a hole in the floor. Talk about Medieval.

Fortunately, I didn’t need to stay long. I enjoyed my night’s sleep, and headed to the train station in the morning for the ride back to Dieppe. This time, it wasn’t insanely foggy, so I was able to do some brief sightseeing before getting on the ferry. After a long ride spent watching some weird French comedy shows and a dubbed episode of Law and Order: SVU, we arrived in Newhaven Harbour. Back in the land of Angles, right?

Well, the conductor on the train was Scottish. That made me happy for some reason. It’s hard to believe I’ll be in Scotland in less than 2 weeks.

Today I decided to make use of some very pleasant weather (sunny, not too warm or too cold) to follow the boundary walk and take some pictures of what the downs look like in the spring / summer. A sample:

There are rabbits everywhere. It’s “Watership Down” all over again, except the rabbits are adorable instead of vicious killers. There are also adorable lambs running around and playing in their pastures, and horses who come up to me when I’m taking pictures. The landscape is also quite lovely now, although I missed a great photo opportunity at the end of last month, when the hill to the south of campus was completely yellow, being covered in flowers. Now the flowers are gone. 😦

To see the most recent additions to my Brighton Part III album, click here. And click here to see Brighton Part IV (mostly Stanmer Village).

Now to switch to the entertainment world – first, TV finales. The 24 finale was underwhelming, like the season itself, and even a little weird, although that last scene with Jack, Heller, and Audrey was actually very poignant, and important to the series as a whole. I’m interested in seeing where the show goes next season.

The Lost finale…wow. I think Lost probably takes the cake as my favourite show overall at the moment, and the finale proved why. The twist at the end was incredible, and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here. I was sad that Charlie died, but I guess someone had to. I was glad that Sayid and Jin lived, though. Man…so much stuff to talk about, but I guess I have until January to discuss it all. Now that’s just torture.

The House finale aired a short while ago, so I’ll have to wait a bit until I can watch it. Still looking forward to it.

And while I haven’t mentioned SVU in a while, the finale was pretty crazy (in a good way). A lot of character stuff to be resolved for next season, which is cool.

On the music front, just a couple of newfound French songs to note. First, a song by the group ‘Il etait une fois’, entitled “J’ai encore rêvé d’elle.” I quite like the song, even if the woman’s singing gets a little ridiculous at one point.

The song has actually been the subject of parody by a French duo known as Les Frères Taloche, wherein they mime to the lyrics of the song. It’s pretty funny – if you understand what the song’s saying, that is. You can watch it here:

J’ai encore rêvé d’elle

🙂

The other aforementioned French song…perhaps an unlikely selection on my part… but it’s called “Femme Like You” by K’Maro. I think it pretty much speaks for itself. It’s a mixture of French and English, if you hadn’t noticed.

Finally, on to movies — PotC 3 came out on Friday, and I intend to see it before I go up north, but I don’t have much time with two finals coming up. Oy. I’m going to try to see it tomorrow, because I really need to go into town – specifically the barber’s. My electric razor broke, so I need to get a shave along with a haircut, and buy a new razor. I’ve got a fuzzy bear thing going on right now.

I also need to buy new shoes before I go hiking in the Lake District, as anyone who’s seen my shoes lately will know.

Si je pouvais me réveiller à ses côtés

Si je savais où la trouver

Donnez-moi l’espoir

Prêtez-moi un soir

Une nuit, juste pour elle et moi

Et demain matin, elle s’en ira

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5 Responses to “Adventures in Brittany (feat. Canadians)”

  1. iciwici 31 May 2007 at 01:49 #

    hey you, its true! i havent heard from you in quite awhile. your travel logs are tres interesting though. i’ve always been scared to travel by myself, but you prove that its quite enriching…IF you have the immense package of geographic knowledge and language skills that gregory possesses.

    you should have your own show…or be a travel writer! enjoy..

  2. megan 2 June 2007 at 05:05 #

    You have desperately needed new shoes for two months now… 😉 Anyway, I’m sure you’re buried under revision/studying (as I should be), but if you have time could we finalise some Provence/couchsurfing details? It shouldn’t take more than an hour… Let me know!

    P.S. I’m looking forward to France. =)

  3. Archie 4 July 2007 at 11:15 #

    Hi:

    I’ve just returned from a four week visit to Paris. I only left the city to go to Normandie to visit Mont Mount Michael. I agree that the little church with st. Michael’s shrine is more impressive than the abbey.

    I envy your having seen so much of the Normandy Brittany area. I am too old ( 50s ) to be uncertain of my lodgings so I whimpishly stayed in Paris, but I enjoyed seeing the countryside in Normandy. Your stories of the area are wonderful.

    While in Paris I met a fisherman from Brittany. It was almost before I left and there were many questions regarding his home that I didn’t get a chance to ask. He did tell me about the Breton Language and gave me some pate which was made there.

    I live in the province of Nova Scotia, Canada, part of which is an island named “Cape Breton”, which is so named because fishermen from Brittany settled here. I had to live to be 57 and go all the way to France to learn that. We old people can be pretty dumb. ha!

    I should get to the point of my writing to you which is that I enjoy your site very much. I’ve read it three times. Thank You very much for sharing your time in France/Britan.

    Archie

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