We flew from Vienna to Paris on Wednesday,May 31st, then took the RER train from Charles de Gaulle airport to the Montparnasse area and stayed in a hotel overnight. I got into a conversation with our flight attendant, as his jump seat was just beside us. He was very charming and complemented me on my french…..I love it when this happens, makes me feel good…..he immediately became a best friend! He also gave me a free french lesson while we were conversing as there were a few words I could not remember. My french usually improves after a couple of days in France.
On the RER coming in to Paris an Irish gentleman (probably 40ish) sat across from us. Gotta love the Irish. In the time it took to get into Paris, we knew his life history and had a “great old time” conversing and laughing. He was only in Paris overnight on a business trip…..amazing one can do this in Europe!
We chose a hotel in the Montparnasse area as the TGV to Rennes was leaving from the Montparnasse Train station, a 5 minute walk from the hotel. During this 6 week holiday, this will be the only night we stay in a hotel, apartments the rest of the time. Got in around 7:30 pm and headed out for dinner. Happened upon a wonderful traditional french restaurant which had an unbelievable wine list; hard to choose! We both opted for duck for dinner, our favourite when in France. For the most part we are doing our own cooking and have been out for dinner maybe once a week.
Forget how small french hotel rooms can be, glad that we choose apartments, certainly the way to go for us, way more comfortable and lots more room. To date we have had some interesting and different apartments.. … in Vienna an apartment with slow internet but great location, a walk up 4 stories in Budapest and somewhat noisy at night but very comfortable with two separate baths, an ultra modern apartment in Krems where one needed a degree to figure out how things worked but a lovely outdoor seating area, a cold apartment in Bad Ischl but very well equipped, beautiful views and balcony and now an apartment in Rennes with uneven floors and tight bathroom quarters but great location. All part of the adventure!
Received a very nice thank you from our landlord in Krems, she actually invited us to stay at their private apartment just above their garage if we visit the area again. We had seen it when we went to her home and she gave us the apricot jam, must say the apartment was very “cute”. Nice to receive this invite.
We headed off to the train station on Thursday morning and TGV took 2 hours to get to Rennes. They always leave on time, and very comfortable ride. While waiting at the train station, a very elegant older lady sat next to us. So needless to say, I struck up a conversation with her. Found out she owned an apartment in Paris and was on her way to Bordeaux where she had a “little” apartment. When she found out we were on our way to Brittany, she mentioned that she had a “little” apartment in St.Malo. She told me that she had never been in Canada, but still on her list……guess she should buy a “little” apartment there as well!
Brittany is an area of France that we have not been to, so we are looking forward to touring the area. It is said that the Bretons like to say they are Celtic, not Gallic. Others in France say they feel they are in a foreign land when they visit this area. Brittany is divided into two nearly equal parts – Upper Brittany along the Channel Coast and Lower Brittany. We hope to have time to see both equally well. When coming in on the TGV we saw the rolling countryside and many farms around Rennes. The population of Brittany was 3.2 million as of 2014.
From the end of the 14th century until the middle of the 19th century, the cloth industry constituted one of Brittany’s most important economic sectors. Growth in this area was also helped by its international trade due to its coastal area. In the 19th century this industry collapsed as the middle class had not invested in mechanization.
Today Brittany is the first agricultural region of France, mainly with porcine production, poultry farming and vegetable cultivation (cabbage, artichockes, potatoes, spinach and green beans are primary with peas and tomatoes second in production in France). They are number one in production of dairy products (21% of French production).
Brittany represents a volume of 302,000 tons of fresh fish among 15 main ports and represents 90% of the total French seaweed production…..don’t know who eats all the seaweed!
Elaborate half-timber houses (called “colombage” in French) are everywhere in Brittany, relics of the medieval days, when this region along with Normandy, was colonized by the English.
The capital city of Rennes is classified as the gateway of Brittany. It is a very youthful city with some 70,000+ students and greater Rennes has a population of 700,000+. There was a fire that devastated the city centre in 1720 where unfortunately a lot of the medieval houses were burnt, but on the positive side, a good number still exist. In the 10th century Rennes withstood Norman invaders and this became a symbol of Breton resistance. Rennes has the second largest outdoor market in France and we will be going there on Saturday.
Once we arrive in Rennes, we rent a car…..takes us a while to figure out the GPS, get it changed to English and figure out where we are going. The apartment we have rented is in the pedestrian only section of the old town of Rennes, so we have had to park in a parking garage very near the apartment. Always a little hectic trying to find your way to apartments the first time around! Our apartment is in a 15th century building on the second floor. The steps are so worn, one can sense hundreds of people over the centuries climbing these same stairs. The floors are uneven, bathroom small, but has everything we need.
Once we get settled in we take a walk around the old town, find the tourist bureau and get some groceries. Stop at a cafe/bar and have a cold drink….27 degrees today. The weather forecast is calling for some cooling down and rain in the coming week.
Thursday morning we head out to the small town of Chateaugiron, some 20 minutes by car outside of Rennes. There is a castle here which was founded in the 11th century by a knight of Norman origin, and had a son called Giron. The town developed around the castle, which is the norm, and the monks from Rennes established a priory here. In the 18th century the castle was extended and transformed into a residential building. Today it serves as the Hotel de Ville (City Hall). A quaint little place which is part of classification of towns in Brittany “The Cities of the Art”. All of these towns have their own unique character and have preserved their rich architectural heritage.
We return to Rennes and go out for a short walk and end up at the Cathedral St.Pierre. It dates back to the 16th century but was rebuilt in 1784. Not particularly ornate inside,but very peaceful, a good time for some reflexion and prayer. The exterior is monolithic and austere.
We head out to meet our walking guide, Marie Charrier. She has lived in Rennes for 35 years and was originally from Nantes. Today Nantes is part of Brittany, but people from Nantes still believe they are part of the Loire. Marie is a retired nurse and just a delight. During our time together she discusses the history of Rennes and Brittany. She and I speak a bit of French, but she reverts to English to ensure Robin understands. She is very proud of her city and you can tell she takes pride in showing us its highlights.
We start off at the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and right across the square is the Opera House. The way in which the city hall and opera were built (10 years apart) looks like they could fit into each other.
Performances held at the Opera house throughout the year, with the exception of July and August. This coming week the production of Carmen is on and they will simulcast it throughout Brittany on large screens. Marie told us that Rennes is a centre for technology and the tech sector is involved in this production.
We continue our walk and Marie shows us some shops and a swimming pool that have wonderful mosaic work. These works were completed by an Italian artisan that had moved to the area. Onward to a compound with a beautiful building which she tells us is housing for the fire fighters and there families, all paid for by the government of France. We come across the fire station and they are on strike, although still working, they are protesting the government to get more firefighters as they feel they are overworked. Only in France would one complain of having housing provided and on the other hand begrudge work conditions, which are usually pretty liberal.
Go to the Ports Mordelaises, part of the original gates that protected the city in ancient times. One of the only sections of the original walls. Walk along the Bretagne Parliament Buildings which are now the appeal courts for Brittany and the Loire. Marie told us that in 1994 the building had been set on fire by fishermen that were demanding state subsidies! Marie told us that the fire alarms that sounded that night were ignored as they used to go off all the time, so the firefighters simply stayed at the station. The building was rebuilt and they used ceramic roof tiles….smart! What is very ironic is that the Parliament buildings were one of the few that escaped the 1720 fires!
Along our walk Marie takes us in an area where all the students drink in the outdoor cafes. She says this is the “rue de soif”…”street of thirst”. We mentioned that on Thursday night when we were out walking after dinner, all the bars and restaurants were packed with people and asked if this was the norm. She told us there was two reasons for this…firstly, every Thursday night, the students go out drinking as they will be heading home for the weekend on Friday and secondly the unusual warm weather brings out people. She also went on to say that the professors at the University do not like teaching on Friday mornings as the students are either hung over or missing!
Marie said that this warm weather that Rennes has experienced has been unusual but seems to be happening more…who says there is no global warming!
The Breton language had been banned at one time, but is now seeing a resurgence. All the street signs are both in French and Breton. Maire told us that Rennes has a school where all subjects are taught in Breton. Some shops are devoted to the Breton language and all things Breton (Breizh).
Rennes even has a metro system, one line. Marie says its the smallest city with a metro system! During our walk, Marie also pointed out which restaurants and cafe to frequent, always nice to get these recommendations.
Robin and I had asked Marie what was the meaning of the word “TY”. We have come across this quite often; as a matter of fact the apartment we rented is called Ty Cocon and the one in Quimper is called Ty Guests, and we have seen this sign often. Well, it means “at the house of” in Breton…..mystery solved.
At the end of our walking tour with Marie we offer to have a coffee with her, but she declines as she is on her way out of town for the weekend. She asked if we would be in Rennes later next week and invited us for dinner. “Quelle domage” I say, we are leaving on Tuesday morning. So nice to meet these wonderful people along the way in our travels. A memorable afternoon.
Saturday morning we attend the market in Place des Lices in Rennes, just a 2 minute walk from our apartment. This is the second largest market in France. Fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood and flowers all in abundance. We indulge ourselves and buy some prepared foods for our meals for the next few nights…..some paella, some mixed salads, quiches and fresh green beans. I bought a small melon (melon Charantais) and the vendor asked when we were going to eat it, and chose one for us. In these markets, you do not help yourself. It is the vendor who gathers what you want. If you want a certain cut of meat from a butcher, you simply point to which piece you want. As in all markets, locals seem to have their favourite vendors….no different from our farmer’s market at home, we have our favourite vendors.
One of the vendors was selling some stuffed peppers (poivrons) and an elderly gentleman beside us asked for one. She asked which colour would he prefer, red or yellow? He replies “red”. She replies “vous devrez etres amoureux”….you must be amourous! Lots of laughter and smiles all around!
The fish mongers in most markets that we have come across in France over the years are always yelling to people to come and see their beautiful fish. Believe me,they do not need loud speakers!
We come across a local selling wines from around France and his prices are reasonable. We buy a few bottles from him and his young daughter is helping him out. I give her the cash and father asks her to give me my change. A math lesson ensues and I say “A, elle est votre banquiere”…”So, she is your banker”. His daughter thought this was funny…..think she needs a further lesson…took a while to get my change!
Even a line up for a coffee roaster who was roasting the beans right at the market. Not selling coffee, just the beans. Also lots of locals selling their home made apple cider, all very professionally labelled and bottled. Apple cider is very popular here in Brittany.
I think what is amazing about this market, in addition to its size, is that some of the vendors sell just one item. For instance, one vendor sold just mushrooms, another just onions, another just olives while another artichokes. They don’t just sell one type, they have numerous sizes, types and shapes, etc.
Very cloudy and cool this morning as we attended the market. Stopped at the local bar just near our apartment for a coffee/tea afterwards. A rugby game was on the tv, so needless to say we stayed a while so Robin could watch the game. A young english couple sat next to us and we started talking. They live and work in Rennes in biotech and are very happy here. They say people in Rennes are very friendly and we can definitely confirm that. This is a bar they always come to so they can watch rugby and football (soccer) matches on the big screen.
In the afternoon, we head out to Saint-Malo, about one hour from here along the coast. In the 17th century, Saint-Malo was the largest port in France and very famous for its Corsairs. A Corsair is a seafarer, commissioned by the King to carry on naval warfare on his behalf. Authorized to prey on the commerce of foreign ships….sounds like a pirate to me; except has to give the booty to the king! One exert I read said that Saint-Malo had a nickname of “the pirates city” and that the corsairs (or sea dogs) were paid by the french crown to harass the Limeys across the channel!
Saint-Malo sits on a rocky peninsula above the Rance estuary. The town accumulated much wealth in the 17th century through trade. There are ramparts around the old town and these were constructed in the 18th century, but were destroyed and rebuilt after WW11. Today they say that this is the breeding ground for phenomenal sailors, certainly lots of sailboats out when we arrived.
Also a very famous person ..Jaques Cartier, sailed from here and claimed Canada for the crown of France in 1535. Saw a mosaic in the church in Saint-Malo to commemorate this sailing.
The old town of Saint-Malo are surrounded by ramparts. Most of the city was burnt when the Nazis started a fire as they were retreating. It is said the fire lasted a week. The houses were rebuilt using granite. There are still a few of the ancient homes that were spared during the fire.
We enter the old town through one of the gates and find it full of restaurants of tourist shops. We decide to find a creperie along one of the side streets. Robin chooses a “super” galette (ham, cheese and egg) and I opt for a St. Jaques (scallops). They are both extremely delicious. The galettes are served with savoury fillings while crepes are served with sweet fillings. The galettes are made with buckwheat flour. We cave and share a sweet chocolate fondant crepe for desert.
The restaurant “Le Petit Crepier” gets quite busy and the table next to us is taken by three elderly french people, a couple and their friend. I strike up a conversation with the gentleman and his wife and when they find out we are from Canada, they speak of visiting Montreal. They tell us that we have chosen the “best” creperie in Saint-Malo as the galettes and crepes are made in house. They say that most creperies buy their crepes and galettes from large companies. They drive from Rennes just to eat here.
Walk around the town and take in the view from the ramparts (12th century) , see the inner harbour and on the other side take in the view of the many sailboats on the ocean. Lots of people on the beaches as well taking in the sunshine, yes it is now getting sunny and hot. The ramparts are 2 kms in length and surround the Vielle Ville (Old Town). We wind our way through the narrow streets and enter Cathedrale St.Vincent, where we find the mosaic to Jaques Cartier. We are fortunate as the organist is practicing, so we sit for a while to enjoy the beautiful music. We continue and come upon a memorial to the Resistance fighters and those that went to the death camps. Always find these memorials very moving.
Came across some gold inlays in the sidewalks with a picture of an animal. When we were leaving Saint-Malo I asked a policeman what these meant. He told us that the animal was a white ermine the symbol of the city.
Next stop is the small town of Dinan, another town classified as a “Ville d’Art et d”Histoire”. It is a medieval town and dates back to a feudal castle built in the 11th century and ramparts were added in the 13th century. It was known as a textile producing town and has imposing half timbered houses. A beautiful little town.
Sunday arrives and we had decided to leave early to get to Le Mont Saint Michel. We arrive at 9:30 and get a navette (shuttle) to the island…the tide is out. Le Mont Saint Michel is one of those places that you can see from a distance as you are miles away…..just breath taking. This has been on our “must see list” for years, so very happy that we have gotten to visit. A pyramid shape of the abbey and town rise from the tidal bay, quite a sight.
The history of Mont Saint Michel is said to date back to 708 when a sanctuary was built here. In the 10th century the Benedictines settled in an abbey and the village grew below its walls. It was impregnable during the Hundred Year War. Its ramparts and fortifications resisted all of the English assaults and the Mount became a symbol of national identity. At one time the abbey was used as a prison in the 1800’s. Classified as a historic monument in 1874 and listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979 (another one on the list!).
While walking through Le Mont, we noticed the name “La Mere Poulard” several times; one restaurant, one hotel and some tinned biscuits. My research tells me that Mme. Poulard founded a restaurant on Le Mont in 1873; La Hostellerie de la Tête d’Or, finding that customers came and went quickly with the tide. She came up with the idea of cooking giant omelettes in a wooden hearth to make them stay. From then on the restaurant became most famous for its speciality giant omelettes several inches thick, made in hand-hammered copper bowls, and cooked over an open fire.The omelettes resemble a soufflé more than a traditional omelette. In summer 2009 the cheapest omelette on the menu at the restaurant is €18, not sure what they cost today. Seemed to be the well healed eating at the restaurant. There was an older lady dressed in a period costume and indeed, she was whipping up eggs in a large copper bowl. There was also an imposing gentleman at the door, probably to keep out the “unwanted”….us!
The real crowning glory is a tour of the Abbey and the Mont itself. The streets leading up to the Abbey are now restaurants and tourist shops. We spend a few hours here and very glad we made it. Part of the abbey was a cloister, but was under renovation, still able to get an idea what it must have been like in its glory. Also visited a small church which is part of the complex. By the time we leave, the street are jammed packed; good decision to come early.
Back to Rennes and In the afternoon, we walk to the Parc du Thabor, a beautiful inner city park which takes of 10 hectares and dates back to the 19th century. The streets of Rennes were pretty empty. In Europe most stores, shops and restaurants are closed on Sundays. This is family time and this is definitely evident as the Parc du Thabor is very busy. Young people simply relaxing in the various grassy areas, some playing games, a lot just enjoying each others company. We spend about an hour relaxing in the park. A wonderful photography exposition in one of the lovely buildings. A building which houses many species of birds and absolutely wonderful gardens.
Monday is a holiday today, Pentecost, so the majority of stores/shops/offices all closed. We decide to visit the last two towns we really wanted to see….Fourgeres and Vitre.
Fourgeres stands on the borders of Brittany, Maine and Normandy in the heart of the Breton Marches. When Britany was still independent, a dense network of castles was built on the border between the Duchy of Brittany and the Kingdom of France. These fortresses, called the Brittany Marches were a powerful line of defense against many external threats.
Stopped for coffee/tea when we first arrived in Fourgeres, in a small cafe in the square facing the castle. I had gone to use the facilities and Robin asked me where they were. I said, in french, “a la gauche” (to the left). The owner of the cafe told me I said it wrong, it should say ” a gauche” or “sur la gauche”. I love it when the french give me lessons. I told her I was Canadian and don’t speak french at home very often, so sometimes I forget words or phrases.
I went on to talk to her more and I mentioned that it was very quiet today as it was Pentecost. She started laughing and said “yes, although I don’t even know what Pentecost is meant to celebrate”, although she knew it was a Christian feast. She told me that her daughter had asked her that morning what Pentecost stood for and wanted to know whether or not her mother would be making galettes and crepes for dinner! Her mother responded that the daughter should look up the meaning of Pentecost and why would she ask about the galettes and crepes because she always makes them.
We make our way to the ticket office to get into the “Chateaux de Fourgeres”. The young lady and I converse in french and I interpret for Robin. When she heard me speak english to Robin, she asked if we were English. I said no, we were Canadians and there is a big difference. She laughed and responded “that is the same with the French and the Breton….big difference!” May be funny, but it is very true. You can see everywhere that there is a resurgence of the Breton pride.
The chateau is situated on a bend on the RIver Nancon and was first erected in the 11th century. From the beginning, it was a centre for trade and commerce. It is a great medieval castle with 13 towers. It first started as a simple wooden tower but by the 15th century was the immense fortress it is today. It has been well preserved. Just below the fortress the tanners, drapers and dyers installed their mills on the river. There is still a mill along the moat of the castle which is still working. The tradesmen, craftsmen and bankers set up their establishments on the hill overlooking the valley….of course they did! Ramparts were also built around the citadel. There was a big fire in the 18th century in the upper town and after this a lot of the buildings were reconstructed in stone. A very impressive castle and upper town. Today, the castle is owned by the town of Fourgeres.
When visiting the castle we used audio guides, must say, these really help when you are visiting historical monuments or galleries.
After visiting the castle we stop for lunch at a “creperie”. Must enjoy these while we are in Brittany. We abstained and did not have desert crepes, just our savoury galettes.
Our next destination is Vitre, another “Ville d’Art et d”Histoire”. Here there is an 11th century fortress and prospered thanks to its international trade in “canvas”. A gothic style church (the steeple being refurbished), called Notre-Dame. The “Hotel de Ville” (city hall) offices are located in the fortress. Everything being closed today, we could only enter the courtyard. Simply walked around the town for an hour or so and head back to Rennes. Quite cool and cloudy today, but didn’t stop us from seeing what we wanted.
We have spent a great 5 days in this northern part of Brittany and tomorrow, Tuesday the 6th, we are off to Quimper. It is located in the southwestern part of Brittany; a 2 1/2 hour from Rennes.