Friday, July 27, 2012

Tour de France

Living in a big city like Marseille, you sometimes feel like you are just in any other big city. I have noticed this trend during our travels that although many cities have defining characteristics (and trust me Marseille is unique), all big cities have somewhat of the same feel. Hence it has been that some of our most "French" moments have happened in little towns in the countryside. Add our viewing of the Tour de France just outside of Uzès to this list. It is almost as stereotypical as cheese, wine and baguettes, accept miraculously the Tour de France is not just about cycling but is actually about showcasing French stereotypes.

Yes little did we know that if you are under the age of ten the most exciting part of the Tour is probably not the cyclists and the amazing way they can do hundreds of kilometres day after day, but the Caravan! The caravan is basically a parade of cars and floats of the various sponsors of the Tour that come about two hours in advance of the cyclists. And let me tell you both the children and adults who were lining the route next to us were more than excited about the caravan because not only do they sail by at 50km/h with hilariously "French" floats but they also throw stuff into the crowd. The kids around us were jumping up and down each time a new sponsor came buy to try to get them to throw them a t-shirt, cap, wrist band, waterbottle or baked good in their direction. Here is a selection of some of the more interesting floats.

Yes of course a bakery would be a sponsor of the Tour because nothing says French stereotype like a baguette.


You are looking at one of the two packages of Madelines that were thrown out to us. Yes it does take talent to accurately throw baked goods out of a car moving 50km/h. Lucky for Keith we both got one of these packages. 

I'm not sure if you can read the writing below this mascot but it for "le coq sportif" and I think that this is almost as funny as the sixty-something lady who was standing three meters away from me but somehow managed to run over and block me so that she could get her hands on the haribo candy that landed in front of me. Who needs to see the cyclists when the pre-entertainment is so great?

The ambience of the whole event was fantastic. We were stationed on a small hill (which I'm sure the cyclists would simply consider a minor incline) so we were not only able to see the cyclists coming, but they also did slow down incrementally as they powered up the hill. Since we were close to the beginning of the stage there was only one larger breakaway group but it was very cool to see the peloton organized by teams. The riders really did fly by, but it was great to be there to cheer them on and to give extra encouragement to those behind the peloton who were getting nourishment or fixing their bike as they were riding it!

We stayed for the afternoon in Uzès and took in the market while admiring its architecture. This town was like so many in Provence inhabited by the Romans and is actually the beginning of the aqueduct which flows across Pont du Gard and into Nimes.  It also contains the Duché, which is a private chateau still used by the duke and duchess of Uzès. Below you can see their coat of arms on the roof. 

On the whole it was a very "French" weekend outing!


Most vacationers yearn for warm temperatures and tropical climates. We decided to leave our +30 beaches in Marseille to venture to the extreme north-west of France. Brittany/Bretagne is in fact called the end of the world because of its peninsulas which peer across the Atlantic. And yes there were beaches, but much like its namesake, Britain, there was also rain.

We started our tour in Roscoff, which is in the north of Bretagne. It is a small little town surrounded by little rock islands. It biggest industries are tourism and the government centre for marine biology. Every day we were there, we saw biologists heading off in small row boats or climbing all over the rocks at low tide with their sample buckets.

The bell tower in Roscoff is unique. You can see from the picture that there are holes in the tower. These are aligned with the prevailing winds and allows the wind to pass through the tower, carrying the sound further and also preventing excessive wear and tear on the tower itself. The bell tower in Roscoff was the first to employ this type of architecture, but the idea was so useful it was copied by hundreds of other churches across windy Bretagne.

The level changes in the tides were drastic and it was amusing to walk by the harbour when the boats were lying lifeless on the sand and then come back to see the same boats happily bobbing in the waves.  The changes are so extreme and the harbour has so many rocky outcrops that at low tide it is necessary to walk out onto a long bridge to gain access to the deep water ferry terminal. You can see the beginning of the bridge below on the right as it extends from the harbour.

We took the passenger ferry out to Ile-de-Batz for a day of cycling and exploration. Since the island is connected to the mainland by only a passenger ferry there are very few cars on the road. We rented bicycles at the ferry terminal and followed the road through the one village on the island to the eastern tip, and then took paths following the northern shoreline around to the opposite end of the island.  The island is a mixture of undeveloped land, random houses and farms. Twice we unexpectedly turned a corner and there was a horse hobbled and munching away. It was slightly overcast but warm, and with no cars and few people it was freeing to cycle with no cares or worries.


After a lovely picnic lunch on this gigantic rock, we continued on our bicycle tour. Unfortunately just as we got to the most isolated section of the island it began to rain. The intensity of it was surprising, as all the other rains we had experience hitherto had been light manageable drizzles. The umbrellas we had were pretty much useless and I used mine more to protect my camera more than myself after. The rain soaked us all the way through. I could not only feel it squishing in my sneakers but running down my back as well. We finally made it to a creperie to take shelter in and Keith warmed up with another creme de carmel crepe, while I settled for a tea. 

The village on Ile-de-Batz

After two days in Roscoff, we settled ourselves down at a bed and breakfast that was a renovated Chateau. We staid in the newer part of the house but it was really quite marvelous. The owner told us that now that he is finished restoring the Chateau his next project is to buy the mill that is just down the hill from the Chateau and restore that. We took a look at this mill and all the remains is the foundation. It seems like the retirement project to end all retirement projects.

We used the Chateau as a jumping off point to explore the area around Perros-Guirec and Morlaix. Since we had a car and the time we mostly took the minor highways, especially if they were highlighted green which means scenic route. This led us to breathtaking villages like Saint Michel where we had dinner, walked on the endless sandy beach and explored the graveyard the is situated right next to the water.

For our day in Perros-Guirec proper we were blessed with sunshine. It allowed us to walk the town, beaches and cliffs of this maritime oasis.


In addition to the lovely sandy beaches, the area around Perros-Guirec is known for its strange rock formations. Just to the north of the town the sandy beaches stop and the rock one start. The rocks are huge and placed in such precipitous ways that you think they may fall at any time. We scrambled around the rocks, down paths to lookouts and Keith actually got sunbrunt even though the temperature didn't rise above 22C. 

This house was on an island surrounded by rocks, but at low tide you could walk out to it.

We also saw a coastguard ship launch. At the bottom of the picture you can see the rails that are used to guide the boat from its boathouse out to deeper water. The journey was approximately 150m when we watched it, but the beauty of this system is that is can be used a high or low tide.

The next stage of our trip took us to the south of Bretagne. On the way we stopped at La Roche Tremblante, which is a 137 tonne rock is perched in such a way that by putting your back into it and pushing you can make the rock move. Yes our vacation was seemed to be full of rocks and our destination of Carnac only confirmed that.

Carnac is home to three fields of megaliths. These stones were erected in long lines from stones decreasing in size sometime during the Neolithic age. We have decided that by far this is the oldest human site we have ever visited. The rocks were from the area, but no one knows why they are here and what purpose they served. The sites are closed off during the summer, but we were able to take a guided tour of one of the sites.

Here is Keith with one of the larger Megaliths.

Also found in the Carnac area are dolmen or barrows. The one above is open to view but most of the ones we saw were covered with rocks and earth to simply make mounds.These date from the same time as the megaliths and were clearly used for burials. Some we visited were small could be missed if you didn't know it was there, and others were huge and took several minutes to climb to the top. It is difficult to imagine Neolithic people putting so much effort into creating first the stone structure with large stones as wall and a roof, and then taking even more time cover the entire thing.

This standing stone was not part of the Megaliths but simply stood by itself in the forest.

Keith on top of one of the barrows we investigated.

After thoroughly wearing ourselves out going through museums and tramping along roadsides next to the megaliths, we spent the evening in Trinite sur Mer. We went for a wonderful walk along the shore line, looked at some of the huge racing sail boats in the harbour and had a lovely dinner. The seafood throughout the trip was fantastic and especially the muscles which I tried to order every chance I got. 

Many of our trips over the past year and a half have included visits to chateaus and fortresses from the Middle Ages. This trip was no exception. The Chateau de Suscinio was the summer home of the Dukes of Bretagne and did a wonderful job of showcasing the history of this region which fought to stay independent for centuries and still holds on to its culture and language in a way that was visible in big cities and little villages alike. It is situated on a peninsula between the sea and what were at one time excellent forests for hunting. With a  formidable moat and the sea at its back the strategic strength of the Chateau were evident as well. Below is an example of the tiles that were found when an old church was rediscovered next to the cheateau. The most interesting things about the tiles are their different motifs. Each one represent a royal animal. This one was is a lion.


Saint Anne d'Auray above is the largest pilgrimage site in Bretagne. The church is lovely but we went to see the exhibit on ancient books. Included in these were papal bulls and ancient bibles, but most interesting were the poster boards that Jesuits used to use to teach people about living a good life. Since most of the populace could not read these boards highlighted the seven deadly sins using animals to identify them and showed how men would change should they follow the seven virtues. The detail was exquisite and methodology radical for the times. 

The rest of the pictures in this blog are from Vannes, which is a city we almost skipped over but ended up really enjoying. The wooden houses are similar to many we saw in older ports all over Brittany, but here they were everywhere. The walled part of the old city contains little alleys and square full of colour just because the houses are painted so brightly. We were really impressed with the Cathedral as well that included many interesting paintings that linked the church with the local populace and demonstrated how it used to be surrounded by these wooden houses on every side. We wondered the streets, examined the gardens and walked the ramparts with the guide of a brochure from the tourist office and had a lovely lunch in another hidden little square. The town really had a different feel from so many of walled cities we have visited.


From outside the walls.

This building was constructed right on the canal so that washer women could go down and do their washing in a covered area even in the rain. Yes that is how much it rains in Bretagne, and although it rained a bit every day I must say that we also had sunshine every day of our trip. It is still possible to go down and sit right beside the canal and imagine you are washing clothes in the current while being covered by this nice little roof.

Our only regret for the whole trip was that we did not have more time. One week was not enough to discover all of the little villages that we passed by or do all the walks that were available to us. The friendliness and calm of Bretagne provided for a tranquil holiday and hopefully we will be back.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine

As we continue our explorations of Provence, we decided to venture out on a Sunday and attend mass at a Benedictine monastery.  This is a modern monastery built in 1980 but is modelled on Romanesque architecture. Unlike the nearby Trappist monastery we visited, the congregation and brothers were as modern as the building. It was pleasantly surprising to see a full choir of at least forty monks with a generous handful under the age of thirty. The congregation also was mixed in age with many families. We felt right at home, except for the fact that everything was in Latin!

Neither Keith nor myself have ever gone to a completely Latin mass before and it was an experience. I must say that the readings and homily were in French, but everything else was chanted, and people followed along in their missal but rarely joined in. It was a surprise at how pre-Vatican II the mass was. Just one small but telling example is how the priest consecrated the communion with his back to us. The most unusual aspect of the mass for us however was how every major blessing was done by the priests and then taken to a brother who we assumed to be the Abbot for another blessing, so the serves were continually walking between the altar and the choir.  In addition, there was actually a rail that divided the congregation from the choir and this is where we knelt down to receive communion. The whole thing was a completely new experience and the singing was heavenly. It really is so intriguing to get these glimpses into religious life and the style of worship that our grandparents experienced.

In addition the abbey had some lavender and I was able to snap a picture of this interesting "bee". If anyone knows what it actually is let us know. 

Les Vignes Buissonnieres en Pic Saint Loup

So I think that this is the most "French" thing that I have done over my whole stay in France. The family that I tutor for invited both Keith and myself to accompany them to Les Vignes Buissonnieres en Pic Saint Loup. This is an area that has never been known for its wines and so 12 years ago they put together this event to help their wines get recognition. It has been going strong ever since. Basically it is hike, wine tasting and meal all put into one glorious afternoon. 

At the begging of the whole event we were given a pouch which contained a booklet with a map and all of the wines and food we would be tasting at each of the six stations, a pencil to mark down our favourite wines, a fork and knife and of course a wine glass. In addition to the pouch we also received a straw hat. Luckily for us it actually drizzled most of the day, but the hat would have been an absolute necessity if it had been sunny and I have used mine now on numerous occasions to go to the beach or on long sunny walks. 

The walk itself meandered through vineyards and up hills to give an excellent view of the region. Most of the walks were between one and two kilometres and between many of the stations were funny quotes and riddles about wine. For example, "Je boirai du lait le jour où les vaches mangeront du raisin. / I'll drink milk everyday, when cows eat grapes." Jean Gabin

The food was fantastic. Each station was a different course and so we started with appetizers and as we continued on through the entrées toward deserts, I thought "this is how every meal should be conducted". Eat sumptuous food for a bit, walk for a bit and compliment continuously with great wine and conversation. The gastronomic highlights for me were a cold salmon and lentil salad and an amazing roast pork with potatoes. This will probably be one of the most memorable meals we have had in France. And of course at the end of the day we bought some wine, really how could you not?