Sunday, June 27, 2010

Le Mont Saint-Michel, 2

(This is the continuation of hubby's write-up on Mont Saint-Michel. Thanks to Warren and Michelle for photos.)

As I push my way through the crowd of wide-eyed visitors, I try to imagine medieval life in the abbey-fortress-village and imagine away the tourists and the numerous shops and restaurants that line the narrow streets that lead up to the summit, the abbey of Saint Michael.

The Gothic style abbey is built on granite and made mostly of granite, and has withstood centuries of climate change, invasions, wars and tourists.

It is said that in the eighth century, the archangel Michael had repeatedly told a certain Bishop Aubert to build the abbey but the stubborn bishop would not, until the angel burned a hole in his skull. Ouch! So if an angel appears to you and tells you to build a castle or a mall or a tourist trap, you better obey or else...!

The original chapel has long been destroyed and the Romanesque church that now stands on the mount was built in the 15th century. A golden statue of St Michael with his sword stands atop the tallest spire, ready to burn a hole into the skull of any wayward friar or tourist.

I liked the narrow streets, the stone ramparts, the moss, the architecture of the houses, and the view of course. Breathtaking. Awe-inspiring. Every so often you’d hear the bells tolling.

Up in the abbey, the Benedictine monks and nuns prepare for mass as tourists gather to witness ancient ritual unfold. One of the monks pulls the rope to ring the bell as another preps the communion stuff on the altar and nuns rush about, oh for whatever reason and settle finally, kneeling on the floor in front of the altar.

I would have stayed but I lost track of time and was afraid I wouldn’t find my group. I wanted to explore some more. Turns out my posse :-) had done more exploring than I did as evidenced by the numerous pictures they took of the abbey and its nooks and crannies that I never saw.

My three crazy nieces—April, Nikki and Michelle—and one taciturn but nonetheless willing accomplice, nephew Warren and designated mother hen, my sister Noemi, did their usual antics, mimicking the statues’ poses and jumping about (they love to jump). I actually envy them; I’m too old and too self-conscious to do these crazy, fun stuff.

From the main chapel, a door leads to the cloister, a squarish courtyard with numerous skinny pillars surrounding a nondescript garden. From there you get a view of the village down below and the shallow waters of the bay of St Malo.

I wander down to the village, trying a different path which led me to a tiny cemetery, the backs of convents and village houses, and a tiny chapel with a statue of St Michael slaying a demon underfoot.

The sun, thankfully, showed up and made the tour more pleasant. I reunited with my wife without the aid of a cellphone. At one point when it got lonely, I started looking for her and soon enough, quite by accident, we bumped into each other. All is well in the world again. :-)

We shared a gelato and decided to explore the town outside the mount, beyond the sandbar.

We rejoined the crazies back at the mount and yes, we found them snacking again, and now loaded with souvenirs too. Wifey and I explored the sandy beach surrounding the islet until it was time to go.

It had been an enjoyable day in a medieval village and now I was looking forward to St Malo, a fortified city just a few miles from Mont St Michel. But that’s tomorrow yet. Back in Rennes, I’m not sure now but I think we just ate inside our room at the hotel and watched French TV until we fell asleep.

Next, Saint Malo
Previous, Le Mont Saint-Michel, 1

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Le Mont Saint-Michel, 1

(Another post by my guest writer hubby. Thanks, tweet...)

I had preconceived ideas of Mont Saint-Michel (Saint Michael's Mount) from mostly pictures in travel magazines, tourism promos, TV. I kinda knew what it was, a church on a hill (Wrong. Church on an islet). I was familiar with the silhouette, I knew it was in France somewhere, but I'm just terrible at geography, I have a really bad sense of direction, so according to Wikipedia, it's in Normandy.

I think, of all the places we were going to visit on this trip, I looked forward most of all to finally seeing the real thing, Mont Saint-Michel, second only to the Amalfi Coast.

So the day started quite nicely, it was sunny enough and bright, but there was some confusion about the destination for the day: was it Saint Malo today or Mont Saint-Michel? I think we were supposed to go to Saint Malo that day and
Mont Saint-Michel the day after. Nikki's information told us Mont Saint-Michel tours were for the next day. Turned out there was a bus bound for Mont Saint-Michel at the bay ready to leave in a few minutes. Cool. I was excited. I had no idea what Saint Malo was so I was elated that we were going to Mont Saint-Michel instead.

The French countryside that part of France was pleasant and green that mid-Spring time of year. Lush green acres splattered with bright yellow fields of what turned out to be rapeseed plant as we later found out. Later on the flight back to Vancouver, as we approached Paris from Rome, I looked out the window to the landscape down below—it was sunny and bright, we were flying under the clouds—and I could see those fields of rapeseed in a kind of harlequin checkered pattern of green and yellow stretched for miles and miles across what I assumed to be the plains of Normandy. It was awesome to see the bright brushstrokes of yellow I glimpsed from the train, now from a different perspective, as a patchwork quilt aerial landscape. Very cool.

The now familiar farmhouses and barns gave me an idea of what French country style was. Black-and-white dairy cows, low, squat stone buildings with tiny windows, villages clustered around churches. So this is Normandy. Sometimes it seemed we were in a different century.

And then the bus would make a turn and we're back in the present. Electrical posts and cables, traffic lights and cars overtake the scenery.

I look over to the rest of my companions and they are all asleep except for Emi who was, like me, enjoying the view. She was wearing her pink scarf, a pair of shades and her black overcoat. I like my sister. Her quiet strength, her wacky side, her kindness, firmness and her laughter. I'm glad she was on this trip. I've missed her.

We reached a tiny village with a new look to it. It looked touristy. The bus made a short stop, unloading some passengers, and we were back on our way again. Suddenly, up ahead, as if someone had said Voila! There it was. Beautiful. Breathtaking. Just like in the postcards.

The approach is dramatic: the road becomes a sandbar, so there's no trees or posts or anything to block the view, only grey sand and placid water around it. It's an islet alright. It looked like a castle with a village tightly bunched around its sides and built on solid rock.

We got off the bus. The whole parking lot was filled mostly with tour buses like ours. We entered the walled medieval village with a throng of tourists.

There was a restaurant on the left and a creperie on the right. The kids didn't have breakfast so the first stop was the creperie.
(photo by Michelle)

Wifey turned to me and said she was going ahead and she did. I decided to stay back from the group and shoot at leisure. There were so many interesting details that I didn't want to miss.

The one narrow cobblestone street that wound up the village to the abbey was crawling with tourists. Tourists ruin everything, I thought, forgetting I was one of them. I wished there weren't so many of us!
(photo by Michelle)

(to be continued)

Next, Le Mont Saint-Michel, 2
Previous, From rain to Rennes

Thursday, June 10, 2010

From rain to Rennes

After three nights and two days in rainy Paris, I was looking forward to our next destination--Rennes (|ren|). We didn't know much about this city except that it was going to be our jump off point to Mont Saint-Michel and Saint Malo. We also didn't know it was in Brittany and not in Normandy as we originally thought. I admit, I didn't even know there was a Brittany in France. The things you learn by traveling...

We took the 8am train from Gare Montparnasse in Paris to Rennes. It was a pleasant 2.5 hour-trip through the charming northern countryside. Lovely yellow rapeseed fields. Small villages. Vast green expanse. Old cathedrals. Very idyllic.

Upon arriving at the Rennes train station, we walked with our luggage to the Garden Hotel, which had a nice location near the heart of the city. It was prettier in photos though, but at least it had WiFi.

We were immediately impressed by the architecture surrounding it similar to the ones we saw in Paris.

A great fire destroyed most of medieval Rennes in 1720 and Parisian 
architects were asked to redesign the town resulting in 18th century 
buildings that can rival those in Paris. That was the reason for hiring 
them in the first place.

After dropping off our bags, the next order of the day was to find a place to eat. We walked another few blocks to the historic city centre. I liked Rennes already!

We found this little alley with bistros and a Subway one after the other, but we wondered why most were closed when it was nearly lunch time.

"A, alam ko na kung bakit sarado mga restaurant, (Oh I know why the restaurants are closed)", I ventured. "Kasi lunch break (It's lunch break.)" Haha! Strike one. Or two. I know some establishments in France do take siestas, but restaurants at lunchtime? I think my brain was having one.

We were allowed to enter Tante Yvonne and wait till they served lunch at 12 noon. Bob and I each ordered galette (like a flat crusty cake) with chitterlings. We thought chitterlings were sausages like the waiter described with difficulty. They turned out to be pig's intestines cut into rings and roasted. They stank like crazy but they were supposed to be a local delicacy.

I can't describe the taste but I can say its smell reminded me of my aunt's pigpen in the province in the Philippines. Still, I think I could enjoy this dish like our Filipino papaitan. But I chose not to finish my chitterlings because it was bad for hubby's gout. Sympathy dieting. After this, we learned not to order the same thing. Just in case...

From here, our group split. Nikki, April and Warren went back to the hotel to rest and catch on sleep. Noemi, Michelle, Bob and I decided to go to Parc du Thabor or Thabor Park. Along the way, however, we saw lots of nice shops along the streets, we decided to browse for an hour, mother with daughter, hubby with wife.

Bob and I enjoyed window shopping. We had a very pleasant stroll on little alleys with interesting shops and even more interesting facades. Very artistic! We were especially impressed by colourful half-timbered structures near Place St-Anne. I never saw anything like those in real life.

Timber-framed structures reveal Rennes' medieval influence.

Walking further, we chanced upon La Visitacion, a shopping mall. It had H & M!! That's our favourite store. I first came to know about H & M in Provence before I knew there was one in Vancouver. It was the most affordable clothes store I found in Avignon with styles even my sons could appreciate. Bob and I spent some time in the Rennes H & M.

Finally, the four of us met up near the Parlement building then walked towards Thabor Park. But first, we all went again to La Visitacion on the way. Back to H & M and other stores. I liked this mall!

Finally--really now--we were on our way to Thabor Park. I read that this park, ten acres in the heart of the town, is one of the most beautiful gardens in France that was first opened to the public in the 18th century. It is a formal French garden where you can also find an aviary, orangery (like a greenhouse or conservatory) and a rose garden.

Ahh, tranquility...

A stunning collection of flowers, trees and plants. I could just imagine this garden when the many varieties of roses are in full bloom.

(photo by Michelle)
(photo by Michelle)

One of the things I missed in Rennes was the nightlife in the city centre. With its large student population (one-fourth of the total), Rennes has a lively nightlife. I think my nieces and nephew saw some of that at Place Saint-Anne at night. I hardly went out after going back to the hotel in the evening. I think I only went out once to a nearby kebab place for dinner because I was usually dead tired after a long day. Young people will love and enjoy Rennes, home to two big universities and a prestigious medical school.

For me, Rennes was a pleasant surprise. A trip bonus. Or a bonus trip. I'm sure there's more to it than we saw.

For next time.

Friday, June 04, 2010

When it rains, it sucks

May is one of the best months to visit Paris. That's according to various websites and our own travel agent. The weather is supposed to be mild and warm, and the city is not yet overcrowded as in July and August.

But ever since we arrived on May 9, it had been drizzling or intermittently raining. And it was chilly.
Shucks, like I never left Vancouver, I thought. I always wore layers. If I knew I'd be wearing a jacket all the time, I wouldn't have spent as much time planning my wardrobe and what to mix and match.

Nevertheless, the rains didn't stop us from going outdoors even on that Tuesday, the rainiest day of all. Very early in the morning, Noemi, Bob and I visited the street market at the Place de l'Eglise near the St Pierre-St Paul Church (partially shown in the photo below). The first thing we bought? An umbrella!

I love markets. I enjoy looking at local products, checking out prices, sampling goodies... I bought cheese here.

Tuesday is market day in Reuil Malmaison in the suburb of Paris where Josephine, 
first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, lived after their divorce and died. She is buried in 
that church with her daughter.

Later that morning, our group went to Paris city centre to see the Notre Dame Cathedral on Ile de la Cite on the Seine. Notre Dame has a beautiful facade. Lots of statues that tell stories from the Bible and Christian history. Fortunately, I already got to see them more closely on my first visit because this time I was more eager to get inside and seek shelter from the chilling rain.

A mass was going on. I felt rather sorry for those people who were there for the mass amidst a steady stream of tourists taking photographs and admiring those amazing stained glass windows. Sorry to disturb you...

(photo by Michelle)

From Notre Dame, we walked towards Boulevard Saint Michel on our way to the Luxembourg Gardens alongside it. But the cold was becoming unbearable for most of us. We decided to enter the first restaurant around the corner. We ate at a modest bistro called Le Depart Saint-Michel. Waffles with cream, crepe, escargot, creme brulee... Bob and I had Crepe Belle Epoque, but we tasted almost everything around the table. Everyone shared.

(photo by Michelle)

Over lunch, we decided to skip the Luxembourg Gardens altogether. Too bad. We missed this "green oasis" known for its serene atmosphere. For next time.

Instead of going green, we went red. We visited the Moulin Rouge, the most famous cabaret in the world and home of the French Can-Can. We didn't go inside. Just posed for pictures across the street.

Then off we went to Montmarte, a hill north of Paris. Montmarte is known for the white-domed Basilica of the Sacre Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart) on its summit. We took the "funiculaire", or cable car, going up. If it weren't raining, I would have used the stairs and soaked in the grand view of Paris below. But as you can see in the photo below, there wasn't much of a view that day anyway. Another one for next time.

(photo by Michelle)

The main dome of the basilica is the second highest point in Paris after the Eiffel Tower. The cathedral is finely decorated, but unlike in Notre Dame, picture taking is not allowed inside.

(photo by Michelle)

After exiting the cathedral, we followed the path to its left and reached a square called Place du Tertre, a few blocks from the basilica. I enjoyed this quaint village. There were several little souvenir shops and cafes lining cobblestone streets which made for an enjoyable walk. We did some shopping here. Hats, scarves, magnets, my apron...

(photo by Warren)

Many artists display and sell their works on the square, or offer to sketch your profile or caricature for a fee. Lovely! Those must be pricey though. I'd rather have Bob do my painting for free. But no caricatures!

It is not surprising to see many artists in Montmarte. After all, it was the center of artistic life in Paris at the end of the 19th century. Impoverished artists like Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, and Vincent Van Gogh worked and lived the bohemian life there. Poor guys! They probably never knew their works would be fetching good money someday. If you have an original Picasso or Monet or Van Gogh, I bet you are anything but impoverished.

It was now time to go back to the comfort of Nikki's home in Rueil Malmaison. This being our last night in Paris, we were going to have a nice dinner at La Bistrot Gourmand. French cuisine! I ordered something salmon with a fancy French name and a huge serving of profiteroles for dessert.

Still a great ending to a gray and chilly day.

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