Friday, July 24, 2015

Lens, France: Clouds Over Normandy

It seems that gray damp weather arrived in Normandy about the same time we did.  After two months of  easy traveling we encountered the wettest days since our time in the Alps.  Unfortunately, overcast skies make for dreary photographs, which is disappointing and uninspiring.  But it does save time not stopping to dig out the camera when something catches my eye while rolling down the road.

We traveled through northern Normandy and its neighboring regions of Picardi and Nord Pas De Calais.  These were our last days in France, and my memory bank is filled visions of miles and miles of rural country, fields of corn, wheat and potatoes, pretty black and white cows, and small agricultural villages.  Below are a few curated images to tell the story of some of the highlights we saw along the way.
Occupying the most northwestern corner of Normandy is a mecca for anyone visiting the region -- Mont Saint Michel.  Situated on a flat coastal plain it is visible from far away.  The iconic profile is unmistakable.

A new causeway that allows the tides to circulate has recently opened.  Sand has been depositing around the mount for years, and this engineered solution will allow water to completely surround the rock at high tide as it did for many centuries.

Goods were hauled to the abbey up this rail.
At the top of the rail is this wheel which was installed around 1820 when the abbey was used as a prison.  Think of prisoners walking inside the wheel like a hamster to power the pulleys to haul materials up the rail.
I continue to be fascinated by really big fireplaces.

We were there at low tide, and it is a popular activity for modern-day pilgrims to approach the abbey from the bay as was done in the past,

These pilgrims approached by bike!

Milk me, oh please, someone, milk me!

The green and gray of Normandy.

A foggy day visiting the American cemetery at Omaha Beach.  It is hard not to leave without a deep sadness.

In a village near Omaha Beach, a rebuilt church that was damaged by Allied bombing prior to the invasion.

A sign in front of the church shows the damage.

A pleasant surprise -- sunshine and the town of Bayeaux.  We saw the wonderful 1000 year-old tapestry while we were there.

Bayeaux also has a huge cathedral that stopped us in our tracks when we turned the corner and saw it.  And we have seen LOTS of cathedrals.

Thank goodness for leafy trees to protect us from the rain!

Bridge over the Seine with a lane for bicycles and tractors, oh my!

Wind power in the wheat fields.

We came across many cemeteries, this one for Commonwealth soldiers killed in WWI.  This was the area where the western front was stalled for three bitter years of trench warfare. 

We intersected this army of power lines, six towers abreast, heading from the coast in the direction of Paris.

We had two days escape from the rain in a hotel in the scruffy former coal mining town of Lens.  Here the Lourvre opened a satellite museum two years ago.  Where the Lourvre in Paris is an all-you-can-eat buffet, this is the tasting menu where you can savor every bite.
Free audioguides are provided that give scholarly descriptions of various objects in the collection.

Just a few select pieces are on display, like these statuettes from an Egyptian tomb.  The limited number of pieces allows individual ones to have more impact.

I am fascinated by the design of this ceramic bowl from Irag, dated from between 800 and 900 AD.  It was one of the first examples where tin was used in glazes to a solid white color.

I also can't get over the beauty of these tiles from Turkey, dating from the year 1577.

The sun peeked out under the clouds on our last evening in Lens on the building across the street from our hotel.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Sévignac, France: Tour de France, Stage 8

When it comes to sports, we tend to be participants of the non-competitive type, rather than spectators.  But we are at least aware of that big event, the Tour de France, and that it crosses the Pyrenees, goes through the Alps and ends in Paris.  A fellow bike tourist we met at one campground showed us a map of the route published in the local paper.  To our surprise we learned that the 2015 event would start in the Netherlands, cross Belgium, and traverse Normandy and Brittany in France before flying to the south for the mountain stages.  And with a slight modification to our route and a couple of extra days we could intercept it.  So it was decided to pause our own “Tour de France” and try and witness the other one.
Le Tour is coming to town!
We were closest to Stage 8, which would cross through Brittany from Rennes to Mur-de-Bretagne.  A bit of research online offered some pointers on how to watch the race, as well as detailed maps and arrival times at each of the towns along our chosen stage.  If you look at this chart, the arrival time of the cyclists is estimated based on speeds between 40 and 44 km/hr.  (For the record, our touring bikes never achieve that velocity for more than an instant.  Even going downhill.  A really big hill. With a tailwind.  Never.).We had to stall a couple of days, so we made a quick ricochet to the coast to visit St Malo, but on our way we traveled a portion of  the route to pick an optimal viewing spot. 
Bike art!

One too many croissants for this lady.
There was no question when we were on the route.  There were signs indicating when the road would be closed for the event.  And banners and fluorescent-painted bikes and signs and decorated hay bales.  The Tour de France spirit was elevated in the countryside.  And we found the perfect picnic table, under a shade tree just outside of the town of Sévignac, which we planned to claim on race day.  Sévignac is a typical quaint country village, located at the intersection of two roads, with a nice church, a school, a restaurant or two, and a couple of dozen homes, and surrounded by cornfields.  No doubt the Tour de France coming through was as exciting for them as it was for us.
The local school shows their spirit with this banner.
On race day we were in Sévignac by 10 am.  The picnic table was already taken by a contingency of fans, so we went a bit further and found a grassy patch in the shade with a clear view of slight s-curve where the riders would drop down a gentle hill into town.  We staked out our ground, each bike acting as a barricade on a 10-foot section of roadside, and sat down to do some reading and crossword puzzles as we waited.  People began to trickle in and line the streets with their lawn chairs and ice chests.  Not unlike my memories of getting a spot on the Rose Parade route when I was in high school.  A policeman was positioned at a side street to keep cars from entering onto the route.  The occupants of the house across the street were setting the table on the terrace with tablecloth and wine glasses.  The two couples next to us were playing games on a folding table.  It was a calm and patient waiting game, so characteristic of the French.
A fine day for a pannier piq-niq!
When the church bell struck noon there was a unanimous action.  Everyone brought out food and started eating.  The cork was popped off of wine bottles across the street.  We laid out our tablecloth and had a “pannier party” like we have do every day of our tour -- bread, cheese, fruit.  Our neighbors discreetly looked at what we were eating.  We did the same in their direction.
Some people come prepared...the cop is not amused, however.
The road was now officially closed, but there was a constant stream of official looking cars.  The riders were due to arrive about 3 pm.  About two hours ahead the caravan arrived.  The Tour de France has many official sponsors, and they have the privilege of  priming the crowd by tossing out freebies.  I have read that fans come out more for this than the race itself.  For about half an hour groups of vehicles sped into town, decorated like parade floats but made of plastic and traveling at 60 miles per hour.  The vehicles were driven by what looked like teenagers, some staring straight ahead like robots,oblivious to the fans on either side trying to get their attention.  Others were wired with headset microphones and were yelling out what I imagine were slogans in French.  And others would slow down, find a face in the crowd, and with a flick of the wrist throw out a trinket.  And the fan would jump on it like a half-starved dog after a bone.
The caravan is here, the caravan is here!

Gimme some stuff!
I moved up the road to try my luck along a less fan-dense stretch.  Maybe my bright-yellow bike jersey helped, but I found a swivel of the hips and raised arms with hands wiggling got some stuff tossed my way.  But most of the time the stuff directed at me landed at the feet of the kid and his father a few yards behind me.  I do admit, however, to crawling into a watery ditch to fish out a plastic-wrapped madeleine.  I looked down towards John, and he was in the spirit, waving and bending down, picking up merchandise.  He gave me a big thumbs up.  His mother, never one to pass up something free, would have been proud.
For thosse of you who are not sure what a madeleine looks like, here is a really big one.
Most of the stuff was standard marketing trinkets -- notepads, magnets, hats, tote bags.  Lots of packages with coupons, the best being ones for free bread.  How French.  We ended up saving only a couple of items, since we did not want to carry them for the next couple of months in our panniers, and giving the rest to our neighbors and the kid and his dad.
With the caravan excitement over, the crowd patiently waits for the main event.

The crowd settled down to wait the remaining hour and a half for the main event.  The party across the street brought out dessert.  I ducked into the cornfield to answer nature’s call.  I was not the only one, as evidenced by patches of damp earth found between the rows.  Official looking cars continued to drive by, some honking, some waving like they were royalty.  And then, just a few minutes before the cyclists were due to arrive, groups of support vehicles with racks of bikes and wheels went by.  At least three helicopters hovered and slowly moved closer to us.  I positioned myself, camera in hand, on a high point on the edge of the road.  They were on their way.
Waiting, waiting...

This race day, Stage 8, that we chose to watch was 192 kilometers total, and by the time the riders reached us they had traveled 79 kilometers.  The last half of the stage would have some hills for the riders to climb, but up to the point where we were was quite flat terrain.  So when they appeared at the top of that gentle hill they were in a single pack, moving like a single linear whirring object.  There were some lead vehicles, a pack of riders (we are still not sure if these were competitors or not), a big gap, some motorcycles, and then the pack of riders in their bright jerseys, filling the width of the roadway.  Not a chance of picking out the guys wearing the yellow or polka-dot jerseys.  From our roadside perspective it did not seem like they were moving that fast, although they were, or that they were working that hard, which they must.  I had time to squeeze off only a few photos of them coming, arriving, and going.  A few more chase vehicles with bikes went by, and within five minutes it was all over.
Here come the riders!

The pack buzzes by.

Gone in a flash!

The crowd  folded their tables and chairs and packed their ice chests and began to collapse into the street.  We sealed our panniers and prepared to ride a couple of hours to our next campground.  Curiosity overcame one of the gentleman next to us, and he came and asked if he could lift one of our bikes.  We had a nice laugh, John telling him in his best French where we have been so far on this tour, he asking how far we go each day, which is about a third of what those riders that just went by do in an afternoon.  We mounted our bikes and rolled down the street.  What only could be explained as an excess of fan energy, the few remaining spectators gave us a cheer equal to that bestowed on the Tour de France riders.  We raised our arms in victory.  We have become fans of the other Tour de France.

Friday, July 10, 2015

St Malo, France: A Brittany Photo Album

We hadn't planned to visit Brittany, tucked there in the nortwestern corner of France.  But we had extra time so we went in that direction and not much happened.  Sure, we had a couple of hot days, then some rain, and John got a cold. We also saw beautiful countryside and the Atlantic Ocean.  We ate shellfish and warm crepes folded into quarters and wrapped in paper, still warm from the griddle.  This land was made to be explored by bicycle.  Just roly-poly enough to build up an appetite, and if your timing is good you will have a tailwind, and if not, just wait a couple of days and the weather will change 180 degrees. See, not much. So this post is mostly pictures and few words.  Enjoy!

We met the Atlantic Ocean again near busy Port Navalo.  There isn’t enough space in the harbor for all the boats apparently, so they need to stack them on racks like packages at Costco.

We took a short ferry from Port Navalo to Locmarlaquer.  A fellow passenger described it as a “petite bateau”, which it surely was.

The area around Carnac has megaliths older than Stonehenge by 100 years.  Here is Pierre’s Place, a small tomb.

We got really excited on this first group of megaliths we found after winding around country roads following signs on the road like a scavenger hunt.

The rocks were placed between 5000 and 2000 BC in an alignment over 4 kilometers long. 

Rocks all in a row, a real megalith farm.

We sought shade under the bridge on a hot day in Belz for lunch, looking over an inlet where local guys were out fishing on their lunch hour.

Charming Breton homes along the inlet at Belz.

A day at the beach, Brittany style.

Leaving the west coast we crossed inland to reach the north coast, traveling quiet country roads through agriculture fields over roly-poly terrain.

A rainy morning along an old rail trail that took us over the Montagnes Noires to the town of Carhalx-Plouger, an important crossing of multiple railways, canals, and rivers during the 19th century.

The nicest days are those after a rain event.

Signs like this are all over the countryside, leading to places that don’t appear on any of our maps.

A typical Breton home -- simple square houses with steep-pitched roofs, white-washed and trimmed with local stone.

As we reached the Cote de Granit Rose (Pink Granite Coast) near Tregastel the more upscale homes were built completely from local materials.

Dewy mornings require spreading out our tent at our noon lunch spot, here at the lovely park in Lannion.

Morning views of the rocky Cost de Granit Rose near Ploumanach.

Flowers are in full summer bloom now, and these “snowballs” are colorful accents to the landscape.

The people of Brittany are proud of their heritage and the black-and-white flag is displayed everywhere.

Half-timbered houses in Dinard.  We have been surprised to see so many in France, and they are usually in an area that was previously heavily forested.

Quintessential French blue, in Dinard.

Every once in a while we cross paths with an old Citroen.

Looking across the water to the old town of St Malo in the distance and the ferry dock in the foreground.  View is from our campground on the peninsula to the south.

Our campground in St Malo was located on a high point with a WWII memorial where the thick metal bunkers installed by the German army still show the scars of bombardment.

The tides are extreme around St Malo, so a wall keeps the water contained at low tide for those who choose to swim in the chilly Atlantic.
The town of St Malo was 80% destroyed during WWII, but rebuilt.  It is possible to walk the two kilometers on the ramparts of the old city.

A solid building of St Malo, getting some roof repair.  The workers were roped up like rock climbers.

The streets in St Malo are narrow and winding.  This tower is claimed to be the oldest building in the city, from the 15th century.

Small islands offshore from St Malo get completely surrounded at high tide.  People were wading out in the shallow water as the tide was receding in the afternoon.

Timing is everything if you plan to go sailing out of St Malo.

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