Monday, May 26, 2014

France 2014 - Part 5

April 14 – Monday

Breakfast at our hotel, and then back on the bus headed for Brittany.
We stopped for lunch in Fougères

The proprietor of the restaurant we chose didn’t speak English. One of our trip members, Solidad, spoke Spanish and so did he, so she fielded the difficult questions. We all ordered crepes, the local specialty. I had a savory one (gallet)—ham, cheese and egg (le complete). Larry, of course had a sweet crepe—warm chocolate.

After lunch, we walked around the town and visited St. Leonard’s Church. Then we hiked back to the bus through the public garden which winds down the hill.


 Back on the bus, we reached Mont Saint-Michel.

I remember seeing photos of this special place as a youngster and had always wanted to visit there.
We each took only a small bag (Larry and I each had a backpack) and boarded the shuttle to get to the island.
Once inside the city, the main street, paved in cobblestones, spiraled upward toward the abbey. We received our room assignments and keys for Auberge Saint Pierre. Then another hike upward to the sign of the fairy (the logo of a shop on the street) where we turned up a little alley leading to stairs. Those ended at the door to the rooms assigned to most of our party. The rooms of the hotel were scattered here and there perched upon the rock base of the mountain.
Eight of us had yet another climb up past the cemetery where the inventor of the island’s signature puffy omelet, la Mère Poulard, and her husband were buried. One more long flight of stairs ended at our four rooms.

Amazing views! Our room had a lovely deck at the back where we looked out toward the mainland across the quicksand-like mudflat surrounding the island.
We were unable to get our wi-fi to work again, so we called down to reception for the hotel, located on the main street. The technical specialist attempted to talk us through getting online, but he was unsuccessful. He offered to come up to our room, but since we’d planned to go back into town, we said we’d stop by with the iPad. (My computer was left on the bus with our ‘larger’ bags [carry-on size] since it was heavier than the iPad.)
Matthew, the IT young man, was unable to get us connected using his usual methods, but he took it as a challenge and hacked into his server to recover our key word. (I love IT people. He saw it as a personal accomplishment to get us online.)
Once we were connected to the world again, we answered a bit of email and then headed out to walk the ramparts of the fortress. We made our way to the tower where we watched as the tidal bore moved in from the sea to fill the area around the town leaving it once again isolated. For eighty years, a causeway linked Mont Saint-Michel to the mainland. A bridge was nearly completed when we arrived. When the bridge is finished during the summer of 2014, the causeway will be destroyed leaving Mont Saint-Michel an island once again.
We watched the tide flow in and then made our way to the restaurant where we ate dinner. The view was spectacular!
 Our meal began with a toast of the local apple cidre. It is much higher in alcoholic content than the apple cider we are accustomed to.
We were served our appetizers. For this meal, we had a choice of nine! Most were fish or shellfish (fish soup, mussels, oysters, and a variety of crustaceans). The one non-seafood choice was the local fluffy omelet. I opted for that. Larry had the oysters. Mine was delicious, and he enjoyed his own as well as samples of mussels and other delicacies our fellow travelers shared.
A palate cleanser consisting of apple sorbet with calvados—the local apple brandy—was served.
For the entrée, we had several choices as well: duck fois gras, lamb, salmon, and beef. Larry had the salmon and I chose the beef. Again, our selections were very good.
The cheese course consisted of three local cheeses.
Dessert selections included chocolate cake, apple tart, pear charlotte, and crème brûlée.
Even though I only ate half or less of each course, I was stuffed by the end of the meal. But oh, how delicious it was!
We celebrated Soledad’s birthday the next day by singing “Happy Birthday.”
As we ate, the sun set, and the moon came up—a shining silver orb above a sky painted shades of blue, purple, and hot pink.
As we headed back to our rooms, we looked up to see the abbey lighted against the night sky—its magnificent spires rising to heaven.
After yet another uphill hike and climbing many more stairs, we arrived back at our room, tired, sated, and happy to be on the island for the night when all the crowds were gone.

April 15 – Tuesday

We woke early to experience the Office du Lauds, the morning praise service at the abbey.
The sunrise was magnificent as the seagulls chanted a welcome to the dawn. Once more, God painted the sky above the mainland in shades of aqua, lavender, hot pink, and peach. The view from our room of the city below with the gulls wheeling in the morning air was breathtaking.

We had to be at the entrance by 6:50 a.m., so we climbed over 700 steps straight up from our room to the wooden doors. As the priest unlocked and opened the door, the bells began to ring. Another couple of hundred steps, and we finally entered the cathedral itself.
The Order of Jerusalem (Fraternités Monastiques de Jérusalem), a new contemplative religious order based in Paris, has seven monks and six nuns living in the abbey. One of the monks was ringing the bells in the cathedral by hand as we entered. Eight of us from our group plus two others were the only visitors in the church.
At 7:00, the doors were closed and locked, and the service began. Gorgeous choral music sung in French (here is a sample of the music, and another) and a couple of Bible readings later, the service was over, far too soon for me. The experience of beauty makes me weep, and I shed many tears during the service so moving it will probably take me some time to even process the experience. Definitely the hands-down highlight of the trip.
Back down to our room to get our bags, and then the long hike into town for breakfast. Following our meal, we had about an hour to wander the town again before meeting our tour guide for a complete exploration of the town and abbey. Found a few more gifts.
Once again, we made the long hike to the abbey at the top and then wandered the three floors inside the church with a local guide, Jessica, learning the history of this over one-thousand year old fortress.
 This time the streets and stairways were so crowded we could hardly move. At the end of our tour, we retrieved our bags and made the final hike to the shuttle. From there, we re-boarded the bus to head to Normandy.
We stopped at an auto-café for lunch. We split a Panini, diet coke, and lemon tart. We finally arrived in Bayeux and the Churchill Hotel.
We only had time to drop off our bags before we made our way to the museum to see the Bayeux tapestry—an embroidered history of the Battle of Hastings over 70 feet long. This was created shortly after the battle in 1066. It is quite amazing.
We stopped by Cathédrale Notre Dame de Bayeux, a lovely church where the organist was practicing.

We returned to the hotel, set up our wi-fi connection, ate a couple of protein bars for dinner (we were both stuffed after all the good food we’d been eating), took care of email, and collected our dirty laundry. Off to the laundromat to get our clothes clean.
We met a lady from Minnesota who showed us how to use the machines. (She had been shown by one of our group!) We also met a couple from New Hampshire, so we had a nice time talking while we waited for the clothes to wash and dry.
Finally back in our room, we put our now-clean clothes away and got ready for bed. After all the stair-climbing, we were pretty tired.

To be continued...

Monday, May 19, 2014

France 2014 - Part 4

April 12 – Saturday

After breakfast, we visited the market in Bourges with an assignment to get food for a picnic lunch. We went to the sandwich shop to order sandwiches—in French. I went first and ordered a “sandwich en poulet.” The dear young man behind the counter answered, “Oh, you want a chicken sandwich?” So much for using our French! We ordered our sandwiches and desserts and then returned to the hotel.
Our group boarded the bus to travel through the Loire Valley. Virginie promised a surprise and a wine and goat cheese tasting before our picnic lunch. We finally stopped at the Cháteau de Selles Sur Cher. This small castle was begun in 935 AD as a fortress against the Viking raids. Later, it was captured by Richard the Lionheart. It was enlarged in 1212, still as a fortress. In 1604, a Renaissance castle was built, in part from the stones of the previous buildings, but in the early 19th century, it was partly demolished. Since 2002, a restoration effort was begun to partially save the structure. The efforts continued with the current owner, Nicola.

This was a magical place with gorgeous grounds. Bob would have loved to have painted it. Larry took some photos to show him.
The wine and cheese tastings were fun. The wines were grown and pressed locally using the most efficient and healthy processes available. Nicola was charming and presented his wines with joy and passion. He was also a real history buff which fired his commitment to restore all the property.
We so enjoyed our visit. It became a highlight of the tour.
Later in the afternoon, we visited the famous Cháteau de Chambourd. This huge castle was known as a bouquet of stones. Very impressive, but overwhelming—and crowded with visitors.

We arrived in Amboise and got our rooms in the Hôtel Le Belle-Vue. Then we ate at a gourmet restaurant down the street.
My appetizer was scallops. I had expected a couple of seared ones. Instead, they appeared to be raw, slimy, and chopped atop a green base. None of us could figure out what it was. We were finally told it was peas mashed with mint. Larry’s was so unremarkable, he can’t remember what it was. Nor can either of us remember our entrees.
Dessert was a mango tart with very little mango flavor.
Interesting meal, but not one we would ever order again. Finally, back to the hotel for the night.

April 13 – Sunday

We were awakened at about 1:00 a.m. by loud voices, probably from a party leaving the bar next door. Then, at 4:00 a.m., we heard loud voices arguing on the street below. Needless to say, several of us were tired in the morning!
At breakfast, we were talking about our rooms, and several of the people mentioned having bathtubs. Bathtubs? Our shower was so small (How small was it?) Larry had to turn at an angle so his shoulders would fit inside with the door closed. The room had been beautifully remodeled, and a new pedestal sink with almost no rim had been replaced. Above it, a tiny glass shelf about 3” deep held two glasses and tiny bottles of shampoo and conditioner as well as a miniature bar of soap. Above the shelf, a new mirror with fluorescent lighting had obviously just been installed.
The shower doors were obviously new, but in order to make them fit with enough room to actually enter the shower, a three-panel one was used. (A standard set with two doors would not have allowed enough access.)
The toilet abutted the tub. When sitting on the toilet, your knees nearly touched the opposite wall.
It was impossible for two people to share the bathroom.
Mary Jane and Kent had the room next to ours. On the diagram (showing the escape routes) we noticed that where our bathroom was, they had a narrow hallway leading to a much larger bath area.
Mary Jane walked back to the room with us and I showed her our teeny, tiny bathroom.
She laughed. “It’s a trailer bathroom!”
That was our laugh for the day. But the little bitty room met all my requirements:

  1.   It was en suite
  2. The shower had hot water
  3. It was in France!

After we ate, we drove to Cháteau Chenenceau, known as the ladies’ castle because six women contributed to the castle’s history. Built in 1513 by Katherine Briçonnet, it was successively embellished by Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici, and several others.









We were the first group to arrive and had most rooms to ourselves for a while. I loved this place. It felt much more like a home than some of the other castles, although over-the-top in elegance.
We had quite a bit of time to explore the house and gardens.
Back in Amboise, we were free for the afternoon. We had crepes for lunch and then went up the hill to Clos Lucé, the last home of Leonardo da Vinci. Unfortunately, they were renovating the living quarters, but the rest of the house was interesting. The basement had a collection of models of his inventions.

After the house tour, we walked through the gorgeous grounds. Outside, many models of his inventions had been created life-size.
We returned to the little town center, bought a few more gifts, and ordered gelato. While seated in the town plaza, we had a uniquely French experience. A hurdy-gurdy man began to play and sing French folk songs. We sat in the outdoor café eating our cones and enjoying the entertainment.
Then back to our hotel for a rest and to get my journal updated. Although we were supposed to have had wi-fi, it did not work. We talked to several others in our group, and they had issues as well. The only one who was able to get on used Gmail and Google Chrome. I didn’t have it on my computer, and Larry, of course, couldn’t get it on the iPad. So we were offline for a couple of days.

To be continued...