Getting lost in France
09.09.2007 23 °C
Since we left you in Nantes in southern Brittany we've picked up a hire car and been attempting to drive ourselves around France. From Nantes we headed north, intending on reaching St Malo on the northern coast. After some misadventures where we ended up on the wrong side of a roundabout, almost hitting a bus, and being wiped out by a truck we finally found ourselves on the motorway south. South? Weren't we going north? Well, yes officially, but it would be fair to say we've struggled a little with French highway signage. Not that we cant't read the signs - it's just that whatever destination we're heading for always seems to be missing from the signs. It's been a challenge!
Our first day on the road was a series of misadventures but we did finally make it to St Malo. By this stage however we were a little over it and St Malo didn't really live up to expectations. We found the little town of Dinan to the south much nicer.
The next day we drove to the fortress abbey of Mont St Michel; strategically set in the middle of a tidal lagoon, the abbey features in almost every guidebook about France as one of the must sees. It certainly lived up to expectations. It was beautiful, but like all popular tourist attrractions was beset by crowds.
I then convinced Shelly that we should visit Bayeaux, home of the famous tapestry of William the Bastard's conquest of England in 1066AD. I'm not sure Shelly was entirely convinced by my arguments that it was a must see, but it certainly turned out to be a highlight of the trip. The presentation of the tapestry was extremely well done and very interesting, even to someone without a special interest.
From Bayeaux we headed up to the Normandy beaches where we again came unstuck with poor road signage. Nowadays everyone who has seen Saving Private Ryan takes the trip out to Omaha beach. The D-Day landings are especially celebrated in France and every town has its own set of monuments. But could we find any signs? And directions? The Lonely Planet only provided only a basic "it's over there somewhere" set of directions and so we spent hours driving around and around, arriving at dead ends and private roads. Just as the sun was setting we came across the German gun emplacements at Longes-Sur-Mer. I was excited but Shelly was non-plussed (and I always thought she liked big guns?). As night began to fall we were forced to backtrack to Bayeaux and stay in an old mansion/bed and breakfast (the things we put up with!).
The next day we went back to Normandy as we'd seen a tiny little sign mentioning the Omaha beach memorial tacked to a wall outside of Bayeaux. Sure that we were now on the right track we promptly got lost, although we did manage to find the Omaha Beach Memorial Golf Course (tasteful). EVENTUALLY we stumbled upon the beach more by accident than design. Like Gallipoli and other battle fields it doesn't really look like anything nowadays. There is no sense of horror. The headstones were errie due to their numbers, but the patriotic, overblown monument that dominates the site gives a garrishness to the place.
So - to the south again. It was a long days driving to Tours in the Loire Valley. We stopped in to a few historic places on the way - Angers, dominated by a brooding 12th century castle. Angers was home of the Angevine dynasty who counted amongst their number some of England's greatest kings - Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, King John, Henry III, Richard II, etc, etc. In fact the ghosts of the Angevines would haunt this section of the trip. Then on to the Chateau at Saumur (stunning), and then the obscure Abbey Royale at Fountevrault. This out of the way abbey is the final resting place of two of Englands most famous kings - Henry II Plantagent and Richard the Lionheart - along with their wives. Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine was once the most powerful woman in France and owned as her personal fief almost a third of modern France. Richard the Lionheart is of course idolised as one of the greatest kings in English history. This is probably because he never actually lived in England. He was Norman to his core, spoke French and lived mostly in Poitiers, a little to the south of Angers. In Henry II's last years, as he struggled to wrestle more French territory for England, his son Richard actually fought against him on the French side. Henry's last words to Richard were "I hope I live long enough to see you suffer in hell (in French of course)" He died the next day in the castle at Chinon and was buried in the Abbey Royale. Now king of England, Richard popped over to England for about six months - just long enough to decide he really hated the English weather and to sell off as much royal land as he could to fund the Third Crusade ("I would sell London if I could find a buyer."). He never set foot in England again, eventually dying from an infected arrow wound he recieved while besieging some minor castle in France. All in all, he was a violent, vicious, and treacherous bastard, hated by most of the people who knew him, and was probably gay. He was also buried next to his father - which was probably ironic. A few years ago England asked the French if they could reintere Henry and Richard in Westminister Abbey, as a more fitting burial place for two kings than the very obscure Royal Abbey in rural France. The French politely said sod off.
The abbey itself was a disappointment - restored so heavily the place looked like it was brand new and totally lifeless.
We arrived in Tours fairly late and tried to navigate ourselves through the city to the old town. This was easier said than done. Like in England, traffic in the old towns is minimised by making all the streets one way, and then - seemingly deliberately - ensuring that none of the one way streets link up in any coherent fashion. Typically, the street we wanted was one street over from the street we were forced to turn up, which promptly turned us away from our destination and right off the map. We tried approaching from the other side, but again the same problem. The roads continually twisted in on themselves, and then - incredibily - when the streets became so narrow that they are barely navigable by goats and old ladies with walking sticks, they reverted to two way streets, which meant pulling onto curbs and into alcoves whenever someone so much as rode passed on a bicycle! By the time we found a hotel we were utterly frazzled.
The next day we drove out into the Loire valley and did a tour of the chateau's. To call this chateau country is an understatement - the region is littered with them. We visited Amboise, Bloise (where we got lost again - for an hour), Chamboard, Cheveny, and Chenonceaux, where we went ballooning. It was excellent - but I still found it scary as I'm afraid of heights and a big girls blouse. Shelly enjoyed it - thank's girls!
The next day we visited Villandry - which had stunning gardens - and Azay le Rideau. We also saw Chinon, where Henry II died, but did not go in. After a long drive we arrived in La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast. We'd hoped to see the Aussies play in the rugby but the game was well over by the time we arrived. It was difficult to find accommodation as the small city is very popular but the Tourism Office helped us out and got us an excellent deal close to the centre of town.
Today we've been on the road again driving to Bordeaux. There is a game tonight - Ireland versus Namibia - so we expected it to be difficult to get accommodation, but again the Tourism Office helped us book a room one street from the centre of town (and only one street from where I'd already parked the car). Tonight we'll be drinking with the Irish.
The food on the road has been better than in Paris. In Brittany the speciality was savoury pancakes - lovely and cheap. I think I'm a bit over them now though. The cheese is excellent - although when we went to Rocquefort this morning we could not find any Rocquefort cheese! Wine is still a bit ordinary - not as good as Australian or Italian wine. Doesn't stop us drinking it though. France is odd with its coffee I think - restaurants serve it from auto dispensers - for expresso - press one; for cappucino - press two. Very different from home (and Italy). I am longing for a decent coffee when I get back......