31 August – 1 September: Two more medieval walled cities ticked off our Brittany list!

Author: Mrs A

Location: Dinan, Léhon and Saint-Malo, Brittany, France

We realised we had very little time to explore Brittany and so decided to speed past a good chunk of the region, heading north towards the town of Dinan.

Dinan was created as a strategic town by combining three villages in the 1100s and much of the city from the past five or six hundred years still remains. The old fortified wall is still intact, stretching for 3km around the city and there are several half timbered houses remaining, carefully protected. Unlike Concarneau’s old town, Dinan is still a living city, with more than just provisions for tourists. There are several art studios around, as well as jewellers, sculptors and other crafts.

We parked up in a free motorhome camping area in the nearby village of Léhon, and strolled up to the city. It was fairly peaceful on Saturday lunchtime, with none of the crowds of Concarneau. Crepes (savoury pancakes) are a regional favourite with several restaurants around the town offering them for lunch…all heavily filled with dairy products, not suitable for me.

Our first glimpse of the town is peaceful
The only cat in Dinan was on this sign

We decided to stop at a burger joint for lunch, seemingly the only place to offer food I could eat. They also did an interesting French menu. Mr A bravely decided to go for the plât du jour, which the waitress described as ‘like sausage and chips’. It sounded harmless enough, but once Mr A had cut through the ‘sausage’ I could tell it was anything but! He struggled through a single bite, and offered it to me to smell. Utterly disgusting was the answer. We were soon enlightened by a French couple beside us – Mr A was in fact eating (or not eating) Andoilette – pigs intestines and colon. His face was so horrified the waitress took it away and served him up a chicken burger like mine for no extra charge!

We explored the cobbled streets of the town, enjoying the peace and quiet, and incredible views from the city walls, looking down over La Rance River.

Look at the depth of these walls…designed to protect the city’s occupants from attack
Quiet cobbled streets in all directions
Looking across the rooftops towards the cathedral…see the city walls
Beautiful gardens and houses everywhere
Completed in 1852 – Viaduc de Lanvallay has 10 arches and is pretty impressive, especially when seen from the city above
Looking down at the Port de Dinan alongside the River Rance
Loving the peace and quiet
The Château

The following morning we were in no hurry to rush off, and the sun was shining again after a showery evening, so we got out the bikes and went for a ride. It was Sunday morning and in France this means family day. Most of the shops are closed too, so people head to the countryside for some fresh air.

We found a shared cycle-walking path alongside the Rance River which started just a couple of minutes from where we were parked up. In no time at all we were riding through beautiful scenery calling out ‘bonjour’ to other cyclists, walkers and joggers as we headed towards Dinan marina and beyond. There is something so lovely about connecting with another human with not much more than just a smile and bidding one another ‘good day’ transcending all differences. This is something that is really missing in towns and cities when often people don’t even look at each other, and frequently are more focused on their phones than what is going on around them. I think people would be shocked in London or Sydney if I went around saying ‘good day’ to strangers!

A crisp fresh morning – the first day of Autumn and it feels like it!
Look at that happy couple skipping along behind Mr A!

We rode along through the port of Dinan, past people enjoying their crepes and coffees, yachts moored up for a day of exploring.

These days the port only sees leisure traffic heading for the restaurants and up to the walled city above
Looking up towards the viaduct and the walled city up on the hill on the right
Further down river at Port Sainte-Hubert

We rode as far as possible along the river until the path petered out by a railway bridge. Down here it seemed time had stood still for decades, with old fishing huts teetering on rotting planks and poles that nobody dare cross onto or repair. They look like strange sculptures hanging over the water.

Magnificent structure
Anyone fancy clambering along here to do some fishing?

We rode back to the village of Léhon following a path on the other side of the river. Léhon itself is well worth a visit, with its 12th century abbey and very pretty cottages.

Crossing the bridge into ‘our’ village
The 12th century abbey and its well cared for gardens
Mr A rides through the village

We even found an interestingly named restaurant – La Marmite de l’Abbaye…no Marmite on the menu though, sadly!

(Incidentally ‘marmite’ means cooking pot in French, not referring to the salty brewers yeast you spread on toast!)…

Mmm, marmite….oh…’The abbey cooking pot’…not quite as interesting

After a light lunch back at Truffy, we jumped back on the road, heading towards the coast and the town of Saint-Malo.

Saint-Malo sits on a strategically important location, with a settlement having been there since Roman times (around 1 BCE). After being the home of Saxons and people escaping troubles in England, it was inhabited by monks in the 6th century and became known as Saint-Malo.

Our first glimpse of the walled city…no scull and crossbones on the tall ship so we assume all is safe

During the Middle Ages the walled city became a stronghold for pirates, known as privateers (officially employed by the king of France). It became a very wealthy city from all the loot captured from around the world, and from (mostly English) ships which were forced to pay a ‘tribute’ for passing up the English Channel in safety.

The city looks quite imposing with its grey granite walls
Finally a no-smoking area in France…shame nobody was policing it (a couple of smokers were just the other side of the sign!)

Despite its history, Saint-Malo looks fairly modern today. This is due to the post World War II rebuilding that took place in the 1950s and 60s, using original stone but more modern techniques. It is also a city with money – attracting more than 7.6 million visitors per year with an average of 78,000 visitors a day.

Fort National – built in 1689 to protect the port

The city was certainly bustling on this Sunday afternoon, with the cobbled pedestrianised roadways full of boutiques, jewellers and restaurants. There was even a boulangerie open for business. Mr A popped in to purchase a Kouign-amann, a sugary, buttery layered pasty cake, native to Brittany. He approved, but tells me the weight of it suggests it had quite a few buttery calories!

Mr A cake shopping
Bustling streets full of shoppers…no ‘bonjours’ here!

We avoided the shops and explored the quieter backstreets, finding our way to the city walls. From there we could see for miles across the sandy beaches, past the fort and on the horizon the islands of Jersey, Guernesey and on to the south west of England…okay, so England was in our imaginations only, but it’s only a ferry ride away from Saint-Malo (just under 9 hours to Portsmouth and about £180 one way with a car and two passengers, in case you’re wondering!).

A really interesting coastline…we would like to have our sea kayak over here for an explore
Up on the battlements
Interesting rooftops with a lot of chimneys
Looking around the bay

We had a bit more of an explore and I ducked into the cathedral for a quick look. Built in 1146 on the site of an old church from the 6th century, it too has been restored in the past 50 years after WWII bombing damage. The late afternoon sunlight shone in through the stained glass windows and gave a magical light, showering the walls with rainbows. It was a fine conclusion to our visit as we farewelled Saint-Malo and returned to Truffy to find camp for the night.

Saint-Malo Cathedral
Beautiful light
A beautiful building, well restored.

30 August: Heading to the coast for more medieval action

Author: Mrs A

Location: Concarneau, Brittany, France

Having dipped our toe into 7,000 year old history it was time to return to the mere 900 year old historical towns that are more accessible in these parts. Our first stop was Concarneau, a fishing town on the coast. Tuna and sardines are the main business here, and it is France’s third most important fishing port, along with tourism, of course. To some extent it reminded me of my hometown of Hastings in the UK, the smell of fish, salty air and seaweed coupled with the sweetness of ice creams.

We arrived as the Friday morning market was closing up. We were sad to have missed it – it looked to have been huge and pretty good. We managed to buy a couple of things from stall holders before they finished completely and then crossed the bridge into town.

A beautiful glistening harbour
The walled city reflecting in the waters

Concarneau is very pretty, particularly when the sun is shining, and the old town almost entirely dedicated to tourism. It has been a while since we have seen rows of souvenirs for sale, gift boxed tuna and sardines, butter biscuits and toffee from Brittany, blue and white painted pottery (probably mass produced in China). In between these shops there were a few nice stores selling more authentic produce, and strangely an amazing smelling spice and tea store. We also found the crowds of people who have been missing from our past few weeks…well, they felt like crowds to us, but apparently French schools go back on Monday so visitor numbers are actually down on the past few weeks!

And here are the people!

It wasn’t too hard to escape the crowds, however, stepping a few metres off the main street and up onto the walls. These have been well preserved, and offer fabulous views around the working harbour. Outside of the old city, it feels like an authentic working town. There’s a long distance coastal walk that starts here too, for those with more time.

Looking back at the town
The coast guard heading off on a mission

We had a walk around town, made a few purchases as gifts for friends back in the UK (look out for your white and blue china, folks – ha ha!) before heading off .

The old gates have been preserved
I wonder how many people have sat on this wall over the centuries

We selected another France Passion site for the night, this time just half an hour inland from Concarneau on a peaceful farm. We were greeted by three teenagers in their halting English, keen to show us where to park and give us a tasting of their grandparents’ cider home brew.

Of course we purchased a couple of bottles, it would be rude not to!

Truffy’s home for the night – a 400 year old farm selling cider and apple juice

29 August: Puzzling over the mysteries of the Neolithic Carnac alignments…and eating oysters

Author: Mr A

Location: Locmariaquer and Carnac, Brittany, France

I went to a secondary school in England that was run by a headmaster who went on to make a better curator of Oxford museum than, in reflection, he did a headmaster of a boys school. I left school with very little passion ignited for learning. However, he did take us a on dig at a Roman villa near my home town, and that did stir an interest in ancient (rather than modern) history.

So when the opportunity presented itself to go and see the earliest known examples of megalithic architecture in Western Europe, I was excited! If you’re not really into that..I’d skip this post!

I’d spent some time over the last couple of days reading up about what the French call “The Carnac alignments”, a collection of megaliths (large stones that have been used to construct a structure or monument, either alone or with other stones) that’s spread over the ancient Breton landscape. Oh the joys of retirement!

Let me attempt to summarise what’s known and what’s not about these structures. There are over 3,000 of these stone megaliths scattered around north-western Brittany. Before radiocarbon dating was introduced in the mid 1970s. archaeologists thought they were raised by the Celts, but they were around 6,000 years out. We now know the structures were cut and moved into place around 7,000 years ago! This makes them the oldest megaliths in Western Europe. As an aside, the oldest in the world are currently understood to be at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey at 11,000 years old. Not heard of it? You wouldn’t be alone there…and yet the relative youngster of Stonehenge (5,019 years) has such strong brand recognition. Cultural politics in archaeology maybe?

So we paid our few euros of an admission fee and had a wander around one of the main sites at Locmariaquer. It was one of those spine tingling moments when you see something that just defies your understanding of the world.

Drawings showing the reconstructed carvings on the stones, now heavily weathered. All carvings were in relief (ie the stone around the images chipped away, a HUGE amount of work, demonstrating the importance of the stones)
The large grave measures 30 metres long, for just one person…who were they?
The cairn/grave now containing the ‘Table de Marchand’ (Merchant’s table) was reconstructed in the 1990s – prior to this the stones were used as a parking lot and the ancient ‘table’ used for picnics for hundreds of years!
Entering the cairn
Inside the ‘table’ and stone slabs are protected from the elements once again. Carvings can be seen on the back wall and ceiling, dating back 7,000 years

For instance, there sits four large chunks of rock that have been proven from the carvings on each to have once belonged to a single megalith. It weighs over 300 tonnes, and was somehow transported over ten kilometres of rolling hills and across rivers.

Various experiments have been carried out over the years to try and replicate moving large stones to prove it can be done using logs and levers. In one such proof of concept a bunch of students and willing tourists were able to move a 30 tonne stone. But 300 tonnes…not that I can find. Logs just dont work apparently with that weight. And of course there must have been a solution, or it wouldn’t be there. But I think perhaps its as much a mystery as to how a Neolithic society had developed such a complex social structure to engage the huge amount of labour it would have taken, and kept them fed, motivated and organised.

Catherine stands beside the pieces of the toppled rock – estimated to have fallen 6,000 years ago during an earthquake

A piece of research published in February this year has at least shed some light on the spread of megalithic structures in Western Europe. The study analysed over 2,400 radio carbon ratings of megalithic structures across Europe and demonstrated that they spread up and down the then coasts of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, presumably from the initiative of a single seafaring culture.

We have still much to understand about how this “cognitive revolution” (as Yuval Harari calls it in his book “Sapiens”) took place. What prompted such a huge acceleration of social and technical competence in a relative short period of time? Homo Sapiens had been pottering around with basic stone tools for nearly 2 million years, then all of a sudden everything changes dramatically. Why? What was the impetus to this rapid development? Intrigued? Well I am…

Locmariaquer is a pretty seaside village, giving our first sight of the ocean since Croatia
Cobbled streets and blue and white accompany the fresh sea air
We feel Locmariaquer would be a great place to stop a while…but sadly there are no good sounding campsites
The clear waters and sea air is lovely

So we headed off to find a camp for the night and drove along the coast to an oyster farm in the village of Carnac we had seen listed on the France Passion scheme we belong to. Basically you can park up for free in return for tasting their produce.

We call in at the Alignments de Carnac on the way to our France Passion…there are literally thousands of these stones lined up in fields. What do they mean?

So we roll up and park up in front of this fabulous view across the bay, and go and buy ourselves two dozen of the local oysters, for the very good price of under €10. Now they were pretty nice, but I have to say Sydney Rock oysters take some beating! Perhaps we just been trained over the years to appreciate that creamy flavour. These were a little saltier, and went well with a crisp Italian white from Le Marche. We’re feeling particularly fortunate tonight to have this new view out of Truffy’s window.

How’s this for a free camp?
A beautiful little harbour metres in front of us
Wine and oysters…what more does one need?
Sunset is pretty awesome too
This is the definition of serenity….and breathe…..