Wild roses loaded with rose hips so bright red and succulent I wanted to eat them (can you?)… cow pastures dotted with hundreds of lavender crocuses… a big woodpecker with a red head and bright yellow back… little lizards skittering every which way into the grass… the jingle of bells on bellwethers, both cow and sheep, drifting over the hillsides… the deep, luxuriant silence in the Aubrac whenever my boots stopped crunching along… entire cliffsides of impressive columnar basalt, as well as the side of a small quarry where the columns curved in a shape very like the scallop shell that was the emblem of the Chemin de St. Jacques… pointy-roofed towers on castles (and some regular ol’ houses) that clearly inspired the French tower scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail… the smell of warm croissants in every village, every morning… the edible sculptures in the windows of patisseries, the intimidating and expensive delights in choclateries, and the less beautiful but delicious koign amman in Bretagne – kind of like Breton cinnamon roll, but softer and tastier. I’ll have to see if I can find a recipe online and try those at home!
September 30, 2008
September 27, 2008
and the same little town, from my hotel window.
Number of people who have asked me for directions in a language I barely understand: 10
(I KNOW I don’t look French, so I think that since I’m alone, they assume I must know where I am and where I’m going. Not a good assumption. I think two are less likely to be lost than one.)
General varieties of toilets encountered: 7 (counting the toolie bush, the kind where the attendant is expecting to be tipped, the “old” French kind that basically is a porcelain hole in the floor – although one of these had a flushing mechanism that I thought was going to suck ME down the drain — and the kind where the whole metal room is automatically hosed down afterward, which seems like sanitary overkill to me)
Modes of transportation (whole trip so far): 11, including bicycle, water taxi, and people-mover
Novel pages drafted: 145
Miles walked: Over 520. My boots are holding up great, if you don’t count the waterproofing. I actually started adding detours and extra jaunts to my walks on several of the easier days last week because 12 miles didn’t feel like enough and I’d gained enough confidence in my maps and the waymarking not to get lost. Rambling!
…where even when I could find 10 minutes of internet access, I had to use a French keyboard. I thought keyboards were universal. Non, madame. So even the VERY few messages I got out looked like this, almost in code:
Qnd I?m hqvinb q greqt ti,e>
But Le Puy and the Aurvergne and the Aubrac “mountains” were spectacular. They don’t look like anywhere I’ve been, and every day, almost, the landscapes were different. One day I was in “kinda like Northern California if there were more leafy trees and much smaller farms and castles instead of cars.” The next day I was in “kinda like Northern Idaho except not so rugged and the pine woods are more open and smaller.” A third day was “kinda like Walla Walla must have looked 150 years ago, but with stone houses.”
Le Puy, where the Chemin de St. Jacques started, at dawn. Big statue of Mary and St. James on the hills. The weather was fabulous, but it was hazy enough that none of my photos do it justice — the camera sees the haze a lot more than my eyes did.
My French is better than it was. Which is not saying much. It almost feels weird to be in London and hear English – and the easier-ness is a relief, but I’m having some trouble switching gears. I keep saying bonjour and merci automatically.
Oddest food eaten: Aligot, which is this HUGE knot of mashed potatoes with so much cheese stirred into them that they turn into silly putty and you can stretch them from the floor to the ceiling. No exaggeration. Tasty, but chewy. And heavy. And voluminous. You could serve 10 people with the dish they brought me alone.
Minor travel mishap: Accidentally ordering a pate (yuk) that I thought was going to be a soup. Yes, I choked most of it down anyway. I’m sure it was good for me, the courteous thing, and I needed the protein.
Fortuitous timing incident: Walking into the cathedral at the start of the Chemin de St. Jacques just as the organ player started his evening practice. A great kickoff to the pilgrim’s way.
Puzzlement 1: How a people/culture can be so vocal about the separation of church and state and so staunchly dubious about Catholic dogma, and at the same time, so molded by and appreciative of Catholic imagery, ritual, traditions … they somehow manage to live at once from what seems to me to be two nearly opposing perspectives.
Unexpected bliss: The whole sub-culture of the Chemin de St. Jacques, including the hospitality and focus on the modern pilgrims on it, most of whom are not there for religious reasons. There doesn’t seem to be any “tourist fatigue” among the locals here, which is amazing, given that they’ve been inundated with tourists for more than 1,000 years.
I came across quotes, carved on signposts, that were perfect:
Sur l’Aubrac, il n’y a rien ou il y a tout. Dans le silence et le solitude, on n’entende plus que l’essentiel.
Basic translation: In the Aubrac [mountains], there is nothing – or everything. In the silence and solitude, one perceives nothing more than what is essential.
Puzzlement 2: How the English and French cultures can be so different, despite geographical proximity and many joint monarchies. I guess I expected England, only in French and with better food. But France – even Paris – is like a small, small town in many ways. The countryside is utterly outside of time, except for the cycles of seasons. There is a crystal clear sense of the value and interdependence of human life, and the grace of the planet in even the most basic of interactions. The pursuit of beauty is a high priority, but fortunately, it’s found everywhere, including the cows and the cheese and the rocks and the orange juice glasses. The French are all about grace, in its various meanings, I think.
France is beautiful. It doesn’t make me want to live here, like England does – I can’t explain that — but I surely would come back to visit.
September 14, 2008
And here are a couple from the walled city of Dinan, originally a Celtic fort, with an amazing amount of its half-timbered construction still intact. (Celtic fort = dun Anann, with Anann being the goddess of life and death, apparently, which sounds like a pretty important goddess to me, although I’ve never run across her name in my Irish research, so I’m wondering if she might have been favored by the Celts in Gaul and not those farther north). Lots of cobbled streets.
September 13, 2008
St. Malo was interesting not only because there was a French submarine in port, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a submarine in the actual water before — not to mention the accident that happened with this one, but I digress — but also because it’s a walled city with walls that are fully intact and that have never been successfully sieged, not even by the vikings, who pretty much had their way everywhere else they went after. It’s known (charitably) in France as the City of the Corsairs — aka pirates. It was the center of French privateering, and they used to sail out into the channel and rob the English blind and then sail back behind their walls and thumb their noses. English armadas came several times to try to spank them and never succeeded.
And its reputation as an invincible fortress held out through WWII, when the Germans held it and the Fort de la Cite (a nearby site of a Roman fort, which the Germans spent nearly the whole war super-re- fortifying b/c control of the river here, the Rance, pretty much locked up a big chunk of France).
The fort is just outside St. Malo across the sea inlet and on one shore of the river, and there are loads of small islands and rocks in the river mouth and out to sea between here and Guernsey & Jersey, and virtually every one bigger than a boat has a stone fort on it, most of them put there by the Germans. There was a really interesting “39-45 Memorial” here (they’re called that all over here) at the Fort de la Cite, which had several gunning platforms and about a dozen steel “cloches blindee,” which I think is equivalent to what we call pillboxes, though all the pillboxes I’ve seen before have been stone or concrete and these were steel, round, and had extensive tunneling from the fort to get to them. (See photo, tho unfortunately it can’t show the tunnels.)
After Normandy D-day and the allies moving farther into France from there, the allied forces, mostly the US 83rd infantry, had to retake the Fort before they could even begin to liberate St. Malo or Dinard, which is across the river’s mouth from St. Malo. (The fort between them.) The infantry took five days to get close to and blockade the fort. Then the cloches took a heck of a shelling (the flyer that I was able to more or less translate says “two particularly bloody infantry assaults and eight days of intense shelling” before the German general there finally gave up. You can see the amazing impacts of the shells on the cloche in the photo above, and near the center, two chunks to the right from the main gunner hole, there’s still most of the shell melted forever into the metal.
And then the Allies had to deal with St. Malo, which is the walled city with the lighthouse (above), b/c the Germans holding that refused to yield, even with the fort overtaken. And French historians said, ‘good luck.’ And the Americans said, “to heck with that” and flattened the city from the air without (still) breaching the walls. 80% of the city was flattened to rubble, but afterward they rebuilt it stone by stone to what it had been before, using historical info and photos — of which there were a lot, because of its fame and wealth re: the pirates.
September 10, 2008
Gold Sands in the Pines, where my hotel was September 7th and 8th. Nice weather for the beach today, and the sand is gold, but it’s also full of bits of colored, broken shell that turn it into a stained-glass mosaic.
1) Friends in the Paris catacombs (a bit fuzzy b/c flash not allowed). 2) I thought this sign was moderately scary, and funny — “beware of snakes!”