September 14, 2008

City of Dinan

Filed under: France — sensel @ 5:01 pm

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 & Fort de la Cite

Filed under: France — sensel @ 8:44 am

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

Sables d’Or les Pines

Filed under: France — sensel @ 11:07 am


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.



Images of France

Filed under: France — sensel @ 11:02 am


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!” 


Images of Paris

Filed under: France — sensel @ 10:29 am

Wedding on a bridge over the Seine

The Eiffel tower at night from my room    Inside St. Chappelle                                                               
The Eiffel Tower at night from my room.

September 8, 2008


Filed under: France — sensel @ 9:46 pm

I’ve had to learn a bit of a new language in terms of the trail waymarking between England and France. Both do a fabulous job of marking anything resembling a footpath, from a U.S. perspective. But I got so used to thinking like English waymarks that on my first day here, I had trouble seeing the French ones because my eyes weren’t tuned to the right frequency. And now that they are, I think waymarking systems say a LOT about the culture they’re in.

In the U.S., if our trails are marked at all, it’s with a sign at the start telling you where you might like to go, usually with several choices, and how far it is – half challenge and half threat. After that, you’re on your own. We rarely signpost the destination because that might reduce your freedom to decide what constitutes the destination for you as an individual. Hey, it’s a frontier, and we’ll point you west but after that, it’s all up to you. And if there are junctions and branches, they’re unmarked, because if you’re worried about that, why didn’t you buy a map?

In England, they want above all to be helpful, and there are proper ways to do these things. The waymarks are all tall, stately wooden signs with carved arrows pointing out where to go and some general idea (rounded to within 2 miles in accuracy) how far it might be. They have cute little symbols for each different trail so no one gets confused, and even the informal path to the loo is marked, all within 4 and 6 feet off the ground, so they’re easy to spot. And the waymarks repeat at each junction, for those arriving from any and all directions. All orderly and attractive; we would not want confusion.

In France, they also want to be helpful but there are many more subtleties to be taken into account, and above all, one must not be loud or obvious or move anyone along too quickly, because it is enjoying the details of the moment that counts. The waymarks are not carved wooden signs or even metal badges on purpose-planted posts, as in England. They are 3-inch long stripes of paint, or sometimes tape, in particular colors. They are small. They are quiet. They are very discreet. You could live here for years without noticing them, if you didn’t have a reason to look. And when you did notice, you’d just think somebody taped up a flyer and the tape wouldn’t come off when they took the flyer back down. (Except that it’s hard for me to imagine the French tacking up many flyers.) And while a few waymarks go on poles that may happen to be in the way otherwise, like the posts of street signs, most of them go elsewhere – on cliffs, logs, stairs, rocks, garbage cans, large shrubberies, and slow-moving animals. The stripes use little codes that tell you when to turn and which direction. They also have Xs that say, “don’t go this way,” which can be handy, but can also sometimes leave you wondering toward which of the other 359 degrees of the compass you ARE supposed to go. On the very rare occasions where they indicate a destination, they show not distance but time to get there, because they wouldn’t want you to underestimate and be late for dinner.

Once you know the code, it’s like being part of a dispersed stealth force traveling the country, looking for the next clue, like old hobo signs. I like being part of a stealth hobo force, looking for my next secret message. And now that I speak the stealth language, I see the marks everywhere, not only for the path I’m mostly following (the GR 34), but loads of other local and long-distance paths, too. I’m in the red and white stripe cult. Look out.

September 7, 2008

Haunted wood by the sea

Filed under: France — sensel @ 9:39 pm

I walked through a haunted wood yesterday. In the last month, I’ve been through plenty of small woods, but this one definitely had a sinister mood. Whatever hung out there wasn’t going to get ferocious with me as long as I went about my business and moved on quickly enough, but it was definitely watching with narrowed eyes and waiting rather impatiently to get back to whatever it was doing before I stepped in. I suppose in Brittany it could have been anything from lost Gauls to resistance fighters still grappling with dead Germans. Although, like Cornwall, there are several places near here that claim King Arthur provenance (to my surprise; I thought everyone agreed it was Wales/southwest England, but I suppose there’s some Briton/Breton logic there), so maybe it was Merlin’s wood.

Brittany is less like England than I expected in its architecture and landscape. Flatter, leafier, less stonework, feels newer (and I suppose most of the buildings are, since it’s been more blasted by relatively recent wars). I’ve got too much stuff as it is, but would like to identify some of the trees, etc. among the corn fields. And I’ve got to work out something different with the food; it’s already paid for, and very delicious, so I hate to turn down the 3-course dinner that comes with my room, but it just doesn’t work for me very well to eat so much so late at night, and I don’t like the fact that it takes two hours, either, since I’m pretty sure it would be considered gauche to read during it. If I slept all day, got up for dinner, and tried walking in the dark, I’d end up over a cliff (or mangled by the thing in the wood)… Maybe I can just have the dessert! 😉

September 6, 2008

Misadventures in Lamballe

Filed under: France — sensel @ 11:54 am

Okay, I hope I’m not starting a trend. Spied a laundromat (a lavagerie automatique, that is) while wandering around and decided I’d better do some (to answer your question Ray, there’s “home clean” and “travel clean,” and I’ve been mostly the latter. Or just plain muddy.) To make a long story short, I got my laundry clean and dry, but it involved awful noises, scooping the $1 worth of soap from one machine to another with a sock, and lots of verbose help from the 3 other people in the place, from whom I understood about every fourth word. (I can sure read French a whole lot better than I can hear it. Too bad the signs didn’t explain the broken washer… but I felt a little better when one of the French women had trouble with the dryer and needed help from the others, too. The dryer, I could handle.) It was kinda fun after the “ack!” part wore off. But then, after a tres sumptuous dinner — sort of a potato and fish brioche; I did better speaking etc in the restaurant than in the laundramat — I found myself locked out of the hotel’s automatic front door without a keypad code. After multiple tries, doorbelling, and even some attempts to hack  the keypad, I broke out my phone card, found a phone, called… only to be told the door was open. Went back and the manager was waiting for me, and sure ’nuff, the automatic door opened automatically. But this one was NOT operator error, or too much cider at dinner, either — believe me, I tried many times, walked away, came back, looked for side doors, came back, had an idea, came back… before going to the effort to find a public phone. Perhaps only french DOORS are rude to tourists?

Did I mention the INCREDIBLY rowdy group of English bicycle riders who invaded first the hotel and then the restaurant dressed in pink plastic wigs, the big, hairy men in short skirts a la French maids, etc? Geez, and Americans have the reputation for being loud and obnoxious?! Never met Brits quite like that before. I’m sure I’ll be hearing from them again about 2 a.m., ha ha…

Okay, c’est tout pour maintenant. More adventures, undoubtedly, soon…

Stones and bones

Filed under: France — sensel @ 6:18 am

Paris… wow. I mean, wow. I had no idea. (Maybe those who have been to Rome or other major European cities do?) This old dame makes New York City — maybe even London — look like a dingy, ugly, small, and upstart backwater. The uniformity of the grand limestone architecture makes it lovely; the incredible wealth and craftsmanship evident in structures that are 400 years old — or twice that — makes it impressive; and the history lying pretty much on the surface (or down a few feet as necessary) make it interesting. I managed to fit in Notre Dame, St. Chapelle (another wow, smaller and newer than Notre Dame but in many ways more lovely, since it’s like 98% stained glass), a whack at the Louvre (mostly in the Egypt collection but yes, I saw Mona), the Conciergerie (old prison), the Left Bank (where the bookstore called Shakespeare & Co is all it is cracked up to be and more), the Arc de Triomphe (and it’s very easy to imagine how truly horrifying it must have been for the French to see the Nazi flag flying from it), the Metro (and some of the coolest Metro signs imaginable), and of course the Tower, which is actually rather cooler than I expected. And a bunch of your basic wandering, including through the Catacombs, which are pretty amazing and were one of my favorite parts, actually, though that probably sounds weird. It’s intriguing, though, and sort of humbling, to imagine people stacking up those bones in patterns like that, and even weirder to think of the people those bones belonged to — they were moved 250 years ago, and many were hundreds of years old then.

And I can’t imagine what makes people say the Parisiens are rude. Everyone was quite nice to me, and happily bounced into English when my French ran out after a sentence and a half.

And thank goodness, a country that knows what a salad is! Although that may be balanced by the fact that I can’t get tea 24 hours a day for free, but I guess you can’t have everything.

Still, I’m glad to get out to the countryside again. A plus tard, and maybe some pics, if my wi-fi luck holds out.

September 4, 2008


Filed under: France — sensel @ 12:48 am

Love it so far. More of its own personality than most gigantic cities I’ve ever been in. Can see le Tour from my hotel room (if I sort of hang out the window.) Spent the a.m. at Notre Dame and stumbled on this I-net cafe, so thought I’d better use it. A bientot!

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