Friday, June 17, 2011

Saumur and The Loire Valley

The Loire River and Saumur Castle in background

June 14 - Vannes to Saumur

Our drive eastward, from Vannes to Saumur  was one of our longer ones, passing by the cities of Nantes and Angers. As we drove into Saumur across the Loire River we were greeted with a grand view of the city’s brooding castle and a medieval looking bridge.

Our hotel was situated in a small village next to Saumur. After getting settled into our room we went into Saumur and walked along the Loire River, touring the steep walls of the castle and its grounds. They provided a splendid view of the Loire Valley as well as the river itself.

Right next to the castle, also having a grand view, there was a small restaurant perched at the top of a knoll. We settled in for a refreshing beer. Life’s good.

As luck would have it, we found an open cave (winery) as we made our way down back into town. Helene, a young lady at the Caves de Grenelle, gave us a wonderfully informative tour of the winery. Although they made many different wines, this was their sparkling wines facility. Their regular (still) wines were made elsewhere.

Helene proceeded to take us into the cool and dark caves a hundred feet below the surface and showed us the process they utilize (methode traditionelle) to make the sparkling wines. Afterwards, we got a chance to taste their sparkling wines. Typically, the wines are made with Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc and Savignon Blanc grapes. Needless to say, there was not a bad one in the bunch.

The following day our plan was to drive to the Chenonceaux chateau, one of the more outstanding chateaus in the Loire Valley. The drive was longer and more convoluted than we had anticipated, but we finally made it.
The driveway

Our new home

One of the several bedrooms

A hall used for balls and banquets

Part of the kitchen 

The Chenonceaux chateau is built across the River Cher grounds and gardens. As we walked through it, it struck me that there was an abundance of bedrooms - I concluded that it was perhaps due to all the women the chateau had in its history. It was here that Henry II kept a mistress (Diane), while he was married to one of the Medici ladies. After Henry died, Diane gave the chateau to Catherine Medici in exchange for another chateau. Appropriately, the castle the Diane garden and a Catherine garden.

Although you can tell these people led quite the opulent lives, it also had a gruesome aspect to it, evident with the early deaths of both Henry II and the Henry III. There was lots of scheming, intrigue and back stabbing. Life didn’t consist of only banquets, feasts and masquerade balls.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Vannes and Carnac

The Vannes cathedral at night

June 12 - Vannes and Carnac

Yet another medieval walled city, Vannes was mentioned in our guide as a “must-see” city in southern Brittany. After getting settled in, we took a “wet” and quick tour of the walled area - superb! With its Gothic architecture, half-timbered buildings, the mote, the bridge, the cathedral of St.Pierre (which is both unique and dramatic), and the waterfront area (Port de Plaisance) where there is a yacht harbor was a pleasant area too. Vannes to me was pretty exceptional.

Near the wall in Vannes

The following day, we took a short drive to the port town of Carnac, where there is a huge number of alignements that were built by Neolithic people about 4000B.C. We first meandered through the touristy beach area, eventually getting into Trinity Sur Mer, a big yachting harbor with some big yachts.

Trinity Sur Mer harbor

After an espresso “alonge”  (meaning that they add a little hot water to it), we drove to the area of the alignemetns. Our first glimpse of them didn’t impress us - they weren’t much to look at. But when we saw dozens of these stones all aligned and in order of height, it was quite a dramatic sight.

This give one an idea of the size of these rocks.

Different patterns, different sizes

They tend to be aligned from short to tall

Various patterns

These are called "Menhir"

The "Menhirs" are believed to be burial sites

There is no conclusive evidence that has determined what these people had in mind when they built these monuments. But most anthropologists believe that as these people became more settled, they became more ritualistic in their burial practices, therewith erecting stone blocks in commemoration of their dead. We visited several of the sights and were in awe. 

We got back to Vannes late in the afternoon. After a rest and a glass of wine, we ventured back out to find a place for dinner (I think we’re back to being hunter-gatherers). We found a small restaurant (La Pomme de Terre Gourmande) with a Brittany-styled menu. Not a sole was in the restaurant as we ventured in. We got great service and had a wonderful meal for all of Eu 38, including wine!
A meat dish on top of potatoes - delicious!

After dinner we made one last walk around the walled city and headed back to our hotel. Tomorrow we are off to the Loire Valley.   

Monday, June 13, 2011

Rennes - Capital of Brittany

June 11 - Rennes

The drive south from Dinan to Rennes was a quick one. Meredith had an appointment to check out wedding gowns in Rennes and also it was the place she would leave us to return home to Rotterdam.

From my readings, Rennes did not have the flair of other cities. Yet once there, we really appreciated the layout and architecture of the city. It had broad boulevards as well as narrow cobble stoned streets with half-timbered buildings. Being the capital of Brittany, it has a grand palace of parliament, theaters and a  majestic cathedral.

We walked to the Place des Lices, where there was a huge open market with vegetables, meats, fish, poultry, cheeses and lots of other stuff. We had samples of jams, cheese and salamis and grabbed a quick bite to eat. It was then time for Meredith's wedding gown appointment, so she and Diane trudged off while I went on to reconnoiter possibilities for dinner.

Garlic anyone?

A huge pot of chicken being cooked up at the market

A basket of salamis at the market 

Diane and Meredith came back on an upbeat note - the gown designer had sketched some of his ideas and they had hit if off quite well. Meredith had tried on several wedding gowns and was excited at how close they came to what she liked. It definitely had been a successful adventure.

In the evening, we had what was our best meal of the trip. It was at Chez Paul, a local restaurant that I had spotted earlier. We took a chance - we were their only customers when we walked in. The waiter was friendly and helpful - he had lived in New Zealand and spoke good English. We each had delightful meals - duck, beef and fish capped off with a dessert of rhubarb tart and a heavy dark chocolate mousse. It was the perfect dinner to end our time together with Meredith.

The chef of Chez Paul - Paul

Rhubarb tart

In the morning, while Diane stayed back to nurse a sore foot, Meredith and I took one last walk around Rennes and stopped to see a beautiful city park. In spite of the damp weather conditions, we were impressed with Rennes medieval architecture, its majestic theater and parliament buildings and comfortable squares. We found it to be a very livable city, one we wouldn‘t mind returning to some time in the future. 

Early in the afternoon we took Meredith to the train station. After she left, we drove to our next destination - Vannes.
Entrance to the gardens

Definitely the smallest elevator we've seen

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Dinan, Saint Malo and Dinard

Dinan's Port on the Rance river

June 10 - Dinan, Saint Malo and Dinard

Dinan is yet another walled medieval city, with steep cobblestone streets that lead to its port along the river Rance. Our hotel, Hotel de France was located just outside the wall near the train station.

We got registered at the hotel and lugged all our baggage up several flights of stairs. Once ready, we began our exploration of Dinan, passing through its gated towers and into a beautiful wide square. From there we weaved our way through narrow streets, lined with half-timbered buildings and started our descent towards the river. The streets were narrow, the buildings hung over the alley-width streets and the roof-tops protruded numerous “Mary Popins-like” chimneys.

The scene along the river would inspire any painter, but we just came to eat. We settled on one of the restaurants overlooking the river and ended up having a delicious meal and a great view of the river with a background of a modern bridge built with high Romanesque arches.

Entering St. Malo walled city
The next day we drove north to inspect Saint Malo and Dinard. St. Malo is along the Brittany coast and historically has been an important port town. A walled city, it has a fort on a small island that we could walk to during low tide, which we did. Our guide book mentioned that in WWII much of the city was destroyed but later rebuilt with such care to detail, that it is difficult to discern the new from the old. We never saw any evidence of the reconstruction. 

After walking along three quarters of the ramparts of the old city wall, we descended back into the town, had lunch and got back on the road, heading for Dinard.
Looking towards St Malo from the fort

St Malo

We really enjoyed Dinard. It exuded a rich, nostalgic feel to it as we walked along the seaside promenade gawking at the imposing cliff-top mansions that line the area. The wealthy elite made Dinard their summer home in the late 1800’s. Apparently, they’ve moved on because many of the mansions now appear a bit disheveled. 

After having a drink in the park near the beach, we headed home to Dinan.

A Dinard mansion as we walk along the beach promenade
Dinard promenade

Some of the old mansions