Saturday, December 18, 2010

You're the cream in my coffee...

The countryside of Brittany was sounding her siren call to be explored and by morning Mike and I were raring to hit the road again, waking up sore, but probably less so than we deserved. This time we looked to our little car with gratitude. We might get lost, but at least we'd get lost in comfort. Carefully noting landmarks so that we might make it back home, we headed out.

First on the agenda: get a good map, cost be damned. I still had to hold out money like a moron (crétin fini) to let the cashier pick out what was owed, still not quite able to understand spoken numbers, but I was getting better.

Then we braved a pharmacy to ask for a decongestant for Mike. Try to explain "antihistamine" in French. If you can do this, I am very, very impressed.

The pharmacy assistant was both kind and persistent and we got it figured out.

Once again, I was behind the wheel, and there was just one place I wanted to go. Poor Mike, he never had a chance.

Mike! Mike! Look at this! There's a place called Fort La Latte, a castle, on the Cote d'Émeraude!

Sometimes a girl simply must be indulged.

Did I care how far it was? No. Was it on the way to other "must-see" destinations of Brittany? Nope, not really, but we didn't have to go to all the places were were "supposed" to go. Who wanted a cookie cutter vacation anyway?

If you wish to drive your car into the French waters of St Malo's locks,
here is an opportune place to do so.

Not to mention that he had to do something to stop me from jumping up and down. Best to agree before I injured myself.

The coastline of Northeast Brittany is covered with wild gorse and purple heather and the water there is blue, blue, blue beneath cliff sides, waves curling up to hidden rocky coves.

A fairytale of a place, this is the soul of Bretagne, a place of lighthouses and fishermen, castles and druids and tales of giants from long ago, megaliths, and always the sea.

To the Emerald Coast, then, to Cap Fréhel with its two lighthouses and numerous carefully piled groups of rocks that I would call Inukshuks, but who knows what the French call them? To the Inuits, an Inukshuk means that someone has been there before you, that you are on the right path. Amongst those piles of stones we looked out over the water for our first glimpse of Fort La Latte, just barely able to make out its romantic silhouette.

I didn't even want to stop for an espresso before piling back into the car and getting over there tout suite.

Created from pink sandstone (yes, pink!), Fort La Latte is truly a vision.

From the 1300s, the castle with the fabulous name is brilliantly perched upon the steeply cliffed Baye de la Fresnaye, separated from the mainland by two deep chasms with drawbridges over them.

Drawbridges! And portcullises!
Call me Buttercup.

And there's a trebuchet.

Mike was pretty happy. If only we'd picked up a pumpkin for chunkin'...not that the French Ministry of Culture would have allowed any such tomfoolery. But it was fun to think about.

Within the castle, there were tours in French, which we bypassed to explore on our own. There were oubliettes, cylindrical prisons for soldiers who really needed a lesson, only one way in or out, though a trapdoor at the top, also a fascinating medieval garden and a beautiful chapel, the floor kaleidoscoped with colors from the stained glass windows,

a grand stone home with impressively large dining hall, (I was thinking you could really go to town and have one heck of Christmas feast there!), canons pointed out to sea, and the oldest part of the castle, the tower itself with its fortifications at each level, which we were allowed to climb and explore to our heart's delight.

At the very top we looked out over the sea and down from the tower into the knot garden with the warm winds smelling of the sea in our faces and hair.

As a bonus, we could imagine Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis (do I have to pick?) during the epic battle from the 1958 film The Vikings, which was filmed there.

Yes, I agree. Tony all the way...with an honorable mention to Kirk. These days sailboats drop anchor in the nearby bay below the castle, and relax in its shadow.

Only in the summertime, mind you. The coast comes by its rugged appearance honestly, enduring heavy storms during the winter months. Being in the castle was a window into the lives of those who lived there, to imagine how they went about their everyday lives.

For our everyday life, we very mundanely had to stop for lunch, and in the spirit of travel chose randomly in the town of Fréhel. The high school aged young man waiting tables in a family sort of restaurant was quite fluent in English, and he wanted to practise his skills on us, even going so far as to making jokes when he brought Mike a burger, faux-apologising that "Zis is France, we has no super-size 'ere" and asking if he wanted "I do not know the word for it in English, we call this mayonnaise, for your pommes frites, erm, french fries?"

I shunned burgers, (this was Bretane, this was France!) and ordered instead one of the numerous varieties offered of Bretagne galette, a sort of buckwheat pancake, which is a regional specialty. It completely eclipsed the plate he brought, the folded lacy tanned edges hanging over the sides. Inside the hearty pancake was a fried egg, peeking cheekily though the middle, ham, and an obscene amount of that same pleasingly pungent white cheese.

With all due respect to our young waiter, I beg to differ on one of his key points: France does have supersize. Maybe they don't call it that, but if the food can't fit on the plate, it's supersized. Again, only by consuming alcohol to cut the fat and then having a defibrillator-esque espresso to restart the system got me going again.

Along the road, looking up as we crossed a bridge, we spotted another castle, this one in ruins, and walked through the trees to find it.

This is Castle Le Guildo, of the powerful Dinan family, and happily it's being restored. Right now the site is largely ruins, rocks, flowers and lizards. The castle was rebuilt in 1200, 1350, 1487, 1650, abandoned altogether in 1800, but the scaffolding tells me better days are coming once again.

It must have been quite the place once upon a time. Plus, it has a magnificent view of where the river empties into the ocean in a bay. We stood on the ramparts of a ruined castle and watched the famous tides of Brittany coming in.

Watching the tide come in doesn't sound like much of a pastime, but if you'd been there you would have watched too. There was a sand flat, with boats stranded all over it. Then the tide came whooshing in, the river began to flow in reverse, the marker buoys pulling in seemingly the wrong direction and where there had been an estuary there was a seething muddy body of water.

We made lots of geeky comments about it, practically high-fived, and went back to the car.

Our last place to visit for the day, Mike had decided (and I, still giddy over Fort-La-Latte happily agreed) would be the walled medieval city of St Malo.

St Malo is the most visited place in Brittany. Famous for its cobblestone streets and beautiful buildings, the allure of being a walled city on an island, and its fun history as a corsair and pirate stronghold, arrrrr.

And it was beautiful, but so packed with tourists we found ourselves heading for the first quiet wood and old book decor pub we could find for a drink.

As we could drink anywhere, and for less, it was kind of silly to have gone all the way out there and fought for a legal parking spot and then fought our way through the crowds and quite frankly we were pretty spoiled at this point and we kind of weren't as impressed as perhaps we should have been by one more cathedral with saint's ossuaries and stained glass windows...

Although it was pretty great, we were flat-out too tired be be all that appreciative. Too many crowds, too much rich food, and too much walking over the last day for comfort.

We idled our way through the entire length of the city, to the beaches at the end, where there were folks sunbathing as though it was the French Riviera.

Dubai has kind of spoiled us as far as beaches go, too.

As there were no pirates to liven the scene, we swam through the crowds and back to the car.

A pirate would have been good. But, one can't have everything.

Along those lines, I never did find out why Fort La Latte is named as it is. Nothing to do with foamy coffee, that 'latte' is Italian. As I understand it, 'latte' in French means lath.


It seemed that I was to spend most of the time in Brittany mystified, lost, overfed, and generally footsore. And that I would drag the spousal unit down with me.

Which is, when you think about it, essentially par for the course for being on vacation.

I guess we were doing something right after all.



*Paula* said...

You are going to turn all these entries into a book aren't you? They make for fascinating reading!

Julia said...

Owl tavern! Too cool.
I almost wish you had braved the quicksand to see the inside of your castle on the sea. Then again, I'd rather have my sister safe and sound!

Natalie said...

Read on, dear hearts, read on.