Bonjour tout le monde!
And before we start: Happy Mother’s Day to our mom’s and everyone reading this that is a mother! We hope you have a great day and that you know how special you are.
We are writing this blog on the sandy shores of the Atlantic, watching the tide fall away from our little campsite as the sun rises up behind us. We have now spent almost two weeks in the French region of Brittany (or Bretagne in French oR Breizh in Breton), and can confidently call it our favourite. Brittany is a province in the far northwest of France that extends into the Atlantic Ocean. The Breton roots are Celtic, and thus the area has always been unique from the rest of the country. Even today, Brittany retains a distinctive culture. We have enjoyed their traditional cuisine of semi-sweet baked goods as well as galettes (savoury crepes) and crepes paired with cider, both in a restaurant and from our own stove. We also have appreciated the Breton translation of every French sign; similar to the story of Catalonia, in the mid- to late-20th century the Breton language was forbidden and thus almost forgotten, but now the region is attempting its revitalization. There is also much evidence of traditional Breton costumes and customs. Another mentionable thing about Brittany is its incredible nature. Many places have actually reminded us of Canada! We have cycled through wonderfully green forests, past waterfalls cascading through moss-covered valleys, and alongside the rugged coast which experiences exceptionally large tides. But what has been really impressive is how friendly and generous the people in this region are, and of course that is what has made our time in Brittany truly special.
We began our tour of Brittany from Nantes (which is considered a part of historical Brittany, even though the city is now a part of a different region). Based on the suggestion of our Warm Shower’s hosts Jules and Christine, we followed a canal north. This canal was commissioned by Napoleon to reroute the trading traffic inland in attempts to control and prohibit British trading with the continent. The canal is an impressive 385 kilometres long, and took decades to complete. Thanks to the work largely performed by slaves, the canal was completed in 1842. However, with the rise of rail it eventually fell into disuse. Now, the canal is popular for boaters (who navigate through the many locks) and for hikers and cyclists who can follow the canal on a trail for about 250 km. It was a very quiet, pretty ride. We met many other cyclists, many of them families out on their bikes for a few days. One such family was a set of cycle touring grandparents taking their granddaughter and her cousin out for their first tour! It was a really nice family to come across, and we enjoyed playing Frisbee with them for a while.
On the canal, we also met some different kind of “cycle tourists”. As bizarre as it may seem, we ended up spending a night with Brittany’s chapter of the Harley Davidson Club! A man named Olivier owned a restaurant (biker bar) just beside the canal and invited us to set up our tent behind his place and come to enjoy some drinks with him and his friends. At first we were a bit intimidated by the large, tattooed, French speaking men but quickly came to realize that they were friendly, entertaining and generous people. We enjoyed a huge barbeque with them (lots of meat!) and lots of drinks, conversations and laughs. We had so much fun we didn’t realize when we crawled into the tent that it was already past 2:00 am! It was cool for us to realize that they love riding their Harleys for the same reasons that we love cycling: taking it slow, getting off the busy roads, and enjoying the small things. They were a great group of people to meet.
And two days later, we met another amazing, and very unique, group of people. After the canal, we hopped on an old railway which had been converted into a bicycle path to reach the coast. We turned a corner on this trail to suddenly see two work horses pulling a large caravan, with three young girls and a mother sitting in the front. It looked just like a scene from Little House on the Prairie! We went over to speak with them and learned that they were from the middle of France and had been travelling through their country in this way for a year, and plan to spend a year more on the road. Their chosen last name was Papillion (the French word for butterfly) and their entourage included husband, wife, 12-year-old daughter who was permanently travelling with them, another 14-year-old daughter who was visiting, a family friend, two horses to pull their home, a horse for riding, a cat, and a goat which they milked each morning (they even made cheese with this milk). They had built the caravan themselves, and it had beds, a propane stove and a wood burning fireplace… the original campervan!
Such a family needs much more space than we do with our little tent! Especially needy are the horses and goat who eat grass, and a lot of it! So, each evening, the Papillion family would ask a farmer for permission to set up camp on their property in exchange for any work the farmer might need. Their speciality was horse therapy; the father Jerome practiced shiatsu for horses, which is similar to acupuncture, and their daughter Tara was becoming learned in this field too. Debbie practiced shiatsu on humans and would often offer this service as well. What a way to travel! We spent the night with them on a farmer’s field who needed help with his horse’s hoof. We enjoyed a big fire and a chicken dinner, accompanied by and the music of their fiddles and accordions. We can’t explain how inspired we were by this exceptional family, and how happy we are to have come across them.
After saying farewell to the Papillion family and, bringing with us a litre of freshly squeezed goat milk, we cycled toward the coast, picking up some honey from a bee farmer along the way. We had to play hide and seek with the rain, but we soon made it to the little town of Santec beside the sea. Jules and Christine had connected us with his friends Kaloun and Anne who lived here and we were warmly welcomed by Anne to their beachside home (unfortunately Kaloun was away as he was sea kayaking around some Scottish islands). Anne was an incredible woman, very positive and energetic and wonderfully hospitable and generous. She made us feel very comfortable in her home… and what a home it was! It was a very open and colourful home with a backdoor opening right onto the beach. The large windows made it so that we were constantly captivated by the marine landscape, which continually changed with the rhythm of the tides. The weather was fairly rainy while we were there and we really appreciated the opportunity to take rest indoors, taking walks along the beach and going for short bike rides in and out of Roscoff, which is the main port town beside Santec, known for its onions and seaweed. We also just loved spending time with Anne in her little piece of paradise. We stayed for four days, and could have stayed much longer, but we think that one day we will be back to Santec to visit this special place.
So now we continue east along the coast through France. Navigating through the headlands is proving to be very beautiful (albeit a bit challenging for the legs at times). A recent highlight was meeting another cycle tourist named Richard, who was very close to returning to his home in Cambridge, England after a seven month cycle tour that took him through some of Western Europe, former Yugoslavia, Turkey and the Middle East. Quite the trip! His favourite country to cycle tour was Syria, where he said the people were very hospitable. We enjoyed another act of hospitality that night; as we were camping beside the ocean a woman living in a nearby house brought us freshly caught mackerel which we grilled on a bonfire. Pretty perfect.
We will continue our stay in Brittany, and visit a few more of Jules and Christine’s friends along the way. It is a good thing we like it here so much because we are still waiting on Caitlin’s passport. It has been a very ridiculous and frustratingly long process (she has now been without a passport for over a month). This means that we aren’t going to be spending time cycling through the England and Wales, and instead remain in France (and possibly go to Belgium and the Netherlands again). Even though we originally wanted to cross to the UK, the lack of passport has been a blessing too, because it has meant we are really getting the opportunity to explore a lot of France, and learning to love it very much.
Hope the weather has finally transitioned from the winter into spring for everyone back home!
Alec and Caitlin