Farewell Brittany

16 May

Bonjour!

After three weeks of adventures, we have finished our tour of the fine region of Bretagne. Brittany has certainly been the most thoroughly explored region of our trip, and with this blog we hope to paint a good picture of what we discovered.

As is always the case, what made Bretagne so special was the people we met. We’ve already related to you stories of many good people, but this week we were able to share in the company with Goulch’en, Sarah and their two young sons Kemo and Milan. We were put in contact with Goulch’en and Sarah through Jules and Christine. Goulch’en was a roller skater on the trip to Moscow in ’89 (with Jules, Christine, Anne’s husband and 14 other people). We’re just so thankful to have had this group of friends take care of us during our stay in Bretagne.

We had a great time with Goulch’en and Sarah, both interesting people who were good ambassadors of Breton culture. For example, their family is very musical, with a focus on Breton music; Kemo plays a type of flute specific for the genre. We enjoy Breton music very much, and it certainly highlights Bretagne’s Celtic roots. Interestingly, both Kemo and Milan go to a Breton-immersion school, something which indicates the renewal and reemphasis of keeping this a living language.
But the best “Breton experience” we had during our stay in Pommerit was attending the local “Fest Noz”. Directly translating to “Night Party”, these events happen in various community centres every weekend around the province. There were about 200 people at the one in Pommerit, which was apparently a small turn out despite the village only having a population of 2,000. The focus of the evening was dancing to live, traditional music. The dances all had specific steps (some easier than others) and were performed by everyone holding hands and moving clockwise in a large circle. Some people were excellent dancers, and others were there just to have fun, and the entire age range was present. It all seemed extremely inclusive. In the foyer, there was lots of inexpensive Breton food and drink available: local beer and cider, galettes, crepes and traditional baked goods. We felt really privileged of this experiences, and think these evenings must be incredible for a community’s cohesion and general spirit. To us, the evening was a real testament that the Breton traditions are alive and well. Thank you Goulch’en and Sarah for introducing Fest Noz to us!

We have felt this Breton energy in many of the people we have met so far. One way this sense of community seems to manifest itself is in the apparent level of trust. By far the most impressive episode of confidence was from Goulch’en and Sarah. Caitlin (being Caitlin) accidently left the special knife Alec handmade for her at a hotel in the centre of Brittany. After explaining this story, Goulch’en quickly offered us his car to go the 60 kilometres to retrieve the knife. Unfortunately, neither of us could drive standard. Unfazed by this reality (as well as the reality that neither of us had been behind a wheel in seven months) Goulch’en gave Alec a quick lesson and smilingly sent us off through the French countryside on our knife-saving mission. In this sink or swim event, Alec was very successful! We retrieved the knife, had a great drive, and were yet again inspired by the goodness of people.

And of course we had excellent food with Goulch’en and Sarah. This brings us to another major highlight of Bretagne (and all of France so far): the food! In short, the cuisine here is just amazing. Meals are quite the ordeal, following a standard formula: appetizers (accompanied by either liquor, cider or sweeter wine), the main plate, the cheese course (with bread and wine, and often salad), desert, and finished off with coffee! The staples of the French diet seem to be butter, cream, bread and of course cheese…. it’s a good thing we are also biking every day! We are really unsure how the French stay so thin, but we want to know the secret. A Breton speciality we have come to love is butter with salt crystals. We have now eaten cream in a large variety of ways: baked with vegetables, on rice, on fruit, on pizza, in galettes and in quiche. In terms of bread, the baguettes are always fresh and satisfying; and yes, the French really do walk around with full baguettes. And the cheese…. ooh la la! Hard cheese, creamy cheese, it’s all good, and is always the way you finish off the meal (when we told someone that this isn’t popular in Canada, they genuinely asked us when we ate our cheese, surprised that slices of Brie, Camembert and Roquefort are an indulgence back home). It is also popular to eat unpasteurized cheese, which is especially creamy and flavourful. Something else different is the popularity of duck and rabbit meat. We enjoyed a picnic lunch of both those items, and can attest that they were tasty. Seafood, namely mussels and oysters where we were in Brittany, is also widely eaten. Ah! Vive le France! Our stomachs never want to leave.

The thing that made Bretagne really special was the nature. It also helped that it was complemented by excellent weather; the region had an unusual May and, lucky for us, we saw very little rain. (We did see one massive thunderstorm, from which we hid out under a large rock structure!) The coast here is just breathtaking: vivaciously green headlands seated on stoic cliffs which tumble into the sea, surrounded by sandy beaches which cyclically drink and grow with the largest tides in Europe. The humans complimented the nature nicely, and each day we saw tiny fishing boats navigating the waves and islets, people riding horseback along the beach, and even peaceful paragliders using the winds to come as close as humans can to flying. Hiking is also very popular, as there is a well used trail that follows the circumference of Brittany.

In general, we found that the tourists attracted to Brittany were those interested in exploring nature and enjoying good scenery (… and even those seeking nude beaches, which we camped beside). There are popular sections of coast to visit, including the Pink Granite Coast and the Emerald Coast, each unique and stunning. The urban centres were nice as well, and the towns were small and therefore easy to explore. We were quite impressed with how well kept all the villages and cities were. Especially well preserved and presented were the port towns of Dinard and Saint Malo, two very popular beach destinations (and also the old stomping grounds of Jacques Cartier). The whole area was very conducive to cycle touring, and we were happy to meet other cycle tourists on our journey. However, the hilly (and often very steep!) terrain made it physically challenging at times.
We didn’t mind the challenge, because during our Breton stay we spent a lot of time lingering amidst the beauty and in the sunshine. After building up lots of “character” throughout short winter days of rougher weather, we are now happy to slow down the pace. And now the days are so long that we can spend many hours exploring or relaxing and still bike a good number of kilometres. We have really enjoyed more relaxing mornings as now dawn is warmer and there is no longer a need to get on the road early. Our spring routine includes leisurely breakfasts with a cup of coffee (or two), followed by an hour or so of meditating, reading or stretching. In Bretagne, we were able to find unbelievable campsites. Since the coastline is so wild and undeveloped (and rarely a “no camping” sign), there were many options. Most nights were spent perched on a headland watching the sun set over the Atlantic as the energetic waves crashed against the shore. We often met local people in the evenings, and no one seemed to have a problem with us camping, and in fact they usually congratulated us on finding such great spots. The campsites of the past week were some of the best of our whole lives.

And now, we continue to head east. We left Bretagne with our visit to Le Mont Saint Michel. This is an extravagant abbey built on a cliff on an island… and the irony is that this potentially very isolated place is the second most visited spot in France. It is over 1300 years old and beautiful, although full of tourists. Beyond the architecture itself, what we found perhaps most interesting is how much its surrounding tides fluctuate. Also interesting is the regional ownership dispute; the estuary’s flow has caused boundary discrepancy between Normandy and Brittany and thus it is difficult to determine which region Le Mont Saint Michel is in. This river is causing other problems as well since its natural sediment flow might eventually connect Le Mont to the mainland, and thus decrease some of its iconic appeal. Consequently, a dam has been build to deter build up.

Normandy awaits us! We genuinely hope to return to Bretagne one day as we feel a great connection to this special place.

Et c’est tout pour aujourd’hui!

Avec de gros besous,

Alec and Caitlin

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