October 30, 2006

Journey's End

The single most enjoyable day of my vacation came right at the end. After a day of visiting the Normandy beaches, we spent the night in the walled town of St. Malo.

St. Malo has one of the weirdest geographies I've encountered. The town itself is a small, walled hamlet right on the coast. The walled portion, the intra-muros as it's known, sits on the northwest side of a set of two, concentric harbors.

If you're thinking about a vacation to Brittany or Normandy, I strongly encourage you to stay in St. Malo. Short day trips to the D-day sites, Mont St. Michel and other sites are all well within reach. I can even recommend a hotel, the Hotel Ajoncs d'Or. The proprietors speak excellent english and couldn't be friendlier. Plus you get to stay inside the walls of St. Malo which is a lot of fun.

That morning, our primary destination was Mont St. Michel. I'd been wanting to visit Mont St. Michel for many years; everyone I'd known who'd gone had raved about it and what could be better than an ancient abbey on top of a rock in the middle of otherwise inaccessible quicksand.

To get up to the abbey you wind your way up to the top through the town below. One of the cool things about Mont St. Michel is that while there is one main route up, you can actually wander a fair bit on your way there. Nelson and I took a less direct path through a graveyard.

As you make your way up, you're continually resetting your eyeline. The rooftops that were above you just a few yards ago are now at your feet. This experience of exploring the space three-dimensionally is what made Mont St. Michel so interesting to me.

This becomes clearer when you make it to the abbey. The abbey itself was built first atop the pyramid-shaped rock of the mount. And, over time, rooms were added below and to the sides based on a complicated system of counterbalancing. I really enjoyed trying to piece together the rooms I was walking through with the mental image I had of the place from the outside (I wasn't terribly successful; that place is complicated).

We spent a good long while exploring the space; stopping for lunch, a friendly chat with some Aussies and a narrow squeeze through an alley. When it was time to leave, I felt that I could easily recommend Mont St. Michel as worth taking a special trip to visit; along with Chartres and Exmoor it was one of the top three things I saw on my trip.

On our drive back to St. Malo, we stopped at Pointe du Grouin to take in the very Californian (to my eyes) coastline. It looked like there'd be a number of interesting beaches to explore should one be spending more time in the region.

We got back inside the walls with a couple hours before sunset and we spent the time walking the ramparts. Another cool feature of St. Malo is that there's a causeway you can take to an outlying island, but this walkway gets washed out at high tide. The combination of old seaside forts, a disappearing road and the putative tomb of Chateaubriand pretty much convinced me that we were going to be attacked by vampires. Instead we saw a great sunset at the beach over an infinite pool.

Sunset over, we headed to dinner at the Duchesse Anne; a recommendation from our friendly hoteliers. Thanks to Nelson, I'd been eating better over the past couple days than I had in quite some time. However, this meal (which featured lobsters with bibs) goes down as my favorite of the bunch.

Nelson deserves special thanks also for planning the entire Normandy/Brittany part of the trip. It was a great relief having planned the first 2+ weeks to let someone else take the wheel (literally as well since he also drove). And we had a jolly good time throughout.

This concludes my European vacation blogging. I took some 1220 photos and uploaded 330 to Flickr. That's a bunch, so there's a smaller highlight set should anyone want to take a quicker fly-by.

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