Thursday, 20 November 2008


After crossing the border from Spain (see last post), we came out of the train station and found ourselves facing a car rental office across the street. With no plans and no accommodation booked, we abandoned our plan to continue on north by train and rented a car instead.
Our immediate destination was Biarritz, famous winter resort for wealthy English of a century ago and still a destination for strolling along the wild coast or gambling away the family fortune in the casino. We settled for the former and were impressed by the majestic Atlantic rollers crashing onto the shore, covering cars and pedestrians with salt spray.

We wondered who owned this precariously sited little chateau - old money or new celebrity?

With neither, we moved on northeast to moderately-priced lodgings in Bayonne, which gave its name to the bayonet although locals deny that it originated there. It's an attractive town with a small botanical garden within the old ramparts. I, of course, had to go there...

...and had some difficulty finding it until I came upon this obscure sign beside the ramp leading upwards and realised that "within" the ramparts actually meant "on top of" the ramparts.

We left Bayonne, still going east towards Agen, famous for prunes. Somehow I had the idea that it was going to be another charming old town, but we found it quite lacking in charm and populated with swarms of loud, equally charmless youth. So we continued on to Bergerac, an altogether more appealing small, quiet town, despite an extremely clumsy statue of local boy Cyrano de Bergerac in one of the many little squares.
We found a room at the quirky Hotel des Remparts and admired the town's skill with hanging baskets on the street outside.

In clearing weather we continued through fields of sunflowers... Sarlat-le-Canéda, which sounded like the sort of place a Canadian ought to visit. With its winding, narrow, cobblestone streets and old, half-timbered buildings it looked as if it had emerged from the pages of an old book of fairytales. Our room in one of these buildings overlooking the town square had uneven floorboards and heavy, dark beams spanning the ceiling.

The group of three geese on the main street reminded us of our trio at Killara Farm, the infamous Beverley, Hilary and Evelyn.

From Sarlat, we turned round and went west to Bordeaux where we were to drop off the car. Bordeaux is an interesting city, but we arrived to find almost every hotel fully booked. We finally managed a room in a Holiday Inn near the station, expensive and characterless - not at all our preferred accommodation. At least the location away from the city centre gave us plenty of opportunity to ride the local trams which were frequent and efficient.

On the riverside where we alighted from the tram, we found a modest crowd standing around a broad, paved square, glassy with a film of water.

We realised why they were there when a myriad hidden jets suddenly filled the air with a fine, fine mist of water, almost like smoke.

Bordeaux has a wonderful park where many of the locals come to sit on the benches, push their baby carriages, and make love with their clothes on (a very popular
activity throughout France, we found).

This central edifice appears to be purely decorative, a long high wall with arches cut through the centre and both ends.

Signs on the perimeter of the lawns explain that they are converting them to a more drought-resistant grass.

Instead of doing their carpet bedding flat on the ground, they have built up berms and set the plants on the sloping sides. Very effective and visible from quite far away.

From Bordeaux we took the TGV (Bullet train) to Paris where we picked up another rental car and drove out towards the coast of Normandy. Our good friend Robert Lemon had suggested we visit Le Bois des Moutiers, a grand estate with a house designed by Edward Lutyens and a garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll, the only example in France of the work of this famous pair. This was another highlight of our entire trip, so thank you, Robert.

While Michael sat contentedly on a bench to sketch the house, I enjoyed the garden:

From there we had a long day's drive to the cottage in Brittany which we had booked for a week. This was attached to a small farm owned by an English couple who, with their three children, had opted for a 21st century back-to-the-land existence: raising chickens, ducks, geese and a couple of turkeys, a milk cow, some sheep, pigs and a donkey, as well as growing their own vegetables. They were making jam, cheese and sausages for sale in the local markets. It reminded us of our adventures on Killara Farm although we were never as ambitious as these two.

The cottage was old and quirky but attractively updated and decorated.

We drove out to Pointe de Penhir, in Finistere at the very tip of the Breton peninsula to admire the wild, craggy landscape.

Michael's brother, Paul, and his constant companion, Bonny, flew out from Vancouver to join us for a week before continuing on to Italy.

One of the most attractive towns we visited with them was Quimper with its rickety old half-timbered buildings and flower-bedecked streets:

Another day we made a long journey north to France's most visited monument, Mont-St-Michel. This extraordinary edifice perches above quicksands and can only be approached by a causeway. Signs warn of when the tide sweeps in, potentially over your car if you leave it in the car park at the wrong time of day. Views both of the buildings from across fields, and from the ramparts back down are spectacular.

The cloister high up on its pinnacle of rock seemed peaceful, but partly because there is now a glass wall at the far end. Before its installation, it must have been a brave monk who walked along that side in a storm or high wind.

Before leaving Brittany for Paris, we spent a lazy summer hour outside the pub in "our" local village of Plouyé.

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