Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mont Saint-Michel

As promised, this post is all about the one tourist attraction we wanted to see while in France: Mont Saint-Michel. But first, it's my turn again at Vision and Verb, where you will get a different slant on the whole experience.

This isn't France's second biggest attraction next to Paris for nothing!

We arrived at 6:30 p.m. and left by 11:15 p.m., so in this collage you see the beginning pictures to the end, with the largest image being the last one taken at just after 11 p.m. As we were leaving in the car, the sky was almost totally dark...but we knew it would take us till midnight before we'd get back to our B&B as it was, which is why we didn't stay longer. [In case you're wondering why all the pictures don't have a blue sky, it's because I converted some of them to B&W/sepia.]

If you look carefully at the bigger Mont, you can see there is a whole fortress-like section crowned with a spire (the Abbey) at the top. Under that is an actual village of homes and stores, keeping the village alive as a tourist attraction. Technically, it's an island with a population of 41. However, a natural land causeway connects the island to the mainland and has been built up over time to keep high tides from covering it. There are posted signs telling you what time high tide will cover the lower parking lots, in case your car is parkerd there. We were safe because high tide was at 1 p.m. that day. (See the middle image of the above collage.)

Entrance into the village is free. We would have gladly paid to get inside this exclusive community, but they spared us the change, welcoming us with their open arms. It is, after all, a tourist attraction, so every narrow street is filled with shops and restaurants...and even hotels for spending the night. From top left to bottom right, you see the street scenes from early to late evening, before and after we climbed all the way to the top of the Abbey.

As you've correctly guessed, it was the Abbey we wanted to see. While the streets wound this way and that, we kept looking at it towering above us. It was magical, whispering its sweet-nothings to us, like sirens drawing us in. And all the while it was getting darker and darker.

At the entrance to the Abbey was when we had to pay something, and the only time: €8.50 per person. We had no expectation of what we would see inside but after the never-ending maze of ups and downs and backwards and forwards, we would have gladly paid more (shhhhh--don't tell them). What surprised us was its austere emptiness. It clearly no longer functions as an Abbey but is a showcase for the skeletal structure, the bones of which are enhanced by natural and accented lighting throughout.

Lighting and...MUSIC. For our entertainment, musicians were stationed in special places on different levels of the Abbey...far enough apart that you couldn't hear them clashing against each other.

BTW, can you see how empty most of these rooms are? The next morning at our B&B we were told that during the day these spaces are filled with elbow-to-elbow tourists, going with the flow from beginning to end. We were astonished on hearing this because at closing time, when we were ready to leave, we saw no exit signs and had to wing it for how to get back to the entrance. We almost panicked because it really was getting dark and we had visions of spending the night in a place we did not know. Who would have thought it would be sparcer at night than during the day, right?! But no one worries during the day about where to go because the flow of the crowd dictates it...or so said the ticket man who told us we were leaving from the wrong exit. Really? Where were we supposed to leave? There were no signs. Oh, we were supposed to follow the crowd. HA!

There were reminders here and there throughout the village and Abbey that France is a Roman Catholic country.

All in all, it was an experience that exceeded our highest expectations. We both highly recommend a visit, if you ever have the chance. But please visit my turn at Vision and Verb today to find out why we do not need to go back. It was the "once in a lifetime" visit and we'll never forget it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Chambres d'Hôtes: Bed & Breakfasts

Astrid and I both decided we did NOT need to go the hotel route on our week's drive through France, therefore, long before we left, we started Googling for B&Bs. It had been years since I'd been to a B&B but I hadn't forgotten how much I love them. It was Astrid's first time.

On our way south from home, driving through Holland 31 miles to the Belgium border and then another 96 miles to the French border (the proximity still blows me away), we knew we would be driving around the Paris perimeter. What we didn't know was that it would take us an hour to drive those 24 miles around the cig bity (at which time I happened to be driving). We'll probably never do that again.

After 425 miles from home, around 5 p.m., we arrived at our first B&B: Le Petit Nançay in Thenioux, France:

This was the first B&B we confirmed for reservation long before we left for France. At least 4 other groups of people were also there at the same time, from England, the Netherlands and France, so we had 3 full tables at breafast time. It was wonderful and we totally recommend the place. The farmstead is from the 1500's, as I recall, and is a work in progress for Michèle and Joél, the proprietors.

Then we were with our Dutch friends, Pim and Lia, for the next 3 nights...our own personal B&B in Montaigu-de-Quercy:

The front of their house is totally shaded and hard to find if you didn't know the exact place to find it. But the back is open to the rolling hills and their own spring-fed swimming pool. It so happened we were there at a very hot time for most of Europe (I'm wearing a sweatshirt right now as I write this), so the swimming hole was a big plus (even if I didn't use it myself). It was here also where we watched Holland beat Uruguay in our semi-final World Cup game. I was wearing my magic orange shirt.

Besides visiting Pim and Lia, our main goal of the week was to vist Mont St. Michel on the north coast (next post). But when we left Montaigu-de-Quercy in the south of France, we knew only that we would take our time to get there and would stop somewhere along the way, hopefully at a B&B that still had room for us. Almost the minute we got in the car to start north, we made the decision to NOT visit Bordeaux like originally planned (last post). A Cig Bity. Suddenly we were not into cig bities. So, going with our mood, we drove through Bergerac, Angoulême and then stopped for 1.5 hrs. in Cognac for a nice break.

Commercial intermission: To be more specific, we stopped in Cognac to buy a bottle of Cognac from Cognac in Cognac. Astrid had special memories of drinking cognac with her father from age 17 till he died 10 years later. This was a holy moment for me because I began to feel how important this was for her. She found the Napoleon brand similar to what her dad always bought. It may take us a year to drink it on only special occasions, but every time, it will be in remembrance of him.

From Cognac we continued north past Niort and Nantes and started looking for unreserved lodging...hotel or B&B, it didn't matter which. We knew we'd find something between Nozay and Chateaubriant, an 18-mile stretch. But little did we expect to find a delightful B&B just outside Nozay...with an available room: Grand Jouan in Nozay, France:

We arrived at 9 p.m. and still hadn't eaten supper. We had bread and cheese and fruit but no wine (cognac, yes, but no wine). We asked Monique if we could buy a bottle from her. YES. (She actually said it was gratis when it came time to pay but we paid, of course.) So we were happy campers, eating outside on the terrace table. When in France.... Later, before going to bed, we saw Pierre watching Spain beat Germany in the World Cup soccer match...determining who would play Holland in the final that next Sunday.

Then Mont St. Michel and our last B&B of the week, reserved for our last two nights: La Crépellière in Le Mesnil-Garnier:

This happens to be owned now by an English couple who met in Hong Kong and then moved to France, married for 7 years. What they have done to this place is beyond incredible and reminded me of sister Nancy who turns anything she touches into gold. One thing they offer is a 4-course evening meal, with a bottle of wine, for €50/couple, which we decided to order for our Last Supper in France before driving home the next day. We were the only guests that night and had our own private dining room. For the price, it was a no-brainer.

From this B&B we were able to drive to Mont St. Michel one day (next post) and to the Normandy coast (Utah Beach) the next day, before ending our week's vacation. It was the cherry on top of the whipped cream on top of the cake!

Enough for now. Little by little, beetje bij beetje, I'm getting through the pictures, loving every memory that passes my eyes. Thanks for coming along for the ride!

[Sad to say, the final game of the World Cup once we got home did not go in Holland's favor, but it was still well worth the ride!]

Sunday, July 11, 2010

She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain

We're back after a week's drive through France...via car, not train...all 1960 miles!
This is a model train (HO scale) from the Dortrecht Steam Festival we attended back in May and is a welcome back from traveling...and my way to also say it's my turn again at Vision and Verb.

My job is now cut out for go through my 1,000 photos and pare them down to half that number and then get them into collages. It was such an incredible experience to see France apart from Paris. It's like seeing Holland apart from Amsterdam. Seeing the real countryside and how the smaller villages look. I can tell you this: there's a huge difference between France and The Netherlands by landscape alone. I didn't expect, for instance, so much stone in the architecture of normal houses. Or so many hills and valleys. You'll see.

What maybe surprised me more than anything, however, is the proximity of France to Holland!

It was 50 km (31 mi) from our house south to the Belgium border, another 154 km (96 mi) through Belgium to the French border, and another 220 km (137 mi) to Paris. Pinch me: that's 424 km (263 mi) or 5.5 hours from our house to Paris! I'm still in shock. It's nothing for people here to drive to Paris for a long weekend! One day...maybe when you come to visit us.

Speaking of driving, that Granny Towanda sure knows what she's doing. Next trip I'll make a point of highlighting her a bit more. She deserves all the attention she can get!
(Top) our first B&B, in Thenioux. (Middle) at a small cemetery. (Bottom) at another cemetery.
(NO. That is not an omen. She is not ready to give up the ghost!)

Just a taste of a few activities in which Astrid is showcased. We saw more sunflowers than you can shake a stick at...raised for it's oil more than for its seeds. Our Dutch friends have their own spring-fed swimming hole, good for skinny-dipping. Yup. The Normandy coast was a must, in honor of those who came before us. And Mont St. Michel....
[Click on any collage and then on an individual image to enlarge.]

This was what we wanted to see more than anything else...and this is the first picture I took from several kilometers away. We arrived at 6:30 p.m., late in the day because we intended to stay till dark for time-lapsed images.

This was the last photo of Mont St. Michel, 11:15 p.m. In between photos, we walked all the way to the Abbey on top.

Next post I'll start being more specific about the entire experience. For now, this is the appetizer. The taste to whet your appetite. Or maybe to whet mine and get me in gear to tackle all my photos this week. I will love it.

It's summer vacation for school but I am allowed to still go to the Learning Center as long as it's open this coming week...followed by 3 weeks when the school is totally closed, and then another 3 weeks of Learning Center before school is back to full operation at the end of August. It's a 3-day schedule instead of the typical 4 days, but at least it will keep me up on things. I'm committed to maintaining my momentum.

A reminder again that it's my turn at Vision and Verb today.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Summer Vacation!

I don't know about you but I had never seen anything like this in my life until Astrid pointed it out to me. When a kid graduates from high school here in The Netherlands (not grade school and not college), this is what happens: the student's backpack is hung from the house with balloons and Holland flag and whatever. Anyone who sees it knows what has just happened.

The day of this picture was Saturday, June 19, when Astrid and I took the Fast Ferry to Rotterdam to meet up with 2 of our Shutterchance bloggers. On that street alone we saw 4 such packs hanging out the front of the house...and I imagined them as buddies having grown up going to school with each other. I hope they were all good friends.

Anyway, that day in Rotterdam was fun. While we waited for Nadiuska and Cherise to arrive, there on the riverfront a wedding shoot was taking place. With my 300 mm lens I was able to stay far enough away to not be obstrusive but to still get several fun shots.

This is the 'Cig Bity,' as my mom would say. Things like this happen there.

We weren't meeting up specifically for a photo hunt ourselves, we 4 gals, but how can you NOT hunt for photo ops everywhere you go when you're not in your neck of the woods! Once the two gals arrived, we started walking and talking and walking, across Rotterdam's famous Erasmus Bridge (lovingly referred to as The Swan by the locals) on our way to the New York Hotel where Astrid wanted us to eat lunch.

In this collage the bluish gray bridge is The Swan. See how tall and graceful she stands!
The river is the Nieuwe Maas on which is Europe's largest port, Rotterdam (where my truckpacks were shipped last year, if you remember), with images on both sides of the river. If you squint (or click to enlarge and then click the image again), the huge cruise ship in the bottom left-hand and right-hand corners is the world's 2nd largest cruise ship: the Norwegian Epic. It so happened to be in port that day, lucky us. At 4100 passengers, it's almost as big as the town I grew up in! (Astrid and I have decided to choose a smaller river-cruise ship, when the day comes....)

We moseyed on over to the New York Hotel (also in that bottom right-hand corner above), ate lunch and then went back outside to take more pictures. There sitting as pretty as you please was this Excalibur, just begging for a photo shoot. What a model for all of us.

We had so much fun acting like we were big-time photographers.
There you see Nadiuska (25) and Cherise (23). I could be their grandma. :)

We walked back over the Erasmus Bridge...the pretty swan...said our good-byes to the gals and hopped back on the Fast Ferry towards home. When it dawned on us that our Granny Towanda was parked within a few kilometers of Kinderdijk, home of 19 windmills in one spot, we decided to drive over and say HI.

We had last visited Kinderdijk two years previously, almost to the day. If you've paid attention, this is now the image I'm using as my blog's header. And yes, if you count, here are 13 of the 19 windmills. Talk about soulful!


Some of you know that the World Cup soccer competition has been going on in South Africa now for about a month. Holland has won their first 4 games and today plays Brazil in the quarter-finals.

It's a mad house these days in this neck of the woods.


But tomorrow our focus totally changes as we begin a week's vacation in France, thanks again to Granny Towanda. That gal sure is getting around! We have Dutch friends who now live in SW France just north of Toulouse. Yes, we'll drive right by Paris and will wave for all you fans who won't believe we aren't stopping there for one minute. We've both been there at least twice and for now have other apples to pick....

We'll have a B&B night farther south before arriving at our friends' house on Sunday afternoon. On Wednesday morning we plan to head for home the long way, via Bordeaux and eventually the vicinity of Mont St. Michel and the Normandy beaches for 2 days before driving home on Saturday.

Miles to go before we sleep...but are we excited or what! I still can't believe France is basically in our backyard like this. It will be like driving to the family cottage in Michigan every summer and taking a week to do it.