Dinard and Mont St Michel

Saturday 2nd November 2013, Mont Saint Michel
We are a couple of kilometres from the honeypot of Mont Saint Michel and the lady at the campsite has told us where we can go after dark to see it illuminated without having to drive there and pay an exorbitant parking charge. We drove along there earlier and were amazed at just how much it has all changed since we were here just a few years ago. Then we parked for free. Now there are barriers and automated ticket machines. As we arrived it began to pour with rain. It was 6 euros just to park for a couple of hours and we would have a long walk amidst thousands of others to crowd on to the mount. As we’ve previously written you a comprehensive account of the Mount we decided to find you something new to read about instead. We are very glad we did as it has continued to rain all afternoon.

But first I need to catch you up on yesterday. Basically our luck has run out as far as the weather goes and it rained for most of yesterday afternoon. However, we discovered Dinard in the morning. Somehow we’ve always passed it by in favour of St. Malo and Dinan, both of which are lovely but we’ve already blogged them.

Dinard lies on the estuary of the Rance opposite St. Malo. You’d have difficulty finding two such charming towns so close together that are so completely different. Whereas St. Malo is a little granite town with an important port, crowded in by strong walls and fortifications, Dinard can best be described as the Biaritz of the north! It has charm and elegance with the most superb houses from the Belle Époque with their high black slate roofs and stunning architectural features looking down onto the esplanade and the wide expanse of sandy beach from rocky promontories high above the town. Back in the 1890s it was to here that the wealthy British and Americans came to socialise, look beautiful and gamble in the casino fronting on to the beach. Edward VII came here when he was Prince of Wales. To the despair of his mother Queen Victoria, Prince Bertie would escape his responsibilities as heir to the throne and enjoy a life of triviality, gambling and luxury in Dinard along with the American nouveaux riches. The atmosphere of luxury and charm continues today and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

On the seafront the first person we met was Alfred Hitchcock! An impressive bronze statue of him stands looking out to sea with a couple of huge and scary birds about his head and shoulders. This commemorates an annual British Film Festival held each summer in the town. Along the seafront are several pockmarked bronze plaques in bas-relief damaged by shrapnel during WWII.

Having explored the smart fashion shops in the town centre we walked around the headland and along the beach, climbing up to the heights of the Grand Hotel. We then went down to the casino on a quality control mission to test out the facilities. It does not compare with Biaritz and the carpet on the wide marble staircase is even more worn than the one on our ordinary wooden staircase at home. It does though have a very agreeable outlook from the bar across the beach where dads were out playing cerfs-volants or kite flying with their children on the sand. The bar also serves excellent coffee.

Having paid their respects at the town cemetery by leaving the regulation bowl of chrysanthemums on the family grave, people were now arriving for lunch in the casino and to enjoy the rest of the Toussaint public holiday.

We’d left Modestine way back above the town in a road of sublime houses so returned by a circuitous route taking in as many of the wonderful buildings as possible. It was not just the buildings. Their grounds and their position on rocky promontories were all part of their charm and luxury.

We wanted to see a French cemetery on All Souls day. The entrance was dominated by flower vendors selling chrysanthemums at 20 euros a bowl for those in a hurry for their lunch and unable to spare the time to shop on the market. Everyone except us appeared to be carrying flowers and some even came pushing wheelbarrows charged with several brightly coloured flower containers. Almost all the tombs were decorated. We wandered the allées impressed at the display of remembrance paid to ancestors but with our prejudices against the ugliness of French cemeteries reinforced. We dislike the huge, polished marble and granite tombs with their gold lettering glistening in the wet. Here the more affluent families have a monument that is more like a house than a grave. With their lavish display of flowers – sometimes plastic – their little front doors and their polished granite sides they look like gaudy little rows of detached houses.

From Dinard we decided to skirt St. Malo rather than get entangled with the narrow streets and fruitless endeavours at parking. Instead we headed towards Cancale thinking Moules et frites would be an interesting way to spend a hour now the rain had arrived in earnest. However, we found everyone else had the same idea and parking was a no-no for anything that remotely resembled a vehicle in which one might possibly be able to sleep. The problem with French camping cars is pretty obvious. Unrestriced they will line up along the foreshore, nose to tail, blocking the view for everyone and may stay for several days. They pay nothing into the local economy in the way of campsite fees, usually bringing all their food from home. They are far wider, longer and higher than almost any van or lorry, and they congest the narrow streets of these little historic towns. However, I felt somewhat miffed as I followed a massive twin axled camper through the streets down to the port where many parking areas had lots of spaces into which we could fit comfortably except that we were just a few centimetres over-height to fit safely under the barrier at the entrance to the free car parks. In the end we found it no easier to park than did our gargantuan leader and were forced to follow him out of the town, never to return. There are special areas for campervans to park but often they assume overnight stays and make a charge. We cannot use these areas as we don’t carry all the facilities of a campervan and need to use campsites at night.

Beyond Cancale lies the Pointe de Grouin which is absolutely lovely. We visited it several years back. Now they have introduced barriers to keep out the campervans. That includes us of course. By now it was teeming with rain and we were hungry and cross. We occupied a place reserved for coaches and prepared our lunch. Although the places were free, coaches don’t really like pint-sizes vans parking in their places. We cannot blame them but we do so often feel we are some sort of pariah these days. In reality though, we feel it is a problem caused by the excess of huge campervans all over France. Read our previous account of the Pointe de Grouin linked below. It’s such a wonderful place on a sunny day.

By this time we were soaked through and dejected. We abandoned Cancale with its crustacea and coquillage and decided to seek out the campsite and watch a dvd instead of driving around in the pouring rain for the rest of the afternoon.

We reached St. Benoit-sur-Mer on the edge of the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel around 4pm. Across the sea we could see the Mont through the mist, some 30 kilometres further round the bay. The campsite was waterlogged and I dare not drive on to the sopping grass pitches. We’d never get off again. We parked across the entrance to our emplacement (find me a real campervan able to do that) with one wheel still on the tarmac. The showers were open sided and it was damned chilly showering and washing my hair this morning! However we spent a very comfortable night and got off the pitch okay this morning. We watched a dvd and took a night off from blogging.

Saturday 2nd November 2013, Mont Saint Michel continued
This morning we skipped the brocante fair in the village. We didn’t feel five euros to view the contents of other people’s sheds and attics was justified. There are only so many crucifixes and bedpans with missing lids we can enthuse about and we’ve had rather a surfeit of junk recently.

Today was to be the last day of our vagabond existence for a while and we had lots to see, especially as the sun was shining this morning. Last time we were this way it was the Tour de France cycling race and we found ourselves hemmed in on a campsite near Dol-de-Bretagne until the cyclists had swept past. It had been a really enjoyable day and we had fond memories of Dol. Speculating that it might just be market day we headed off towards it. Along the way we got sidetracked by a huge and craggy mountain rising up out of the completely flat agricultural hinterland of the baie de Mont-Saint-Michel. The narrow road to the summit was so steep we took pity on Modestine and left her in the village. The walk was good for us and we arrived breathless but elated at the summit. Here was a windmill in working order, a small chapel and a tower offering splendid views out towards the mount for those still having enough puff to cope with the spiral staircase to the roof. It was worth the struggle. We could easily see the Mount from up here as well as the outline of the Cotentin up to Granville with islands off shore. After speculating about Jersey and Guernsey we decided they would probably be further north and we were probably looking out towards the Iles Chaussées.

Below the tower we found chestnut trees with a rich harvest of nuts beneath, hidden amongst a sodden blanket of autumn leaves. Soon we were filling Ian’s emergency sack for collecting free goodies and speculating on whether Genevieve would view our free booty with the same enthusiasm . A lady appeared and asked whether we were local residents. Oh no! were we in trouble again? Did we have to be residents before we could collect chestnuts left to rot by the locals? We confessed we were English visitors and prepared to hand over our harvest. No, the lady assured us. She wasn’t from the chatagnier division of the local gendarmerie, she just wondered whether we may know where she could find the footprint of the Archangel Michael. Had we chanced on it as we scuffled about? Admitting we knew nothing about the feet of Archangels we swiftly abandoned chestnut gathering and switched into footprint sleuths. What could be more normal than pottering about in the rain with an elderly French lady assisting her in her search for an Archangel’s footprint? She assured us if we found it for her we could all make a wish and our dreams would come true. It was not to be. We never did find the footprint though she assured us there was lots about it on the internet! How bizarre that Christian beliefs and superstitions dating back thousands of years are regaining popularity because of the internet!

Leaving our new friend still hopefully scuffling through the wet leaf-mould we returned down the steep narrow lane to rejoin Modestine and continue to Dol-de-Bretagne. It was market day as we’d hoped and the place was heaving. Fast food here is a pork sausage from linseed fed pigs wrapped up in a Breton pancake. Stallholders were tossing and frying so fast their arms were a whirr while the queues got steadily longer.

We’d loved Dol on our last visit and were delighted to find it just as pleasant today. The buildings lining the main street are nearly all in the attractive tawny coloured granite of the area but each one is unique. There are also half-timbered buildings from the 16th century. At an inn on the main street is a plaque commemorating where the body of the poet and writer Chateaubriand, born and initially educated in Dol, lay overnight following his death is Saint Malo, before his burial in his ville natale on 18th July 1848.

Chancing on the same bar where we had omelette and frites on our last visit we were delighted to find a free table in the crowded bar for lunch. At last we could have our moules de Cancale. It was the dish of the day and was proving very popular. Both the mussels and the frites were cooked to perfection but both turned out to be far too salty for our liking. The ambiance more than made up for the short-comings of our lunch however and it was an enjoyable experience.

By the time we returned to the streets of Dol the market was almost finished and a light drizzle had started. Leaving Dol we made our way towards Mont St. Michel which drew in every vehicle crossing between Brittany and Normandy like a magnet. The road, built up on a dyke lead straight out across the flat agricultural land towards the mount. Long before we were remotely near we were channelled off into the parking lots. Presumably cars bring in a better return than crops these days. I’m so glad we visited previously. It makes Lands End seem like a wide open space by comparison. I somehow don’t expect to ever visit here again.

We decided to explore the nearby little town of Pontorson and quickly returned through the barrier before the grace period on our ticket expired – you are allowed a few minutes to find a parking space. The rain really began to pour down as we returned along the causeway from the mount. We were so glad we’d not stayed.

Pontorsan has a population of around 4000. It’s pleasant enough with a street of individual shops – a grocer, several bakeries, a butcher, a fish shop and several souvenir shops. Just like most French towns of similar size in fact. Like the others it also has a church that can easily hold the entire town but, like most other places of similar size, it usually stands empty. Once our eyes accustomed to the gloom it turned out to be rather interesting. Many churches in France were desecrated during the Wars of Religion. Pontorsan has a 15th century large and beautifully carved stone retable of twenty different frames which together depict a scene with over 100 Christian saints. Every single one had been desecrated, the heads having been systematically hacked away. It is now known as the tableau of the Broken Saints. Even the mindless destructors however eventually tired of their vandalism and mercifully a further tableau of similar date has survived unscathed. The church also has a stained glass window, copied from the Bayeux Tapestry. It shows King Harold before his rift with Guillaum, Duc de Normandie and their subsequent battle for the throne of England, returning from a foray into Brittany with him in search of a fight - this area is just back inside Normandy. The army starts to sink in the quicksands of the bay and Harold is instrumental is saving them all.

There is only so much wet weather one can cope with and we decided to find the campsite and warm up with some hot tea. We were advised to park on the access road as so many vehicles have got bogged down when parking on the grass. Fortunately there are not many people camping, most are in their campervans up near the Mount. Once it got dark and the rain eased we walked up the road and found the bridge in the village. Sure enough, from there we could see the Mount through the darkness, shining and sparkling out in the bay. Meanwhile, back in England our electricity is supplied by EDF – Electricity de France. It is a nationalised company in a Socialist country that has brought up much of Britain’s denationalised electricity industry! We are paying ever higher prices for our fuel while France is using the profits to illuminate the bay of Mont St Michel as well as the Tour Eiffel in Paris, every night!! I simply cannot get my head round either French or British finance!

Related links
Cancale; Dol-de-Bretagne; Pointe du Grouin

Mont St. Michel, 2006