Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sunny days in Brittany: Two out of three ain't bad

The Carnac countryside in southern Brittany is dotted with ancient megaliths.

When visiting Brittany in spring, one has to expect a little rain. During our first visit to this region (named Bretagne in French) in northwest France, we are lucky enough to have two sunny days. The third day it pours, causing us to cancel a planned visit to the Paimpont forest, but we console ourselves with scrumptious Kouign Amann (pastry oozing with butter) and getting acquainted with Paul Gauguin. But I'm getting ahead of myself.


The seaside near our campground in Le Raguénès gives us our first
glimpse of the Brittany coast.

For this little road trip, we decide to (kinda) camp. We've booked a mobile home in a Eurocamp park, just a 10-minute walk from the sea. There are resorts like this throughout Europe. Since we're here so early in the season, we've snagged a bargain rate. Later in the summer, this place will be teeming with families making use of the water slide and outdoor pools, but for now it's quiet and nearly deserted.


Concarneau


Ken poses with a big anchor on the bridge to the walled city in Carcaneau.

First thing in the morning we set out for Carcaneau, France's third-most important fishing port. The main tourist attraction here is the old walled city — ville close. The well-preserved neighborhood is set on an island 1,150 yards across. The square and surrounding narrow cobbled streets are charming, and we enjoy pretty views from the top of the ramparts.

The main square in Carcaneau is nearly empty on the morning of our visit.

Boats are moored at the inner harbor in Carcaneau.

A stone man keeps watch on a wall in Carcaneau.

This window contains another little stone man in Carcaneau.

A horse sits on a rooftop in Carcaneau.

Quimper


Quimper is the unofficial capital of Cornouaille, a historical region of Brittany steeped in culture, art and nature. The city stands at the confluence of the Odet, Steir and Jet rivers; appropriately enough, Quimper's Breton name is Kemper, which means "meeting place of three rivers."

A souvenir shop is adorned with ceramic bowls, a popular Quimper momento.

We spend a few hours exploring the city and have a great debate over where to eat lunch. I win, so the only thing left to do is choose from one of the dozens of crêperies here.

While in Quimper, we have to try authentic Brittany crêpes, and I choose the
picture-worthy smoked salmon with creamy leek sauce.

After lunch we wind up our visit to Quimper with a visit to Faïencerie de Quimper where the beautiful pottery for which this area is famous is created. Unlike the inexpensive knock-offs found in the local shops, this store (which also offers tours of its workshop) stocks the real thing ... lovely, but way out of my price range.

I develop a case of ceramic-envy in the Faïencerie de Quimper shop.

La Mise au Tombeau was installed in Quimper's Cathédrale Saint-Corentin in 1868.


I allow Ken to take my picture in Place Terre au Duc in Quimper.

Carnac

Église Saint-Cornély de Carnac is a mixture of
architectural styles.

Tuesday turns out to be the best day (weather-wise) of our trip. With clear blue skies we've picked the perfect day to check out the Alignements de Carnac. This area offers an exceptional archaeological landscape. More than 3,000 menhirs dominate the surrounding fields and pastures.


A farmhouse sits at the edge of a field of megaliths in Carnac.

The Carnac alignments (rows of standing stones) were erected in the Neolithic era (between the fifth and third millennia B.C.). The megalithic landscape includes menhirs (lone stones), mounds (individual tombs), and dolmens (collective tombs). No one know for sure why the stones were erected and arranged this way. Through the ages, the megaliths were at various times believed to be Roman legionaries turned to stone, magical rocks, Celtic temples, or burial grounds. In the last century, efforts have been made to preserve the megaliths and the land surrounding them. Visitors can walk in the fields among the stones in the winter, but between May and September must be part of small guided groups in order to preserve the ecology of the land.

The Alignments of Carnac are a 6,000-year-old mystery. 

Stacked stones, or dolmens, in Carnac are believed to be ancient tombs.

Presqu'ile de Quiberon


Yes, the sea really is that blue on the day of our visit to Quiberon.

As mid-day approaches we head to the Quiberon Peninsula, once an offshore island. The two-lane road along the peninsula is narrow enough for us to see the calm sheltered waters of the Baie de Quiberon to our left (east) and the tempestuous Côte Sauvage of the Atlantic Ocean to our right.

Auray


Saint-Goustan in Auray was once a busy port.

Perhaps my favorite village we visit on this little trip to Brittany is Auray. After our requisite stop at the tourism office, we follow the suggested route that takes us by Église Saint-Gildas, named for a monk from Cornwall who founded an abbey near here in the 6th century. Half-timbered houses from the 16th century and narrow freestone mansions from the 17th century line Place de la République, Auray's economic center since the Middle Ages.
 
Auray's Saint-Gildas Church contains a magnificent sculpted wooden organ.

From the main part of town we head down a steep hill to the Saint-Goustan quarter. This port was once one of the region's busiest, but the development of the nearby Lorient port and the railroad diminished its importance.

In 1776, Auray had a visitor, one that is of particular interest to us. Benjamin Franklin set off across the Atlantic to Nantes, entrusted with the mission of asking for France's help in the upcoming War of Independence. Bad weather forced Franklin's ship to dock at Auray where he spent the night before continuing on by land to Nantes.

Auray's port, Saint-Goustan, contains a quay named in honor of Benjamin Franklin.

This little stone watcher on a building in Auray sits above a sundial.

Pont-Aven


From beneath my umbrella on the opposite bank of the Aven river, I spot
this lovely vine-covered house in Pont-Aven.

OK, so Pont-Aven may be our second choice for where to spend our third and final day here, but the little artists' colony turns out to be a charming consolation prize, even in the rain. In addition to galettes ( butter biscuits), the village is best known for its association with post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin. At the end of the 19th century, the artist and his contemporaries, including Émile Bernard, Paul Sérusier and Maurice Denis,  formed the École de Pont-Aven art movement, which focused on color and symbolism. Housed in an annex of L'Hôtel Julia (which has its own fascinating history) Musée de Pont-Aven contains an impressive collection of works by artists of the Pont-Aven School.

Paul Gauguin created this zincography entitled Les Dames de la mer, Bretagne
in 1889.

Musée de Pont-Aven contains around 200 paintings and graphic artworks
of the famous Pont-Aven School.

This W.C. (public restroom) in Pont-Aven has to be
one of the most unusual we've encountered.


As the summer heats up here in France, our travels cool down. For the next few months we'll be sticking close to home, enjoying local events, spending time with friends (especially those with swimming pools), and avoiding large crowds. While the next big trip won't be until fall, you can keep up with me via Lot of Livin', the blog I write for the AngloInfo website, which you can find by clicking here




Saturday, May 27, 2017

Simple moments in Paris

Papillons at the Grande Galerie de l'Evolution in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris

I am fortunate enough to have made a half-dozen trips to Paris in the past few years, and thanks to friends and proximity as well as occasional SNCF train ticket bargains, I hope to make many more. No matter how many times I visit, I find myself in unfamiliar neighborhoods and am delighted by new experiences.

A hot-air balloon over the Loire Valley as seen from the train to Paris

I am accompanied on my most recent trip by my friend who grew up in Paris and her two children, and so for part of my visit I share a kids' eye view of the City of Light. I also help myself to some rare "alone time" where I visit nearly empty museums and enjoy a solo stroll halfway across town. Here are some highlights:


Le Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris in the Petit Palais

Bronze statue of Winston Churchill at the Petit Palais in Paris

The Bataclan theater in Paris's 11th arrondissement

Boutiques and workshops line la Coulée Verte, an old railroad viaduct in
Paris's 12th arr.

View from the garden promenade on top of la Coulée Verte in Paris

Wine warehouses were converted into the trendy Bercy Village neighborhood in
Paris's 12th arr. Just after taking this photo, I received a soaking from
the rainwater which had collected in the parachutes above the walkway.  

View from the 2nd-floor balcony of the Grande Galerie de l'Evolution in Paris


Elephants at Grande Galerie de l'Evolution in Paris

Apes at the Grande Galerie de l'Evolution in Paris

Exhibit at the Arab World Institute (Institute du Monde Arabe) in Paris

View of the Seine from Place Louis Aragon at the tip of Ile Saint-Louis in Paris 




Saturday, May 13, 2017

On the road to and through Zaragoza

Zaragoza is our last stop on our month-long trip to Spain. 


Our winter 2017 trip to Spain is coming to a close. As we cross the Castile-la-Mancha region, we make a few somewhat "meh" stops at sites recommended in my guidebook, spend a night in a motel in a tiny village that turns out to be a delightful surprise, and find ourselves smack in the middle of Carnaval crowds in Zaragoza, our last stop before France.

To ...


On the plains of La Mancha we see windmills off in the distance and make two brief stops in Belmonte and Consuegra before heading to our destination.

This castle in Belmonte, Spain, was built in the 15th century
by the Marquis of Villena after the king gave him the town.

Statue of Don Joaquín Poveda Sánchez in Belmonte, Spain

Windmills on a ridge above Consuegra, Spain

We've planned the trip so we don't have too many long days of driving. I reserve a room in a cheap motel in Saúca because it's equidistant between Toledo and Zaragoza. Our expectations are low: a clean room and good WiFi will satisfy, but pleasant surprises await us at the El Cercao Hostal. We've arrive a little early so we have a coffee in the bar and watch game shows on TV while we wait for our room. Our host explains that since the regular rooms lack heat, she's upgraded us to a family room. The charming, spotlessly clean room includes a kitchenette and an extra bed as well as the usual amenities. I don't usually include shameless plugs in this blog, but if you ever find yourself in the Guadalajara province and need a place to stay, this is it.

We couldn't have been more pleased with our stay at El Cercao Hostal in Saúca.

 
Saúca's church is the tiny village's only landmark.

Another view of the church in Saúca, Spain (pop. 70)

El Cercao isn't serving lunch today, so our host points out the shortcut to Sigüenza, about 10 minutes away. We have a number of restaurants to choose from, and after filling up, we check out the town. There are two main attractions here: the cathedral and the castle. The castle's foundations date back to the 5th century. The Moors then the Christians expanded it, and today it is a hotel. We're allowed to poke around the courtyard, but to see more, we would have to check in. (Another time, perhaps.)

Sigüenza Cathedral

Castillo Sigüenza

Courtyard of Sigüenza castle

One last stop worth mentioning is one we make between Saúca and Zaragoza in the Aragón region. The village of Calatayud is overlooked by a huge Moorish Fortress, visible from the motorway. We spend about two hours here ... enough time for walk through town, a snack and a café solo.


Ruins of an 8th-century Arab castle in Calatayud are visible for miles around.


Colegiata de Santa María in Calatayud.

Storks and a nest atop a building in Calatayud


Through ...


The cupolas of the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar
dominate the skyline of Zaragoza, Spain.

We have arrived in Zaragoza — our final stop in Spain before heading to Toulouse to see my sister and then home to Lauzun. We're staying across the Rio Elbro so our first view of the city also is the best view — from the Puente de Piedra.

Zaragoza's Plaza del Pilar

A few years ago some friends suggested we visit Zaragoza (Saragossa is its Spanish name). They had been most impressed with the city's huge plaza, and indeed, the Plaza del Pilar is pretty amazing. Landmarks here include the Basilica de Nuestra Señora (El Pilar), La Lonja de Mercaderes (an exhibition space that originally was a merchants' market exchange), the  Ayuntamiento (city hall) and La Seo cathedral. Whimsical sculptures and a modern fountain (Fuente de la Hispanidad) seamlessly blend with the traditional and historical buildings that rim the plaza. A televised tapas cook-off is taking place while we're here, and I am surprised there aren't more people out and about on this mild sunny day. But wait ... the throngs are coming.

Fuente de la Hispanidad in Zaragoza has the silhouette of South America.
The fountain, by architect Ricardo Uson García, was built in 1991

Despite our travel-weariness, we manage to explore a good part of Zaragoza in our afternoon here. We are starving by 5 p.m. and have trouble finding a bite to eat. (We never do manage to acclimate to meal times in Spain.) At last we find a restaurant and order tapas ("one of each, por favor) and drinks to fortify ourselves for our last night out.

Fuente del Dragon in Zaragoza

A huge Caesar statue in a Zaragoza shopping center

It's the last night of Carnaval celebrations here, and we have vowed to stay up late and enjoy the festivities. We aren't exactly sure of where the parade will take place but we follow miniature superheros and princesses as they head to what we assume is the start of the parade route. Eventually we realize that the celebration will wind through the city and the sidewalks are soon clogged with people.

My limited view of the Carnaval festivities in Zaragoza

I am not a big fan of crowds, so we hang back, have some ice cream and wait to see what will happen. As the parade passes the Plaza de España, we manage to catch glimpses of the floats and costumes. But I've seen enough, and my brave and clever husband manages to get us across the street so we can return to our hotel.


Zaragoza at night from the Puente de Piedra

Congratulating ourselves for staying out so late, (It must be nearly 10 o'clock!) we turn our attention to a good night's sleep before tomorrow's drive north over the Pyrénées.