Tuesday, July 9, 2013

St Malo to Chinon

    We left St Malo around 9 am  Wednesday morning June 19, with San Pedro Hotel proprietress, Mireille, waving us off.

    After only 35 km, we made a stop at Dinan, a beautiful medieval walled village on the River Rance, to see the village and drink some cafe au lait.

    The old walled city was built on the ridge top overlooking the river, a steep hike up this street from the river bridge.

    This gives a better idea of the steepness of the street.

    There were picturesque buildings and sights all along the street from the river to the town entrance.

    Finally, the entrance through the walls.

    Once inside the walls, the street leveled out somewhat.

    Toy soldiers in a shop window. I don't think you would buy these for a child to play with.

    This guy was playing an instrument like nothing I ever saw before.

    This is how it sounded.  Remember we are still in Brittany at this point, and the sound, to me, is reminiscent of the British Isles.

    On to Chinon in the Loire Valley.  The ride took about 5 hours with a stop for lunch, and of course we encountered rain along the way.  We arrived in Chinon about 5 pm, with the girls barely able to walk upright. Here is a video montage of the afternoon's ride.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Mont Saint Michel and Saint Malo

    On Tuesday morning 6/18, we left John Steele hanging from the steeple in St Mere Eglise and set course for St Malo on the Brittany coast.  Our route took us past Mont St Michel, a must-see stop for any tour of France. We arrived there around lunch-time, with Laurent complaining bitterly that we could no longer ride the bikes right up to the main entrance to the fortified abbey, but instead had to leave the bikes in the remote parking area and take the shuttle bus like everyone else. The good old days are apparently gone for Mt St Michel, but that has not reduced its popularity with tourists or diminished the views from the summit.
    Here's the view as we approached in the shuttle bus.  I thought our driver was rather cute.

    Once off the shuttle, you can look forward to a quarter-mile hike through a lot of new construction to reach the entrance.  While the island has been a fortified stronghold since ancient times, the first monestery was established there in the 8th century and was continuously expanded and refined into the early 20th century.

    Just inside the entrance are a plethora of restaurants including this long standing tradition, Restaurant La Mere Poulard, famous for their omelets.

    The eggs must be beaten in a very precise way to a musical cadence in order to achieve the notable consistency of the famous omelets.  The kitchen where the sous-chefs perform this magic is open to the street for the passersby to marvel at.  Here is a short video that demonstrates the process.

        We decided to pass on the omelets, which are very pricey, and look for something a little more humble.

        After lunch, it was onward and upward to the abbey at the summit of the rock.

A view of the gardens at the base of the abbey.

The upper courtyard and entrance to the Abbey.

    The view from the upper courtyard with the tide out.

    Some gargoyles adorning the abbey.

    A shot of the interior.

    The new construction has to do with the creation of a raised bridge from the mainland to replace the solid causeway that has been in place since 1879 and which has blocked the tidal flow around the island, causing silting problems.  The new raised bridge will allow the tide to flow completely around the island again, as in olden days.

Saint Malo

    Thoroughly worn out by our trek to the top of Mont St Michel, we continued the day's ride westward along the coast into Brittany and the ancient walled city of St Malo.  We stayed at the Hotel San Pedro within the old fortified walls.  The narrow one-way streets within the walls form a maze that is difficult to navigate by bike. We circled around and around trying to zero in on the hotel.  It became quite humorous, and since I had filmed the entire episode I turned it into a You Tube video that you can find here.  The hotel itself was quite humerous, having once been a brothel, or at least having catered to ladies of the night and their customers.  The current owner, Mireille Morice, is a happy lady who hums and sings as she prepares and serves a delicious breakfast. She has done a wonderful job of remodeling the small hotel with a nautical theme.  Small bedrooms, not unlike ship cabins, and tiny bathrooms have been squeezed into the quirky spaces of the centuries-old building.

    The hotel was very close to the old city wall facing the sea. We took a walk on the ramparts before dinner.

     Fort du Petit Be is a small fort on an island close to old walled city.

    It can be reached by foot during low tide.

    This is a bar with a very long name near the old city portal.  The full name is Le cafĂ© du coin d'en bas de la rue du bout de la ville d'en face du port...La Java,  which translates into   the coffee corner down the street after the city across the harbor...Java.

    The bar is an institution in St Malo, and the interior decoration is as funky as the name.

We were in St Malo on June 18, which happens to be our anniversary, so here we are at our 47th anniversary celebration dinner.

    St Malo is known for the quality of its mussels which come from the local waters, so Moules et frits was the natural choice for both Penny and me that evening. A long ride lay in store for us the next day, from St Malo in Brittany to Chinon in the Loire Valley.


Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Beaches Of Normandy

    We went to the beach this summer.  Actually, several of them....Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword.  We started at the Pegasus Bridge, a short ride from Honfleur where we had spent Sunday night 6/16.

    Pegasus Bridge spans the Caen Canal in the village of Benouville a little northeast of Caen.  It, along with the nearby Horsa Bridge over the Orne River, were the objectives of  a force of 181 men of the British Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry who landed near the bridges in large gliders around midnight the night of June 5, 1944 in the very first hours of the June 6 D-Day invasion.  Their mission was to capture and preserve the bridges to deny German armour the use of the bridges to attack the allied landing forces at nearby Sword Beach.  The building in the center of the above photo was the first house liberated in France during the invasion.  A plaque on the house reads:

    Here's a shot of one of the large gliders used in the stealth landing at the bridges.

    We next rode a short way along the coast to the Gold Beach area and the town of Arromanches, the site of one of the artificial harbors, so-called Mulberry harbours, constructed by allied forces off the Normandy beaches to facilitate unloading equipment during the D-Day invasion.  The other Mulberry harbour was built further west at Omaha Beach.  There is a museum dedicated to the invasion at Arromanches, as there is at most of the invasion beaches.

    Here is a photo of a photo from the museum of the Arromanches Mulberry harbour in full swing. The magnitude of the invasion operation is hard to comprehend.

    Laurent is a history buff and is very knowledgeable about all of the D-Day operations.  Here, he is pointing out the remnants of the Arromanches Mulberry harbour to my wife, Penny, and the other Dave. You can barely see some of the remains in the water in the distance,

    After lunch, we moved on westward to Omaha Beach, the site of the other Mulberry harbour and one of the two main landing areas for US troops, the other being Utah Beach a little further west.

    The view looking down the bluff to the beach where so many US troops lost their lives trying to get ashore and find cover from the storm of German gunfire coming from their defending positions atop the bluff.

    Omaha Beach is the site of a US military cemetery with control of the area granted by France to the US Government.  It is a sobering site to see.

    The cemetery contains the graves of over 9,000 US military personnel who died while liberating Europe from  Nazi Germany, with over 3,000 having died at Omaha Beach alone on the first day of the invasion.

    Laurent surprised us with an American flag that he had brought along specifically for the occasion of our visit to the cemetery.  As he was taking our picture with the flag, several French citizens stopped to watch and offer thanks for America's role in liberating their country.  It was a very moving experience.

    Before departing Omaha Beach, we visited the museum and the "Les Braves" monument.

    And then we continued riding westward to our destination for the night, the 11th century village of Saint Mere Eglise.  We rode through rain so hard it stung my fingers which were exposed in fingerless gloves.  St Mere Eglise was the first French village to be liberated by paratroopers of the 101st Airborne on D-Day.
    The town was on fire the night of June 5th when the men parachuted in, making them easy targets for the Germans on the ground.  Paratrooper John Steele survived the decent, but his chute snagged on the spire of the church tower and there he hung for several hours as the battle raged on the ground below him. The Germans eventually cut him down and he was taken prisoner.  Steele eventually escaped captivity and returned to his division to continue fighting. He was subsequently awarded the Bronze Star for valor and was portrayed by Red Buttons in the movie The Longest Day.  The Town made him an honorary citizen and keeps an effigy of him hanging from the church tower.

    We spent the night at the Hotel du 6 Juin.  Here we are in the parking lot getting ready for departure the next morning.  Tomorrow, Mont St Michel and St Malo.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Riding In France

     Two years ago we met Carole and Laurent from Tours, France as we were boarding a ferry in Juneau, AK for a three day cruise down the Inside Passage to Prince Rupert, BC.  I count that as one of the luckiest days of my life as it has led to many enjoyable experiences.
     They were near the beginning of a twelve-month Pan-American motorcycle odyssey that took them from the Arctic Circle on the Dalton Highway in Alaska to the southern most city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina.  We were near the end of a five-week ride from NC to Alaska and back. We hit it off immediately and have been friends ever since.  Their trip is chronicled here in French, but Google will translate it for you.  Here we are in 2011 at our home in Lake Lure.

And here, last year, at their home in Tours.

    It was during our visit with them in Tours last year that Laurent told us of his plans to start a motorcycle tour company he is calling Ride In Tours and invited us to be guinea pigs for a two-week bike tour of France.  We have just returned from the trip, and now it is time to chronicle our most excellent adventure.  I will have to break it down into several posts, or it would be too long for one sitting.  We will begin at the beginning, in Tours.
    Two of our son's in-laws, Dave and Tulin, were with us on the Alaska ride and also on this trip. Here we are, packed and ready to roll.  We departed Tours on Sunday June 16 on three bikes, one owned by Laurent and two borrowed from friends. Penny and I were on a borrowed Suzuki GSX 1400, a very nice bike for touring, but not available in the US.  Tulin and the other Dave were riding Laurent's BMW GS1200 ... the one that made the 41,000 mile  Pan-Am trip. This is the same model bike that Dave owns and rode to Alaska, and the type of bike that Laurent plans to purchase and provide to tour customers.  For this tour, Laurent was riding a borrowed KLR 650 from the late '80's. Carole would join us five days later in Loches on her BMW F 650 GS.

    Our first day's ride would take us from Tours about 250 miles north to Honfleur on the Normandy coast with stops in Le Mans to see the racetrack and  motorsport museum, and Camembert to see some cheese.

   We rode a short section of the 24 hr road course that lies outside the main track, and we saw tons of old race cars.

    I can attest to the fact that Camembert cheese tastes much better than it smells, and also that carrying a box of it around in your motorcycle luggage for a few days is not a good idea.

   Honfleur is a beautiful little coastal harbor town dating to the early 11th century with a very picturesque port.

    Here, Laurent is explaining something of great interest to two mildly disinterested biker babes.

    Honfleur is full  of interesting architecture.

    Did you see the sign on the fence?   It somehow doesn't fit the ambiance.  The next morning, we headed for the Normandy WW2 D-Day beaches. That's next.