Monday, July 01, 2013

Paris: Day 5

This day was a "traveling" day of sorts. We went on a day trip to the Brittany region of France and also to visit Mont Saint Michel, which is technically in the Normandy region.We booked our day trip with Link Paris and I would highly recommend them. Their tours are on a much smaller scale than most day trip companies who use huge charter buses. There were 8 people in our group that day, including us. We had a lovely tour guide who was from Brittany and she drove us around all day in our van and gave us the most interesting details (while driving) about the towns we visited, the region in general, and of course, Mont St. Michel itself. 

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For Link Paris tours, transportation to and from the touring area and Paris is done by train. We caught our train bright and early at 7:30am. But, it only took us about 2 hours and 45 minutes to reach Brittany rather than the 4-5 it would have taken by charter bus. When we arrived in St. Malo (our first destination that day), our tour guide met us on the train platform and then whisked us away to the city center. 
St. Malo has a walled city center that was 85% destroyed in WWII (like much of France). But, they were able to completely reconstruct it and people say that you cannot tell the difference from the original wall and buildings. Here's the tiny archway entrance into the city center. It is small, to be sure, but if you don't fit through here you don't have much chance on the tiny streets inside.

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When we stepped out of our van, we could smell the difference in the air...St. Malo is right on the sea and they specialize in sea salt...fleur de sel, to be exact. We definitely bought some of that to take home. And also some sea salt caramels. Yes...yum. 
You can walk along the top of the wall all the way around the original city. It's quite a unique perspective. We didn't walk the whole way, but made our way around quite a bit of it.

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Then we descended into the little city center itself to peruse the shops...and stop for croissants. Very important.

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There's a little church there and it has so much blue and purple in the stained glass that the inside of the church takes on those colors.

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And then, at the very front of the church behind the altar, the morning sunlight was streaming in through the windows and created such lovely, colorful patterns on the floor.

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When we made our way to the other side of the city center, we saw the sea! Sea gulls were flying everywhere and it just felt a world away from Paris.

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The town is made up of little streets and stair cases and beautiful stone buildings. We walked around the whole town and stopped in stores where we liked. Then, we made our way to our group's meeting place and hopped back on the van.

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On the drive to Mont St. Michel, our guide told us about the differences in the Brittany and Normandy regions. Out by Mont St. Michel, the farmers let their sheep graze on the salty grass that grows up in the silt down by the water. So, the sheep have naturally salty meat because of the grass they eat. This pre-salted lamb is a very common dish in the region as well as oysters and other sea food.

When we arrived at Mont St. Michel, we took one of the shuttles to the drop-off point and then walked the rest of the way to the abbey. You can sort of tell from the photos that they are doing some "work" out there. Basically, Mont St. Michel used to be completely surrounded by water. You may have seen photos of it like that, but it hasn't been that way in years (don't remember exactly how long.) The silt from the ocean came in through the dams that were built and stayed while the water filtered back out. So, they are working to reverse that process so that the full glory of the abbey (surrounded by water) can be restored. But when we visited, the construction made the view not as great as it could have been.

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There she is. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site that has been an important stronghold for the French since ancient times. According to legend, Saint Michael came to a bishop in a dream and told him to have the abbey built up there on the top of the hill.

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When you reach the base of the hill, you enter through this very medieval gate (portcullis? not sure of the correct terminology).

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And then there is one narrow, winding, and steep street that leads all the way up to the abbey at the top. Thank goodness there's tons of shops and restaurants to distract you from the climb. This was my second time to visit Mont St. Michel (the first time I was in high school), and I definitely remembered this little street.

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We stopped for lunch somewhere along the way before we reached the abbey. It was a cozy and charming little restaurant at which we ordered some of that salted lamb. It was great, as was the cider that is also a specialty of the region.

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After lunch we were as ready as we'd ever be to conquer the (more than) 900 steps it would take to reach the top. And that's saying nothing of the steps once you're inside the abbey.

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That day the abbey was not crowded at all. The workers who usually attend it were on strike opposing the restoration of the waters around the abbey. I think they are worried that less people will visit if they have to park further out and take a shuttle into the base of the mount. (Personally, I really don't think it will affect the tourism rates at all.)

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Check out these massive fire places. I had Casey stand in the photo as a reference point. I can just imagine a bonfire raging in both of those fire places. The abbey does seem like it might be cold in the winter.

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One of the most beautiful parts of the abbey was the cloisters. On one side there was a view of the abbey itself. On the other side...the sea (and it is now).

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When we'd finished completely exploring the abbey, we began our descent through the same little street.

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On the way back to our van at the parking lots, we had an issue with the shuttles. As in, they weren't letting people get on them. And believe it or not, it was really warm that afternoon. So we waited a while in the sun before we got on a shuttle. I think they have some kinks to work out with that, but even so, our visit to Mont St. Michel was wonderful. One last look on our way out...

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Our last stop of the day was in the picturesque little town of Dinan. Our tour guide told us that the old part of the town has often been used in movies set in medieval times. The town is split into two parts...the lower and upper towns. The lower one along the river was the first to be built and then as expansion was needed not long after that, they went up the hill. The view from the upper town to the river below is just stunning.

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These pink/purple flowers were growing right out of the wall. Despite the fact that I had to lean over quite a bit (and made Casey kind of nervous), I had to take a photo of them.

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One of the women who was part of our group took a photo of Casey and I at the lookout point.

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Then we made our way around all the little charming streets and alleys of the upper town. Our guide was not kidding...the streets were something straight out of the movies. She said that they have a medieval fair every year and the center of town closes to cars. Everyone dresses up in medieval costumes and has a big party.

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Those buildings completely killed me with their charm. We shopped a bit and walked a lot and just enjoyed the town.

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But then we passed an ice cream shop...and had the best ice cream of our whole trip. I had a scoop of Nutella and a scoop of Sea Salt Caramel. That caramel ice cream, with sea salt...not only the best ice cream of the trip, but probably the best caramel ice cream I've ever had.

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Our guide drove us back to the train station for our trip back to Paris. We grabbed a sandwich at the station because we just could not wait until we got back to Paris to eat (but notice that we had ice cream right before dinner). While definitely not our most refined meal, the sandwich (not packaged) was actually great. We watched the sun set on the countryside from the windows on the train and completely crashed when we finally made it back to the hotel. Such a fun day exploring another part of France.

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