‘Off boat’ adventure: Normandy and Brittany

During the last two weeks we have had a rich and extraordinary “off boat” adventure, driving around Normandy and Brittany in north-western France.  Due to Lesley’s strong family roots in Cornwall, all things Cornish are very much in her mind and of great interest to both of us. We’d read Brittany (in particular) was a delightful part of France, we have always thought we MUST go there at some stage.

Google map showing our route from Rouen.

Google map showing our route from Rouen.

On top of that the Bretons speak a language closely linked to the old Cornish language, and welcome the Cornish as “cousins”!

Our key points:

    • 1,361ks via Google maps though probably a couple of hundred or so kilometres more with our exploring, going back and forth etc.
    • 70 metres of Bayeux Tapestry
    • A music festival – who’d have thought bagpipes could be so groovy!
    • Thousands of ancient megaliths – the world’s largest collection
    • Great beaches, rivers, ports and coastline
    • Eight hotels, mostly good as long as you thoroughly do the research and take some bits to aid accessibility
    •  Some very memorable meals, especially lobster and oysters
At the Trouville home of Robert and Nicole (L to R): Nicole Stewart Robert Gilles and Annie

At the Trouville home of Robert and Nicole (L to R): Nicole Stewart Robert Gilles and Annie

What better way to start our touring adventure, just south of our mooring at Rouen, Normandy, than by meeting up with our Parisian friends Robert and Nicole. We’d often chatted with them about their Normandy home at Trouville which has been in the family for more than 50 years.

Trouville and neighbouring Deauville

(twin towns butting up to each side of the  River Touques) are seaside resorts made enormously popular partly because of their easy access from Paris, less than two hours by train.

Horse training early morning on Deauville beach.

Horse training early morning on Deauville beach.

Stewart slightly overdressed on the celebrity boardwalk at Deauville beach.

Stewart slightly overdressed (or underdressed) on the celebrity boardwalk at Deauville beach.

Deauville is a very smart town, but very hard on wheelchair users with poor ramps.

Deauville is a smart town, but with poor or no ramps making it very hard on wheelchair users .

The sumptuous Hotel Normandie, Deauville, typical architecture of this resort.

The sumptuous Hotel Normandy Barriere, Deauville, typical architecture of this resort.

Deauville beach ready for the crowds.

Deauville beach ready for the crowds.

Deauville (where we stayed) is extremely smart; it has a huge casino, horse racing track, polo fields and attracts all the big global brands to their very smart shopping centre.

Trouville pier and an exhibition of Impressionists paintings of the region.

Trouville pier and an exhibition of Impressionists paintings of the region.

The busy port of Honfleur.

The busy port of Honfleur.

Saint Catherine's church clock tower, Honfleur.

Saint Catherine’s church clock tower, Honfleur.

Across the River Toughes lies Trouville (and the home of Robert and Nicole) which became popular in particular with artists and writers from the mid-1800s onwards. But of course it was dinner at the Doridot home and guided tours of the two towns and region, including the historic Honfleur, that were so special.

Then we were on our own driving further across Normandy, heading west and then south into Brittany.

Bayeux Tapestry

Depending on which experts’ view you go with, the tapestry – which is actually embroidery – was either made in Normandy or more likely England around 1070 AD and took 10 or 30 years to make. Either way it’s a wonderful piece of art, a great register of the history, culture and war-craft of that era all combined. A link to their museum here

A small section from the Bayeux Tapestry.

A small section from the Bayeux Tapestry.

A true vivid time capsule

It was probably commissioned as a piece of propaganda, for the literate and the illiterate alike, explaining how “lucky” the Anglo-Saxon English were to have been “liberated” from their “young pretender” King Harold by the Scandinavian Normans under William, invading  from their relatively new base in France. 

What we do know is that it’s an amazing work, depicting “623 people, 202 horses and mules, 55 dogs, over 500 other beasts both real and mythological, 37 buildings, and 41 ships”.  Even Halleys Comet can be seen, though no one today is sure whether it was regarded then as a good or bad omen.

The illustrations were all crowned by a running commentary in Latin describing the scenes as they unfold. Looking at the shape and style of their vessels shows how close the Normans still were to their Viking “grandparents”. The horses apparently easily stepped in and out over the low sides of the boats.

A never-ending line of visitors streamed along the 70 metres of tapestry listening to their audio guides which automatically played the relevant commentary in front of the panel on view. 

We discovered there was an exhibition on level 2, far less crowded and more informative; how they made their armour, what were their weapons and their invasion plans.  Most of us know of the date of the Norman invasion, 1066, but we forget (at least I did) that The Tower of London and Winchester Cathedral were both built by the Normans soon after their arrival – as was the tapestry which is still so well-preserved with colours so vivid that it’s hard to believe is almost a thousand years old.

From Bayeux we crossed into Brittany and explored the wonderful north coast starting at St Malo before heading to the south coast basing ourselves at Quimper (told in photos below).

 

Quimper and the Festival de Cornouaille

The French word Cornouaille translates to Cornwall and Quimper is in the heart of the region called Cornouaille in Brittany (more about Cornwall and Brittany here). Music and all things Celtic have been celebrated big time for 90 years in this city:  250,000 visitors and hundreds of performers and acts over six frenetic days.  Our stay was planned to take in the first two days and we were lucky enough to see and enjoy some wonderful performances. Here is the Festival website.

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    • Carlos Nunez was described as being the “Jimmy Hendrix of the bagpipes”.  Now that might sound an unlikely combination – as it did to us, but it was a great night.  More than a thousand of us enjoying Carlos on all kinds of pipes plus his great band, including his brother on the drums, and a young group of Scottish pipers and drummers, and when Paddy Malone from the iconic Irish group, The Chieftains, came on stage, we and the rest of the crowd could hardly believe it. See more for yourself here.
    • The other really exciting band we saw was called Konogan an Habask & Peverlamm KH.  Yes, as a Scot (of Scottish origins technically at least), I thrill to the sound of the traditional pipes.  However these guys (and Carlos’s band) lift the rhythm and dynamics to a new, modern level.  More on this band here on YouTube.

Bagpipe troops also marched in the streets with energy and drive that blew us away.

Carnac and the Megaliths

A thousand years (Bayeux Tapestry above) sounded a long time until over on Brittany’s southern coast, we headed out from the little seaside town of Carnac  to explore the biggest array of ancient stone megaliths in the world; more than 3,000 stone columns or tables (dolmens) installed in the Neolithic Period between 4,500 and 3,300 BC.  Putting all this into a historical context, Otzi the Iceman is estimated to have died up in the Alps 3,200 BC; Stonehenge was constructed in or around 2,200 and the pyramids from 2,600 to around 600 BC.  They were excavating, shaping and dragging huge slabs of local rock here before the Iron Age, and even the Copper Age, well before the Celts arrived. Some we learnt since had been carted off and used in buildings and have now been taken back and set up again.  Even more were recently located off-shore installed there before the seas rose at the end of the last ice-age.

Brittany also has its own local versions of the King Arthur mythology.  It’s been claimed the reason they stand in such perfectly straight lines is that they are a Roman legion turned to stone by Merlin. What they were actually built for no one yet positively can say though studies suggest they might be related to the worship of the dead, though the best guess seems to be that they might relate to seismic or astronomic observations.

 

There are also funeral mounds in which like in the pyramids wonderful green jewellery and other fascinating relics have been found.

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Carnac Plage (the beach) itself is more like “France does Bali”.  The sea is the thing, swimming in it though there are no waves to surf. At low tide there are vast acres of beach for sun-baking.  The town is jam-packed with bars, clothing shops and hotels.  We made friends with a gifted guitarist, Nicholas who had a regular gig at a bar playing all the lead guitar parts from the rock icons of the past; Garry Moore, Jeff Beck etc.  Nicholas told us he was excited he would soon be returning to his regular job; not as a musician he said but teaching maths!

Accessibility

As we often say in the Blog, one of the key reasons we first started thinking about basing ourselves on a boat over here was to ensure we had an accessible base.  We were reminded of precisely what that means in all senses during our trip.  Because despite all Lesley’s efforts: Googling and phoning to make inquiries, taking our own portable bed bar and loo seat riser and even inventing a method for raising bed heights; it was still not all “plain sailing” particularly on hotter days.  With my legs weakened due to my MS, walking, even standing is not possible.  So the closer bed and loo heights are to the height of my wheelchair of around xxx, the easier it is for me to slide from one to the other and back again.

We stayed in eight different hotels over our 14 nights.  All the hotels had advertised and then assured us they had accessible or “disabled” rooms.  So how did they measure up?

    • In every case I could wheel into the hotel, into our room and into the bathroom in my chair – not always the case back in the UK last year. Although the so-called ramp used by the Mercure in Deauville (a piece of wood 4 x 2 inches cut diagonally) was very difficult to manage.
    • Unfortunately all too frequently either the loo or bed, or both, were not at the correct height – we did have a solution, see below.
    • The grab bars in bathrooms were often not in the best places or angles.  If you can’t use your legs to help, these bars are essential to provide purchase for transfers.  It’s almost as if the hotel should not have bothered with fitting them at all if the bars are not in easy reach or are placed at strange angles. 
    • Sometimes the hand basins were a bit too low to get my knees under to wash my hands or clean my teeth or mirrors in bathrooms were too high so all I could see was the top of my  (ever sparsely covered) head.
    • One of the challenges of having MS, like apparently many kinds of damage to your nerve system, is my sensitivity to warmer weather; it makes me weaker and stressed.  Often the temperature only needs to go above 26 or 27 degrees for any length of time and I’m in trouble. So air-conditioning during our ‘heat wave’ was essential but not standard.
    • Hotel staff varied from the remote and unengaged to those who were very friendly and helpful.

So, putting – as we always try to do – a positive view on things, which was the best we visited?

Drums roll, we struggle to open the envelope,… “and the winner is” ….. count to ten or twenty ….. “Hôtel Le Diana, Carnac!”  Wheelchair accessible as above, fascinating location, super-friendly, helpful staff, excellent value and if that wasn’t enough, there is a super restaurant overlooking the beach (well, sand dune actually).

Our no. 1 choice of hotels: Le Diana at Carnac Plage.

Our no. 1 choice of hotels: Le Diana at Carnac Plage.

Website: Le Diana Hotel, Carnac Beach, Brittany

If any fellow travellers would like to have more details of which hotels, where and how we rated them, please be in touch. And we’d love to hear from anyone with their experiences and ‘tricks of the trade’. 

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About Lesley and Stewart

Loving great waterways of the world.
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