This is a “travelogue” post – more geology specific posts to follow!
My sister and I had a fantastic opportunity for out annual “Twin Trek” this year! My family was having a reunion in Ireland, so our transatlantic plane tickets were covered… it opened up a whole new continent of possibilities. I handed all the responsibility for choosing a destination over to Heather, pleading that I didn’t need such a tempting distraction while finishing my thesis. I told her that as long as I could eat pastries while sitting on rocks at some point I would be happy. She’s a gem and put together a fantastic itinerary in France! Both of us had studied abroad in the south of France in college, and she had spent a year teaching English in Normandy. This time, she decided that we would explore a beautiful region that she had briefly visited and wanted to return to – Brittany, in the northwest. We hostel-hopped from Rennes to Mont-Saint-Michel to St. Malo to the Pink Granite Coast to Finisterre, then back to Rennes and on to Paris. Being over 25 and being able to get a rental car felt so luxurious… the last time we were in France as college students we got an education in foreign public transit out of necessity. I created an ArcGIS Online map of our route and have included a link to it below (unfortunately, free WordPress accounts can’t embed maps). I love the new watercolor base map that is available! The link is followed by screenshots.
I’m looking forward to writing several posts about this trip. I’m sure the research will stretch my command of the French language in new directions, but it will be a fun scavenger hunt to see what information I can find!
- What geologic features allow Mont-Saint-Michel to rise above the tidal flats?
- Why is the granite in Ploumanac’h and the rest of the “Cote de Granit Rose” so pink?
- When created the spectacular white cliffs near Camaret-sur-Mer on the Presque-Isle de Crozon?
- Why are there so many sea caves near Morgat, also on the Presque-Isel de Crozon?
But in this post, I’ll just share the travel diary part of the story.
I was cranky, jet lagged, and hadn’t slept in 20 hours when Heather picked me up from the train station in Le Mans. I’m not sure which one of us was more frazzled – she had spent the previous few hours reintroducing herself to driving stick shift in a tiny car on tiny roads after six years driving exclusively an automatic. So as glad as we were to see each other it was a very quiet car ride to Rennes, where we checked into the hostel and went in search of Brittany’s specialty: buckwheat crepes filled with delicious things. We felt significantly better about the state of the world when our food arrived, accompanied by traditional Breton teacups of hard cider.
Rennes was a wonderful place to recover from jet lag and feel like I was truly in France. Brightly painted timber-and-plaster houses lean crookedly against each other like they’ve had too many teacups of cider and surround gothic-style churches and squares full of cafe tables. After getting lunch (crepe-wrapped sausages) at the huge Saturday market at the Place des Lices, Heather and I wandered through the shopping district to the Jardin de Thabor. Once a monastery garden, the public gardens got a scenic 19th century renovation to include paths, grottoes, a botanic garden, and a delightfully random aviary. The lawns were packed with people escaping un-airconditioned apartments to catch breezes in the shade. We parked ourselves on a shady bench by the rose garden to finish the rest of the basket of strawberries. By that time my internal clock was in revolt. I went back to the hostel to crash until Heather lured me out of the room with promises of new kinds of crepes and a glass of rose.
The next day we set out on the Twin Trek in earnest. Heather was excited to finally see Mont-Saint-Michel in sunny weather, and I was curious as to whether it would equal the hype. It turned out that getting there early on a Sunday was a great decision – the tour buses from Paris must have been running late because there were pleasantly few other tourists there. We could really imagine that we had stepped back in time. The stories on the audioguide of the Abbey made the small fee well worth the money. There aren’t many interpretive signs to bring the impressive but stark walls of the abbey to life; the audioguide explains not only the construction of the abbey but the history that it witnessed and the lives of the religious orders that lived there. We had lunch on the ramparts beside a family of seagulls who watched us with great interest and eventual disappointment when we refused to share.
Heather and I headed back to the car once tour groups started to flood the island in earnest – the small streets were so crowded that we had trouble elbowing our way back down to the gate. We drove to the storied port town (and pirate hideout) of St. Malo, settled into the hostel, and walked down the beach’s boardwalk to find a crepe place in the historic walled city. It’s amazing – the city was 75% destroyed during WWII, but was painstakingly rebuilt stone by stone so it looks unchanged since the 1600s! We missed the last bus back to the hostel and stayed to watch the Bastille Day fireworks. The fact that the sun set at 11 pm was really throwing me off! Especially because we had big plans for the next day – a hike from St. Malo to Port Mer along the coast.
We took the number 8 bus to the Ilots stop, and then hiked the GR (Grand Randonee) 34 to Port Mer where we caught the bus back to the hostel. We weren’t using a map, but it turns out that it was over 11 miles. It was a hot, sunny day and the coast was beautiful – all sheer cliffs, ruined castles, and sailboats tacking between tiny islands. Also, as it turned out, nude beaches. So despite the ocean views, there were some parts of the route where we chose to admire the landward side of the trail. I’ve included an interactive web map below. Although it may look like we walked on water, those parts of the route actually indicate tidal flats. There’s such a huge tidal range here! When we left at the morning the sea was a between 1/2 mile and 1/4 of a mile away from the boats stranded on the tide flats, and in the evening the boats were floating. Heather and I agree that we would recommend taking the bus one stop further to La Guimorais to get straight to the prettier parts of the hike.
(You can link directly to the interactive map here)
After a well-earned dinner and beers at Port-Mer, we took the bus back to St. Malo and slept very well that night. If you weren’t doing this hike in the summer, you’d have to go all the way to Cancale to catch a bus back to St. Malo – the bust line that serves the beaches is seasonal.
After a morning exploring the ramparts of St-Malo and hunting down ermine-themed souvenirs, we started the drive west to our next hostel in Trebeurden on the Cote de Granit Rose. Once we reached the hostel, I switched into the driver’s seat and Heather navigated us to the surreal-looking geologic destination that she had been promising me – the pink granite near Ploumanac’h. We had a leisurely happy hour, hike, and dinner while watching the sun slowly set over the Channel.
The next morning, I dragged Heather out of bed bright and early so that we could go back to the geologic museum I had seen at the Maison Littorale along our hike the previous evening. It gave me plenty of material for a future blog post on the granite we were scrambling over, and the Heather bought me a lovely small piece of polished local granite from the gift shop as a birthday present. She knows me well, and yes I am literally that person who fills their suitcase with rocks. In my defense, it wasn’t much bigger that a bar of soap. The museum also had an exhibit on how the park was trying to restore vegetation, so Heather and I tried to be good stewards when we were using the boulders as adult-sized jungle gyms. There were still plenty of rocks and tide pools that we could get to appropriately! The tide pools here look different than the ones in Oregon – the coralline algae is grey instead of pink, and the predominant anemones are smooth, dark, and glossy instead of rough and green.
It was hard to drag ourselves away from that amazing coastline, but we also know we needed to make it to our next stop that night. We had lunch with the chickens at the hostel, loaded up the car, and drove a two hours to the small fishing port Cameret-sur-Mer on the Presque-Isle de Crozon. We went on a hike before dinner with a plan to explore a surrealist poet’s ruined mansion, and menhir alignment, and the Point de Pen Hir. Along the way, we stumbled across a huge complex of WWII bunkers and sobering memorials to the 638 French merchant marine ships and many Bretons lost in the war.
The next day dawned grey and cloudy, and Heather had planned for us to hike near Kerloc’h and then rent kayaks. That original plan was foiled when the boat rental shop told us that the westerly wind was too strong to rent kayaks from Kerloc’h, and so we went to Morgat on the opposite side of the Cape de Chevre where the wind was more favorable.The day was still cloudy and cool when we hauled our kayaks to the edge of the tide flats. That rental staff looked at us like we were crazy and suggested renting wetsuits, but the sun came out a few minutes after we launched! It turned into an absolutely perfect day to be on the water. The wind was still unpredictable though – one sneaker wave tossed Heather and her kayak into a complete somersault as she was pushing off from a beach, scraping up her arm and scattering her belongings across the waterline. She maintains that it was OK because getting a scar at sea ought to make her an honorary Breton pirate.
Relocating our kayak adventure to Morgat had a major unexpected silver lining: sea caves!! The coastline was steep, convoluted, and carved into fantastic arches and caverns. When the tide is high you can paddle into some of them…although the incoming tide created significant whitewater in some of them. Heather and I had a blast surfing the waves in the more exciting caves but it may not have been the smartest thing to do. When a family with small kids on the bows of their kayaks asked us where the “Devil’s Chimneys” were, we crossed our fingers behind our backs and feigned ignorance.
Th next day, the clouds of the previous day turned into genuine Breton downpours. We gave up the idea of outdoor adventures in favor of taking a bouncy ferry ride across the inlet to the huge port of Brest. Unlike Rennes, it doesn’t have that old-world scenic French flavor. It was bombed completely flat during WWII and hastily rebuilt in cubic concrete except miraculously for one thing – the ancient fort. It now houses the French naval offices and also a great maritime museum. I wish I could have teleported my dad there to enjoy the exhibit on around-the-world racing in catamarans for the Jules Verne Trophy.
The next day was pretty tame… we poked around the many art galleries in Camaret-sur-Mer, and then drove back to Rennes. The following morning we took the train to Paris to meet up with Heather’s girlfriend Elaine.
While it was relatively warm in Brittany, the “canicule” (poetic French term for heat wave) was merciless in Paris during the five days of our stay. A change from the usual atmospheric patterns caused more hot air than usual to push its way north from the Sahara into countries much worse prepared to deal with it. The daily high temperature ranged from 97 to 108 degrees F , while the average high for July is 78. This forced us to change our usual travel patterns and take a more relaxed approach to Paris than we had planned. We made it through the week with strategic applications of siestas, Orangina, and ice cream.
Over the course of the visit the three of us visited the Pantheon (mercifully cool, and with a fascinating exhibit on deaf history), the Musee d’Orsay (packed, but worthwhile for the amazing exhibit on Berthe Morisot), Sacre Coeur (overrun by tourists diverted from the closed Cathedral de Notre Dame, and quieter directly after services), Musee de Montmatre (an quiet oasis well worth the admission cost with delightful exhibits about impressionists and the neighborhood), and the Catacombs (Elaine’s favorite for the Spooky Aesthetic ™, and a standout for me for the ancient history of mining). I’ll definitely write another post about the elaborate system of mines and tombs under Paris!
On the last day of our stay, we successfully navigated a packed metro with our luggage, Heather led the way to the most well-hidden municipal bus depot I’ve ever encountered, and we headed north to meet my parents and visit my grandmother in Belgium. Thank heavens the bus was air-conditioned.
Next up: geology posts.
After that: Ireland!