In France, Packed for the Road—and the Pandemic

An England-based couple cautiously embraces the summer in Brittany and Normandy.  
In France, Packed for the Road—and the Pandemic 2
At first sight Le Mont Saint-Michel appears like a giant chess piece rising above the sea in Normandy. The 1,300-year-old abbey and UNESCO Site is now welcoming guests back after the pandemic. Photo by: andre quinou/shutterstock

One Saturday in the middle of July we woke up in the dark, picked up our passports and drove off at 5 a.m. It had rained the night before. The road past Stonehenge was wet and empty. My husband drove as I fussed over maps and weather apps and often turned around to check on our two friends in the back. No one spoke.

Less than five hours later we were creeping out of the belly of a belching carriage train, squinting at the French sun and driving out on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. This was no ordinary holiday.

For four months we hadn’t stirred out of the house except for exercise and essential shopping. For four months the world had changed a little every day until we had all learnt to live and love differently. For four months we had hoped for this day.

And yet as we zoomed past a host of sunny licence plates from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, down a very breezy A16 out of Calais, past bales of hay drying out on ochre fields under the cornflower-blue Normandy sky, we were more cautious than excited. England, where we live, had just eased certain rules for travel. But the pandemic was far from over. At any point there could be a regional spike, air bridges withdrawn, friendly neighbours put back on quarantine lists, and a return home made impossible. These were uncertain times and yet exceptional and full of hope.

We decided to ditch flights, ferries and fuss, and everything that screamed crowds. We created a bubble of four, travelled in our car, booked on the Euro Tunnel, carried all essential supplies including dried Indian whole spices, and booked a cottage by the sea. We even carried our own bed linen and towels. That evening, a little after eight, we arrived at Saint Cast-le-Guildo. The harbour was still, the day trippers leaving a breezy beach. “Nights are cold here and the days are never-ending. My great-grandmother arrived here just before the first war. She came on a holiday and never left. Last winter, we bought this cottage and you are our first guests,” Guillaume nodded as we stood on the serpentine promenade that snaked in-between a turquoise coastline and craggy cliffs.

In France, Packed for the Road—and the Pandemic

A man playing his harp enlivens the streets and huddle of half-timbered houses in medieval Dinan (top left); The Carnac Stones (top right) are timeless. This prehistoric site is the most dense cluster of megalithic burial mounds and standing stones in Brittany; The Customs Officers’ Path (bottom left) is a tortuous hiking trail skirting the emerald coastline of Brittany. First mapped in 1791, it got its name from the officers who walked the mountainous trail to keep a beady eye on trafficking and the plundering of shipwrecks; Saint-Malo (bottom right) is a walled city with towering tales of pirates, treasures and fantastic antics on the high seas. You can easily keep a day aside for its maze of alleys studded with farmer markets and antique shops. Photos by: martinbertrand.fr/shutterstock (street), Swagata Ghosh (musician), ivoha/Shutterstock (stones), Canadastock/Shutterstock (hike)

Named after a Welsh monk, Saint-Cast started life as a feisty fishing village a few hundred years ago. It had no sands then, just a rugged coastline of emerald waters famed for their mackerel farms. But after the wars, with Parisians flocking in for fashionable summer stays, the locals imported sand and build their beach. The next morning, we overslept. The beach was pearly white and beaming. We had tea by the sea, poured over a large map of Brittany and plotted out the week.

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If you have a week or two spare any summer, it is difficult to top a road trip through Brittany. A separate country until less than 500 years ago, Brittany enjoyed huge autonomy up until the French Revolution. With its stirring music, distinctive language, and a maritime fondness for food, Brittany is a giant, old curiosity shop.

Our first stop was medieval Dinan. petite and perfectly preserved, Dinan is a Brittany gem with Disney-like charm. And yet it’s a full working commune, a bustling town with a 14th-century stone bridge and a towering viaduct that converge in perfect symmetry over the River Rance.

We paused by the bridge. A school of canoes went rowing up the Rance. Although primarily touristy today, like Venice or Bath, Dinan has a distinctive place in French history. A port city with major trade links with powerful guilds in England and Holland, it was once home to the Dukes of Brittany.

In France, Packed for the Road—and the Pandemic 1

Petite and perfectly preserved, Dinan (left) is a Brittany gem with Disney charm; Fort La Latte (right) is a Brittany jewel with starry qualities. Here, in 1958 a strapping Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis filmed The Vikings. Photos by: canadastock/shutterstock (town), milosk50/shutterstock (tourists)

After four months of lockdown, of waking, working, cooking, laughing and almost never leaving home, Dinan was a welcome distraction. Socially distanced tourists trudged the narrow alleys, a man played on his harp and sold his music; creperies, artists, bookbinders, and potters lined the streets. A huddle of half-timbered houses leaned dangerously close holding hands across the road. It was easy to forget we were in the middle of a pandemic. But as the week progressed, we realised that Brittany had left nothing to chance. Masked, sanitised and socially distanced, almost every museum, lighthouse, fort, restaurant and cruise had opened up for business. And the punters were pouring in.

Over the next few days we scoured the outdoors. We climbed the ancient keep at Fort La Latte where in 1958 a strapping Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis filmed The Vikings. We strolled a maze of narrow alleys studded with antique shops and scaled the ramparts in Saint-Malo as we listened to tall tales of how a city once flourished from French privateers and even piracy as the state chose to look away. In the afternoons, we mostly gorged on sweet crêpes and savoury galettes folded in fresh fish at bijou, road-side restaurants. In the evenings, we shopped at local markets and patisseries and returned home to start a roaring dinner of Mum’s finest fiery chicken curry.

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From emerald green to hot pink, Brittany’s coastline circles the deep blue seas in an unending foray of peninsulas, coves, inlets and lighthouses. But at Ploumanac’h, in the heart of Côte de Granit Rose, it is at its most magnifique. We arrived just as the town had sat down to eat. The sun was high in the sky, the car park full; no one was leaving. We circled like hungry hawks looking for a spot.

In France, Packed for the Road—and the Pandemic 3

The author and her husband at Ploumanac’h in the heart of Côte de Granit Rose. Apart from its rugged beauty, this coastline has a curious claim to fame: It is only one of three places in the world to have granite with a pink tint. The other two are in Corsica and China. Photo by: Swagata Ghosh

Ten minutes later, we found one on the edge of the town, where swimmers park and take their boats out to sea. Côte de Granit Rose is a slice of the legendary GR34 hiking trail that was first chalked out in 1791 so customs officers could keep a beady eye on trafficking and the plundering of ship wrecks. Our walk began up a moonlike landscape of giant pink boulders shaped by the wind. At Ploumanac’h this rugged coastline rises to mythical proportions. The rocks here have personality and matching names—Big Foot, Pancake, Tortoise and Torpedo.

Our walk progressed slowly. The mid-afternoon sun had coloured the stones russet. We were completely under its spell. And then finally we reached the beach, with a host of purple alliums dancing in the breeze. After a late lunch of moules frites and hair tousled by the wind, we decided to cross over to Mean Ruz, the lighthouse on the edge of the precipice. Mean Ruz was built in 1860, from the pink granite picked from the coast. But in 1944, the Germans bombed it. Two years later the French built it all again in its original image. And it’s still in service.

From the footpath the trail dipped sharply. There were steps, but the gravel was slippery underneath our feet. It was dotted with tourists—kids, grannies and all combination of families, walking a narrow file in tiny clusters. Then finally we came to the lighthouse and were rewarded with sweeping views, where the pink coastline plunged into the deepest, widest blue sea and small red sails drifted past.

It was here in 1895, the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz came on holiday and sat down to write Quo Vadis, a tome to ancient Rome that won him the Nobel Prize in 1905. It is a dreamer’s paradise. We stood in a daze in the bright, pink landscape and lost time. This summer, that is all we had hoped for.

 

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  • Swagata Ghosh works at Bath Spa University and has recently completed her first novella set in Georgian Bengal. A former journalist, she now writes for the print and web in Britain, India and the Middle East. She lives in Wiltshire, England, with her husband and twelve fish.

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