Wednesday, August 14, 2013

[The Life of Shaun #478] Northwest Passage

About six months ago, before she had even booked a ticket, Rachel messaged me to say "I want to go to Brittany if I come.  I want to eat a seafood tower."  She'd seen an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations where he'd done so.  And so this weekend, we set off to France for the sole purpose of going to that restaurant.

The adventure started in Portsmouth.  No wait, the adventure started with the two-hour bus ride to Portsmouth.  Once there, we just had dinner at Las Iguanas next to the dullest hen party in history, then retired to our bunkbeds*, to rise early the next morning for our six-hour ferry ride to Caen, in Lower Normandy.  We'd only chosen Caen as it was a lot cheaper to sail into than St. Malo, and the seafood tower supposedly lay inbetween the two.  We passed a pleasant enough night there, but there's not a lot to recommend it.

British people on the ferry to Caen, pretending it's warm, as they do

The next morning we were off to Chez Jacky, which we learned only after arriving to Caen was not located a leisurely hour drive away as supposed, but three and a half hours away across Brittany.  Undaunted, we pressed on - there was no way we'd come all that way for the seafood tower and weren't getting it - and arrived after an enjoyable ride to the lovely hamlet of Riec sur Bélon, home of Chez Jacky.  Rachel was excited Jen had come along as there was now someone to share the seafood tower with her; however, Jen wasn't very hungry, so, other than a bit of crab and some mussels, Rachel was left to devour the tower alone.  Which she did, while I sipped on white wine.

Riec sur Bélon, home of Chez Jacky

Now you see the seafood tower... you don't!  Notice the jacket's off too; it was a hard-fought battle, but Rachel triumphed.

From there, another 3.5 hours to Saint-Malo, our port of exit.  We chose it for no other reason than it was another harbour to exit from, and so didn't look into it at all.  Fortunately, TripAdvisor had led Rachel to book a hotel in the old town, which turned out to be phenomenal.  It's a beautiful, island, old European ex-fort town, completely surrounded by a city wall.  Cars are allowed on very few streets, and they reactively fill with outdoor seating, people, artists and tourists.  Considering its looks, charms and location, I'm surprised I've never heard of it before.  But here we were in August, the high season, and the crowds were completely manageable, and our hotel only cost €30 each per night.  Truly a great surprise.

View from our room in Saint-Malo

Outside Saint-Malo's wall

Saint-Malo street scene 

The penultimate day was reserved for my contribution to the adventure, a visit to Mont Saint-Michel.  I saw a picture of it once many years ago and was blown away - it didn't look real.  It's a giant abbey surrounded by a tiny medieval-looking village below, rising out of the sea.  It's an impossibly perfect vision.  So I googled it, found where it was, and decided it'd be nice, but wasn't likely on any of my standard city breaks.  But, now I was going to Brittany for the seafood tower - Mont Saint-Michel was doable!

And what a stunning sight it is!  The first time you see it, peeking up out of the horizon, it looks fake, and as you get closer, it looks more and more surreal.  In an engineering folly, the French built a giant causeway-cum-parking lot right to the Mont's front gates.  This served the dual purposes of spoiling the visage and silting up the bay, turning it from open waters to marshlands over the decades.  Fortunately, they've realised the mistake, and cars are now all parked a good distance away and you can only reach it by a forty-minute walk or shuttle bus.  They are also building a new elevated approach and will destroy the current-halting causeway.  The construction marred our approaching views, but it was still awesome.

Mont Saint-Michel, from the new parking area

Approaching on the causeway

This is what the Mont and bay looked like in wetter times.

Once inside, the tiny, cramped streets were charming, though obviously soley devoted to tourism, and it made us wonder how many people could come on the island in any given day.  The abbey itself, while impressive, loses its impact once inside.  What makes it so singular is its place in the world, and from the inside, that is hidden; you could be inside any of Europe's great cathedrals.  And after doing our tour, on the way back down, we found out just how many people they let in each day, namely as many as wanted to come.  The busy streets up to the abbey had become a virtual queue, nearly all the way from the abbey's entrance to the gates below.  I'd originally wanted to have lunch there, but the restaurants were all closed until noon, and the idea of fighting the crowds for another thirty minutes and the obvious waning of my companions' enthusiasm defeated me of that desire.

Inside the walls

The abbey, in approaching

The spire, with the archangel on top


Looking down at the village below

But that defeat lead to a hidden success, as we stopped off in Cancale, another delightful town across the bay.  Once there, we found a beachside restaurant with a view of the water and Mont Saint-Michel in the distance.  It was great to see it from that perspective - its bulk apparent even from that far away - and to think of its teeming hoards and overpriced food as we sat in our pleasant spot on the beach and sipped cool wine with lunch.

Mont Saint-Michel from Cancale

From there, another evening and dinner of bread and cheese in the lovely Saint-Malo, then to bed - after all, we had an eight-hour ferry ride and two-hour bus journey to get back to London.  All told, it was a great weekend - the best trip to a restaurant one could hope for.

The island-fort town of Sait-Malo receding from the ferry

À bientôt,

*We were joined on our trip by Rachel's friend, Jen.  Jen surprised Rachel with a last-minute trip to visit her in London, to which Rachel said "That's fine, but you realise we're going to France that weekend?"  All our two-person accommodations became three, and Ibis Budget Portsmouth cleverly packs more people into one room with single-atop-double bunks.

Shaun H. Coley | Shadwell | Tower Hamlets | London E1 | UK |
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