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  • Candace Ahlfinger

Our 10-Day French Itinerary--Bayeux to Mont Saint Michel to St. Malo

Mont Saint Michel

And then, off to Mont Saint Michel--a trip highlight for me.

First, a note…Several driving trips ago to Europe we decided to simply use our phone’s GPS. It is as reliable there as it is in the U.S., and we are used to it. Sometimes we choose to take alternate routes—especially when they are scenic—but we tend to be pleased with the options GPS gives us. (Note #2: Check parking for hotels. GPS doesn’t necessarily have the correct directions to the parking lot!)

Mont Saint Michel

Our drive to Mont Saint Michel was relatively short, 1 ½ hours, with the hardest part being getting past the gates into the town of Mont Saint Michel. (Our hotel had sent us an email explaining what we needed to do but we needed a code.) Our first glimpse of the historic and beautiful Mont Saint Michel thrilled me. We checked into the Hôtel Mercure Mont Saint-Michel and headed to the “island.” (It is actually a tidal island that can be reached by land during low tide and becomes an island during high tide.) They are now dredging the area around the Mont because years of sediment buildup has made the land less island-like even with the extremely high tides the area enjoys. (Just a note: Mont Saint Michel is in Normandy, not Brittany, but barely!)

Visitors can take the bus to Mont Saint Michel. (One stop was almost directly in front of our hotel.) Of course, we opted to walk across the long breezeway, stopping to take many pictures of the fantastical sight. Seemingly thousands of pictures later, we arrived at the gates of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Mont Saint Michel is not made for those who have difficulties walking. The walkways are steep, and stairs are frequent.) We wound through the streets leading up to the abbey, stopping to shop for souvenirs and eat to-go crepes in La Cloche. (To-go crepes are rolled so they can be easily held, but they taste just the same as regular crepes.) We also finally tasted apple cider that is famous in the area.

Main Street on Mont Saint Michel

The island was dedicated to Saint Michel (St. Michael) in the 8th century. The Abbey has a display concerning other abbeys that are dedicated to St. Michael which was very interesting. While Mont Saint Michel does not require tickets, we had bought tickets online to get into the abbey and monastery located at the peak. After seeing the line, we were glad we did. We had purchased 3:00 p.m. tickets. During the summer there is a light show at night, but it stopped the week before we arrived. (Allow 30 minutes to walk from the gate of the mount to the abbey. It’s not a long walk, but there are lots of distractions.)

Inside the Abbey on Mont St. Michel

The abbey and monastery are amazing. The chapels, the refectory (dining room), the views of the land and water far below, and the cloister were all wonderful. Our tour guide was great at bringing history to life with the stories. All too soon, we made our way down to the main street—after several long side trips to the fortress walls.

Agneau de pré-salé

We walked back to the hotel, again stopping multiple times for pictures. For dinner, we went next door to our hotel to try Agneau de pré-salé at Restaurant Le Pré Salé. Agneau de pré-salé is a dish found in very limited places with Mont Saint Michel being well known for it. The salt marsh lamb is raised in the salty meadows that surround the mount. Because of their high saline diet, the meat has a very distinctive, and excellent, flavor. After dinner, we walked back to Mont Saint Michel to take pictures of the beautifully lit site. Unfortunately, the mount was not lit as pictures show. (It may have been in the summer, but we visited in September, so we were disappointed that we couldn’t see it in its nighttime glory.)

The next morning, we were up semi-early to head for St. Malo, our first stop in Brittany. (A note: Many people use Bayeux or St. Malo as their overnight bases and make day trips to all of the surrounding towns. One reason we stayed in Mont Saint Michel was to see the lights at night. Even though that fell through, we were still glad we stayed. If you stay on the mount itself, carry a day pack because you can’t drive over.)

Oyster Kiosks

Our next overnight stop was St. Malo, but we had an important place to experience before we arrived there. We took the scenic coastal route to Cancale to have freshly harvested oysters for lunch. Picturesque villages streamed by the car as we passed stone houses, some ivy covered while others sported window boxes overflowing with colorful flowers. As we got close to the town, we followed signs to a parking lot and then walked along the beach watching colorful windsurfers. We followed the crowds to the kiosks where oysters and mussels are the stars. The process of buying oysters was easy to understand. We went to a kiosk of choice and decided on the size and kind of oysters we wanted to try. (There are so many options, and most were $.50 or less per oyster!) We chose the 0 and 1 sizes, the largest, and watched as the person at the kiosk shucked them.

Watching our Oysters Being Shucked

From the drops of blood on his shirt, I’m guessing that the chain-mail glove doesn’t always protect him from the sharp point, but he didn’t let a little blood deter him from his mission. We quickly found ourselves sitting on the concrete stairs with our 2 dozen oysters. (Note: I love oysters and can eat a lot, but I was sooo full when we finished!) We enjoyed sipping the critters from their shells and followed the example of thousands of people before us as we threw empty shells to the seagulls that waited impatiently at the water’s edge to pick the shells clean of any speck of leftover oyster. (We threw our lemon rinds, also, before we saw the sign to throw the peels in the trash instead.) We finished our meal with sweet crepes from a seaside vendor and, after a quick look at the distant Mont Saint Michel, we headed back to our car on our way to St. Malo.

Walls of St. Malo

St. Malo, the island home of corsairs (aka pirates) during the 17th and 18th centuries, controlled the Rance River. The walled city is picturesque and full of tourists. Stores that occupy the first floors have familiar names and many boutiques. Restaurant seating spills out onto the streets and offer many options.

Ocean-Filled Swimming Pool in St. Malo

Thankfully, the Hotel Le Nautilus had sent us parking directions for parking lots outside the walls of St. Malo. Unfortunately, the parking lot was closed so we got to drive around more than we had planned. Parking outside a walled city also means that we got to carry our luggage to the hotel inside the walls. (Thank goodness we travel fairly light!) We could have driven to the hotel to drop off luggage, but that would have meant we would be driving in the narrow semi-pedestrian streets of the Old Town.

Robert Surcouf, Pirate Extraordinaire

We were met by the owner of the hotel who gave us maps, wine, and a great deal of information about the city before we headed out to explore. Walking the ramparts gave a fascinating look at the city and at the surrounding sea. The high tides at St. Malo make Grand Bé and Petit-Bé small tidal islands that are accessible on foot only during low tide. We watched from high above the waves as visitors crossed to the islands before scurrying back to St. Malo. Down below we also observed a huge swimming pool fed by the high tides, an intriguing and water-saving idea. As we wandered around the top of the wall, we ran into Robert Surcouf, a famous corsair who fought against the English. (It was actually his statue, not him in person. (The only difference in a pirate and a privateer was sometimes who was in charge politically at the time.) From our vantage point on the walls, we could look down and see replicas of privateer cutters and frigates in the bay. We noticed the narrow streets that zigzagged throughout the town. We climbed downstairs to the ground for a great dinner of crepes and more exploration of the town before heading to bed. (We did make one more foray to the top of the walls to get a glimpse of the sunset over the ocean.) Again, our schedule was flexible so instead of taking the ferry to Dinard, we spent a little more time watching people on the busy streets and visiting the cathedral.

The next morning, we headed to Amboise, our base for the next few days. (There are many towns that can serve as bases for Loire Valley visits, but we like staying in a town where we can walk to restaurants and walk around.)

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