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Bretagne, September 2007

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In September 2007, I took a small group to Bretagne (Brittany). We flew into Paris, rented a van and set off via the lower portion of Normandie in the direction of Alençon. We stopped along the way and had lunch at what turned out to be a trucker's lunch stop in a small village for an excellent buffet lunch. A pleasant surprise! We spent the night at Le Relais des Etangs de Guibert, an old refurbished house on a small étang (lake). Each room was uniquely furnished and had a small decanter of homemade, locally grown prune wine with small wine glasses awaiting each guest. A nice touch at the end of a long flight and drive. This was one of our favorite places!

Bretagne is spread out and to see everything in the region I had arranged eight hotel reservations in different areas for our 12-day trip. None of us knew whether we would like this arrangement or not, but it turned out that we all enjoyed the intrigue of a new hotel room almost everyday as they were all different and pleasantly unique. Everyone packed lightly so that living out of a suitcase was not too difficult.

Our first morning we visited Alençon which is the lace-making capital of the region, touring very briefly the lace museum as they closed promptly at noon for lunch, and strolled through the town. Then we headed for Mont Saint Michel and on the way made a stop in Fougères, strolling around the medieval castle. This town is definitely worth a stop on anyone's agenda.

Mont Saint Michel is an amazing sight. To see it off in the distance, growing larger as you approach it, is a magical experience. The tides were out when we were there and it was fascinating to see how far out the tides really go. People were out walking on the sand around the Mont and to think that in just a matter of days it would all be covered with water. We timed it so that at noon we were in the chapel at the top in time for daily mass, and the music and voices were very spiritual. Of course we had crêpes and cidre for lunch. We stayed that night in one of the last hotels approaching the causeway. Our dinner in the hotel restaurant that evening gave us the show of our lives - Mont Saint Michel lighting up as darkness fell around it. A magical experience!

The next day we drove to Dinan and it was market day. The market takes over a portion of the walled town and resembles a flee market until you get to the food area. The cheeses, the olives, the sausages, the chickens and ducks with their heads still attached, the pigs' feet and heads grilled to perfection, the huge pans of paella with all the wonderful shellfish were all in their glory. That night we stayed in a gorgeous manor house, Manoir de Rigourdaine, which the owner refurbished from a very primitive state to the luxurious place it is today. This was another one of our favorite places.

Our next stop was Saint Malo where we stayed and spent a full day wandering the walled city with quaint cobble-stoned streets and photographing all the wonderful, unique signs that hung above each and every shop and restaurant. Even the manhole covers were art pieces! We stayed at the Hotel Nautilus which is a cute place just inside the main gate. A couple of our rooms were small but quaint located in the attic part of the hotel. A walk around the entire walled area is easy to do and the view out over the water was wonderful.

The following day we went to Dinard just across the Rance River where it was also market day, and the place was bustling. You could get just about anything there. The food hall was filled with freshly caught fish (their eyes glistening), shellfish, lobsters, sea snails, mussels and oysters, huge produce, small wild strawberries, red currents, blackberries, sausages and salami, cheese by the dozens, bakery goods (Far Breton and Kouign Amann), and butter by the pound. Colorful tablecloths hung everywhere along with hats, scarves, stockings, and baskets. A one-man, old man band played his accordion, cymbal and tambourine to add to the color of the market. It was a beautiful day, so we ate lunch outside on the beach front. A couple in the group ate a sandwich made on a half baguette with 2 hot dogs and French fries - yes, everything in the sandwich!

We left Saint Malo and drove toward Brest. We stopped along the way in Morlaix. Many of the houses are half-timbered adding to the charm. We heard someone practicing their violin through the lace curtain windows as we strolled in the light rain. We drove in the rain to Brest to visit friends of mine who invited us to have crèpes and cidre at their home. They are now both 80 years old and had welcomed me to Bretagne 33 years ago, so it was a very touching reunion. Afterward we drove to the coast to the small fishing village of Portsall where we had another lovely B&B, La Demeure Océane. I would also recommend this charming home to stay in. An array of their private collections made it seem like a small museum.

The following day the sun was back making the drive along the coast a breathtaking experience. We stopped in another cute fishing town, Camaret-sur-Mer, for a delicious seafood lunch. We followed along the coast to the La Pointe de Toulinguet, one of the furthest points out on the Breton coast. Heading inland we came upon the menhirs, which are stone formations which appear to be randomly placed across the countryside. Most people think of these in Stonehenge, England but these formations are abundant in Bretagne.

On to our anticipated stop, the city of Quimper. The city was full of blooming flowers and the old walled city was charming with cobble-stoned streets, colorful boutiques, cute restaurants and a beautiful cathedral. Our main purpose in this city was to go to the HB Henriot pottery factory, which has been in the same location since its inception in 1690. The tour was fascinating and we were able to see the artists and painters at work. The factory store was better than any candy store! Yes, our credit cards got a workout too.

We were fast approaching the end of our trip. The next day we toured the medieval city of Concarneau which is one of France's largest fishing ports. We toured the market hall which is just outside the walled city. We drove on to Pont Aven which was a painting paradise for Paul Gauguin. It is a charming little town set on the Aven River and everywhere you look a photo is waiting to be taken.

Chartres was our final stop to see the beautiful cathedral. The two steeples are both unique from different periods of time and the stained glass windows are the most beautiful of any. The labyrinth was covered with chairs so not easily seen and impossible to walk on. We also toured an amazing house and garden, La Maison Picassiette, completely covered with tile and mosaics. This is one man's creation after 26 years of devoted work. Another wonderful curiosity not to miss if you ever go to Chartres.

This was a marvelous 12-day trip with a wonderful group of people. These small intimate tours have been fun for me to plan and lead, and I'm already planning and anticipating the next trip.


Contact me at sara@villat.org or at (925) 691-4559.