Saturday, December 12, 2009

the best of Brittany

And now the urge to explore takes hold. The reports say the skies have cleared for us for a good number of days. That remarkable luck has to be channeled into something grand, something adventurous.

But when I wake up, I hesitate. There is fog. A great thick layer of it.


Still, the predictions are for sunshine. We set out north for Dinard, the holiday town by the sea.

Dinard is only half an hour north, but we are stumbling on our way there. We take the long route out, we can’t find a gas station, we can’t operate the gas pump with our credit cards, there is traffic as we cut through the center of Dinan. If the goal was to be in Dinard bright and early, that has long been replaced with the new of goal of getting to Dinard before the morning is behind us. But it hardly matters. This week, time is fluid. Time is of no consequence.

And on the upside, all that dallying gives the fog time to disperse and disappear into the landscape.


By the time we arrive in Dinard, it is indeed almost noon. We go to a cycle shop where the owner is holding two bikes for us. Half day, he tells us. I’ll only charge you half day. And then, the inevitable question. Where are you from? I think -- isn’t it obvious? Ed, by form alone, exudes America, no? Straight off the football field (though he has never, to my knowledge, held a football), with a few inches added for height and a few years added all around. But even when they hear us speaking English to ourselves, the Bretons are stumped. Denmark? Holland? And when I tell them no, no – it’s the other side of the ocean, the jaw inevitably drops.

I suppose it’s because it’s winter. Dinan and Dinard are not on the typical American tourist map in the mildest of times (Normandy and Mont Saint Michel are the favored northern France destinations). Early December keeps everyone at home. Or at least in Paris.

Me, I couldn’t love this season more. Yes, it can be unpredictable. In past years we’ve had more rain than sunshine. And the days are short. All that’s certainly true. But my semester’s done, the scent of holidays is in the air, the lights twinkle, vacation homes are shuttered and the year-round Bretons come out to fill the cafes and restaurants again. Or almost fill them. There’s always room for you. No reservation required.

And now Monsieur at the cycle shop recalls the one American who rented from him once. I think he was, how do you say it, in the movies? We can’t offer him any such glamorous story to recount at his holiday dinner table, but I am sure he’ll long remember trying to fit Ed onto a bike. In the end, the most comfortable one was a girl’s bike – a somewhat heavy thing with cycle shop ads plastered all over it. Good enough, says Ed, cranking the seat up to its highest position. We pick up snug helmets (here they come with ear muffs!) and yellow vests which are required by law in the countryside at dark and in poor weather. We have neither, of course, but I'm thinking Monsieur is a wise man, who knows Brittany roads and the (low) likelihood of getting anywhere and back before the sun sets on a winter day.

We set out. Half a minute into the ride, I nudge Ed. I still need my café crème. We pull over. A café bar is just there at the corner. I take a few good sips of a hot strong coffee with steaming milk and we're off.

The plan is to take the Green Way south. It’s a road that has been given over to pedestrian and cycle traffic and it stretches for miles and miles, through the Brittany countryside.

But early on I tell Ed we should reconsider. The road is an old rail bed and I have this to say about rail bed trails anywhere: they’re boring. They are straight and without topographical variation. Often they stay close to an auto route. And this one has the added issue of being not paved. At times gravel, at times wet sand, it is tough going!

Ed shrugs. It’s your call, he tells me. Because of the fit, the bike isn’t easy for him on difficult terrain. Here, we have the mud, but off track, we’ll have the hills.

We go off track anyway. We don’t have good maps and Brittany country roads are notoriously difficult to follow (they change numbers for no reason and without warning), but I’m longing for a feeling of true countryside. Of hills and valleys, streams and pastures, of farmsteads and forests.

And indeed, we do get hopelessly lost, but we have all that I so love about this landscape.






On some hills, Ed does what I have never seen him do before (he is a far stronger biker than I am on the inclines) – he gets off the bike and pushes it forward. If I'm to damage my knees, it wont be on this girlie bike, he tells me. I laugh and zip forward. (And I take note that on the busier roads, he stays on the bike even on sharp inclines. Knees notwithstanding, it is perhaps too much to bear to be seen pushing a bike uphill as your female biking partner flies ahead.)

But we do get lost. Repeatedly. By midafternoon, I think we should head back. The air is getting the chill of the receding sun (in general, the temperatures have been in the upper thirties and lower forties throughout the day). I button the last button of my winter coat and wiggle my toes to keep them warm. Ed, of course, bikes without any coat. We respond differently to cold air: I get chilled, he does not.

Heading back. How do you do that? We are passing a small village. There is a large garage-like structure where someone is selling and distributing wines and cider. We go inside and ask for directions.
Where are you from? – he asks.
United States.
Really? Where in the US?
Wisconsin. North of Chicago.
So far? His eyes widen. And you’re here for vacation? For how long? You must explore this land more! It is so beautiful! Just go that way, toward that hill and climb it – you see the whole countryside before you! And then take the coastal road. A little hilly there, but it’s magnifique!
I’m not a fan of great hills...
Oh, but it’s the sport! Courage, courage!

I have heard these words before on our biking through France. They’re shouted at you by the locals as you attempt to navigate the challenging terrain. We are hardly equipped for such challenges now. Still, there is that lure of the beautiful countryside...

I buy a bottle of cider, stick it in my pack and thank the kind man for his encouragement. Allez, allez, he shouts out.

The sun is behind us now as we head back vaguely in the direction of Dinard. Up the hill for the view...


...and onto the hilly coastal road. And it is indeed beautiful.



At one point we abandon our bikes and take a short climb along a coastal path.


The channel and the open sea are before us. The shore alternates between cliffs and sandy coves. This is the coastal Brittany. The one that I can never get enough of.



And now, finally, it is our last big cycling climb. We pass old homes and even older churches...


...and ride into the outskirts of Dinard. At a little square, we take a break. We haven’t eaten anything since before noon and there appear to be a number of shops here.


We pick up pears at the grocer (they’re too good... we get more...) and we survey the bakery options. There are two of them, almost next door to each other. Which one do we try, the pink or the blue? The pink says artisanal! But the blue has pretty tiles on the outside! We go with the blue.


Ed is focused on the mille feuilles.


I pick up a pack of Madelines. To watch him eat that pastry is to know that beneath the "I'll eat anything that's cheap and not a cow" look, the man has a deep appreciation for well prepared food. You have to have another bite! – he tells me. Here, try some with the glaze! And more pastry cream. It is fantastic!

The end of the ride. The bikes are returned, we are driving back to Dinan. The countryside is beautiful now in the pinks and blues of twilight.


You would think that the long ride would have wiped us out enough to keep us from venturing out for dinner. But no. By 8 in the evening I am nudging Ed. Wake up from your nap! There is this terrific dinner place in town!

Up we climb, up the cobbled walk, all the way to a small square in the old city. The windows of the restaurant, Chez la Mere Pourcel, look out on the pretty blue lights of the Christmas tree.


The menu is so appealing that I do not want to decide. I ask for the terroir meal (dishes of the land, picked by the chef): scallops to start with, stewed chicken in a pot, cheeses, and a baked apple dessert.

The restaurant is packed on this night. It’s the pre-Christmas week-end – the waitress tells us. It brings out everyone. To shop? No, to eat of course. Yes, of course.