Wednesday, April 11, 2007

France, or "Bonjour Ya'll!", Part Deux

Bright and early the next morning, we picked up our rental car and headed for the Loire Valley.

That's the succinct, grown-up version of events.

In reality, we stuffed our little Europcar rental with our suitcases and paraphernalia, opened our two ton spiral bound Michelin map book (3 miles = one inch and 400+ pages), and promptly drove the wrong direction through the rental car area ending up in a dead end facing a forty foot concrete wall as a helpful Frenchman motioned us to do a 180 in order to exit the lot.

Not our best start, and unfortunately prophetic.

French highways all have a number and letter. A4, D286, N42, etc. When you are looking at a map made by French people, you can find these numbers next to the line that represents the road.


If the area is busy, with lots of intersecting roads, they just leave the route numbers off.

No problem, you think, we'll just follow the road signs.


France considers road signs "frills". Not that there aren't beaucoup signs on all the roads, giving all kinds of information, but none of the information is uniform (e.g. D982 will list Lillebonne and St. Arnoult, then at the next exit/roundabout D982 will list two completely different cities. Further on, the route number will be gone and the cities will have become some combination of the original four- but rarely the one you are headed for).

There is not a single sign in France that says "A4 East" or "D186 North". Geographical direction is a useless concept to French drivers, apparently. So if you are on one freeway and want to switch to another, you must know your French geography very very well because you will be given a choice between "A4 Rouen" and "A4 Lille" and you'd darn well better know which city is where because if you don't your navigator will be frantically thumbing through the city index desperately trying to find the cities in question and determine which one is, indeed, East- the direction in which we would like to go.

Add to this our complete lack of French language skills and it's a true wonder we aren't sitting in some French incarnation of a Mayberry RFD Pokey trying to explain to the local gendarmarie why we were driving aimlessly in the wrong direction on a well signposted no trespassing property.

So. We left Charles DeGaulle airport on the north east side of Paris and attempted to take the outer belt to the south west side. We managed to exit the city fairly near our target after a confusing and rapid introduction to the aforementioned road maps and signage.

Just as we relaxed a little and started to breathe normally, we passed a large blue road sign that said a lot of stuff we didn't understand, but enough stuff we did understand to let us know that we were headed for a toll booth.

PEAGE. (a conjugated form of "pay up")

Whoops! How much?

Don't know. There are no signs, French or otherwise.

In another burst of panicked activity, we begin emptying pockets and wallets into a central tray on the console hoping to have enough money to proceed. As I'm counting up our Euro coins Ted says,

"Oh. They just want us to take a ticket."

Disaster averted for the time being, but what do we do with all this adrenalin???

Onward to our first chateau in the Loire Valley, a place liberally peppered with chateaux. We had read about Chambord and decided it was the place for us- the largest chateau in the whole valley, built for Francois I (or II, I forget) and used heavily by many aristocrats and a couple more kings since then.

This is the first view you get of it...

Pretty cool, huh? Your admission price gets you access to the chateau and grounds so you can just wander all over, inside and out, until you are Chateau-ed out. And we did.

From the inside, this is one of the views of the grounds...

This is the double spiral staircase inside- one of Leonardo Da Vinci's ideas. People going up one spiral can pass people going down the other spiral.

Really, really cool.

At the top of the spiral staircase, you can look straight down to the people on the ground floor...

That's five people down at the bottom with no premonition of loogey danger.

Silly people.

Lucky for them we are over our need to spit off high things.

When we finished wandering Chambord, we headed out to Amboise to see the last house Da Vinci lived in. He was buddies with the French King and they had a tunnel between Leo's house and the palace so they could visit without mixing with the hoi polloi.

Then for a total change of pace, we headed off to find the Stones of Carnac. The French call them "The Alignments". They are large randomly shaped stones, arranged in fields, and they go on for miles. Like this...

We love this stuff.

No one knows what they are. What they are for. Who used them. Or even who put them there.

But they are way too orderly to be an accident and they have occasional crypts along their edges- the significance of which no one knows either.

We just wandered along wondering and speculating and marveling.

They are older than Stonehenge, yet we had never heard of them before. Just sitting there in Brittany, almost to the coast, all lined up with no one to use them because no one knows what the heck they are for.

You can't make this stuff up.

All this cool sightseeing was broken up by our inept attempts to navigate French highways and backroads, our frantic scrambling for money when toll roads suddenly end without any indication of the cost until the toll booth lady says the numbers in incomprehensibly fast French, and lots of really good food.

On the toll roads, since you naturally have to stay on them until they end, there are
occasional rest stops with gas stations and restaurants. These are exactly what you expect them to be- gasoline, toilet, convenience store, diner type restaurant.

We loaded up on the garbage kind of food you get at the On The Move stores in the U.S. - packaged sandwiches, pre-packaged cheese and crackers, little bowls of fruit or pasta or green salad, and cans of Coke.

Except it wasn't garbage. It was delicious. The sandwiches were fresh and full of flavor and special touches, the cheese was to die for, the pasta salad had tons of little fresh shrimps in it, I'm telling you- the French really, really get food.

And as we ate and navigated our way through it all, the French people we dealt with were uniformly kind and patient and cheerful. No one ignored our pathetic attempts to speak French, no one refused to speak English if they were able, we were applauded when we got things right and gently guided when we simply didn't comprehend. It was true in Paris- it was true in Brittany, and later in the week it was true in Normandy.

Maybe all the rude French people are in the south. Or maybe it's a big lie concocted to keep crowds away. But France, as in most everywhere we go, people are friendly and helpful and willing to laugh with us as we bumble around.

We bumbled our way to a place called Mont St. Michel which is a monastery/cum fort/cum prison with the attending medieval village surrounding it.


(and by the way, they really do say Voila! all the time- when they finish doing something, or set something in front of you or anytime they want to punctuate an action they yell VOILA!)

The island is in the middle of a tidal flat that has such surging tides the water moves faster than a horse can run when it comes in and goes out. Hence this sign at the entry...

click on the picture to make it bigger and you can read the warning in your language of choice!

...telling you in no less than five languages that if you parked where the Ps are, your car will be swept away on the incoming tide. A helpful board nearby lets you know when that incoming tide will be so you can plan you time accordingly. We had five hours.

Here is the view from the base of the island...

And here is the view looking back the same direction from about 2/3 of the way to the top of the monastery...

It's a wild and crazy place. Narrow walkways, millions of stairs, houses, buildings, stores, cemeteries, gardens. And wind like nobody's business. Cooper was thrilled to face the wind and lean forward about 20 degrees without falling on his face.

Forget the history, forget the architecture, forget the views - you could lean into the wind without falling over. And he'll proudly tell you that was the best part of Mont St. Michel.

After that, we found a place to spend the night and next morning we found a perfect little village called Honfleur.

Honestly- could you resist this? We sat at a Cafe near the green awning on the left side and ate Croque Monsieurs. It rocked.

Then we headed off for the Normandy coast across this bridge...

Next time, more adventures in Normandy!