One of the most magical places I visited as a 17-year-old AFS exchange student in Normandy, was Le Mont St Michel. This walled village, snaking up to an abbey at the top, was built on a rock in a tidal bay over several centuries beginning in 708.
The bay has the greatest tide variations in Europe, rising as much as 15 m over six hours. The surrounding countryside is completely flat, so the village rises like a mirage and is visible from far and wide.
There is so much history here. The English laid siege to it three times during the 100 year war and was the only place in western and northern France not to fall. It became a prison after the revolution, then a monastery again and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The boys loved visiting the house of the 14th century knight Bertrand du Guesclin – and I loved that his wife was a famous astrologer, who foretold destinies with the stars and had her own active life while he was away doing knightly things. I wasn’t so keen on the chastity belt on display though.
It has grown significantly in popularity since my last visit (admittedly in winter, 1992) – there are now acres of parking, shuttlebuses, a hotel, exhibitions and a visitor’s centre on the approaching plains – but the village and abbey remains a wonderful place to wander with all its staircases and passageways.
And of course, according to the boys, the highlight of such an epic day was…. Spider Cow. Go figure. Forget Paris. We could have just gone to Morrinsville.
This time we were back at the campground by about 3pm, leaving plenty of time for the pool and ‘happy hour’ – finally hitting the rhythm we hope to strike for most of the holiday. Perfect.
The next day we left Brittany behind, heading for La Vendée. This day had been set aside for travel and administrative things – mobile phone SIM cards, and necessary purchases. When I looked at the map I realized it would take us pretty close to the house where I spent my time on student exchange, in the department of Mayenne
Although I lost touch with the family almost 20 years ago, with the wonder that is Google I was able to discover that my host father had made the newspapers for inventing a flying motorcycle, the first in the world that can take to the skies added by a parapenting motor, and then drive legally home along the roads.
In the article, he expressed his glee when he drove down to the gendarmerie and they had to register it as a regular motorcycle, as no other vehicle class applied. Yes, I smiled to myself, that’s him.
I sent an email before we left NZ, but received no reply, so we decided to take our chances and knock on the door. I’d told Simon I lived in an isolated Normandy village (a shock at the time, for a city-bred teenager used to coming and going as she pleased) but even he was surprised when the SatNav led us down single track country lanes and in some cases, right through a farmyard.
Eventually we found the front door of their barn conversion, in a tiny group of three at a country crossroads, though very little looked familiar except the front door. Happily, the parents Joseph and Thérèse were home. They had not checked their email in weeks, have no landline, and little mobile coverage, so it was just as well we popped in as they wouldn’t have received my messages. They invited us in and did a loaves-and-fishes style expansion of their lunch for three, to feed eight instead.
They speak no English, so it was a bit hard on the kids, and I did a lot of translating, but it was a very enjoyable afternoon and they were, once again, generous hosts. Had we been able to stay, Joseph offered to take Simon up in his ‘moto volante’ that evening, provided there was not a breath of wind. Alas we couldn’t stay, but we all got to sit on it and hear his story of creating it.
We didn’t get to see their daughters, who were at work, but we have swapped details and hope to catch up later in our stay. It was fun to show the kids where I had lived and learned my French.
Alas, we had to get moving, as we had a date….