“In town, there was silence bled into by whispered talk” – Elizabeth Hay, Alone in the Classroom
Today is the day I finally return to my retelling of the trip I took to France with my Dad back in 2015. Fingers crossed I can actually finish this story in a timely fashion! The last travelogue took me, what, a few years? In an attempt to get this done in a timely manner…this post is a long one. Fair warning.
Recommitting to writing for what feels like the 1000th time isn’t easy but, hey, it’s bound to stick sometime. At least that’s what I keep telling myself every time I miss a day of writing for whatever reason. One of my resolutions this year was to try to put less pressure on myself when it comes to achieving non-essential goals. My husband will tell you I consistently keep a daily to-do list of more than 10 things I want to achieve, which would be fine if I didn’t get anxious, stressed and incredibly emotional when I don’t achieve each and every one of these goals. Since these negative feelings are often accompanied with a whole heck of a lot of self-criticism, I’m trying to make it easier for me to achieve my goals as a way to feel more accomplished and less self-critical. And if I don’t achieve one or more of the things on my list one day, or even several days in a row, so be it! I mean, I am a new mom and only human, for goodness sake.
All this to say, this is me attempting to return to a weekly post on here at a minimum. I can’t promise I’ll achieve this every week, but you better believe I’m going to try. And if it doesn’t happen? I’m not going to beat myself up. I hope you, dear reader, won’t be too disappointed either.
So, back to France, then.
Our second full day in France started off on a much more relaxing note than the previous one as we had tried not to overpack our day this time. Tried being the operative word. Well, I for one was relaxed at the breakfast table as I thoroughly enjoyed the treat of a breakfast made up of more pastries than I care to admit. Dad, on the other hand, was up and at ’em the second he had scarfed down a few morsels of food – and people say I can’t sit still!
After I was finally done with my leisurely breakfast, we headed straight up the coast for St. Malo again, though this time we were only going as far as Jacques Cartier’s house.
Due in no small part to my leisurely breakfast, we were about 15 minutes late for the 10AM tour start time (they only gave 2 tours a day, at 10 and at 2). Thankfully, we were also the only ones there so starting late wasn’t a problem! I would have at least felt a little bad had my need to savour my food interfered with one of our main activities for the day…
The tour itself was quite interesting, despite the fact that I couldn’t always understand the woman’s French. I have been working on my second language more and more since I met my husband, and I think I have made great strides, but as this trip occurred just after we met in the fall of 2015, I hadn’t yet had the same amount of practice by this point. It didn’t help that the tour guide spoke very quietly in an almost breathless voice and some of her vocabulary was completely unfamiliar to me. I think I caught most of it though, from what I remember.
Although the interior of the house was completely reconstructed (the house was owned by farmers for a while before being bought and turned into a Jacques Cartier Museum), it was still fascinating to get an idea of how the man I had learnt so much about in school might have lived in the 16th century.
Some points of interest included an early globe which had no Americas on it whatsoever! Just an ocean between Europe and Asia. Such an odd thing to see your entire continent erased, as if it never existed. And to think there were vast populations of humans living out their lives on these continents while completely oblivious to the existence of other communities, cities and nations on the other side of the ocean. If only their eventual interactions could have begun and continued more peacefully. I wonder what Jacques Cartier would think of the great triumphs and tragedies that would follow his exploration of what he saw as a New World…
The tour did not, however, focus exclusively on Jacques Cartier: explorer. It also included some intriguing tidbits of everyday life in his time. For one, we learnt that children were never allowed to speak at the dinner table in the 16th century. For someone who was quite the precocious child, this is hard to believe. I’m not sure my parents could have enforced this rule if they tried! The rule that one has to step away from the table to pass gas, however, now that I could get behind.
Before leaving the Museum, I picked up a poster version of one of Cartier’s maps that now holds pride of place in our living room. I would say my tendency to collect maps along with my love of a good meal gives me a lot in common with hobbits but, then, my need to travel somewhat takes away from this claim, does it not?
We left straight from the Museum to beautiful Dinan which overlooks a river just south of St. Malo. Basically, all I knew about it was that the picture in Dad’s travel book looked pretty, and it had an old cathedral (I’m a sucker for old architecture – not that this is difficult to come by in Europe). Have you ever chosen a destination based solely on a short photo and tantalizing description? If not, try it out some time. You never know what you’ll discover; the moment we stepped out of the parking lot in Dinan, for example, we knew we had found something truly special.
As Dad and I are the roaming type of tourists who prefer to see where our legs take us than to plan too thoroughly in advance or rely too much on public transit, we eschewed the conveniently-placed town map and instead opted to walk until we came upon something interesting. Within minutes, we had stumbled upon a thousand-year-old church. Magnificent. The interior columns alone, which made me think of something out of Harry Potter, were worth the visit. They soared towards the ceiling, towers of stone that defy gravity. How long would it have taken to construct these monstrosities without modern technology? The mind reels.
This church also held some kind of relic though I never noted which one it was and I certainly cannot remember all these years later. I didn’t even write down the name of the church! The researcher in me is shuddering with disappointment. I do, however, remember the chilling memorial to the men lost in the World Wars. Every single one of these memorials stay with me to this day, all these years later. So many lost souls, wasted in combat. The only silver lining is that Dinan seems to have escaped damage during the wars, which is a blessing. If only the conflicts could have similarly spared her citizens.
After spending some time silently contemplating another overlong list of war dead, we decided to wander through the medieval streets for a while, gazing up at the tudor-era houses which hung into the sidewalks at precarious angles. It was all so beautiful, I can still remember wondering how so many of these houses were still standing – they looked far from structurally sound, as if Tim Burton was directing a movie about Henry VIII. I’d watch it!
Next came another church (never enough churches!), this one Romanesque complete with a soaring nave and impressively ornate carvings inside. Much like the last church, this one was breathtaking – if in a different form. There is truly nothing like walking through an ancient building, closing one’s eyes for a moment to take it in using all one’s senses, and imagining all of the lives that have been lived and experiences within its walls. Everywhere one visits has seen so much of humanity – I wish I could watch it all like one long movie. But alas, walls can’t truly talk, can they?
Tearing ourselves away from the hushed pathways of the church as more of the city was begging to be explored, we came across a precariously-leaning clock tower that looked straight out of The Sword and the Stone. Again, I couldn’t help but wonder how it was still standing!
Just as we were about to leave, I remembered the view we had come for in the first place so we moseyed on over to some 10th century ramparts that overlooked the river and the valley below. The sheer drop was as terrifying as it was beautiful. As Dad said, the strategy of visiting a place on a whim had once again paid off. I would love to return some day.
After all of this time spent somewhere built entirely by man, a little nature was in order prompting us to drive up to the Northern Coast. It was a long slog (again, I repeat, European roads are nothing like North American ones…heed my warning!) but we were promised it would be worth it. We had to play quite a few tricks on the GPS to take us to where we wanted to go but, finally, we alighted at our destination: the Cote de Granite Rose.
Though not the sheer cliffs Dad and I were expecting, the wilderness of the Coast of Brittany was unforgettable in its untameable ferocity. Thankfully, we had reached the cliffs right around sunset so they really were the rose of legend – a sight I most certainly captured on camera…if I could only find my photos!
On the way back we stopped at, you guessed it, another old church on a hillside and took in another no-less saddening memorial to the war dead. I can’t even remember the name of the town now, it was so small. And yet…the list was so long. How did these towns survive not one but two wars while suffering so many casualties? At least this one did, how many of them never recovered?
I had come to expect long lists of wartime casualties wherever we went. One sight I really wasn’t expecting, however, was that of a cross in memory of a 23-year-old priest who was murdered somewhere in China while trying to protect his parish from a mob determined to wipe out all remnants of Christianity in their country. Dad nodded knowingly at this but it was a period and location in history totally unknown to me. My knowledge of the history of China is woefully inadequate, but how is one supposed to learn all of the history of humankind in one lifetime? I hope I’m improving my knowledge one day at a time but I know I tend to focus more on North American and Western European history than anything else. Maybe it’s about time I broaden my horizons.
RIP Paul Henry
However, my history lessons were not done for the day. Next stop: Treguier, where I was to be taught yet another lesson in the immense complexity of humanity as a species.
Treguier is an old corsair town on the Northwestern coast of France, which had served as both our gateway to the granite coast and our replacement for Roscoff. We didn’t spend long there as it was getting dark but we did wander into … another church! This time an impressive looking Gothic one.
It was haunting to walk around its largely pitch-black interior with the only lighting coming from the occasional candles burning in the various side chapels. Though, I suppose, this is how the church would have been seen before electricity flooded every dark alcove with stark light. Even in the relative darkness I was able to find another relic, this time a ‘heart’ of a saint who died in 1712. Curiously, the plaque claimed that the heart was reburied in this church in 2007. How could a human organ last so long? Who knows really. Perhaps it was a miracle.
This wasn’t my historical lesson, however. My lesson came during one last look about the town before heading home for the evening. Finding an old cemetery behind the church, we decided to take a look as my fascination with cemeteries rivals my love of old churches (as detailed in this post). As it was dark, we couldn’t explore it too thoroughly but I took another turn through the rows upon rows of graves anyway to kill time as Dad headed down the street to find a washroom. I’m ever glad I did.
Taking a closer look at the cemetery gates, I noticed that there were not only local war dead buried there, but also a dozen or so German soldiers as well. Though I was able to find the French graves easily enough, it took our combined efforts once Dad had returned to track down the German ones. Finally, there they were, a dozen nondescript graves in a row, the final resting places of men who would have been considered Brittany’s enemies.
I had no idea why they were there, I didn’t think the Western Front ever got that far, but it struck me nonetheless. Here they lay, side-by-side with the men and women whose country they attempted to shatter beyond recall, even if they were only acting under orders. What better symbol of the futility of war is there.
Standing by their graves, Dad and I speculated why they might have been laid to rest in enemy territory. As the silence of the graveyard bled into our whispered talk we decided to leave this mystery for another day; it was time to head back to our beds so as to have enough energy to tackle the next day’s explorations.
We left the cemetery with more questions than answers but isn’t that always how it goes with history? No matter how much we discover and learn, we will never be able to answer all of our questions about the past. We shall forever have to satisfy ourselves with the glimpses we are allowed. After all, a little knowledge is better than nothing at all.
I’ll be back next week with another tale of France. I hope, dear reader, you’ll join me again.
Until then, remember, life is beautiful.