When we bought our little piece of Paris, our plan was not only to get to know Paris as a city, but to explore its surroundings whenever we got the chance. France’s high-speed rail network makes it possible to cover large distances. Within two hours we were in the heart of Brittany and a world away from the roar of Paris.
We picked up a car in Rennes and set off north towards the coast, eager for our first glimpse of the iconic Mont St-Michel*. The tide was out when we arrived. Wide stretches of cracked seabed and shallow pools of water made it difficult to believe that just a few hours earlier the island would have been surrounded by sea, 15 metres deep. The view is breathtaking. Built high on a small island (or is it a peninsula?), the spikey spires of the medieval abbey soar over the sands, mysterious and grand.
You can only get so close by car. A quite lovely, newly-built walkway takes you the last few kilometres out to the island. The first part of the walk is lined with photos of Mont St-Michel at different times of the year – bathed in morning light, or floating in evening mist – tempting visitors back to experience the ever-changing view. A free shuttle bus ferries tourists back and forth but I’d recommend walking and watching the ramparts, buildings and spires get closer and clearer on the slow approach.
While the view is ethereal and serene, inside the walls was a different story. On a beautiful day in July, the place was jam-packed with tourists. Content with having experienced the unforgettable view, we made a hasty retreat and headed on to St-Malo where we would spend the night.
Brittany is not famed for its fair weather but we were there in the middle of a welcome heatwave. The beach in St Malo was wide and sandy; filled with holiday makers swimming, playing and enjoying the early evening sun. The town itself is pretty and bustling with crêperies and seafood restaurants. The oysters at Brasserie du Lion d’Or were the best I have eaten; sweet, juicy, salty deliciousness. This restaurant not only draws its produce from the Atlantic Sea, but also from Brittany’s rich farmland. Huge hinds of cow hang near the entrance. The entrecôte was cooked to perfection.
The sunset on the northern coast of France seemed to go on forever. The sun started setting around 9.00 pm and finally sank below the horizon just after 10.00 pm: the sky went from champagne pink to fiery orange, to pale purple streaked with gold.
The next day we were ready to hit the road again. The 30 minute drive to Dinan is lush, green and crowded with cows and apples (we got stuck behind more than one combine harvester). I’ve visited a lot of French villages in my time and I think Dinan might be the prettiest of them all. The heavy ramparts conceal quaint, medieval, cobbled perfection. The steep Rue Jerzual takes the scenic route through the town from the medieval centre to the old port. Take your time and peak into all of the little shops, cafes and galleries along the way. You’ll want to stroll at an even more leisurely pace on the way back up and then keep on going to the top of the ramparts for a postcard perfect view of the rooftops, gardens, wells and river below.
Our next days were spent relaxing with friends further South in Brittany, in the Benodet area. We then had one evening in lively, studenty Rennes, before jumping on the fast train back to Paris. Brittany has everything we were looking for in a mini-break from the city: sun, sea and sand; fresh seafood; charming villages and countryside; friendly people and the jewel in the crown – Mont St-Michel, the memory of which lingers in my mind as one of the most magnificent sights I’ve seen on my travels to date.
*Mont St Michel is actually in Normandy, not Brittany, but only by a couple of kilometers.