France ~ Brittany + Normandy

22 June 2024

At spectacular Mont St. Michel with spectacular guide Dominique.

From the Dordogne region (see my post here), I took trains north and spent the weekend in Nantes. Then I took trains up to St. Malo to start a week of travel around western "upper" Brittany (Haute-Bretagne) and eastern "lower" Normandy (Basse-Normandie).

As in the Dordogne...,
• the French were most welcoming,
• the villages were charming,
• the food was superb,
• our guide was outstanding, and
• the sites were unforgettable.


Two of my distant grandparents were French Huguenots. Marie Chevalliar Mallott (spellings vary) was born just north of Nantes in 1668 before her family fled the religious wars and moved via England to colonial America.

At a Huguenot settlement in Virginia, she married another French Protestant — Etienne Mallet III — who had arrived in 1699. I just discovered that he was born in Bordeaux, the city I had just visited the previous week.

A pretty weekend in Nantes gave me a chance to see...
  • Around the corner from my austere Mercure hotel was Place Royale, one of the largest downtown squares. It features an ornate statue of King Louis XVI.
  • Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul took centuries to construct but was again under reconstruction during my visit.
  • The unique Passage Pommeraye is an elegant shopping arcade built in the 1840s and adorned with sculptures and ironwork. It has three levels of boutiques, cafes, and an awesome pastry shop.
  • Near the center of Nantes is Château des Ducs de Bretagne, a huge, fortified castle built in the late 1400s.
Nantes had a Pride Parade that was "relatively conservative" with the exception of the fairly small Marxist contingent with "Queers for a Free Palestine" and "from Stonewall to Gaza" signs. The next day the train took me north to join five Americans for the Classic Journey trip around upper Brittany and lower Normandy.

Mont St Michel

Finally got to visit Mont St Michel and it was even more stunning than it had looked in photos.

● Building of this abbey began on top of this rocky island in 708 AD. Lots of construction and reconstruction has followed in the centuries since then.

● As it became a major pilgrimage site, the abbey church was greatly expanded in the 11th century.

● During the Hundred Years' War, the island withstood a 30-year siege by the English, becoming a symbol of French resistance and inspiring Joan of Arc.

● Soon after the (anti-Catholic) French Revolution, the abbey was turned into a prison (1793-1863) and did not start to be fully restored until the 1960s.

● The abbey is currently active but only has about ten monks and nuns.

● About 20,000 people visit Mont St. Michel each day during July and August.

● The island is surrounded by the highest tides in mainland Europe — up to 50 feet (15 meters) between high and low tide!
● At its peak, the sea can recede up to 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the coast before rushing back in!

On a crisp, sunny June day, my long, quiet walk to Mont St. Michel was surprisingly moving... perhaps something about how it remotely rises up out of the tidal flats, its soaring Gothic pinnacles, its conical shape pointing to the golden statue of Archangel Michael, and of course its spiritual role as a major center of religious devotion for over a millennium.

Normandy Beaches

Omaha Beach exactly 80 years and one week after the July 6, 1944, landings on that began the liberation of Europe.

Utah Beach viewed from a monument commemorating the American landing here.

We focused on the Utah and Omaha beaches where Americans went ashore. The whole day was emotional, knowing that this incredible, massive operation launched the ultimate victory over Nazi Germany — but that so many things went wrong, and the invasion came at the cost of the lives of thousands of brave young men.
A part of the Normandy American Cemetery which has nearly 10,000 graves and includes many who died in subsequent battles.

At Omaha beach, our guide Domonique had unexpectedly arranged for a friend of hers to play "Taps." It was a powerful experience and it let us have a personal commemoration of the sacrifices here.

Throughout Normandy we saw American as well as British and Canadian flags, for example in this village Beuvron-en-Auge, As I was getting coffee at the shop above, I thanked the young women for the US flag out front. With no hesitation, one replied, "Of course, you saved us!"

Surprising but heartwarming to see the paratroopers who risked and sometimes lost their lives honored in stained glass windows in French churches. Special stories are behind each of these windows. 

The Normandy beaches have so much to see and delve into that I cannot begin to recount everything here, but I am so glad I had this opportunity to learn so much and to pay my respects.

Villages and More

Sunset on the waterfront at Saint-Malo (the French hyphenate the names of all cities with more than one word) on the coast of the "English Channel" which the French call instead "La Manche." At the far end of this photo, you can glimpse the reconstructed ramparts of the historical medieval city that was rebuilt after WWII.

View of the countryside on a walk by the pretty medieval town of Saint-Suliac. 

Dinan has a somewhat large medieval old town and an especially historic church, along with, because this is still Brittany, many places serving delicious galettes.

On one walk in the Normandy countryside, Dominique took us to see this fantastic old manor house many centuries old and currently under restoration.

Classic Journeys always adds a couple of nights at an over-the-top place. In this case it was Château d'Audrieu, built in 1715 and not too shabby. My room turned out to be in the attic but "c'est la vie."

In Cancale, Mary Margaret Chappell (food editor and writer as well as cooking instructor) taught us — while we laughed throughout — how to make delicious galettes, a specialty of Brittany, basically crepes made with buckwheat. My favorite, the galette complète, adds ham, eggs, and cheese. 

In Honfleur, our fine, fortunate crew with (center with umbrella) dazzling Dominique, historian par excellence, athlete, gastronome, oenophile, equestrienne, and more.
Assembling these highlights reminded me again what an extraordinary and varied week we had. My other three walking trips with Classic Journeys were excellent, especially Puglia, but the week in Brittany and Normandy is the one I most strongly recommend.