Driving Good Roads of Normandy and Brittany
The French do two things superlatively. One is cook, which makes dining in France a treat. The other is build roads, which makes driving trips through France a delight.
There’s no trick to driving in France. You only have to speak a few words of the language and, contrary to what you may have heard, the French are helpful and cordial to tourists.
My wife and I have found that a prudent rule for French motor trips is never to drive in the chaotic metropolitan traffic of Paris, so we picked up our car at Charles de Gaulle Airport in the suburb of Roissy-en-France.
The trip we planned began with a one-night stop in Vernon, just 50 miles from Paris and close to Giverny to see Monet’s restored home and gardens. That was followed by a 70-mile leg and a three-night stopover in the Calvados section of Normandy at Honfleur, a charming old town on the Seine estuary.
From Honfleur we drove to Dinard, 1,870 miles south and just inside the Brittany border. From Dinard we cut across the Brittany peninsula, from the channel coast to the Atlantic, and headquartered at this small town called Moelan-sur-Mer.
We like the hub-and-spoke technique for touring by car--head for a logical stopping point, stick around for a while and make side trips.
The French Impressionist painters held their first organized meeting at Honfleur in 1862, assembling at the St. Simeon Inn, which is where we stayed.
Now called the Ferme St. Simeon et Son Manoir, it is one of the most popular of the Relais & Chateaux group of French luxury inns, with comfortable accommodations and a superb restaurant. There is a permanent waiting list for reservations. Expect to pay upward of $100 for a double.
If you’re a World War II veteran who served in Europe, as I did, driving past the apple orchards that dot the hilly, rugged Normandy countryside will recall the fierce fighting that took place between the hedgerows. But today the apple orchards remind you that this is Calvados country. Signs everywhere identify producteurs of cider and Calvados.
Non-teetotalers should try Calvados apple brandy, but in the evening, after the day’s driving. The best Calvados, which aficionados contend rivals the finest Cognac, is produced by small farmers who sell it directly to better hotels and restaurants.
We particularly liked Dives-sur-Mer, half an hour’s drive from Honfleur. Now a city of 6,200, in 1066 it was a large and important port. It was from Dives that William, Duke of Normandy, later known as William the Conqueror, led 12,000 Norman knights and foot soldiers across the Channel to conquer England.
En route to Dinard we visited Bayeux to see its famous treasure, Queen Matilda’s Tapestry, which tells the story of William’s conquest and is considered, says Michelin, “the most precise and living document to come down to us from the Middle Ages, giving graphic details of the clothes, ships, arms and customs of the period.”
Crosses and Stars
During the same day we took the shore road to wander over part of Omaha Beach and walk through the American Cemetery at St. Laurent with its 9,386 Carrara marble crosses and Stars of David.
Dinard, a modern French resort city with a wide crescent beach, sits on an estuary of the Rance River, facing the 6th-Century walled city of St. Malo. St. Malo was left in ruins after a furious battle in August, 1944, but has been faithfully restored.
Our small family-run hotel in Dinard, the Reine Hortense, formerly a Belle Epoque mansion of a Russian prince, was unusual. Marcel and Marie-Helene Benoist bought the beachside three-story residence, which had been built in 1900, for their private use in 1973 and turned it into a hotel in 1977.
The Reine Hortense has eight rooms, two suites and no restaurant, although an excellent continental breakfast is served. Our comfortable double room, with a terrace overlooking the beach, cost about $100, somewhat high for the physical accommodations, but after a couple of days we felt as if we were part of the family.
The lack of a restaurant turned out to be a minor blessing. Many recognized eating establishments are across the bay in St. Malo, and the one we liked best was the Prieure. A superb seafood dinner cost less than $20. The assiette de fruits de mer , every conceivable variety of shellfish artfully arranged on a huge platter, was formidable.
An hour east of Dinard is the incredible fortress, abbey and village of Mont St. Michel. Our most moving experience there was seeing it come into view over the horizon, in the mist and the mottled sunlight, as we drove toward it. The worst part was visiting it on a weekend when, it seemed, half of France was also there.
The differences between Normandy and Brittany become more apparent when you leave the English Channel and head west into Brittany. Inland, Brittany is devoted almost completely to farming and you drive past neatly cared-for fields of vegetables and see cattle grazing near the road.
The Brittany coast, however, is wild and rocky, with craggy cliffs and small harbors. The coastal beaches have long been a favorite of summer visitors and after the Riviera, this area is the most popular vacation region for the French.
Our stopping place was the Moulins du Duc in Moelan-sur-Mer, a luxurious country hotel built around an ancient mill wheel. Its old woodshed, cowshed and other farm buildings, set among landscaped ponds and gardens, have been transformed into luxurious cottages.
The Indoor Market
A Relais & Chateau member, the restaurant boasts a Michelin star. Our cottage cost about $80, in comparative terms a real bargain, and meals for two with wine were around $50.
Up the coast in Quimper, a city of 60,000 with narrow lanes and restored medieval buildings, don’t miss the indoor market at Place Saint-Francois. It has the sights, sounds and products of rural Brittany. Long tables are covered with vegetables, fruits, flowers, eggs, butter, cheeses, meat and poultry. The fish stalls (the province is France’s principal source of seafood) are fascinating. Look for the grotesque but delectable St. Pierre fish and make a point to order it when you see it on a Breton menu.
Quimper’s faience pottery is considered the finest in France and is sold in shops around the main square.
Quiberon, 70 miles south of Quimper, is an attractive, small beach town with a fishing port that leads to the Cote Sauvage, the savage or unfriendly coast that extends 11 miles around the tip of the Quiberon Peninsula.
We stopped to explore small sandy beaches and cliffs, rocky and pitted with caves, crevasses and inlets through which the pounding waves rush and roar.
Try the fast-food establishments of Brittany, the creperies that serve Breton crepes of every sort, including brown ones made from buckwheat. The best we had on the whole trip were in the creperie on the beach in Quiberon, crisp, light and delicious.
At Carnac, near Quiberon, are the prehistoric megaliths or standing stones of Carnac. Called by art critic John Russell “the world’s first and greatest sculpture gardens,” there are more than a thousand of the vertical gray stones, from 1 to 12 feet high. Unlike other relics of prehistory such as Stonehenge, these are not fenced in nor have they ever been vandalized or stolen. You just park at the roadside and wander freely among them.
A Small Restaurant
But vacations do have to end. Returning on the E3 autoroute from Brittany to Paris, we decided to stop at the small city of Laval for lunch. We parked in the town square, strolled down a shop-lined little walking street and selected a small restaurant called Le Bistro de Paris. There, in a city barely known by American tourists, we found the most attractive eating establishment we encountered on our trip.
At 67 Rue du Val de Mayenne on a narrow street closed to cars, Guy Lemercier has constructed a lace-curtained, jewel box of a small, elegant, one-star nouvelle cuisine restaurant. We had the luncheon menu, a melon and grapefruit salad followed by a small steak in a light sauce, and, for dessert, a marquise au chocolat , an iced mousse that itself was worth the $20 prix fixe. It was one of the best and certainly the most beautifully served meals we had in France.
A day later we gave the car back. We had driven about 1,300 miles in 12 days. The car rental was $454 plus $100 spent for gasoline. For $46 a day, we had the freedom to go where we chose, stay as long as we pleased, do as much or as little as we wished, change plans on a whim and eat lunch at Le Bistro de Paris in Laval.
Remember the word peage. When you see it on a road sign, it means you’re on a toll road and that sooner or later you’ll come to a toll plaza and be socked the equivalent of several dollars for the privilege of driving on the French limited-access autoroutes.
When driving in France, except when you’re speeding along the autoroutes, forget the conventional California relationship of time to distance. Two hours does not automatically translate into 100 miles. Thirty-five miles an hour is more like it.