Through the North

Caen Cathedral
Caen Cathedral

From Paris, we arrived in Caen last week, a small city in Normandy. We stayed in a tiny 18th-century bed and breakfast called the Hotel St. Etienne. Out walking the streets in the evening, we found a small bar where a two-woman band was performing: guitar and cello. A local crowd cheered them on, and we snacked on peanuts and olives with our beer. Afterwards, we walked into a small, bustling restaurant, but were refused for not having a reservation. So instead, we ended up down the road a bit, where we feasted on shrimp and crab risotto; cauliflower soup with diced, smoked duck liver; steamed fish; and fillet of pork. Later on we enjoyed a slice pear pie from a patisserie. Delicious!

Caen Castle
Caen Castle

In the morning we looked for a bus to Bayeux, closer to the coast, from which we intended to visit the D-Day beaches. But our planning was a little off, and our guidebook a bit outdated. The bus we were counting on had been discontinued, and we ended up walking across town with our luggage, no taxi in sight, from the bus station to the train station. Arriving in Bayeux later than expected, we then found the hostel we’d planned on staying at was full, and spent another hour wandering the streets until we found a room. It was then near the end of the day, and we had reservations in another town the following evening, leaving us no time for the beach. This was regrettable, but we found a site celebrating another legendary battle: the Bayeux Tapestry, woven nearly a thousand years ago, commemorates the Norman invasion of England in 1066. After our viewing, we bought a bottle of champagne and whiled away an hour sitting by an old mill, its waterwheel still turning after several centuries.

The next day we were off to Dinan, leaving Normandy for Brittany. But again we had not planned well, and we ended up spending the whole day in transit. We bought tickets back to Caen, thinking it a better transit hub, and from Caen to Dinan. But it turned out the train from Caen to Dinan went back through Bayeux anyway, and it didn’t leave until 5pm, meaning we could have left our bags at the hotel, spent the day at Omaha or Juno Beach, and caught the train from Bayeux to Dinan. Instead we spent the entire afternoon in the Caen station. The one bright note was meeting a young couple from Sichuan. The boy had been living in Caen a year, and the girl was living in Burgundy. They were going to the D-Day beaches. Xianyi was pleased to have another chance to speak her native Sichuan-hua! Seems you can’t toss a pebble in France without hitting someone from Sichuan.

Bayeux Cathedral
Dinan Valley

We wanted to see the famous Mont-St Michel castle, but learned that Dinan was not the closest place to be to see that. A couple of American backpackers had obviously done more legwork than us, because they got off at the right stop as we realized we were bound for another station, with a further transfer, and that we would have no time to see Mont-St Michel. There is a little town called Dol which acts as a transit for the Dinan line. We spent an hour there, and I went looking for sandwiches, unsuccessfully. It was 5pm and the town was closing. I asked the one open bar on the block if they had sandwiches, and they said they were done. But X went back there 20 minutes later, asked the same question, and they gave her some leftover bread. So we had a little snack.

When we finally got to Dinan it was after 9pm, but no matter; it is still light these days past 10 o’clock at night. Dinan is too small for taxis, apparently, so we hauled our bags into town on foot. While looking at the map at a turnabout, a man in a car asked us something. We told him we didn’t understand, so he switched to English and asked if we needed help. We showed him the name of our hotel, which was difficult to pronounce, and he offered us a ride. His daughter was in the front seat. The man’s English was pretty good, and when we said we were from New York, he said that he was trying to get his daughter to go there to study English. At that moment, New York felt like a long way away from Dinan.

We found the hotel, after asking several locals directions, and thanked the man for his help. The place is named for the old clocktower, which it stands next to, and which we climbed to the top of the next day for a grand view of the town. There is also a Roman aqueduct, and (of course) an ancient cathedral. In fact, it seems every little town in France has a grand cathedral. One wonders at the lengths to which the old feudal lords went to build these structures, which tower over the surrounding buildings, and which could have only been constructed with massive amounts of human labor.

Dinan Valley
Dinan Valley

That afternoon we were on the trains again, our fourth consecutive day of moving, leaving Brittany now for the Loire Valley, and arriving in the city of Tours. We loaded our bags into a taxi and gave him the address of our hotel, only to have him turn and say, “We’re arrived. It’s here.” The hotel was right next to the station. After checking in (which, by the way, is such an easy process in France; they don’t even require your ID), we walked down to the main part of town, the Place Plumereau, a large plaza with shops and restaurants, where all the cool kids hang out. It was a bustling Friday night in Tours. We ate at an Irish Bar/Pizzeria, which made no sense, but which made good pizza and pasta, and served delicious, cold Belgian beer. On Saturday we slept late, finally not having a train to meet. We went looking for a wine tour, only to find that the tourist office no longer booked them, so we found a tiny café where we finally got a good cup of coffee. I have not been impressed with the French coffee. I would prefer my own brew to most of the cups I’ve had here, which tend to be overly foamy and with a cheap taste. But this place had it right, and we stayed for tartines, open-faced sandwiches: a chicken curry for Xianyi, and four-cheese for me, plus two glasses of wine.

On Sunday Tours was dead. All the shops and nearly all the restaurants were closed. But we found solace in a public park, where we narrowly missed a brass band performance but saw the players in their formal wear breaking down the stage. An inflatable slide and a merry-go-round were entertaining children, and there were ducks and swans in the pond. The duck would wander onto the land to be fed breadcrumbs by the people, but several unleashed dogs occasionally forced them to flee back into the pond. There was also a group of ducklings swimming around. The sun came out and it was peaceful.

Monday morning we left early for Beaune, in Burgundy, where we were resolved to tour a vineyard…