Sunday 31 October 2021 – Sylvia
We woke early this morning having gained an hour overnight with the end of daylight saving. After a lovely breakfast in the hotel we headed off. We had decided to start in Dunkirk yesterday and plan to drive our way slowly back to Nimes over the next eight days. We headed first through Boulogne Sur Mer, apparently the largest fishing port in France. It may have been because it was raining but we were not inspired enough to stop. We continued on through rolling farmland. It is all tidy and well tended, mostly cropped with only the odd fenced paddock housing a few cattle. The light was pretty watery and the sky still had the orange tinge of sunrise until about 11am. The leaves though are starting to turn with some good autumn colours in some spots.
From Boulogne Sur Mer we took only minor roads rather than ferries and passed through many picturesque villages. We drove through Le Tréport and got our first glimpse of the massive white cliffs that seem to make up a lot of the shoreline around here. Wherever the cliffs stop are little villages and ports. The buildings are really pretty, a mix of half-timbered houses and brick and stone, mixed together in intricate patterns. Most of the houses are quite narrow and three-four storeys tall.
Roger was intrigued as we drove past a nuclear power station. We had to drive all alongside the extremely intimidating looking fence to try and get a glimpse of the place. Of course the visitor centre was closed.
We drove through Dieppe, quite a large port town. Many of these coastal towns have car ferries to England. We stopped at Veules-les-Roses, a really picturesque village that is said to be one of the prettiest in France. We had hoped to have lunch there but all the restaurants were full. I guess on a rainy Sunday there is not much else to do but eat out… It was the same at St-Valery-en-Caux. Eventually we gave up trying restaurants and made do with a delicious french baguette sandwich, from one of the boulangeries, that we ate in the car.
We passed another nuclear power station and managed to get a bit of a glimpse of some of the cooling bunkers. I am going to have to try and find one that has an open visitor centre somewhere between here and home to keep Roger happy.
We carried on, passing through Fecamp and Eretat before heading back on to the main road for the last stretch to Honfleur. This is just across the Seine from Le Havre – we had to cross two huge bridges, including the Pont de Normandie.
Honfleur is a stunning town, full of incredibly pretty buildings and set on a small port area. We wandered around the harbour, stopping for an aperitif and a cigar in a small bar before heading up the hill and back around to our apartment for the night. Even Roger commented that every building is calling out for a photograph to be taken. It is obviously a very popular spot as we found it hard to book a hotel here last night, finally ending up with a very well-located apartment.
One of the stand out buildings here is the Church of St Catherine, France’s largest wooden church, that dates from the 15th Century.
We finished the day with dinner and some people watching in one of the local restaurants.
Monday 1 November 2021: Roger
We left the apartment early and headed west, eventually getting on the motorway right across the Normandy coast, taking a detour through Bayeux, then heading to Cherbourg-en-Cotentin. We headed straight for La Cite De La Mer (the maritime museum) where we entered through a large building housing a variety of underwater vehicles.
Out the back as if in a dry dock is parked a Nuclear submarine.
This Le Redoutable, the first of 6 of the Redoutable class was built in Cherbourg starting in 1964, launched for fit out in 1967, then going into operation in 1971. At 128m long with a beam of 10.6m it was the first French submarine to have a bunk for all 120 crew and fifteen officers. With its nuclear reactor encased in lead just behind the control room with a tunnel through to access each end of the boat it carried 16 intercontinental ballistic missiles with a range of over 2000 kilometres. All 16 missiles were designed to be launched at once to different targets with the submarine being stabilised by numerous small propellers not far below the surface. Two of these warheads would detonate with more force than all the explosives uses in both world wars. When the missiles launched they would be surrounded by compressed air until they broke the surface, never coming in contact with the water.
With the reactor generating heated steam it drove a turbine at 6000 rpm which, through a reduction box, dropped the revs to 100 to drive the large bronze screw propelling the boat at up to 25 knots underwater. The hull was especially designed to contract as it submerged to a depth of 300m. Voyages generally lasted 70 days with little need to surface as the equipment on board produced clean air and water.
There were two alternating crews each doing a 70 day stint at sea. With a spacious wardroom for the officers, a mess for the sailors and a even gym area it was a great advance for the submariners. We entered at the back with an audio guide, which gave an excellent commentary as we moved through the boat covering two of the 3 decks and exiting near the bow through the torpedo room with its 4 tubes and 15 torpedos, each with a range of 15 kilometres. At the rear of the torpedo room is an escape hatch.
There is a large galley where each night the bread is made, wine was carried and drunk a little on board. Interestingly they banned walkmans as it meant the crew became too insular.
On exiting you could see onto the ballast tank which surrounded the hull and was filled with sea water to submerge the water pumped out with compressed air to surface.
The commentary given by an ex captain made it very clear that this vessel and its missiles were designed to be used as a deterrent to war: “we have these and will use them only if we have to so don’t piss us off”. It is a maze of pipes, wires, dials and switches, which would have kept the maintenance crew busy with 8000 spare parts and the machinery to make anything they did not have in stock. One non technical item that really stood out was the inclination gauge.
This particular boat was retired in 1991 with is reactor section removed and a blank section put in. I have been on a number of submarines over many years; this one is by far the most spacious.
Next we toured a well set up display on the fate of the Titanic. This was really well set out with an introduction going through the time line of the ships building and its stop here on its only voyage.
We enjoyed a really nice steak in a lovely restaurant by the waterfront then headed up the hill to the Liberation museum, which unfortunately was closed on Monday. From there we drove the 3 hours to Saint Malo where we had booked into a hotel behind the old city walls.
Founded in the first century BC it developed over the centuries into a walled city ruled by various people – it became an impregnable city, at one stage occupied by pirates. In 1944 it was bombed and shelled by the allies and the Germans burnt it to the ground. In 1948 the locals decided to rebuild it in the original style and by 1960 it was complete. It is now a thriving tourist town full of shops and restaurants. The cathedral is the only original building still standing. Tomorrow we look forward to walking the city walls.
Tuesday 2 November 2021: Sylvia
After a fairly early breakfast in our hotel, Quic en Groigne, this morning we headed back to Mont Saint Michel. We had driven past yesterday but the weather wasn’t great and we were short of time so we decided to leave it until today. I am so glad we did! The weather this morning was perfect. I have wanted to visit this incredible historic site for a very long time. It is a huge abbey perched precariously on a small island about one km from the shore. These days there is a raised road and walkway for accessing the site – a must given the unpredictable tides. It was first developed as a monastic site in the 9th century and like so many other historic places has seen its share of battles over the years.
Today it is one of the most visited places in France, hosting some 2.5 million visitors a year. A dozen monks and nuns of the Jerusalem Order live in two independent communities here and celebrate the divine offices three times a day.
We parked and wandered the roughly three kms to the island, marvelling at the view. The tide was out but it was still incredibly stunning. It is hard to imagine how this was built so many years ago.
We wandered through the narrow streets and alleyways heading ever-upward towards the abbey. I had booked tickets on line and we wandered straight in. The abbey itself is huge with great, cavernous rooms, huge foundational pillars, loads of medieval arches and some spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. One room displays a number of relics including a crown and sword, supposedly belong to Saint Michel himself.
It is a truly inspiring place and one that the pictures don’t really do justice to.
We stopped on the way back for lunch in a small restaurant with magnificent sea views. We have learned our lesson from the past few days and were there early enough to nab a fantastic table right in the window. I kept thinking how crowded it must be here in summer and how glad I was that we had visited in November instead.
After lunch we made our way slowly back to St Malo to walk the ramparts. One thing I have noticed driving around this area is a number of trees that look like they have pom-poms on them. As they are losing their leaves, an epiphytic plant that grows on the trees is becoming more visible… quite an unusual sight.
The walk along the ramparts at St Malo definitely didn’t disappoint. In fact, after being a little underwhelmed by the place when we arrived yesterday, today I really got a sense of the city and its incredible history. Amazingly you can walk all around the walls at absolutely no charge and we really enjoyed wandering along and exploring the different perspectives and angles.
There are a number of fortified islands around here, which can be seen from the ramparts. With it being nearly high tide, the waves were crashing against the shore quite spectacularly even though the weather today is quite calm. I can’t imagine what it must be like here in a storm. Large seagulls seemed almost tame, hanging out on the walls. I saw many different people ‘talking’ to them…
About halfway around we stopped in at a cafe/bar so Roger could indulge in his daily cigar and wine ritual. I finally succumbed and had a crepe… OMG – why did I wait so long… delicious!
We finished up the day by wandering out along the sea wall to get fabulous views back over the city. All in all it’s been a great one.
Wednesday 3 November 2021: Roger
Up early we left the Quic en Groigne hotel and its friendly man on the desk, who wished us well for our journey. It had been a while since he had had anyone from NZ stay. We headed for Brest, a 3-hour drive through the pleasant and tidy French countryside. We have noted that things are much tidier in this part of France than down in the south.
Brest has been for many years a famous French ship-building port with ship-building starting there in the 1500s. Pre WWII the French had a large submarine and naval base there, complete with pens to service them. When the Germans were handed it they continued to use it as a naval base, kicking out the French locals as they fully occupied the city with its many medieval buildings and city wall. Towards the end of the war the city was occupied by elite german paratroopers, submarine crews and navy crews. With heavy guns dug in around the city they were eventually under allied attack. It was not until 19 September 1944 that the American VIII corps, assisted by British tanks, after days of intensive shelling and 3 days of hand to hand fighting, freed the city. The city was left in ruins and had to be totally rebuilt after the war with the West German government paying compensation to help rebuild the city. The port was never able to be used by the allies as intended to bring in supplies to support the war effort in Europe.
We took a stroll around the cliffs above the the extensive port on the Penfeld River. We spotted a cable car crossing the port and jumped on while it took us to a large building that was once a ship building workshop, and now has large spaces that kids race around on roller blades and scooters below the gantry cranes still in place.
We headed into a restaurant for an early lunch having learnt that places fill up at noon; this place was packed just after 12pm. After lunch we took a drive alongside the naval yards with their large dry docks and many ships in port, passing the still used nuclear submarine penstocks.
The naval museum in one of the few old buildings left in town opened at 1.30 so we went in for a look. Well set out, it took us through the town’s maritime history with models of early sailing ships, some up to 80-meters long with a hundred plus cannons and 700 crew. One area was full of wooden carvings and another showed the modern ships and subs. When the slave trade was abolished a large prison was built in Brest to provide labour for the ship building – there was quite a section on that also.
We had noticed a different language on some of the signs around town and discovered that this was a Celtic language spoken in the Britanny area prior to French, originating from the UK people who inhabited the area way back.
The tour over we headed to Lorient, some 200kms down the coast; another naval town where the Germans had built a submarine base during WWII. The three large pens still stand today and, although bombed during the war, were used by the French navy up until 1997. They are now a museum and a rescue centre.
After checking into our hotel we took a walk down to a rooftop bar called Vertige. On arriving we were greeted by a very friendly barman called Willian. He had lived in both Scotland and Australia and spoke excellent English. He advised us to check out a bar in Bordeau called the Cafe Francais. We enjoyed the views over the harbour and the penstocks as the sun set.
Thursday 4 November 2021: Sylvia
It was a frigid morning this morning as we set out for the museum. Roger was perfectly comfortable in shorts and t-shirt as usual, while the rest of us mortals were wrapped up in jackets and scarves and still freezing.
First stop was the Flora Submarine museum. Like all the other museums we have seen it was very well done with some great audio-visual displays show-casing the making of the submarine base here and what happened during the war. There was also an impressive section with multiple screens highlighting some of the events of WWII and the ensuing Cold War. We were also able to board and explore the old submarine. It was interesting after having seen the nuclear submarine the other day how much smaller this one was. Hot-bunking was required, and the sailors only got one shower – at best – in 30-45 days at sea.
Our next stop was a guided tour (in French only) of the submarine base. This area was captured by the Germans in June 1940. They started building the pens shortly thereafter. There are three different buildings with the capacity to house about 27 subs. The first two built have only one dock with water in it. For the other docks they would have to be sailed into a cradle, winched up out of the water between the two lots of pens and then towed into the dry dock by a tractor thingy. The submarine we visited earlier is now sitting on one of these contraptions. This apparently took only 45 minutes. Each of the two buildings had a concrete roof, 3.5m thick which was impenetrable to all the available weapons at the time.
Between 1941 and 1943 Churchill ordered heavy bombing of the area and as the war continued heavy aerial cover over the Atlantic meant subs stayed submerged as much as possible. The third block (K3) was built between 1941 and 1943 and is the most imposing. It houses 5 wet docks and two dry docks. In places its roof is 7-9m thick – enough to stop the tall boy bombs, which were made later in the war from passing through. There is still a crater on the roof where one landed. There were open galleries at both ends to help disperse the bomb blasts. The entrance was protected from torpedoes by two warships which were sunk in front of the building with a series of cables strung between them. The wrecks are still visible today. Anti aircraft batteries were placed on the roof – with over 250 guns around the city (150 > 50mm).
Lorient and Saint Nazaire were the last parts of mainland France to be liberated after the May 10 1945 surrender of the Third Reich. The French installed a submarine base here on 19 May 1945. The area played an important part in the Cold War and also had an air base and most escort ships were built here. However the area never supported the newer nuclear submarines and was closed in 1991.
We then headed to Saint Nazaire. This area is famous for a Commando Raid, Operation Chariot, where a US WWI frigate, that had been donated to the British Navy, HMS Campbeltown, was loaded with explosives and driven into the lock gates effectively shutting down the only dry dock in the south of the British channel capable of taking the larger German battleships such as the Bismarck. It wasn’t fully repaired until 1948. It is incredible to think of the bravery of the men that carried out that raid. Many died, many were captured and just over a third made it safely back to England after the raid. Five received the Victoria Cross. There is a monument here to the commandos.
Saint Nazaire also has a disused submarine base but it is much smaller than the ones in Lorient. There is a large bridge over the Loire river here and we noticed many cruise ships in port that seemed to be wrapped in shrink wrap. I wonder if they are being mothballed here with the downturn in cruising due to Covid.
We then drove to Nantes where we had booked to stay at the Radisson Blu hotel. From the outside it looks like a huge old bank. This looks like quite an interesting city but it was getting late by the time we arrived. We headed across the road to an excellent bar and restaurant, Aristide, where we had a truly excellent meal, one of the best I have had in a very long time.
As I write this I am struck by the irony, knowing our plans for tomorrow, that I have ended up with this blog to write and Roger will end up with that one…
Friday 5 November 2021: Roger
We headed off early to Puy du Fou, an amusement park about an hour out of Nantes – or should have been! As we headed out of the carpark the car GPS sent us up a narrow street then a left turn; we were following a delivery van and ended up in an area that we were not supposed to be. Typical of central cities in France they have retracting bollards to keep people like us out. Anyway it was like playing in a maze; each street we went down, and there were many, was blocked off buy bollards. A guy even banged rather loudly on Sylvia’s window and pointed in the direction of a large church – maybe he was suggesting we go and pray as that was no way out. Eventually we followed a delivery van out, hoping like hell that the bollard would not come up as we passed over it – I had visions of the car being jacked up. It was quite an amusing episode although Sylvia didn’t quite see it like that.
At around 9.45 we arrived at the park, taking a stroll through the Le Monde Imaginaire de La Fontaine, which was basically a kids story area with the odd rabbit, cow, goat and sheep plus a few mannequins and statues of various other animals. I was thinking “I hope it gets better than this”. Next stop was Le Bal des Oiseaux Fantomes, and did it get better! It was outstanding! The outdoor stadium filled up as we sat on wet wooden seats (some of those that knew had brought plastic to sit on). Soon the wet seats were forgotten as the show began and out from a rock a princes arose, dressed in white; a song began as doves flew off from above her bed.
It got better and better as the story was told in song, not that I understood a word. Spoonbills swept low over the crowd followed by a variety of birds including ravens, hawks eagles and even some marabou storks, some swooping so low over us from behind that you felt a rush of air as they passed by. Knights on horses rode past in front of us, the ground in the centre opened up with birds, people and animals emerging. Then from a balloon above a falcon dived vertically, followed by eagles which circled and then dove down to falconers stationed around the stadium. At the end there must have been two hundred plus birds in the stadium in a choreographed symphony.
Next stop was the Vikings; this time there was another princess involved and a battle took place as raiders came to attack the locals. There were loud bangs and warm flashes of flame, which Sylvia appreciated as it was a little chilly. At one point a mob of longhorn cattle chased people along the road; wolves, horses, sheep, goats, owls and other animals took part. There were some great acrobatics as people dived off buildings into the water, did back flips and other antics and then fought each other. The highlight was when a viking ship rose out of the water with statues on board only to spring to life and join in the fight. The king appeared out of a trunk that had been thrown in the water, then brought peace to the town and magically disappeared leaving an actor just holding his clothing (not sure how they did that). Then to finish it all off the soldiers from the boat jumped back on board beating drums and holding flaming torches as the boat disappeared beneath the water (not sure how the did that bit either – a lot of breath holding maybe).
Next we stopped at one of the many restaurants for some lunch, served by people in period costume. Sylvia had hoped to warm up but the place had no doors or windows. Interestingly the hundreds of people that had attended each show just seemed to disappear into the surroundings as apart from going in and out of the shows there were no crowds.
We wandered through some of the well made villages with artisans at work then down to Verdun. This quite long walk-through exhibit portrayed the conditions during the WWI battle of Verdun in eastern France, where a thousand troops died every day for a year. Constantly there was the sound of rifle, machine gun and cannon fire during the 15 minutes it took to walk through. Live actors were stationed at places like the hospital and fire control head quarters and at one stage a soldier in full kit, including gas mask pushed his way along the passage past us. The ground shook and flashes occurred in places to add to the realism. Hymns came from a makeshift chapel, alcoves held men in hammocks, provisions, cook shops and rations. I had only taken my i-phone with me so could not get any good pictures.
Not far away was Le Secret de La Lance. Another princess having a few problems ends up taking on the whole British army almost single handedly with a bit of assistance from the odd knight in shining armour and a magic lance. Once again lots of animals took part and there was indeed some great stunt riding as riders bounced of the ground on each side of their horse as it galloped past, the sort of thing i used to try on my horse as a kid except i ended up on the ground the horse leaving me there as he galloped off riderless. These guys were great and well practiced and the horses well trained. There were lots of pyrotechnics, soldiers running up and down walls, sword fights and acrobatics, the princess coming out on top, not that again I understood a word of the story. Even Sylvia only picked up bits and pieces. Walls disappeared and rose from the ground, the castle did a 360 degree turn, draw bridges went up and down – another really well done show! We only realised later that you can listen in English on an app with earpieces.
The Le Signe du Triomphe was the next stop, set in a oval colosseum-like stadium seating a few thousand people – we were back to Roman times. This time another young lady had a few problems; the emperor stood in the stadium dishing out harsh justice while one of his soldiers rescued a young lady from a bunch of slaves, a battle ensued intermingled with parades of people and animals through the arena. Apart from camels, horses, cows, dogs and goats there was even a bunch of very obedient geese on parade. More fighting, the slaves were herded into a wooden box, then the barriers around the stadium were raised further and the other animals removed. A man and a woman with whips entered the stadium then out of a hole in the wall comes a tiger that jumps up on the box and dives inside through a hole in the top. Next an almost white lion wanders in and takes his place on a pedestal, followed by three lionesses who mount the stage only to be chased off by the woman, who all the trouble is over. Finally the emperor is chased across the stadium by a hyena. That part over the barriers go back down while chariot races and other things carry on. The show concluded with the soldier and the woman united as they are paraded out of the stadium. There are some 1500 animals used throughout this park, all that we saw in great condition and well trained; apparently the birds are free to come and go as they please, among them are a number of endangered species.
Last stop for the day was Le Mystere de La Perouse. This is another walk-through exhibit about La Perouse, the explorer sea captain who was sent by King Louis XVI with two boats to explore the world. Setting off in 1785 to explore and collect specimens he headed to South America, rounded the horn, went up to Alaska, across to Russia and down to Australia then finally disappeared when the ships were wrecked in a storm off the Solomon islands. It was years later that evidence of the wrecks were found. The walk is through the provisions taken (there was a truck load of wine), then through the ship in which interestingly they have the ceiling moving to give one the impression that the whole thing is moving. There are imitation cabins and large displays of the specimens he collected from rocks to animals. Another well set up piece of amusement.
Saturday 6 November 2021: Sylvia
I am a little sad that our holiday is coming to an end. We have certainly covered a fair amount of mileage and have enjoyed listening to a number of different podcasts on the way.
This morning we set off from Nantes – luckily without getting stuck in the maze first – and headed to La Rochelle, a lovely port city and the fourth of the five places the Germans had set up submarine bases. We didn’t visit the submarine base this time but wandered around the old port area, with its three towers and ornate gates. There are numerous cafes and restaurants, which all filled up around 12 as the locals (and us) settled down for a leisurely lunch.
We have been incredibly lucky with the weather this trip. Whilst it has rained on and off, every time we have stopped to do something or needed to be outdoors it has cleared up. It has not been warm and at times has been really cold – there was a good frost still on the ground in the shady patches we drove past at 10:30 this morning, but really we cannot complain.
After lunch we got back on the road and drove to Bordeaux. The whole area here is pretty flat with lots of farmland. Interestingly, whilst there is still a lot of cropping around here, there are also a lot more cows and sheep around and the majority of paddocks are fenced, which we haven’t seen much further north.
Bordeaux is an amazingly beautiful old city with a huge cathedral and a large area closed to the majority of traffic, filled with shops, restaurants and bars and loads of people. We had booked a small boutique hotel right in the centre, near the cathedral so were able to stroll around the town from their easily. The city is built on the banks of the Dordogne River.
After our customary cigar and wine stop, during which we met, and chatted to an interesting chap from the UK, who has recently bought, and is renovating an old house in the city here, we wandered back to the hotel for a quiet evening. Tomorrow we will have to drive home so I can get back to work on Monday but I would definitely like to come back and spend a bit more time in this town.
Sunday 7 November 2021: Roger
After a good nights sleep at the boutique Cardinal Hotel (definitely a ‘Sylvia hotel’) we headed through the streets of this very well preserved old town to the river where we turned left following the river down stream. Just on the edge of the city are more german built submarine pens, the 5th and most southern on the Atlantic coast. Other bunkers were also built in Germany, Norway, and Belgium to service the 1162 submarines used during WWII ,of which 785 were sunk. We hadn’t intended to visit another one of these however we saw that here they had turned the pens into a digital art centre. Not really being into abstract art I was a little sceptical prior to arriving. As it turned out I found it well worth the visit. The water is still in the pens with board walks between the bays and many of the digital images being reflected in the water. The art rolled through on the walls, floors and on the water making all sorts of images by numerous famous artists. Some rooms at the back also had separate displays.
Around 11am we hit the road for the 5-hour drive back to Nimes. About 200kms southeast down the A62 we came to Toulouse (known as the pink city for its many terracotta brick buildings), where we headed into the centre for lunch. It is another city in its original state with its reddish bricks on many stylish buildings. Arriving in the central square we headed into an underground carpark. The stairs leading us up into an area with many restaurants. We sat down in the outside seating at the busiest one, Le Grand Cafe Florida, established in 1874. The service and the food was great with lovely buildings surrounding the cafe. After lunch we took a brief walk around the city centre before heading southeast and watching the country change into the arid lands of southern France. Autumn colours are now evident particularly in the vineyards.
We picked up Sylvia’s car from the railway station and then dropped the rental car off at the local airport and suddenly another great holiday was over.