Thursday, September 18, 2014

France Road Trip: Day Three

One of the benefits of camping, at least for someone like me, who doesn't like sleeping on the ground, is that you don't tend to sleep in. As soon as you wake up and recognize it's morning, or if your alarm goes off, you get straight up.

Last summer, when my family canoed from Kingston to Ottawa, camping all the way, I was up and out of the tent before anyone else. Some of my best photos were shot as soon as I left the tent.

But when you're doing a road trip and are moving from place to place, you want to get up and get moving as soon as possible.

We awoke before there was any light. The rain fell in almost a heavy mist, off and on through the night, and I could hear the light droplets performing a quiet drumroll on the roof of the tent, moments before the alarm on my smartphone played a soothing guitar rift.

Travelling to famous places in France means that you are going to face hoards of fellow visitors, but you can avoid the majority of them by arriving at your destination early. And on the third day of our road trip, we were hitting one of the biggest attractions along the northern coast.


The shower facilities at the Alet campground were great: lots of shower stalls and lots of hot water. It had been cool during the night, dropping as low as 6°C, and so the steam from the comfort station was apparent—the site being on a former WWII German outpost, the comfort station was built into a sunken area on the hill, not visible from ground level. We showered, dressed, and then disassembled our tent as the early morning light tried to come through an overcast sky.

The gates to the camp opened at 7:00, and we were on our way shortly thereafter, stopping in the town for coffee and pains au chocolat (we could never tire of this breakfast).

It was less than an hour's drive to Mont-St-Michel (even with me missing the turnoff), but we didn't park at the site's huge parking lot—paying 8 € for a couple of hours seemed a bit much. Instead, we parked about a kilometre away, in the north end of Beauvoir, where street parking is free. We left our car in the parking zone that was at the limit of the small town, not far from Alligator Bay Reptile Park, and walked to where the free shuttle buses take you from the site's parking lot, across the causeway, and to the edge of this 11th-century town.

Walking through the town's front gate, you transport yourself into a truly Medieval town. Sure, souvenir shops occupy many of the merchant spaces along the narrow streets, but these buildings have remained relatively unchanged for centuries.

We headed straight to the top where the abbey of St-Michel sits. The rain started to fall steadily on our way up, so we wanted to stay as dry as possible. Though it didn't look it, the weather had promised to clear by late morning.

Standing outside the main gate
Through the narrow streets

The abbey opens at 9:00, and by the time we reached the gates, we had less than a 10-minute wait to get in, and the lineup was very short: by about five minutes past the hour, we had our audio guides and were ready for our self-guided tour.

It pays to arrive early.

The tour is great, though I did find that the English narrator would tend to go on at times. I know that he was trying to inject some levity in his descriptions of the various chambers and halls, the cloister, and the crypt, but at times I just wanted to move on to the next room. Overall, however, it was well done and I enjoyed the tour.

When we had finished exploring every facet of this extraordinary abbey, my family and I decided to walk along the ramparts to get a better view of the town and surrounding area. The weather delivered, with clear skies and a hot sun, and so we decided to picnic in a small park, high above the main town gate.

We could see people lined up outside the town walls, and several more walking along the newly constructed pedestrian causeway, as shuttle bus after shuttle bus dropped off even more.

It pays to arrive early.

Leaving the town was much trickier than coming in, as the narrow streets had filled with shoppers and a long queue from the main gate to the abbey. There was precious-little wiggle room. But we had no problem catching a shuttle back to the mainland, and after a final few photos and a brisk walk back to the car, we were back on the highway, heading south, to the Loire region.

Our planned stop: Amboise, along the Loire River, between Tours and Blois. Our campsite was on an island along the Loire, directly across from the towns castle. The view, Lori promised me, was spectacular.

View from our tent
She was right.

We checked in just before dinnertime (in France, that was at 7:00 or later). Amboise was sunny and warmer than what we had experienced in the north, and the view from the tent area—further away from the town—was across from a small château (small, like Marie-Antoinette's private palace). And as I finished setting up the tent, hot-air balloons floated peacefully overhead.

Letting the kids choose the type of food we would eat for dinner, we found a nice Italian restaurant that served generous portions of comfort food: pizza and pasta. And Lori and I washed down our meals with local wine—a gorgeously fruity rosé.

Amboise: outside our restaurant

I slept like a baby that night, but awoke with a nasty ache in my neck. But I was ready to take on the day.

The story continues tomorrow.

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