Humble Contributions to the Peoples' History

France, Road Trip through Brittany and Normandy, 2009

Hello! Welcome Friends and Family who are following our adventure to France, which includes touring Brittany, Normandy and Paris. I’m traveling with my sister, Jean, who had an idea that it would just be fabulous to meet up with her son Phillip, who after a four-week archeology course in Galloway, Ireland, would be backpacking his way to Paris. Jean initially suggested we go for a week, but we decided to add an addition few days for a driving tour.  Why visit the coastal areas and towns Brittany? Walking on shorelines of rocks and cliffs buffeted by the ocean or strolling along cobblestone streets in port towns, noting the eclectic blend of architecture and imagining days gone by, are the kind of adventures I treasure most. Brittany was heavily influenced by the Celts so visiting this region seems like an extension of our ancestral heritage journeys. Also, our great-great grandmother was born in France, but that is all I know. Argoat, or the forest country in inner Brittany, holds the mysterious woodlands of Foret de Paimpont, where supposedly King Arthur and his knights forged the legends that still captivate our imaginations. I was also wanted to make a second pilgrimage to the Normandy battle beaches.  In Paris we hope to visit some of the less visited sites as well as the favorites.

By moving the arrows to center on France, markers indicate trip destinations.

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France: July 26-August 6, 2009

Travel Day: Sunday, July 26            Depart Philadelphia 6:40PM

Day 1 Monday, July 27Paris to St. Malo

Twenty-four hours after leaving home we were safely tucked into bed at the Alba Hotel in St. Malo. The view from the hotel did not disappoint with the stone, colorfully framed, stucco houses aligning the sea wall.  A wide sandy beach met the ocean, where people walked along on water’s edge.

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The beginning of the day, however, was fraught with a number of mini-glitches and not-so-mini glitches, which started 12-hours before with takeoff from Philadelphia airport. My sister Jean and I planned to meet in Paris, catching a 10:30am train, holding an unrefundable ticket to Rennes. Unfortunately, my plane sat on the tarmac for over two hours, which meant I would probably miss catching that train. As the jet approached the runway, I looked through the rain droplets on the window toward the planes that lined up chaotically, waiting their turn to depart. Air France provided screens that showed the cockpit view of the take off. As the plane began to climb, bolts of lightning zapped through the clouds glowing in orangey-pink. I was very much relieved to leave the light show behind, settling in for the 8-hour red eye flight. Air France made up most of the time lost during the flight, and I met Jean at the train station with just a few minutes to spare.

As the French countryside drifted past, we caught up on all the family news and then ploughed through our road maps in preparation for picking up our rental car. I had spent a great deal of time planning our road trip, including printing city maps and carefully marking the route. With suitcases in tow, we walked to the car rental several blocks away from the station. We picked up the car, a Picasso, which I immediately disliked. The dashboard extended too far front where the hood disappeared from sight making it impossible to see how much room there was between the car and anything it might hit. Jean practiced driving a bit, but this particular model had both manual and automatic, requiring some time to become acclimated to its peculiarities. I’m leaving out a number of other hassles we experienced, but they all added to the stress of negotiating our departure from the car rental place. To leave the parking lot, I had to put a ticket into the machine in order to raise the guard. I inserted that ticket in the slot every which way trying to get the arm to rise up; a long line of cars formed behind us as I fumbled with the card, a cacophony of horn honking filling the air. A young man jumped out of his car to see what the problem was. “You’re trying to get out with an Air France receipt!”

We then spent the next two hours circling around Rennes like seagulls lost in a storm. Not my fault we were lost! First, the street signs were either missing entirely or so small making them impossible to read. Route numbers were non-existent. Street names were long and complicated, such as Boulevard de la Tour d’Auveneigne or Passage d’llee et Rance. By the time we got to reading the second syllable, we were past the sign. We did, however, learn some French: diversion. Seems that the route I had planned was part of an urban renewal project; but because the street wasn’t marked, the road just disappeared. We went in and out of the city several times, now realizing why the French invented the word déjà vou. I got real good at asking directions but no better at understanding them; seems that everyone here speaks French. I had to rely on hand gestures, which only got us a mile or two before I was out on street again looking for a sympathetic face–someone who might be willing to communicate using arm movements. 

We finally extricated ourselves from Rennes only to be caught up in a similar quagmire in St. Malo. We just couldn’t make sense of the maps so we spent another two hours exploring the back allies, side streets and thoroughfares of this very quaint and lovely town.  We called our hotel, but they couldn’t help us because we didn’t know where we were. We stumbled upon a tourist office, where folks spoke English–the fog of confusion dissipated and we found our hotel. Upon arrival, we took two aspirin and went to bed.

Beach in front of our hotel at St. Malo.

Day 2 Tuesday, July 28    St. Malo

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We decided early on to keep the car parked at the hotel and make all excursions entirely on foot.  We walked to the old citadel, the huge walled town that  tuck away at the end of the harbor.

Greeting us at the entrance was an old-time carousel complete with horses, cars, trolleys, balloons and all kind of other magical places to spin round on.

The stone entrance into the city opened to a plaza filled with streets artists, cafes, shops and entertainers. We made our way to the steps leading up to the ramparts, offering fantastic views of the surrounds and inside the city. The ramparts were at least six feet wide so these walls were formidable.  What was remarkable was that during World War II at least 80 percent of this walled city was left in rubble.  Stone by stone they built the city back again following the original plan. French architecture has its own character with steeply sloping “mansard” roofs.  Some of these roofs are concave and covered in blue-hued tiled making them quite spectacular.

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Street musicians entertained us on every corner, playing everything from madrigals to Peruvian music. St. Malo was once known as the notorious home to pirates who plundered ships as they sailed through the channel. Of course, now souvenir shops extract payment for pirate flags, shirts, and plastic swords. We just happened to run into our favorite pirate, Capt’n Jack Sparrow, who also managed to win over a few coins.


Boutiques lined the cobblestone streets; we were drawn into the shops, the windows displaying the latest fashions.  We didn’t have much time to shop as we didn’t want to miss any of the scenery.  For dinner we stopped at a “crêperie” and enjoyed a delicious crepe with whipped cream, of course. By the time we returned to the hotel, we were fairly well exhausted as we had walked through winding streets all day and made three trips back and forth from our hotel.

Day 3 Wednesday, July 29   St. Malo

With much trepidation of becoming lost again, we ventured out of St. Malo to Dinan, a citadel about an hour’s drive away. Despite our map study and Google searches, we again took a wrong turn getting out of town, which led us to this picturesque harbor.


(The following Christmas Jean surprised me with her painting of  this view.) Sometimes being lost is exactly where you should be.

Undaunted, we headed out again and drove to Dinan without hardly a miss.

Dinan, a well preserved, walled medieval town, was complete with ramparts, towers and a castle. The old town within the walls resembles a storybook village, full of half-timbered buildings, some dating as far back to the 13th century. We climbed the spiral stairs to the top of the clock tower to view the city environs. Colorful restaurants and shops lined the cobblestone avenues, and different artisans were represented: painters, potters, weavers, displaying their unique crafts and creations.

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One shop we particularly liked was a potter’s shop, the window filled with hand carved houses, pumpkins, garden accessories and woodland creatures.

We followed one of the walking tours suggested in the pamphlets we picked up at the tourist office. We followed the route to the Rue du Petite Fort, a steeply descending lane lined with shops, each with a uniquely different façade.  Flowers cascaded from windows, and alleyways led to gardens and stone ruins.

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Outside the walls again at the stone gate, the road continued down to the River Rance, arched by a stone bridge and lined with small boats.

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We climbed back up to the ramparts for spectacular views of the countryside.

Day 4 Thursday, July 30   Drive to:  LeMont St. Michel/then Normandy Coast

I promise to spare you any more details of wrong turns, but if you ever drive in France, let me know because I have some advice on that.  We knew we were on the right road to Mont St. Michel when we saw what appeared to be a castle floating in the sky.  As we approached, the magnificence of this monument became apparent.  Although I had studied many photographs of the Mont, none could capture the drama of this rocky island topped with an architectural treasure surrounded by sea and coastal flatlands. A thin causeway connected the Mont to the mainland; we parked in the designated lot, which was huge, and then walked a distance to reach the entrance of this Unesco World Heritage Site.

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We were on a schedule so when we found out that the next tour in English was in 20 minutes; we sprinted up the stairs toward the abbey, which the guidebook claimed had 900 steps to reach the top.  We rushed up only to wait in line for ten more minutes.  We were, however, able to catch up with the English tour that had already begun.  The rush up turned out to be a good choice because when we returned in an hour, the tour line snaked around and around the ramparts and the crowds had mushroomed, clogging the narrow passages.

Our guide escorted us through the abbey, church, cloisters, and other rooms. We  learned the history of the Mont which dated back to 708 when supposedly St. Michael appeared to St. Aubert and directed him to build the abbey emphasizing the point by burning a hole in his skull.  According to our guide, they were in possession of the skull with the hole, authenticated by carbon dating to the 8th Century. Cue the spooky music.

After the tour, we wandered through the back streets, over the ramparts, into the graveyard, and in and out of the tiny gift shops along the narrow lanes of the medieval village. We shouldered our way through the crowds finding our way back out, not before buying another map.

Our next destination was the little town of Manvieux, just outside of Bayeux. We had arranged to stay at a bed and breakfast, which had once been a farmhouse, dating back to the 18th Century. Our room was lovely with soft pillows on the bed and a balcony, which faced a courtyard filled with flowers.

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For dinner we drove to the seaside town of Arromaches-les-Bains, which played a part on D-Day. We could see huge metal objects in the water, which obviously had been left behind from the invasion. Families filled the wide beach, and people walked their dogs on the promenade.

Day 5 Friday, July 31        Pilgrimage to the Normandy Battlefields

Our “Battlebus” tour left Bayeax early morning for Cherbourg to visit the American beaches, a drive of about thirty minutes. After exiting a major highway, we followed a narrow road to our first stop, a roadside monument and a church, which was used as a hospital for the paratroopers who landed behind the lines on June 6, 1944.

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Two twenty-year olds served as medics saving the lives of all but three who found refuge there.  One of the medics had only nine hours training and the other was a first-year medical student.  Our guide pointed to the monument in their honor noting that the little village of Angoville-Au-Plain, population less than one hundred, donated the land and maintained the flowers in gratitude for their liberation.  The townspeople themselves suffered many casualties, entire families lost in the bombings. Still, the mayor of the town stopped when he saw our group, came over and shook our hands.

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Our next stop was the town of St. Mere Elgise. Anyone who has watched the movie, The Longest Day, probably remembers the scene where a paratrooper’s chute snagged on the church steeple as enemy soldiers shot into the air as hundreds of men landed in the town square.  Today a parachute hangs from the top of that church.

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Our guide, Dale, corrected the record on the events of that evening.  Two paratroopers landed on the roof of the church.  The first, John Street, shot in the foot, was left dangling for two hours playing dead, actually on the other side and not as recreated on the church today. A German commander cut John loose, but two weeks later he managed to escape to his unit and survived the war. The second paratrooper slammed into the roof catching his chute. During this time one member of his company was attempting to escape only to be shot by a German soldier, who immediately turned to shoot the paratrooper caught on the roof.  But the paratrooper who had been shot had not died; he took out his gun and killed the German, only then to expire.  The paratrooper then fell 20 feet from the roof and ran into the brush. He continued to serve through the rest of war. Years later doctors told him that he had broken his back in that fall.

We stopped along a hedgerow as these were formidable obstacles for the Allies.  Hedgerows, constructed by the Norse to protect their crops from the relentless winds, were ground embankments made of mud and provided cover for nests of gunners.  Tanks initially could not penetrate these walls until fitted with a huge cutter device fashioned to fit along the front of the tank.

Flowers grow entangled in the barbed wire.

Flowers grow entangled in the barbed wire.

From Mere  Elgise, we drove to Utah beach. Our guide explained the strategies of both sides–how often it seemed that fate turned the tide of the battle, as mistakes made were either disastrous or beneficial. At Omaha Beach, we walked the cratered fields littered with concrete and dotted with deep bunkers, which were almost entirely impenetrable. In this picture, the huge slabs of concrete in the front were blown out of the ground by the Allied forces.

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The American Cemetery was our final destination.  The grounds, landscaped with perfectly shaped trees and gardens, were well ordered. The blue waters of the English Channel framed the far side of the cemetery.  Along the walk we could view cliffs in the distance. The beach, stretching for miles, vast and remote, rested against a scrub forest. On the carefully manicured lawn rows and rows of grave markers stood at attention facing the West. The trees swayed in a gentle breeze as the stillness of the markers remained ever-present.

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Day 6 Saturday, August 1   Caen  to Paris

After breakfast at our B&B, which consisted of homemade pastries, bread, yogurt, and raspberry jam, we drove back into Bayeux to visit the world famous tapestry, housed in an 18th Century seminary. Upon entering the museum, we picked up a recorder that retold the story of the Norman conquest of England in 1066 as depicted on the tapestry.  I was actually quite surprised how interesting it was to walk along the tapestry as the story was recounted.

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We left the museum after checking with this rather reticent fellow about locations of gas stations . . .

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and drove to Caen to catch our train to Paris. When we arrived, we decided to forgo the luxury of a cab to see if we could negotiate the Metro, which we managed to do fairly successfully. It was a struggle, however, to pull the suitcases up and then down flights of stairs only to find that more steps were ahead of us followed by long corridors.  By the time we walked the five or six blocks to the hotel, we were exhausted and collapsed into the bed.

Day 7 Sunday, August 2     Paris

The Hotel du Vieux Sale was located in the quarter of Marais, one of the oldest areas of Paris. This quarter included: the Place des Vosges, the National Archives, the Carnavalet and Picasso museums and the Pompidou centre. Phillip had joined us after traveling through England and Belgium. Our plan for the day was to visit the Louvre, coincidently, the first Sunday of the month the admission was free.  Our hotel receptionist said that it wasn’t far to walk and taking the Metro would be inefficient as there was no direct route. So we walked the twenty blocks.

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Luckily, the long line at the Louvre moved quickly, but the crowds were dense once inside.  Jean and I had decided to see the Mona Lisa again, which we had seen before when our parents drove us down to Washington when the painting was placed on temporary display sometime in the 1960s.

Later in the evening we met up with MaeC’s friend, Manning, and also with her former roommate, Brendan. We stopped for drinks in one of the cafes along the Pompidou, a modern art museum and entertainment center. What made this structure unique was that the architect put all the utilities on the outside of the building. Phillip was resting against the flower-pot pedestal when I snapped this photo.

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Manning was very helpful, explaining about life in Paris and making suggestions about all the cool places to visit. He had suggested shopping at the Gallaries Lafayette, which we did the very next day. It was great to see Brendan; we got caught up on all the family news and about his life in Ireland.  Mae and Jared, we wished you were here, too,  . . .

Jean had been telling me about a television series on Showtime, The Tutors, and how much she and her friend Penny had liked it. Turned out the young man in left corner of the video, Steven, actually had a part in the fourth series, in a prison scene.  So we can’t wait to see someone we know in the series!

We added up the blocks walked today, which came to over 60.

Day 8 Monday, August 3    Paris

Today we toured the city on the “off/on bus.” We picked up the bus at the Bastille and got off at Notre Dame, walked through, stopped next at the Arc de Triomphe, where Jean and Phillip went to the top for views of the city while I admired the window dressings along the Avenue Des Champs Elysees. “I’ll take the one on the right.”  “Oh, 799 Euros, you say?”  “Pardon  . . .
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. . . then on and upward to the Eiffel Tower, taking pictures from the second level then walking down.

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We finished our tour with a shopping trip to the Gallaries Lafayette. By the time we were back at the hotel, it was 8 o’clock,and we were exhausted again.

There must be a million and one pigeons in Paris.  One always seemed to be in our way; they were roosting in the trees at night and flew by us while walking through the streets. They had an uncanny ability to make eye contact if I was holding a cookie. As I opened the window to our hotel room, I startled a pigeon hiding in the flower box on the balcony.  Upon looking into the box, I observed one small white egg resting on nesting material. In that moment all became clear in this vignette–a creature trying to eek out a family life in the crevice of a window box.

Day 9 Tuesday, August  4   Paris

In the morning Jean and Phillip planned to visit the catacombs while I explored the area around our hotel. Nearby was a park several blocks long surrounded by an iron fence protecting a grassy area and pond with waterfall. Along the back streets, little shops of various kinds were nestled into the framework of buildings. One was a photography studio, and the photographer sat outside talking with people as they passed by.  Rows and rows of framed black and white photos lined the shelves.  I wondered how many people would wander by before he made a sale. Just down the street was a Peruvian import shop with all varieties of scarves, blankets and other woven goods. Signs were in the subways and streets warning about pickpockets. At the busier metro stops, gypsies would try to engage people in conversation. Not infrequently someone would set up a begging spot, sometimes right in the middle of the sidewalk. Beggars would sometimes have puppies sleeping in baskets next to them.  Now, that’s not fair! Occasionally, a street musician would set up on a corner.  Once on one of our metro trips, a violinist actually serenaded our subway car.

Paris was very clean.  The workmen, dressed in bright green clothes and carrying a matching broom, started sweeping early morning and continued throughout the day.  Water gushed out from the street gutters washing debris away. Street sweeping machines scoured the sidewalks and curbs.

Dare I say it, but from my observations on the street the French were decidedly thinner that Americans. Once reason might be that everyone walks, and they considered two to three blocks “just around the corner.” We hop into our car to travel half a mile. Most folks living in Paris do not own cars. Still, people appeared to eat lots of bread; we saw baguettes extending out from shopping bags.

In the afternoon, I met up with Jean and Phillip for our St. Martin neighborhood canal boat ride. The barge-like boat slid into the the underground vault immediately upon the start of the trip. Commentary begun accompanied by movies and pictures projected on the arched stone walls. The tunnel was lit from above from huge circular openings.  What struck me was how the light streaming into the water caught the fumes from the motor.  An ecological lesson laid before me as I could see the huge swirling updraft of smokey gas:

When we came back into the light, the boat went through a series of locks, so many, in fact, it seemed as if we covered more distance vertically than horizontally. Trees, grassy areas, and benches lined the canal, and people would stop and wave as the boat glided through the water. Elegant footbridges spanned over the canal and boutiques and cafes lined up along the street.

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Day 10 Wednesday, August 5    Paris

In the morning we returned to Notre Dame to walk around in the neighborhood, then headed back to the Metro for ride to Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise, where many famous and not-so-famous people were buried. The Parisians call this the “grandest address in Paris.” Upon entering, we faced a maze of funerary art, grave markers which dated back to the 1800s and some right up to the present. Mausoleums in various states of disrepair represented a wide range of styles, many which resembled miniature chapels. Over 300,00 people have been buried in this cemetery.

We fell into an impromptu tour with a guide who evidently made his living escorting disoriented tourists around the cemetery. He guided us to the celebrity markers including Chopin, Oscar Wilde and Maria Callas. It is the custom at the tomb of Oscar Wilde to kiss his monument. Thousands of red lipstick imprints decorated the marble façade. Lagging behind as we crisscrossed over the tombs, I missed some of the detail our guide had told Jean and Phillip about the history. I overheard the word barbecue in the conversation. I thought that would be a bit weird to have picnics and barbeques here even if there were a few grassy areas.  Upon clarification, it seemed that the guide used the word barbecue instead of cremate.  After 100 years, and if no one was looking after a plot, they destroy any construction, take the remains to the crematorium, and then sprinkle them into the surrounding flower gardens. In the cleared site, someone else would be permitted to erect a monument. It just was strangely comical to hear the guide refer to those who had been “barbecued” as he continued his commentary.

We made a pilgrimage to Jim Morrison’s place of rest. His tomb was fenced off because in the past visitors hammered off parts of the marble. In fact, his statue was stolen years ago; now the cemetery had to hire guards for the night watch. Back in 1967 Light my Fire was positively our favorite rock song. I have fond memories of dancing to that song at one of the psychedelic clubs at Beach Haven. Now on my iTunes I listen to Crystal Ship and Riders on the Storm. Seemed fitting to pay our respects.

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Back at the hotel by early afternoon, we decided to rest for several hours so that we could muster enough energy to go out at night to see the “City of Lights.”  After diner, we passed by the Torch of Liberty, a gift from the United States to France. The Torch rested above the tunnel where Princess Diana’s car crashed into the wall. Someone had placed a white rose at the base of the monument.  We walked along the Seine and onto the Jardins du Tracadero, the park that overlooked the Eiffel Tower from the other side of the Seine.  Wide steps traversed the hill stretching to grand museums at the summit.  Souvenir stands occupied financially lucrative corners.  Hawkers selling miniature Eiffel Towers from key chain-sized to light-up varieties, immediately besieged us. However, we had vowed that under no circumstances would we buy a replica of the Eiffel Tower. Crowds had gathered all along the walls facing the Tower and in the mall.  Suddenly, the key chain dealers began running and jumping over hedges and walls. Police cars had just entered the area, and the hawkers instantly disappeared from the public areas to escape detection.  As soon as squad cars left, however, the hawkers returned in full force.

At 10PM the Eiffel Tower put on its sparkle display, a spectacular ending to our trip to France.

Travel Day: Thursday, August 6            Depart Paris 1:30PM

Epilogue

Since we were not on a tour, this trip was so much more tiring, both physically and mentally. The planning and organization of each activity required checking pamphlets and tour books, coordinating metro schedules and maps, double checking on finances and times, and consulting the Internet. Even then, we didn’t always get it right, sometimes because of the language problem but, also, when asking for information, an important point would be inadvertently omitted.  For example, when inquiring when was the last bus tour, and told 8PM, but after waiting for said bus, then told 7PM because each bus line was different, without being told that to begin with! On a positive note, creating our own itinerary allowed us to follow our own time-table and make instant decisions. We could wander off from the standard tourist destinations. We did meet nice people along the way who offered their assistance in helping us find our way.

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Thanks for tuning into the blog!  See you soon.  Love, Kae

Comments on: "France, Road Trip through Brittany and Normandy, 2009" (9)

  1. Hi Mom! Sorry you had such a headache driving! I’m glad the tourist office was there to help you.

    I’m sure that this is just the snaffo that happens at the start of a trip to ensure that the rest of the trip goes smoothly – now that you’ve gotten the kinks out of the way, the rest is smooth sailing!

    I look forward to further updates!

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  2. psalmboxkey said:

    Hi, MaeC . . . great to hear from you! Well, Jean was the one who had all the stress of driving yesterday as I was a total coward about driving the car; we are well rested today. Just Skyped with Dad; he said everyone had a great time at the Harry Potter movie last night. Nice. Take care. Love, Mom

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  3. jrblackwell said:

    Hi Mom! I heard that you saw Brendan and Manning on your adventures! I’m envious. It looks like you are having a great time and absorbing a lot of history. Take hundreds of photos!

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  4. psalmboxkey said:

    Hi, MaeC . . . just about to put up pictures and commentary on our visit with Manning and Brendan. . . I’m going to try to load a video.

    Everything going well. Will see you soon.

    Love, Mom

    Like

  5. Claudia said:

    I just enjoyed viewing your blog, Kae. What a great trip! You have made me homesick for France!

    Claudia

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  6. The photo of the bridge in Dinan – we stayed in an old fisherman’s cottage right by the bridge on the left had side – and took our refreshment at Le Myrian across the Rance – got to know le patron Jean-Yves. Loved Loved Loved Dinan.

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    • psalmboxkey said:

      Dinan was amazing. Staying in that cottage must have been really neat . . . was it renovated or did the interior have the charm of the outside?

      Like

  7. […] France, Road Trip through Brittany and Normandy, 2009 […]

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  8. […] France, Road Trip through Brittany and Normandy, 2009 […]

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