France: King of the castles

By Peter Calder

Imposing views of the castle at Mont Saint-Michel. Photo / Peter Calder
Imposing views of the castle at Mont Saint-Michel. Photo / Peter Calder

A bad day is a good day to arrive at Mont Saint-Michel. Glistening in the sunshine, it would not be half as impressive. When the bitter northerlies whip in off the English Channel or clouds wreath the golden statue of the saint on top of the spire, the island fortress looms as a brooding mythic presence and it's easy to see why it was part of the inspiration for the design of Minas Tirith in the third part of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

Fortunately, Brittany - the bulge at the western side of France - is inclined to oblige with atmospheric weather.

"Hmm," said friends in Paris when I told them of my plans. "I hope you've got a good raincoat."

Even more fortunately, the effect of my first glimpse of the famous mount was heightened by virtue of being unexpected. The GPS I'd hired was in one of its dispiritingly regular odd moods as I approached. Its unflappable voice directed me off the road down a series of ever-narrowing country tracks through the featureless salt marshes and the Renault picked up a thick coating of cow dung which it would carry for two weeks.

I might have assumed I was lost - this machine after all, did have a disconcerting habit of saying "You have now reached your destination" while I was hurtling at 130km/h along an autoroute - but the way I see it, when you're in France in a car, you're never lost; you're just en route.

Anyway, suddenly the horizon in front of the spattered windscreen filled and I emitted an involuntary and theatrical gasp. Not since I saw the Taj Mahal at dawn have I had the same sense that the real thing not only lived up to the hype but put it to shame.

A soaring spire crowns the Gothic and Romanesque abbey which is in itself an architectural improbability. Its length is held on top of the peak only by the dense pillars in a network of crypts and chapels below - though it must be said that bits have fallen off from time to time. But from a distance it still exudes an air of impregnable menace.

That was the intention, of course. There's been a monastery on the mountain since the 8th century and it's long been a place of pilgrimage - the fourth after Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. But before that, and often since, it was a fortress, and after the 1789 revolution, it made cold dungeons for political prisoners.

The modern visitor quickly gets an idea of just how impenetrable the place is. For a start, there's a sign at the car park entrance telling you what time to remove your vehicle if you don't want it to be turned into a submarine. The tide comes in fast here: it crosses the mudflats at a metre a second which Victor Hugo, with some artistic licence, compared to the speed of a galloping horse (la vitesse d'un cheval au galop) and it has, at 15m, the fifth-highest range in the world.

Assuming you park safely, getting to the summit is a 15-minute slog up the inaptly named Grande Rue - it's a narrow passage lined with souvenir shops - and several hundred steps. It's not a climb you should start on an incoming tide, perhaps, but on the other hand they're not going to let you park unless you have plenty of time before the tarmac disappears. A thin causeway connects the mount to the mainland and for half of each day it can still seem almost an island. But a rescue plan to stop the bay silting up will remove some of the atmosphere: a bridge is planned to replace the causeway.

Still there is magic to be heard each day when, just after noon, the dozen resident friars and sisters of the Order of Jerusalem sing mass. They're a tough lot, the sisters in particular, or perhaps just devoted to the ascetic life: in the chilly air, I was well-wrapped in jacket and scarf, only grudgingly removing my woollen hat out of respect, but the nuns' unstockinged and sandalled feet seemed impervious to the cold. I sat in a back pew, faithfully observing the "no photos" sign and closed my eyes. As the thin voices echoed off the ancient vaulted ceiling, time seemed to stand still.

Mont Saint-Michel is actually just inside Normandy though it marks the northern beginning of any exploration of Brittany. It's wild and rocky coast here, a different country altogether from the Mediterranean beaches beyond Provence.

Brittany attracted me precisely because it is such a world apart, with a proud outlaw history. Not for nothing was Armorica, modern Brittany, the home of Asterix, the diminutive cartoon warrior who held out against Caesar's legions. In the far west, they even have another language - albeit one they struggle to keep alive: Breton is related to Cornish and Welsh but unlike both it has no official status and is slowly dying. Old-fashioned Bretons referred to the rest of the country as France.

Unsurprisingly, it's heaven for fish and seafood lovers. More than half the national catch is hauled on to boats off this coast and 75 per cent of the mussels, which makes ordering from the "poisson" section of the menu pretty much a no-brainer. It's also the home of the galette, the nut-brown buckwheat pancake which is offered with a dizzying array of fillings, sweet and savoury. It's a great, cheap way to get a feed of the local mussels - much smaller than ours but meltingly tender. The chef in the small creperie where I ate insisted that the local cider was the appropriate accompaniment and gave me a cupful to prove the point.

The connection to England seemed at its strongest in the Forest of Broceliande near Rennes. which is supposed to be where King Arthur married Guinevere, and the resting place of Merlin. In the cool depths of the so-called Valley Of No-Return, an enormous golden chestnut tree shimmers in the dim light. Its origin is more prosaic and more recent than Arthurian legend - Parisian sculptor, Francois Davin, created it as a valentine after a forest fire in 1990. But it adds to the enchanted atmosphere of a little-visited corner of France.

Brittany's creature feature

It may not be a real elephant, but it just spat at me. It was a warning, I suppose, for my having got too close. The mahout of this mechanical monster pulled a lever, the trunk whipped around and released a cloud of cold spray that saturated me from the knees down.

The Great Elephant is aptly named. At 12m high, it weighs almost 50 tonnes and hauls its remarkably lifelike bulk - a skeleton of steel and hydraulic cables and a "skin" of American tulip - around the Island of the Machines at less than a tenth of the speed of a real ambling jumbo.

The Island, on the site of a former shipyard, is one of the many charms of Nantes, the vibrant city which is Brittany's largest. And that elephant is the first of an entire bestiary which will eventually comprise everything from undersea monsters to giant crabs.

"We wanted to show that imagination is not the sole preserve of Walt Disney," said one of the machine-makers as he introduced a prototype to a curious group and invited an eight-year-old and a 70-year-old to test-drive it.

It seemed a superfluous remark to make in the city where Jules Verne was born; the riverside childhood home of the author of A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and other fantastic adventures is now a museum in his honour. But the Island of the Machines is a marvellous synthesis of imagination and technology which pays tribute to the history of its site. You don't get that at Disneyland.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand Pacific Economy fares to Paris, France start from $3053 per person return, travelling via Hong Kong/London with no stopovers, in conjunction with partner airlines. Fare is valid for departures between January 16 - June 15 and August 15 - December 16 2010. Travel is available on alternative dates. Please contact Air New Zealand for more information.

Getting around: Rates for medium- or long-term hire can be significantly better than rental car rates, but arrangements must be made before you arrive in Europe. Contact renaulteurodrive.co.nz or phone 0800 807 778.

Further information: The Office of Tourism at Mont Saint-Michel is at ot-montsaintmichel.com

Peter Calder drove around Brittany in a car supplied by Renault Eurodrive

- NZ Herald

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