Valley of the Saints

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On a grey, chilly, windy day in August I visited the Valley of the Saints in northern Brittany. Like a modern-day line up of Easter Island-like giant statues, some of the many religious saints associated with bringing Christianity to Brittany are depicted in stone, sculpted by modern-day artists who are taking part in this developing project.

About 50 saints are already in place, standing proud on a windy hillside with views of the surrounding countryside and the sea. Each one is different and has it’s own story – there is a guidebook outlining the story of each saint, and there are guides too, to tell their stories.

The teenager in our Anglo-French family group took it upon himself to entertain the younger members of the group, making up stories for them about the statues and acting as an alternative guide – his stories were very funny and creative and while the children half-beleived what he was saying, the adults were chuckling a lot. If there was a saint with a sense of humour somewhere on that hillside, he or she would have been proud of our alternative guide and his amusing tales.

The saint with an axe in her head, pictured above, is touching a lion’s head – you can just see it’s teeth. Our alternative guide’s take on this one was that she reminds us to be kind to animals and the environment, otherwise we will come to a nasty end.

I fully concur with that.

Twin sisters, Brittany

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These happy ladies are volunteers in Chapelle du Kreisker, Saint-Pol-de-Leon, selling tickets for those keen enough to climb the 79 metre-high bell tower for a view over the surrounding area.

The 179 steps to the top are accessed by a very narrow steep, stone, spiral staircase. Husband and son went up, taking photos of the narrowness of the staircase just to convince me and daughter-in-law that we’d made the right decision to stay on the ground.

I asked the ladies if they were sisters….”Yes! But we are twins”, they said laughing and with eyes twinkling.

“Which one is the oldest?” I asked (my dormant French woke up and was used).

It’s the twin on the right. She didn’t know by how many minutes she was the senior twin, but there was a fair amount of good humoured joking going on between the two of them about this.

Brittany rocks!

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Excuse the pun. There are a lot of rocks and boulders in northern Brittany and I saw some of them on my recent visit there. The lush green valley with moss-covered boulders is at Huelgoat (pronounced Hwelgwa, according to the French branch of the family I was holidaying with).

We took a walk in the Argent Valley, where these huge mossy boulders tumble down into the river, and are invitingly easy to clamber on and explore. The surrounding forest is a peaceful, shady place and the star feature is the Trembling Rock, which is said to move. One of the teenagers in our party tried to get some movement out of it by leaning on it and pushing. I have to be honest and say it didn’t appear to move to me….

The pink rocks of the Cote de Granit Rose stretch way along Brittany’s northern coast, near Ploumanac’h, and their formations are weird and fascinating. The sea has shaped them such that it’s possible to see (with a little imagination) recognisable objects – is that  tortoise? Or a lizard? Or an elephant? – were some of the suggestions we came up with.

We were following part of the sentier des douaniers – a path by the coast used by smugglers and strewn with these fantastically shaped rocks.

Market at Plestin-les-Greves

There’s nothing like a bustling French market to awaken the senses after a long….very long in this case….journey to Brittany.  UK roads to Plymouth were beset with detours, a hefty storm delayed our ferry crossing to Roscoff by 12 hours, and the sea was full of heaving white horses when we sailed. The Kwells worked; I didn’t throw up, but the voyage is best glossed over.

So a trip next morning to Plestin-les-Greves to browse in the market and pick up the ambience made for a good start to the week. There were flowers, fruit, veg, and food of all kinds to please both eyes and nose. We shuffled along in the crowd of locals and tourists, enjoying the atmosphere and feeling glad we’d finally arrived.

Granddaughter cajoled her parents into buying her a watch from one stall, we each bought ourselves stylish belts from another and husband resisted the temptation to get himself yet another small change purse (he seems to get one whenever we visit France!).

Then we headed for the remains of a Roman villa and ran and played with the children on a nearby stunning beach before returning to the 16th century manor house where we were staying.

Our group of seven was due to expand to fourteen next day with the arrival of another branch of the French side of the family. More on that later.

In the footsteps of the famous

We didn’t plan it this way, if fact we hardly planned it at all. A six week Grand Tour of Europe in our motorhome, visiting places we’d not seen. The rough outline was to start off in Holland, go into Germany and then play it by ear as to where next, with a visit to Weimar high on our list of “must sees”. Leaving in late summer, we were to return in early October. Our default plan was that we would follow the sun. This we did, but we somehow also managed to follow in the footsteps of the famous.

In Hamelin we couldn’t help but be immersed in the story of the Pied Piper. From the campsite by the River Weser it was an easy walk into the town, and once there we appropriately followed the sound of music, as did the children in the famous story. There was a festival in full swing. Live bands ranged from jazz to noisy europop. We’d missed the weekly enactment of the Pied Piper story but we spotted several “Pipers” decked out in full costume. We didn’t see any rats…

Travelling east through the Harz Mountains we reached Weimar, famous for the founding of the Weimar Republic between the two World Wars, and a hot bed for German creativity. The Bauhaus Arts and Crafts Movement was founded there, writer and politician Goethe lived there, as did poet and playwright Schiller. Composer Liszt also lived for some time in Weimar.  Goethe & Schiller

We visited the homes of both Goethe and Schiller, now interesting museums with rooms intact as when lived in by these two cultural giants. Weimar itself has a pleasant cosmopolitan atmosphere, wide leafy boulevards and extensive parkland. The central square is dominated by a statue of its two great men, who were close friends.

In the original rough plan, it was planned that we would continue to head east towards Dresden and then to Saxon Germany with its weird rock formations. But the weather app was reporting highs of 13 degrees there, with rain, so we implemented the default plan and followed the sun south.

Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance appealed and the well-appointed lake shore campsite was a pleasant 10 minute walk from the town. Views across the lake to the Austrian and Swiss Alps were a daily delight, as were the nearby nature trail, cycle path and lakeside bars where we enjoyed our early evening weissbier. Once again we were travelling in the footsteps of the famous. Friedrichshafen is home to the Zeppelin Museum, and is the city where these airships were born. The Museum is well worth a visit, with a mock up of part of an airship. We learned that they were built with large viewing windows on the underside, giving passengers a wide angled panorama of the earth below. After the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, this method of air travel ceased, but it’s still possible to take a trip in a Zeppelin over Lake Constance. It’s a fascinating and impressive sight to see one pass overhead.

We moved on, travelling through Switzerland, Italy and into France where we stayed in St. Rémy de Provence. We knew it was famous for Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night” but there were only a couple of tatty information boards about this. St. Rémy is also the birthplace of Nostradamus, famous for his prophesies, but we saw no other reference to him at all apart from a side alleyway named rue Nostradamus, and a Banksy-type graffiti image of him on a wall. Did they miss a trick here in St. Rémy by not featuring him more, or are they a bit ashamed of him and his prophecies?

Heading north we stayed at the municipal site in Langres, set on the ramparts of this picturesque hilltop town, once again chancing upon another famous figure. Philosopher and writer Diderot was born here, and Langres proudly celebrates the man who wrote the Encyclopédie, a dictionary of arts and sciences.

Famed for its archiQuiche Lorrainetectural grandeur, Nancy beckoned. The École de Nancy led the Art Nouveau movement in France and the city offers a visual feast to be savoured. Whilst there we sampled one of the region’s famous dishes. I have to question the saying, “Real men don’t eat quiche”. The portions of Quiche Lorraine we had for lunch were so large and rich we didn’t need to eat for the rest of the day!

This edited and updated article first appeared in the Murvi Club in-house e-magazine.

Paradise found

It doesn’t take much to make me happy. Give me a few butterflies and birds to look at, maybe some dragonflies and bees, and I’m in my element. Of course, all this has to take place somewhere warm and sunny and preferably on a campsite which is not just any old campsite, whilst spending relaxing days of leisure in Audrey, our motorhome.

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One September few years ago this state of relative bliss was achieved. Having travelled south through France via a couple of sites in the Loire region we revisited the Dordogne and the aptly named Camping Le Paradis, a beautiful sub-tropical garden of a campsite with large shaded pitches and immaculate facilities.

Leaving behind the mosquitoes which had feasted on my blood in the Loire, we didn’t encounter any at Le Paradis, in spite of its direct access to the River Vézère, which flows alongside the site. Here I was able to indulge in close up viewing of shiny violet-black carpenter bees as they busied themselves amongst the colourful flowerbeds on site. These solitary bees are alarmingly large and make a loud buzz as they swiftly fly between flowers, seeking out pollen. One of the many I saw was smothered in it. They rarely sting and nest in dead wood, hence the name. In bee-spotting mode, I watched a red tailed bumble bee, also busy with pollen. The black and yellow furry stripes on its abdomen made it look as if it was wearing a frilly ra-ra skirt.

Lush vegetation abounds on site and in addition to the many different kinds of bees, the flowerbeds are visited by hummingbird hawk moths, fascinating day-flying moths which hover as they collect pollen through a long proboscis. They resemble real humming birds, have beige furry bodies and black and white striped rear ends. They’re a delight to watch but are difficult to photograph as they move so fast. Time can stand still just observing these insects go about their daily life.

There were plenty of butterflies to keep me happy as I walked along by the Vézère with views of the historic Roque Saint-Christophe on the opposite bank. This large IMG_3682prehistoric dwelling has numerous rock shelters on five levels, which have been hollowed out from the limestone cliffs. Earliest traces of occupation go back 50,000 years.

Having been to this ancient site, it was the butterflies which demanded my attention. Adonis blues darted across the nearby fields, in and out of the long grasses, and sometimes visited our pitch. They look like bright jewels in the sunshine. Meadow browns were everywhere, mostly where it was sunny, whilst the speckled wood butterflies preferred the shaded areas along by the river.

The high point for me was spotting a lesser purple emperor butterfly feasting on horse dung in a field not far from the campsite’s community herb and berry garden. Seeing this large and rather beautiful butterfly as it tucked into what might be considered a disgusting meal, the interconnectedness of the web of life was demonstrated while its wings reflected a purple sheen like shot silk.

And then, of course, there was the snake. Walking along by the river bank one day, I’d stepped off the path to get a better view of the water as it flowed over some reeds. “Why are you standing next to that snake?” asked husband. Executing a backwards leap that would have had a ballet master shouting “Bravo!” I managed to take in the lazily curled length (50-80cm according to my research) of this smooth snake (rapidly researched when we got back to the van together with its status – non-poisonous), before it quickly slithered into the nearby undergrowth. No photo of this; I was as busy getting out of its way as it was getting out of mine!

We did tear ourselves away from the flora and fauna to go to the nearby attractive town of Sarlat, well worth a visit, but decided to give the Lascaux 2 caves in Montignac a miss. The lure of the leisure time in the sun was just too strong to be ignored!

This edited and updated article first appeared in the Murvi Club in-house e-magazine.

D-Day: a personal 75th anniversary commemoration

I grew up with the photograph on the left in a frame on top of our piano. My mum told me it was my cousin Bertie, who was killed by a sniper along the Rhine, a month before WW2 ended. That’s pretty much all I knew for many years and I didn’t think much about it until I was contacted several years ago by a cousin, Bertie’s sister, who was asking for family stories as she was putting together a family tree.

I’d not seen her for years so I called her to pass on a few details for her project. We talked about the family, which for me was a treat because I’m an only child and very much the baby of the entire family; everyone was and is a lot older than me. I remembered Bertie’s photo and asked about him, and discovered the very dramatic true story of the experiences of this young man who I never knew. He was 23 when he was killed, and he is buried in Hanover War Cemetery.

Bertie was a member of “A” Company of the 8th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment ACC and he was parachuted into France as part of the D-Day operations on 6th June 1944. The weather was bad and the paras, dropping from the gliders which carried them, were blown off course from their target. Bertie, in a group of 40 paras, was found by 17 year old Gaston le Baron who was helping the resistance, and had gone into the marshes near the River Dives to search for the paras who he hoped would help liberate France. Continue reading