Wednesday, 20 June 2012: Bayeux to Avranches: Patton on the way to Mont Saint Michel

Written 15–17 July 2012

From this point in the trip on, we had longer drives and shorter hotel stays, because they things we wanted to see were farther apart and we had to be back in Paris in time (sigh) to fly home. So immediately after breakfast, we piled everything into the car and made tracks for Avranches (near the south coast of Brittany), the nearest sizable town to Mont Saint Michel. We didn't recall any other options for accommodation between there and the Mont itself, where the hotels are hugely expensive and, according to our hostess at the Manoir, not worth the money. She warned us that the whole system of approach to the Mont and recently changed (just within the last couple of months) and that she had driven over for the medical conference (she's an M.D.) and to check out the new arrangements, on behalf of her guests at the Manoir. She said we should on no account ever consider staying at the Mere Poulard hotel, where she paid $300 euros/night and the walls were moldy!

We had lunch at a Mere Poulard establishment on our last trip, but that didn't seem possible this year—we had only one night in Avranches, and we probably couldn't either get to Mont Saint Michel in time for lunch on the day before or delay our departure from it until after lunch on the day after.

pizzeria salad As it happened, though, we made very good time to Avranches and at least got there in time for lunch. Avranches's claim to fame, aside from its proximity to Mont Saint Michel, is that it was the site of the Avranches breakout, where the allied army finally managed to get around the German lines and out of Normandy. Patton's army was formed there, and half the businesses in town commemorate the event.

salad salad At the Patton Pizzeria, after dropping our luggage off at our hotel, we enjoyed this trio of excellent salads, covered with various combinations and permutations of cooked and raw ham, grated and melted cheese, bacon, eggs, toast, chicken gizzards, and streaks of balsamic vinegar syrup.

The pizzeria's front windows looked directly out onto the town's main intersection, an asymmetrical five-points of roads to other towns.

Patton monument point The large asymmetrical traffic island in the center of the intersection, which functions as a rotary, was occupied by this massive obelisk, on which raised letters read (in my translation): "From 31 July to 10 August 1944, accomplishing the Avranches breakout, in the din of his armored vehicles, on the path toward victory and the liberation of France, the glorious American army of General Patton passed through this intersection." CJ took lots of photos for One of her brothers, who's a big Patton fan.

Laid out in the shape of a star surrounding the obelisk are large concrete points, each inscribed with the major battles participated in by the various segments of Patton's army. This one, for the 8th Corps, lists five, all in Normandy.

The complex ALSO includes the obligatory tank, a bust Patton, a plaque marking the spot where a time capsule was buried on 31 July 1984 (the 50th anniversary), and another small plaque "In hommage to John Brunea," described as the last surviving American veteran who landed on D-Day on Omaha Beach. He died, in Avranches, on 11 January 2010.

We didn't spent too much time on the monument, though, because it was time to hit the road for Mont Saint Michel, another half hour's drive beyond Avranches. We could see it almost as soon as we left Avranches, seeming to rise out of the salt meadows that stretch for miles around the bay that actually surrounds it. (The region is very proud of its lamb, raised on those salt meadows, which apparently give the meat a particularly good flavor.) WE lost sight of it as we dropped down off the high spot Avranches occupies, but it reappeared later in the trip, still miles away across the meadows.

Mont Saint Michel is an abbey (still occupied by an active religious order), with its church and the little village that grew up around it, all originally located on a small island in the bay, cut off from land at every high tide. Later, a causeway was built so that the "island" was accessible at all tides. By the time we first visited, silt from the three rivers that empty into the bay had filled in around the island, and parts of the resulting mud flats, on either side of the causeway had been paved and were in use as parking lots. We parked there for our visit, carefully noting the signs, updated daily, that warned of which areas of parking were likely to be inundated that day, and at what times. Inundations had become relatively rare.

Mont Saint Michel view Even at that time, we heard talk of a major project intended to restore the "martime nature" of the site, i.e., to dredge out all that silt so as to restore tidal inundation of all the surrounding land except the causeway. That project is now under way, and the parking lots are now closed. Some have already been torn out. Shuttle buses now run regularly from remote parking lots to the Mont and back. Unfortunately, as our hostess at the Manoir had warned us, commercialism has won out. From the parking lots, you have to walk most of a mile—through a long strip of newly built businesses—just to reach the bus stop. In other words, they are building, on purpose the sort of ugly strip that normally collects around tourist destinations in the U.S. The original plan was to have the buses depart directly from the parking lots, but the local mayor objected, insisting that all visitors walk through this new shopping village. You'd better believe I'll never buy one single thing from any of those businesses. (And, needless to say, the businesses located on the Mont itself are livid.) According to signs posted outside some of the restaurants and motels, the only way to park closer to the bus stop is to make a reservation in those very restaurants and motels and therefore get a pass to drive to their parking lots!

Once you actually get to the bus stop and get on a bus, it drops you off rather far from the actual entrance to the Mont, as you can see in the photo of CJ on the left, taken near where they dropped us off. Coming back, we had to walk even farther to reach the return bus stop (near the bridge in the right-hand photo, taken from the Mont looking back toward the parking area).

spire flats Once you get onto the island itself, you begin a long, spiral climb toward the top, the lower part of which is elbow to elbow tourists and crammed with snack bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops. Mère Poulard (which means "mother hen") was the nickname of an actual woman (whose name may, for all I know, actually have been Poulard) who, for decades, ran a little restaurant on the Mont that specialized in fluffy omelets, originally cooked over an open fire in long-handled skillets. We had one the last time we were there, and it was pretty good. Since her time, the business has expanded, buying out other places, and now every other business is part of the "Mère Poulard" group. The guys who work there beating endless batches of egg whites to fluff the omelets, in big copper bowls, are famous for getting bored with just beating round and round and for improvising drum solos with their whisks (they sound like a drummer playing the cymbals with a brush). We could hear them this time as we walked past the first establishment. At least I hope it was really them and not just a recording they play these days for the tourists.

Once you reach the foot of the church, which occupies the top of the island, you can buy tickets to tour it, but once again audioguides have replaced the human guides we had last time, and once again, the tour is no longer as good. The climb continues for quite a while even once you're inside the abbey compound. The highest point we reached was the terrace from which I got this shot of the very top. That's Saint Michel (Saint Michael) himself perched on the top of the spire. The other photo is a view of the mudflats looking back toward the mainland. At the right of the image is another angle of the same terrace we were on. In the distance, we could see many groups of people down on the flats, apparently being shown things by guides (biology students? tourists interested in mud?).

cloister garden One side of a walkway the tour took us along looked into the cloister you see here (which was perched near the top of the structure; not really a building or a group of buildings, the abbey is a whole collection of structures wrapped around the central stone peak of the island; it doesn't have "floors" or "storys," because every room is some fraction of a story up or down from the next), and the other side was lined with windows looking out over the mudflats toward the sea. Those windows have been glassed in, to prevent mishaps (it's a long way down), and at that time of day they were swarmed with insects, from tiny gnats to large bumblebees, who had come in through the open top of the cloister and then tried to leave through the side windows and couldn't find their way back out.

From another walkway, this one exterior, we had this view down into one of several small gardens tucked here and there in the abbey. We walked down through it later, on the way out.

nave scriptorium The abbey includes several naves, of which this is the largest (at the left), with a wooden roof (essentially an inverted ship's hull). At the right is the scriptorium, one of the few places in an abbey or monastery that was routinely heated, because without heat the monks' fingers would get too stiff to write or illuminate manuscripts. The suspended objects in the scriptorium are illustrations from illuminated texts, reproduced on glass and hung from the ceiling to evoke the room's purpose. In another room, at a different point on the tour, were several fire places so large that they served as convenient locations for the benches placed for the convenience of tourists.

I wasn't able to get a very good photo of it, but something I was especially impressed by was the system the builders and residents of the abbey used to haul loads up the hill—a steeply inclined, almost vertical, set of rails up which a sort of cart could be pulled, powered by a big wooden treadwheel. It looked much like a water wheel, but instead of being rotated by water pouring over or under it, it turned under the power of a couple of people standing inside it, walking, like hamsters in a cage.

In the nave, you'll notice scaffolding. In addition to the massive restoration going on outside, to restore the tidal regime, signs of construction and repair were everywhere on the Mont. Even in Vauban's time, the structure was showing signs of deterioration, and at one point in the historic past, an entire façade of the church collapsed in the night, right onto the monks' sleeping quarters! Various repairs have been made over the centuries, but now it's clear that major work is needed if the place is going to survive, so the state has taken on the task and is renovating the whole thing, with original materials where possible.

horses wavy curb On our way back to the bus stop, we passed this much more interesting conveyance, but it was labeled "experimental vehicle; not taking passengers." It was one of several moving around the area; perhaps the plan is to replace the motorized shuttles with horse-drawn ones.

After an annoyingly long hike along perfectly empty and usable road we finally were able to catch a shuttle back to the point from which we could make an annoyingly longer hike back to the car. Several businesses on the Mont were displaying signs saying "Annoyed by the new parking and shuttle system? Sign the petition here." So maybe by your next visit things will have changed; I certainly hope so. That trek will be absolutely brutal on a sunny day in July or August. The place really is one of the wonders of the world, but our whole visit was overshadowed by the new transport system and by our disappointment in the audioguided visit, which didn't convey the marvels of the abbey as well as the old human guides did.

I had thought of it as an entire half-day kind of thing, but we were in and out in a couple of hours and back to Avranches in time to rest up before dinner, which was in our hotel. While the others napped, I went out to buy a new Gault-Millau guide and a road map that would get us to the airport and, on the way to the bookstore, was charmed by Avranches's rather unconventional curbstones.

Our hotel, the Croix d'Or (cross of gold), was an old coaching inn famed for its accommodations and restaurant for generations. We were every happy with it. It had it's own enclosed parking, quite convenient to our rooms, which looked out onto its lovely interior garden. Going to dinner was just a stroll down to the dining room.

gazpacho foie gras The amuse-bouche was gazpacho. A couple of years ago, we got gazpacho with every meal, everywhere, but the fad seems to have passed. This was the only one this year. It was whipped to creaminess, which is why it's so light colored.

David's starter was foie gras three ways: warm sautéed, a slice of cold terrine, and thin very lightly cooked slices in a vinaigrette marinade. Toast on the side. Like so many dishes in Normandy, it came with sliced caramelized apples (nearest the camera).

fish sweetbreads I'm afraid I don't remember what CJ's first course was, but from a study of the menu, I'm guessing it was medallion of monkfish with a langoustine heart on a bed of braised fennel, slices of beet on the side. CJ, do you remember? Correct me if you do.

My first course was excellent—creamy slices of parboiled sweetbreads sautéed in walnut oil and napped with a creamy chestnut sauce. A little salad on the side to cut the richness.

fish rabbit David's main course was turbot in a potato crust with creamy truffle-flavored mushroom butter sauce, surruonded by a whole collection of vegetables. The graceful yellow swirl next to the broccoli is a quartered braised fennel bulb, and the odd object at the lower left was the top of a yellow carrot.

Main course, CJ: Saddle of rabbit, rolled into neat cylinders for cooking and served on slices of toast with a balsamic sauce. The square pyramid was a flan of duck foie gras (which CJ pronounced particularly delicious).

pigeon cheese Main course, me: Whole deboned and stuffed pigeon with honey-spice sauce an—here the menu said "Jerusalem artichokes," but that had been crossed out and "rutabagas" written in by hand. The pigeon was good, stuffed with mushrooms and the giblets, but the rutabagas were a revelation! They were delicious. I gave pieces to both David and CJ, and they agreed! Who would have thought. (At the end of the trip, back in Tallahassee, I went right out and acquired a chubby two-pound rutabaga; they're pretty much always available at Publix, coated with wax to prevent dehydration. I peeled it deeply, cut it up, and parboiled it, as is always recommended for turnips, then—figuring it was the honey that made the difference—I boiled it again in fresh water to which I added a good big dollop of honey. The result was excellent. So now I'll be running test series for a while, checking out the various ways to use a yummy new vegetable. The Memorial de Caen recommended "rutabaga cutlets," an innovation devised during the WWII rationing: slice a rutabaga and trim the slices into the shapes of mutton chops; parboil; dip in milk and coat with crumbs; then roast in grease until tender.)

Here's CJ cheese plate—she branched out this time, tryin both a blue and some Salers in addition to her Camembert.

cake dessert For dessert, David ordered one of those little hot chocolate cakes with the molten center, and CJ got a sort of pyramidal, mousse with a crisp chocolate shell and, I think, with a center of some other flavor. On top was a flat square of chocolate with an embossed decoration on top sprayed gold. None of the above appealed to me, so I just had home-made caramel and coffee ice cream.

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