Category Archives: France

Mont Saint-Michel close up

The Camera Nerd of Mont Saint-Michel

After visiting the towns of Giverny, Rouen, and Honfleur I swung southwest past Caen towards the coast. I’d always wanted to visit the iconic Mont Saint-Michel. It was a little out of the way of my intended path towards the chateaux of the Loire Valley, but I figured it was worth the detour.

Mont St. Michel
The iconic Mont Saint-Michel from a distance.

Mont Saint-Michel is on a tiny island one kilometer off the French coast near the town of Avranches. The island, which consists of only 247 acres and 44 permanent residents, is basically a big rock 300 meters high that is enveloped by the tide of the Atlantic Ocean twice per day.  When the tide is out, the barren tidal flats spread all around the island for hundreds of meters.

Mont Saint-Michel garden.
A nice place to rest on the island.

The island was fortified in ancient times since it was so easy to defend due to the tides. If attackers couldn’t breach the walls at low tide, the rapidly advancing tide drowned them before they could retreat to the mainland.

A monastery was built on the rock in the eighth century and an abbey was added in the eleventh century. A small village grew up along the lower portions of the rock to provide for the pilgrims that visited in the middle ages. Later, the island was used as a prison.

Today the island is reachable by a special causeway road from the mainland to support the three million visitors who make the trek each year.  After a scenic drive through the rural French coastal flat lands, I pulled my car into a large, modern parking lot. I joined the queue of mostly Japanese tourists outside the obligatory visitor’s center and waited for the bus.

After a short ride on the causeway to the end of the road, my crowd of tourists disembarked and started walking the rest of the way to the island via a sidewalk. The view of Mont St. Michel at this point was stunning.  Everyone pulled out their cameras for the photo opportunity.

Mont Saint-Michel close up
A closer view of Mont Saint-Michel from the access road.

After taking a few snaps I continued walking. Thirty meters farther I stopped to take another photo. As I pressed the shutter and heard the camera click, something smacked me in the back of the head. Whaaccckk!!

It almost knocked me off my feet. I whirled around to see what had happened.

I had been assaulted by a Camera Nerd.

If you’ve been anywhere as a traveler you’ve seen the type. He was an American middle-aged guy with a paunch and a beard. He was dressed in tourist khaki polyester pants with eighteen pockets. He had hiking boots, a baseball cap, a fanny pack, and a cell phone in a holder on his belt. His sunglasses were on a string around his neck. His fishing vest had thirty-six pockets, most of which were empty.

But the thing that distinguishes Camera Nerd is his camera.  He is of the expert opinion that bigger is better, and the biggest is the best.

This Camera Nerd had a camera as big as his head, and a telephoto zoom lens as big as a loaf of bread. Like me, he had decided to take a splendid photo of Mont Saint-Michel at just this spot. Unlike me, while he was looking through his massive telephoto lens, this dude KEPT WALKING FORWARD!

Who does that? He’s in a crowd, seriously limits his field of view, and keeps walking.

“Dude! Watch where you’re going! You just smacked me in the back of the head with your lens!’ I yelled.

“Oh, sorry.” He said and kept walking. He was already intensely focused on lining up his next shot.

Mont Saint-Michel wall view.
Part of the wall around the village on Mont Saint-Michel.

I stumbled through the gates of the village and walked ever upward towards the abbey. There is only one road in the village, called Grande Rue (big street). Cafes, shops, and hotels crowd the tiny pedestrian street. The views of the surrounding tidal flats from the top of the rock are tremendous.

tidal flats
The tide is out… Watch out kids! Here comes a big cloud!

I decided to skip the tour of the abbey and just relax at various points along the high walls. I could see groups of people hiking across the tidal flats toward another island in the bay. I wondered when the tide would come in.

Outside the gate, I saw one of the groups come in from the flats. There were about 20 grade school age children with their teacher. All of them had walked barefoot in the mud.

The kids, and especially the young boys, had big grins on their faces as they washed their feet with a hose before piling into a couple of vans. Mud was everywhere.

That would have been my kind of school field trip.

Nest on Mont Saint-Michel.
A perfect nesting place.
Yellow car

Driving on the French Autoroutes

Traveling on the French Autoroutes is similar to driving on other freeways in Europe.  The roads are not as nice as the Autobahn in Germany, but better than the Autostradas in Italy. They have lots of tollbooths and the toll charges add up to a lot of baguettes. They also appear to have speed cameras, although I never noticed any on the roads.

Mini in Paris
NO! Not a Mini again!

I only know this now because I keep getting “administrative charges” showing up on my credit card account from Sixt, the car rental company I used on my France trip. Sixt charges me 18 euros every time they get notified that I did something wrong while renting their car. I’ve received four of these in the past month.

I’m slowly getting these tickets in the mail from the French road authorities. They want 45 euros for each ticket from me at first, escalating to 180 euros each over time. One of the tickets cited me for going 138 km/hr in a 130 km/hr zone. The 130 km/hr speed is the standard speed limit on the Autoroute.  My excessive speed of 8 km/hr over the speed limit is approximately 5 mph.

Give me a break!  This is on the freeway! Almost everyone was driving faster than me. If they send tickets to all of those drivers, think of the administrative machine and revenue generating/wealth redistribution system they have designed.  Those French socialists!

I think I’ll refuse to pay these tickets, just like that ticket described in my Italian driving misadventures. Unless they can get to my credit card like those *#@$%&$ Austrians.

Yellow car
This car will keep me within the speed limit.

I’m still struggling with my European GPS (go here for a tale of my inadvertent Swiss mountain climbing expedition in a Mini). One time my GPS sent me through the back roads of the French countryside to my next destination, instead of via the Autoroute.  It was nice for a while, until I got to a road closed due to construction.  I was in the middle of the back of beyond, in terms of the Loire Valley.

To recover from the closed road, the GPS sent me down one lane roads, gravel roads, and farmer’s lanes until eventually (OK, it was actually a couple of hours) I ended up back at a main road.  When I looked at the map later, I could have done the whole trip on freeways. I am going to take a sledge hammer to that GPS someday.

(If you want to leave the driving to someone else, such as to and from an airport in Europe, try Blacklane Limousines).

On my way towards Normandy I stopped at a gas station to get something to drink. When I came back out to my car I saw this:

bad park job
My rented BMW M1 is on the left.

Thanks, dude. You’ve blocked me in. What were you thinking? I can’t even get my car door open!

I was getting steamed. Who parks like that? What an idiot!

I had to wait for the truck driver to come back to his (or her) vehicle.  I decided to stand in the way and confront him, silently, because if he knew I was American he would probably let loose a slew of French vulgarities at me.

French road sign.
Typical French road sign.

After ten minutes I saw a young guy in overalls come out of the store. He had a cup of coffee and a candy bar. I planted my feet and took up as much of the sidewalk as I could in front of my car, so as to partially block the path to the truck. He was looking down at his coffee as he walked, until he got a few feet from me.  He noticed that I was in the way and looked up, into my eyes.

I gave him my Angry Eyes, pointedly looked at his park job, then stared back at him.  I didn’t say a word.

He slightly grinned, smirked, and ducked around me without speaking. He hopped into his truck. I gave him the French single finger salute as he drove away. It made me feel better.

Back on the road.  Let’s go to Mont Saint-Michel.

Buildings in Rouen

Exploring Normandy in Honfleur and Rouen

After stopping in Giverny I headed northwest to the French coast. Where the Seine River meets the English Channel is the old fishing village and port of Honfleur.

Honfleur port view
The old port of Honfleur.

In the 1300s, French ships left from Honfleur to raid the English coastline during the Hundred Years War. The English returned the favor by capturing Honfleur and occupying it for many years. Eventually the French got it back and it became one of the most important French ports for hundreds of years.

Many French explorers left from Honfleur to discover the world. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain sailed from the port, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, sailed down the St. Lawrence River, and founded Quebec.  I found this out by reading a plaque on a five hundred year old building next to the port.  The Honfleurais are very proud of Champlain.

Honfleur sailboats
Sail boats in the Vieux Bassin of Honfleur.

What I didn’t see on any plaques was the fact that Honfleur was one of the five key ports of the slave trade in France in the 1600s and 1700s.  Ships sailed between Honfleur, Canada, the West Indies, the West African coast, and the Azores Islands.

The old port is centered on a man-made water enclosure called the Vieux Bassin.  This area provided shelter to the sailing ships and kept them safe during big Atlantic storms.  Many of the buildings around the Vieux Bassin are hundreds of years old.  They are painted different colors and the collection looks artistic.  This attracted Impressionist painters like our friend Claude Monet, and a native Honfleurais named Eugène Boudin.

Since this was an old port, I explored the old back streets looking for some grog.  All I found instead were expensive saltwater caramels.

Honfleur view
Another view of Honfleur.

Next I drove to the city of Rouen to have dinner with a friend. In the Middle Ages Rouen was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Europe. The Anglo-Norman kings ruled England and parts of France from here in the 11th through the 15th centuries. Some houses surviving from medieval times were made in a half-timbered style that is also found in the oldest parts of York, England.

Buildings in Rouen
Half-timbered buildings in the old town of Rouen.

Unfortunately, almost half of the town was destroyed during World War II. Today, the existing medieval buildings are intermixed with a lot of very ugly 1970s concrete boxes. Thus, the charming character of the town is completely gone.

Big clock of Rouen.
Gros horloge of Rouen.

Rouen has three claims to (sort of) fame. The first is the Rouen Cathedral, whose construction started in 1202 and didn’t finish until 1880. Our friend Monet painted a series of works of the Rouen Cathedral façade.

The second is the Gros Horloge (the Big Clock), situated appropriately enough, on Gros Horloge Street.

The third, and perhaps most well-known item, is that it was here in 1431 where Joan d’Arc was burned at the stake. The site is now marked by a plaque noting this historical event, so that tourists can have their photograph taken at the spot where another tourist was horribly murdered hundreds of years ago. (I may have my French history a little off there….)

Jean d'Arc site
The spot where Jean d’Arc was roasted.

It was indeed a hot spot. Not much else was going on in Rouen.

Monet's pond.

Hanging with Monet in Paris and Giverny

After my enlightening trip to the Pompidou Center to see modern art (as documented here), the next day I went to enlarge my knowledge of impressionism at the Musée de l’Orangerie.  The main exhibit at this Paris museum is a series of very large paintings by the master of French Impressionism, Claude Monet, called “Water Lilies” (Les Nymphiás).

water lilies
Part of one of the panels of the Water Lilies.

“Both monumental and intimate, Water Lilies are the ultimate expression of Claude Monet’s artistic ideas, an incredible project by a painter who wanted to explore all the variations of light in his garden at Giverny.  The paintings are housed in two elliptical rooms, and encourage the visitor to gaze in endless contemplation. After the horror of the First World War, Monet wanted his work to take on this aesthetic and poetic dimension, and provide a haven for peaceful meditation.”

The curved walls of the exhibition hall at L'Orangerie.
The curved walls of the exhibition hall at L’Orangerie.

Well put, by some pompous art scholar.  Each of the two large elliptical rooms show four massive and colorful paintings of Monet’s pond.  When I was there it was uncrowded.  I almost had the rooms to myself.  This was surprising considering I was in the most touristy city on earth. The paintings demand your attention and reflection.  I was able to sit on a comfortable bench and I actually did gaze in meditative contemplation at the paintings.  It was peaceful but not quite endless, because after a while I had to go to the bathroom.

Monet's pond.
Monet’s pond near Giverny.

Monet lived for much of his life in the Norman countryside near a town called Giverny, about an hour’s drive outside of Paris. For the start of my road trip around France I decided to go see Monet’s pond and find out why he painted it so many times over the last twenty years of his life. Since it was late springtime the flowers were all in bloom when I got to Monet’s gardens. As I walked along the paths I couldn’t help but marvel at the beauty of this place and how my late mother would have enjoyed it. I could see why Monet liked it here.

flowers in Monet's garden
A sample from Monet’s garden.

I wandered up and down the paths dodging the hundreds of grade school children who threatened to knock me down and trample me like a multitude of ants.  Each child had a paper and a pencil.  They were on some sort of class field trip/treasure hunt. I crossed a road at the far edge of the garden by using a tunnel and came out onto a path in a bamboo forest.  The path led around Monet’s pond.  Yes, the pond was still full of water lilies.

Monet's pond and water lilies
Another view of Monet’s pond.

By this time the sky had clouded over and it started to rain. As I walked around the pond the rain turned into a downpour. I bolted back into the tunnel to wait out the storm. When it started to let up I made a beeline for Monet’s house to dry out.

Monet's house
Hello? Is anyone home in Monet’s house?

The house has been restored to how it was in Monet’s time there (from 1883 until his death in 1926). Monet was friends with many of the leading painters of the day, and he hung paintings by Renoir and other famous artists on his bedroom walls. I also noticed a Renoir in the hallway outside his room.

Monet's study
The walls of Monet’s study are filled with his work.

Could that be an original?

MacDonald-Wright art

Giving Modern Art Another Try At the Pompidou Center In Paris

Since Paris is one of the best cities in the world to see art, I thought it might raise my artistic and cultural awareness level to visit a museum. Of course, Paris is known for the Louvre, which some say is the best art museum in the world. I went there once before and got lost for hours in the Egyptian section in the basement. When I finally found my way out, I only had enough energy to see the Mona Lisa before my legs gave out.

The Louvre contains paintings created before 1848.  For the newer stuff, I would have to go somewhere else. I hadn’t understood the modern art I’d seen last year in Munich.  So I was determined to give it another try.

Pompidou Center
Le Centre Pompidou in Paris

I walked on a rainy day through Le Marais to the Centre Pompidou, which houses the Musée National d’Art Moderne, the largest collection of modern art in Europe. The Pompidou is a very strange looking building, built in the style called “Post-Modern/High-Tech,” whatever that is.  It looks like the builders went on strike in typical French fashion and walked off the job before completing it.  The building has ugly pipes on the exterior and metal frames that look like scaffolding.  When it opened, Le Figaro (a Paris newspaper), exclaimed “Paris has its own monster, just like the one in Loch Ness.”

After riding many escalators that appeared to be glued to the outside of the building, I arrived on the fifth floor to re-start my modern art education.

modern art
Workers of the world, unite!

This piece reminds me of some 1930s Soviet propaganda extolling the virtues of universal socialism. The colors are too dull and all I can think of is that I don’t want to work there. I would probably hit my thumb with the hammer.

I like the bright colors in these two works.  They would be pleasant to hang on the wall of my office.

Delaunay art
Windows by Robert Delaunay, 1912.
S. Delaunay art
Rythme by Sonia Delaunay, 1938.

It’s interesting that these were done independently, and many years apart, by a married couple.  I can imagine how they might have met in a Parisian cafe….

Robert: “Hey baby, I am an artiste.  Want to see my art? I use lots of bright colors and I like triangles!”

Sonia: “Trés magnifique! I am also an artiste! I use lots of bright colors too, but I prefer circles.”

Robert: “We have a lot in common. Let’s drink some coffee and chain-smoke Gitanes until that little Spanish guy shows up.”

Here’s another piece with lots of bright colors. It puts me in a good mood just to look at this one. Since it is modern art, I have no idea what it is supposed to be.  But the artist called it “The Prophet.”

MacDonald-Wright art
The Prophet by Stanley MacDonald-Wright, 1955.

After looking at lots of paintings of incomprehensible colored shapes, I was yearning to see something I could recognize in the real world. I came across this one that I liked. It made me feel – je ne sais pas.  It is entitled “Young American Girl – the Dance.” However, I can’t pick out the girl and I can’t tell if she is dancing.

Picabia art
Young American Girl/The Dance by Francis Picabia, 1913.

Most famous painters of the early 20th century were men. Being men, if they were going to paint the human form, they would most likely paint a woman. Somewhere I saw a statistic that less than 3% of the artists whose work is displayed in modern art museums are women, but 83% of the nudes shown are female.  This led to the complaint that to get into a modern art museum, women need to get naked.

In this painting, I can finally recognize the girl. I like the color of her dress, and she looks like she might be, ahem, a little cold. Something about her fingers looks creepy though. She’s also way too serious. Since this woman has clothes on, I’m guessing it was painted by a woman.

Lempicka art
Jeune femme aux gants by Tamara de Lempicka, 1929.

Picasso painted lots of nudes. He used wives, mistresses, and lovers as models, but hopefully not ever in the same painting. That would take some world class explaining. I don’t think this woman is attractive, even though she’s naked. She has really big hands and feet, and I think she’s giving me the stink eye!

Picasso art
Femme nue au bonnet turc by Pablo Picasso, 1955.

The only thing I learned during my visit to the Pompidou Center was that the modern artwork that seems to get my attention includes bright colors of abstract shapes or a naked woman.  Or both of those in a single painting.

What bright colors!
What bright colors!