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Trip Report A too-short trip to Brittany, Normany and Paris

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We are just back from two weeks in France, and I am having my usual post-trip letdown as I survey all the tasks awaiting me here at home. What better excuse for a quick trip report?

Some generalities - we are a family of four, two boys, one 13 and one 8. They have very different personalities and different traveling styles, so we find we have slowed WAY down from our pre-child mode of travel - our experience may not be very helpful for people who want to see a lot in a short period of time. We also did not eat out very much, partly because that was an area where we could easily economise.

I like to cycle, recreationally (I am a "bicycle rider" rather than a "cyclist") and for a long time have wanted to put together a family vacation that involved some cycling. Our last big trip was to Skye, which is a little above my ability level on a bike. (DH rides a lot and thinks climbing mountains is "fun" - he is fortunate that his job takes him to New Mexico semi-regularly, as there is a shortage of mountains in the Florida panhandle.)

I no longer remember how - it may have been a suggestion from a friend - but I came across the website for a company called Breton Bikes several years ago and have had it bookmarked for a trip ever since. Breton Bikes is located, not surprisingly, in Brittany, and organizes bicycling trips of varying levels. A few of their trips are "led"; most are do-it-yourself where they provide maps, equipment and support, and you go at your own pace from one hotel or campground to the next. They also own two "gites" in the little town of Gouarec, and that was the option we took - a cozy cottage right in town. (Given the weather we ended up having, I am especially pleased with that choice.) A good portion of their bookings are for families and they have all the equipment necessary to cycle with children of different ages. Their website is www.bretonbikes.com and they were extremely friendly and helpful with pre-trip planning.

Since our 13-year-old loves anything having to do with military history, I decided we would start in Brittany and then head to Normany for some D-Day immersion. Our arrival date was dictated by DH's travel for work, and our departure by the fact that the boys and I were using frequent flyer tickets, so we ended up a day short of two weeks. We were there early enough so that it still felt like the off-season, or at least, not the high season. That had its advantages and disadvantages, as some things were not yet operating on summer schedules.

Day 1 was a Saturday. We arrived at Charles de Gaulle and, thanks to the kind suggestion of someone on this forum, easily met up with DH in front of the Sheraton located within the airport. Much more challenging was locating the rental car counter. I really dislike CDG and wandering around it this time did nothing to dispel that feeling. At least we had managed to carry on all our luggage, so we did not have to go through baggage claim. (I had a rolling bag and a small duffel; each boy had a backpack and a small rolling bag.) Normally I would not have attempted the 5-hour drive to Gouarec immediately after arriving (2 to 3 hours seems to be our limit), but DH had already been in that time zone for two weeks and so I gladly delegated the driving to him. I stayed awake long enough to navigate us to the right autoroute.

We arrived, got our bikes and instructions for a week's worth of rides, found a supermarket on the edge of town and settled in.

In addition to its general location, Gouarec has two great cycling resources: the canal towpath along the old Nantes-Brest canal runs right through town (it goes for over 100 miles towards the coast), and nearby there is a cyclepath converted from an old railway line. We ended up spending more time on those trails than we had planned to, but we were glad they were there. If the weather had been better we might have encouraged the kids up a few more hills and for longer distances, but we were riding in clouds and mist much of the time, and we did not want to push them so far that they became miserable.

On Sunday we did the recommended ride down the canal towpath to Bon Repos (about 5k away from Gouarec), arriving in time to shop at the little marche there. The boys were immediately entertained. Bon Repos is home to the ruins of an old abbey; we did not visit but walked around the grounds. In the summer there is apparently a son-et-lumiere show, but we were there a little bit too early for that. We continued on a few more kilometers to Les Forges de Salles, an old steel-making village that is privately owned. It was used until the late 1800s and has been well preserved; it made for an interesting little visit. For more information: http://www.lesforgesdessalles.info/.

On Monday we awoke to rain, not pouring, but steady enough to make cycling unappealing. The forecast grimly noted that "eclaircies" were not expected until Wednesday. We decided to drive down to Carnac to see the standing stones there. It was about an hour and a half from the gite and most of the drive was lovely, despite the weather. In places the landscape made me think of the Borders...not spectacular, but with beautiful rolling hills. As we approached the coast the weather improved - it never really got sunny, but at least it wasn't raining.

The stones at Carnac were impressive; one aspect ot the visit that was slightly disappointing was that all the bathroom facilities at the main visitors' center were en panne (I was informed that there was no water). It did not appear to be a temporary thing, because we realized that the area all around the parking lot had been turned into a gigantic outdoor lavatory and was full of toilet paper, diapers, and the like. I understand the urgent call of nature, but not the failure to clean up after one's self...I was relieved that it was not warmer and sunnier, and I hope they sort that out before the big crowds start arriving.

We also drove down to one of the beaches so that the boys could get out and run around in the sand. Then we headed back to the cottage, where it was still drizzling.

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were all about equally gray; the promised eclaircies never really materialized, although there were just enough breaks in the drizzle to keep us optimistic. We made little excursions up and down the canal. We were able to do one of the recommended routes away from the cyclepath and tow path, a 22km circle through several charming little towns to the east and north of Gouarec. Tuesday was market day in Rostrenen, probably the largest town in the immediate area, and we frittered away a morning there. We also headed back down the canal path one day, through Bon Repos, and then (after a steep but smooth "walk" up a hill) on to the megalithic tombs at Liscuis, highly recommended by our hosts. Here is a site (in French) with some information: http://www.centre-ouest-bretagne.org/racine/accueil/decouvrir_et_visiter/culture_patrimoine_et_savoir_faire/patrimoine_archeologique/allees_couvertes_du_liscuis_laniscat_22,

It appears that just recently the tombs have been roped off; you can still get within a few feet of them, but you are asked not to enter or climb on them, which is fine with me. Most of the references I've found on to the tombs show them completely accessible, but that brings problems of its own. They are on a hilltop with nice views of the surrounding area - I wonder what it looked like 5000 years ago? Was the view as nice? I hope so.

One of the recommended rides was a 25-km route taking us through Sainte-Brigitte, which our directions said is the site of the best creperie in Brittany. We ended up going there by car to verify the claim. Although I can't claim to have tested a statistically significant sample, the galettes and crepes there were indeed excellent. It was the only creperie we found where both boys enjoyed the buckwheat galettes as much as the dessert crepes...it may have something to do with the liberal use of butter (enough to clog several arteries).

On Friday the weather was finally promising enough for DH to tackle one of the longer and more challenging routes that had been calling to him all week. He particularly wanted to ride a hill near Mur de Bretagne (about 20 km away, I think) that was on last year's Tour de France route. He accomplished that goal, riding through both sun and gale before getting back to the cottage. After he returned we set out en famille to ride back towards Mur de Bretagne on the rail-to-trail cyclepath. We made it as far as Beau Rivage, a little tourist station on the man-made Lac de Guerledan. The creperie there was closed, so we had hot chocolate by the lake and headed home, waving to the local cows along the way. A few scattered bursts of sunshine reminded me "yes, this is what I came for."

Most nights we ate at the gite. Friday night was DH's birthday, so we went out for dinner at the local pizzeria. The pizzas were quite good but enormous; we should have gone a night earlier and had leftovers. (We ate them for breakfast the next morning instead.) The owners were just back from vacation, though, so now that I think about it, Friday was the first day we could have gone. The restaurant across the street was closed for most of the week as well, with a sign that they would open "towards noon on Thursday," so we never got to try it.

Saturday we cleaned up, returned our bikes, and regretfully said goodbye to the gite. The weather had the decency to be gray and depressing; it would really have been adding insult to injury for Saturday morning to be sunny and clear.

Our original plan had been to drive up to the northern coast for an excursion on a steam train (our 8-year-old is passionate about trains). We had no luck; an unspecified technical problem had delayed the train's opening day until a date to be announced later in June. Normally it would have been running at least a few days a week by May. It was highly recommended to us, so I will include the website: http://www.vapeurdutrieux.com/. I just took a quick look and don't see the "notice" about the technical problem, so perhaps the train is finally running.

We decided to head up that way anyway, just for a change of scenery, so we drove up to Paimpol, a tourist town on the water, before heading over towards Normandy. In retrospect I think I would have saved that for another trip, but it was again very scenic and we passed a number of charming churches and abbeys along the way. As we rounded the coast towards Normandy we also made a slight detour to see the cathedral at Dol-de-Bretagne. The boys did not complain about the detour, probably because the cathedral so closely resembles a fortress. We entered only to realize that a wedding was going on, so we did not linger inside; we stayed just long enough to applaud the nouveaux maries as they came out, and then got back on the road.

All in all I thought the parts of Brittany we were able to see were absolutely beautiful - not in take-your-breath-away kind of way, but a more subtle kind of way. I would happily return.

I'll add Normandy a little later.

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