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From SWMBO: Yesterday Fahbio and I metroed it to the new section of Paris, La Defense, to pick up our brand new Peugeot van.  This van was ordered through the “buy back” program that I will elucidate in a future post.  Stay tuned!  This van will be our baby for the next 175 days – until September 29.

Our new van - so clean!

Our new van – so clean!

Only 11 km on the Odometer

Only 11 km on the Odometer

After picking up the van we had a lurchy, lurchy ride back to our apartment to pick up the kids and luggage.  That was the effect of standard after years of driving automatic.  An hour to load up the van and sweep up the apartment and we were off! Off where you ask?  To Normandy to visit a friend of a friend.  A four hour drive with pit stops at MacDonald’s (more wifi free for me for some unexplained and frustrating reason but free wifi for everyone else), a flower shop (gift for hostess), and grocery store (for lunch). We arrived at dinner time as arranged and received a gentle and warm welcome.  How odd to be living with someone you know nothing about, have never met and yet have so much in common with and with whom you feel right at home.  Friends of friends share a common history with you even though you didn’t know they existed.  It is fascinating to reminisce about events, places, people that you both share but with separate experiences. Today we set off in the morning to Mont Saint Michel.  After exiting the highway, we pulled into a farmer’s orchard and purchased one bottle each of fresh apple juice (so delicious) as well as hard pear and apple cider.  Normandy is known for apples and the cider and calvados made with them.

View from German Cemetery - Mont Saint Michel in distance

View from German Cemetery – Mont Saint Michel in distance

Continuing on our way, we saw signs for the German war cemetery.  Intrigued, we made a detour and came to a very moving sight/site.  I was expecting a cemetery with gravestones, but in fact, this was an ossuary, just like the Paris catacombs.  It was built in the 1960s and the bones of German soldiers all over the area were dug up and moved.  There are 11876 soldiers interred there.  So many.  The monument is set up in a circle with crypts radiating out, each containing the bones of 180 soldiers.  Each crypt is marked with the names of the individual soldiers and many “ein deutscher Soldat”.  The architectural and artistic detailing is absolutely beautiful.  Forged metal everywhere.  There is a staircase you can climb and when you reach the top – your breath stops in your throat.  The shocking apparition of Mont Saint Michel across the salt flats.

German Cemetery - each dark opening contains the remains of 180 soldiers

German Cemetery – each dark opening contains the remains of 180 soldiers

Crypt containing 180 German soldiers from the Second World War

Crypt containing 180 German soldiers from the Second World War

The German cemetery was so informative and profound that it made us determined to visit the Canadian cemetery on our way back up through France. We carried on to Mont Saint Michel.  We parked our car in the compulsory lot (12.30 euros = $20) and then made our way to the free shuttle buses.  On the way, we noticed that there was an alternate 3 kilometre walk to the site.  I could see the kids’ faces fall as they heard this because they knew I would use all my wiles to try to get them to walk.  How my heart soared when I heard Fahbio (the non-walker) say – “Three kilometres isn’t far at all.  It’s nothing.”  Our month in Paris had accustomed him to walking 5 kilometres at a time with children.  So we set off, with the intention of taking the shuttle back.

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Mont Saint Michel

Mont Saint Michel has been a major pilgrimage destination for a thousand years.  Before the late 19th century, it was a dangerous thing to make a pilgrimage to Mont Saint Michel.  It required walking 7 kilometres over the mud flats with tides that come in quickly.  The area around Mont Saint Michel is deceptive because the tide goes out and the area is so vast that it tempts one to go walking and exploring. Some pilgrims carry crosses as they walk or resort to self-flagellation to remind them of the reason they are walking.  I prefer to shackle myself to a group of whining children.  Too hot, too hungry, too in need of urination, too insistent on ice cream, too sore of a throat, too fed up of walking, too fed up of driving, too sure that the shuttle would have been a better idea, too upset we don’t have a pet: all true complaints heard by SWMBO on the journey and all heard more than once.

View out from ramparts of Mont Saint Michel

View out from ramparts of Mont Saint Michel

Eventually we got there.  There were A LOT of people as would befit France’s second most visited site after the Eiffel tower.  We walked around the old town and discovered that in 1532, in Mont Saint Michel, the King of France met Jacques Cartier and commanded him to explore the rivers of Canada.  At home, the name Jacques Cartier is everywhere so it was quite remarkable to stumble upon this bit of information.

Then we made our way up to the abbey and there began some bizarreness.  One line for groups, one line for individuals – at the top of the stairs both lines join up.  Huh?  Everyone was made to file in and have bags checked.  Then buy tickets in an area off to the side (we missed this step in the crowd).  Then file back out where we came in.   Huh?  What was the point of that, security-wise?  Then when we came to the ticket check, we had no tickets.  Much confusion.  Children are free so kids could have gone ahead but they were pooped and wanted to wait for us to go get tickets.  But there were so many people coming in, it was hard to go back out to get the tickets.  There was much debate on our part as to whether to skip it or pay 2 x 9 euros (about $30) to get in.

Then the ticket lady asked us if we were going to get tickets.  We made a split second decision and said “yes”.  She told us that the kids could go to the end at the gift shop where there was a bench and they could wait for us there.  That would mean walking through the entire Abbey of Mont Saint Michel – through the cloisters, the crypts, the cathedral, the refectory etc etc etc.  The end gift shop is right beside the place to buy entrance tickets however to get to it you have to complete the whole tour.  But they were already sitting on a bench – right there.  I asked if they could stay on this bench while I went back to buy the tickets.  She said yes but that it would be more comfortable if they went to the gift shop bench and we should go in with them and then buy our tickets at the gift shop.  Huh?  I absolutely have no idea what happened there but we think she was telling us, in a profoundly cryptic way, that we could go in without paying.

At the end of the tour, you exit a door into the village which if you knew about it, you could just open and walk into.  Huh?

Low tide, Mont Saint Michel

Low tide, Mont Saint Michel

Anyways, the church was magnificent.  It was built over many years but parts of it predate Notre Dame de Paris!  And once we got into the church, the crowds weren’t so noticeable.  Many school groups and other groups but they had to follow guides so it was easy to avoid them.  The gift shop at the end contained many highly overpriced but tempting items.  I felt justified in supporting this blatant cash grab after our windfall entrance. When it came time to leave, I decided to walk back and Fahbio wanted to join me.  We gave the children the option of taking the shuttle and waiting for us at the car or walking with us.  The three oldest kids opted for the shuttle but Lastborn and Venice wanted to walk back with us.  When we met at the car, everyone was happy to drink fresh apple juice and plop into the van for the ride back “home” where we were once again welcomed with open arms.

Lastborn, Onlyboy, Paris, Venice, Firstborn on walk to Mont Saint Michel

Lastborn, Onlyboy, Paris, Venice, Firstborn on walk to Mont Saint Michel