Thursday, July 14, 2011

Bastille Day in Bretagne

Bastille Day. Perfect, an excuse to wax nostalgic about France. Now I transport myself back to a July 2006 excursion to a several-hundred-year old chateau in Brittany in northwest France.

Le chateau
Tangent - I have a pet peeve with languages that change other languages' proper names. If it's called Bretagne in French, then why do we call it Brittany? Some desire to conjure images of a washed-up American pop star instead of an idyllic, Celtic-infused, verdant corner of France? I doubt it. Must be some kind of weak attempt to make foreign names easier to pronounce. We could make some effort to embrace the names originally bestowed upon places by those who named them in the first place. Anyway, back to Treguier.

Treguier is a hamlet near Saint-Brieuc; a bit further east, the walled city Saint-Malo might be somewhat better known. Treguier is a port town on the Treguier River, which goes out to the English Channel. It's pretty isolated; getting there affordably requires flying to Paris and then renting a car to drive the maybe six hours, if I remember correctly. There are trains (of course - because it's Europe, and Europe has an awesome transit system), and Brest even has an airport you can get to from the UK and Spain, but it's best to have a car for exploring the outlying towns.

Monet's Giverny gardens, on the way out of Paris
The medieveal fort at Fougeres, also on the way to Treguier
Treguier's town square's prominent features are a statue of the town's famous son writer and philosopher Ernest Renan and a large and gorgeous cathedral built in the 14th and 15th centuries - typical of such a town, but the age and endurance over so many centuries still amazes me every time. There's probably only a few thousand people that live in Treguier, and it's so small in geographic terms, it's one of those places you can pretty much get to know living there a week and even start to recognize people on the street.

The view from outside our chateau
The food is amazing, a mixture of fresh seafood (Dover sole, anyone?) and shellfish (oh so many moules, my favorite) and lots of delicious cheeses I could never name and fresh produce from the weekly market where are all the vendors set up shop, then move onto the next town the next day. We followed the market to its stops nearby in places with names like Quimper and Morlaix. I think I gained four pounds in like 10 days on that trip. A little frivolous we were with the wine and cheese before dinner every night. We got some beach hikes in there too, though, and a ferry from coastal Paimpol took us to the Ile-de-Brehat, where at low tide, the boats sit completely ashore.

Paimpol, my favorite town in Bretagne
Ile-de-Brehat - those are not toyboats, and yes that is a castle on the hill 
Timber-framed houses in Lannion
Celtic festival leading up to Bastille Day, in Ploumanache
I was in Treguier the night of Bastille Day, frankly, the only time in my life that the holiday has been on my radar. As the town erupted in fireworks, every inhabitant gathered "downtown" at the harbor to dance together and celebrate France. I'll never forget the juxtaposition of having flown from the United States, where I had just celebrated the fourth in the American heartland, with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra playing traditional pops music backlit by fireworks over the Arkansas River, with the French version of their national holiday. Though I had no personal relationship with France and barely spoke the languge, I felt like I was celebrating two countries that year. The people of Treguier loved having visitors in town for La Fete Nationale, and having been there just a few days, we felt kind of at home there and a part of the party.

Crepes and cafe in Treguier outside the cathedral on the square
Remind me why I ever came back?

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