Monday, September 5, 2011

Bank Holiday in Brittany, France's Emerald Coast

One of the saddest things about being an expat is missing out on sharing in milestones with those dearest to you, often due to sheer cost. But the upside is when those people are ALSO expats, and you get to share in their big days BECAUSE you are dearest and nearest. Such was the wedding of my buddies Jon et Alix. Jon and I went to Syracuse University together, where I relied heavily upon his Mac nerding skills to reformat my hard drive and rescue all of my design work at 4am when my computer crashed. He relied heavily on me for homecooked food. Bargains all around.

When I left New York, he was just embarking on a transatlantic romance with une jeune fille s'appelle Alix who he asked out on a date three days before she left New York after an internship at his company. Three years later, he had quit his job, moved to Paris, studied French to fluency, earned a MA in Sustainable stuff at Europe's most elite business school, and generally was in that sickening sort of perfect love everyone loves to hate. I for one revel in them, their general adorableness, and joie de vivre.

So when they announced their marriage in the seaside town in Brittany where Alix's family has vacationed for years, The Irishman and I jumped at the chance to celebrate with them and explore a part of France new to both of us. The wedding celebrations were held in a sleepy village called Saint Briac sur Mer, close to Saint Malo and Dinard on Brittany's "Emerald Coast."

Jon et Alix were officially married here on the Thursday, which we missed due to Ryanair having only 1 flight per day to Dinard, the closest airport. But the mairie, or town hall, is absolutely evocative of Saint Briac sur Mer overall: stone buildings, beautifully planted gardens and flower boxes, and epic, changeable skies. The church wedding took place in the town's stone church on Friday, with the reception in an old manor house a few miles away.

Little did I know that French weddings are epic events; we left at 1am when the dancing was just starting due to tummy upset on my part ( I think I had too much paté) and the groom informed us the next morning that they didn't really make it home until 6am. Sheesh. But the reception itself was amazing; much more personal than an American or British wedding. They have a tradition of interventions when friends and relatives make little skits and entertainment about the couple. So we had a few songs, a few photo montages, a video, all about Jon et Alix and their relationship (this was also why we didn't eat until 8pm and didn't start dancing until 1am). But it made for a really wonderful celebration of them and their love.

Hangovers were remedied the next day at a brunch hosted by Alix's parents where I ate the most amazing olive & ham "cake" which was possibly the most exciting thing I've ever eaten. This recipe here seems close to replicating it but I think I need Alix to teach me the secret French way.

One of the other wonderful things about this wedding, besides the oyster bar at the reception, was reuniting with several friends that I hadn't seen in several years. After the drinking and dancing and general merriment of the wedding, we spent the next afternoon exploring the seaside port of Saint Malo together. There is nothing quite like reminiscing over ice cream on the seafront.

Sunday we said goodbye to all of my friends and headed off on sightseeing adventures of our own, specifically to Mont Saint Michel.

Visiting Mont Saint Michel has been a childhood dream, ever since reading ancient textbooks in French class recounting how it was built and how it has become a symbol of France. So I was actually a little bit disappointed when we arrived and the five mile drive to the fortified island was a strip of tourist trap restaurants and "articles authentiques." I was under the impression that you still had to plan your trip according to the tides and that it was still a working monastery and that the whole thing would be a pristine wonder of the world.

Once you made it past the choke of touristy shops and snack bars, the monastery was beautiful. Looking out into the tidal pools through arrow-slit windows made me dream of being a Lady in medieval France, hiding away during sieges and battles. Mont Saint Michel survived the constant onslaughts from the English during the 100 Years war without being taken, and I can't imagine how life must have been hunkered down on that island.


Despite my disappointment at the reality of Mont Saint Michel, I was very glad to have visited. And even happier when later on that night we visited one of the best crepe restaurants in the region, L'Hermine, for farewell galettes and boules de cidre

We spent our final day in Brittany saying goodbye to the happy couple, who were jetting off to Corsica for a few days break, and touring the tiny medieval walled village of Dinan (notice a trend?). Yet another cute touristy village built around showing tourists "authentic" Breton culture and cuisine while trading on the vast history of the region, it is a charming little town to spend a few hours strolling. Which we did with gusto. Somehow our holidays always end up with us climbing fortifications and then walking back down.

And then we flew home from the very cute Dinard airport, that does not have a boarding lounge – only a << Café irlandais >> before security on the top floor of the airport where you can watch your plane land before you board it. 

The best part of the weekend, besides seeing my very lovely friends get married in a very lovely ceremony with all of my friends around, was the fact that 4.5 days of vacation felt like a week off and I returned to London restored and relaxed. I never thought of Brittany as a "must-do" vacation spot, but I can see how staying on the coast for 1-2 weeks, reading, sailing, swimming, and lounging would do anyone a world of good. And if that doesn't float your boat, well the food definitely will!

If you go:

Ryanair flies once a day between Stansted to Dinard, flight time of 45 minutes. There is some public transport around but you'll see more and get around more easily if you rent a car. There are many B&Bs and rooms to rent (chambres des hotes) around; we stayed about 1km out of Saint Briac sur Mer at Le Clos Josephine which was beautiful with a really lovely pool and amazing breakfast. There aren't that many restaurants in the town, but several around the region that are worth the trip, so renting a house/apartment where one can cook is a smart and budget option.

1 comment:

  1. Mont St Michel and my trip to Brittany in 2000 was one of my highlights from my semester abroad. I'd love to go back! Thanks for the tips.