France Travel

A Few Days on the French Riviera

Following our visit to Corsica, we spent a few days on the Cote D’ Azur, or as it is also known, the French Riviera. This is a beautiful part of France, with little villages clinging to steep hillsides overlooking the blue Mediterranean. It’s easy to see why this area has been a mecca for tourists and the famous and wealthy for decades. As I’ve stated before, France is a favorite country of mine, and this part of France just reinforces my view.

Nice. Nice is the 5th largest city in France, with a wonderful setting on the Mediterranean coast. Nice was founded by the Greeks and colonized by the Romans. They picked a great spot. Nice has a long seafront promenade (Promenade des Anglais) filled with joggers, young couples and folks out for a stroll.

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The Promenade des Aglais in Nice. The beach consists of more pebbles than sand, but was very clean.

The promenade is lined with large hotels, shops, restaurants and extends for several kilometers.

Nice’s Old Quarter (called Vieux Nice) is on the eastern end of the promenade, next to a promontory point (Colline du Château) which can be climbed via 300 or so stairs for great views of Nice and the surrounding coastline.

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A view of Nice from Colline du Château.

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Nice’s Old Quarter.

The Old Quarter has narrow quaint streets, good restaurants and wonderful shops filled with art-worthy sweets and gelato!

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Even though these look like the real thing, they are just incredibly artistic sweets.

Evidence of the Roman era is still visible, including the ruins of an arena, basilica and a village. The ruins are about a 30-45 minute walk from the Old Quarter.

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The Roman ruins in Nice.

Going east from Nice, here are a few sights:

Villefranche-sur-Mer. Just east of Nice is the village of Villefranche-sur-Mer, located on a protected bay. Like many coastal towns in Corsica, Villefranche-sur-Mer has an old 16th century citadelle (Citadelle St-Elme) that now houses the town hall and two art galleries. This is a very quiet, scenic (and clearly well-to-do) spot right between Nice and Monaco.

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A view of Villefranche-sur-Mer.

Eze. I had heard from several people that we needed to visit Eze. Eze is just east of Villefranche-sur-Mer, and is practically on the border with Monaco.

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A view of Eze and the coast from the gardens right above the village, where a castle once stood.

Eze is a gorgeous 14th century fortified hilltop village overlooking the Cote D’Azur. It is postcard perfect.

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One of the alleyways in Eze.

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Another perfect spot in Eze.

The only thing that “bothered” me is that it is completely a tourist town with numerous boutiques and shops and of course lots of tourists. However, we loved the setting and views.

Monaco. The Principality of Monaco is next door to Eze and is one of the tiniest countries in the world (as well as the world’s oldest monarchy). Monaco is a tax haven and its wealth is evidenced by the number of Lamborghinis and Ferraris racing down the winding streets.

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Monaco’s harbor and surrounding area, as seen from the hilltop fortress area where the royal palace is located.

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Street scene in Monaco.

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The world famous Monte Carlo Casino in Monaco. Only for serious gamblers!

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Monaco’s cathedral, where Princess Grace and Prince Rainier III were married in 1956.

Given how small the country is, we quickly found a car park after crossing the border and explored the country on foot, walking up and down the steep hills and winding our way through a maze of apartment buildings built practically on top of each other—it reminded me just a bit of Hong Kong.

Going west from Nice, here are several other sights:

Cannes. Known for its famous International Film Festival, we thought we’d check out Cannes. This area suffered major flooding damage just a year ago, and although there were still some signs of the flooding (piles of damaged goods in a few places) for the most part you wouldn’t know this area had been touched. The Old Town with an 11th century clock tower and the 16th century church called Notre-Dame de l’Espérance sit on a hill overlooking the harbor filled with huge yachts and the more modern part of the city and famous beachfront.

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The old clock tower in Cannes, right next to the 16th century church.

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A view of Cannes and harbor.

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The InterContinental Carlton luxury hotel in Cannes, built in 1911.

St-Paul-de-Vence. This is a walled hilltop village not far from Cannes. It is a magnet for artists, with numerous art galleries and studios. It is a beautiful sight sitting perched on a hilltop not far from the coast.

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A view of St-Paul-de-Vence.

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The gated entrance into St-Paul-de-Vence.

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The 13th-14th century Keep (Donjon) in St-Paul-de-Vence. Used as a prison years ago.

Vence. This town is probably the poor sister of St-Paul-de-Vence and Eze. It was the most authentic town of the three, feeling more like a typical French village. The historic center’s layout is based on a Roman design-encircled by an oval wall. There are lovely old churches and little squares tucked away in spots throughout the town.

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One of the small squares in Vence.

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Street scene in Vence.

When traveling through this area, be aware that the roads are narrow, with sharp curves and speedy drivers. Traffic is fairly heavy, especially going west from Nice. Even though distances are not far, it will take a bit longer to get to these locations than you might expect.

 

The Isle of Corsica – One of the Hidden Gems of France – Part 3 of 3

From Bonifacio (for information on Bonifacio, click here, for a map of Corsica click here) we spent our last few days working our way north along the east coast to Aléria and then on to Corte in the interior, then Calvi (on the northwest coast) and finally Bastia (also on the east coast), our final stop in Corsica. On the east side of the island there is a little more flat terrain near the coast and therefore the roads are faster.

Aléria. The little town of Aléria has an old church and castle-like building that holds a museum and ticket office for the nearby Roman village ruins.

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An old little stone church in Aléria, near the Roman ruins.

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The Roman ruins museum in Aléria.

There were a number of ancient settlements around this area, but it was the Romans who built the harbor port city known as Aléria starting in 80 BC, which was inhabited throughout the duration of the Roman Empire. The ruins are not extensive, mainly foundations and a few baths remaining.

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A view of part of the Roman ruins of Aléria.

Given the proximity to Italy, one would think the Romans would have colonized Corsica more. But then, like now, with its rugged topography, Corsica was more of a hinterland and was never completely conquered and brought under the domination of Rome

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There are a number of old Genoese (14th-15th century) bridges in Corsica, this one is near the road on the way to Corte from Aléria.

Corte. I expected Corte to be a little village, and I was surprised to see that it was a good sized town. Corte was the capital of Corsica during its period of independence in the mid 18th century.

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A view of the old town of Corte, with the fortress sitting at the top.

In the main square, there is a statue of Pascal Paoli (1725-1807) the founding father of Corsica.

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The main square in old Corte with the statue of Pascal Paoli to the right.

Even 250 years later, there are bullet holes still visible in the buildings surrounding Place Gaffori, marking the fight over independence that took place here.

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Place Gaffori in old town Corte. Note the bullet holes in the building.

The old town slopes up a hill located in the middle of a deep valley. The Citadelle and 15th century fortress sit atop the old town, commanding a good view of the surrounding valleys. The old town below the Citadelle has several small squares, churches with narrow alleys, and restaurants. Although not visible from the main town, the fortress has a very modern, large museum and conference center located next to it. Corte is home to the aptly named Corsica Pasquale Paoli University, where students speak Corsican.

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Looking down on the old town of Corte from the fortress.

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The old 15th century fortress in Corte, photo taken from the Belvedere, a scenic view spot.

There are also a few old hilltop towns in the great vicinity of Corte, located off very narrow steep and winding roads up in the hills.

Calvi. From Corte, we traveled north and west over to Calvi, another extremely picturesque town situated on a beautiful bay surrounded by mountains.

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A view of the beautiful town of Calvi with its magnificent bay and Citadelle.

Calvi is a jet-setting hotspot in the summer with numerous sailboats and yachts filling its docks and harbor. The huge Genoese Citadelle at the entrance to the bay really dominates the whole area.

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A closer view of Calvi and the Citadelle.

There is a nice beach here too, overlooking the harbor and town. The Citadelle was pretty quiet, at least during the time of year we were there (October).

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The entrance to Calvi’s Citadelle.

We enjoyed sitting by the harbor and having our lunch.

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Calvi’s harbor, lined with outdoor cafes.

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There is some evidence that the explorer, Christopher Columbus, was born in Calvi. Hence the name of this souvenir shop.

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We stayed in the picturesque small town of Lumio, just across the bay from Calvi.

Bastia. From Calvi, we crossed back over to the north east coast and made our last stop in Corsica. We were really surprised at how large Bastia was. It is a major city and the commercial hub of Corsica. Like many coastal Corsican towns, Bastia has a large Citadelle overlooking the harbor (Vieux Port) and a scenic and large old town area.

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The harbor of Bastia. The twin towers of the 16th century church of St. Jean Baptiste are a local landmark.

Bastia felt similar to many large European towns with multiple squares, shopping streets, great churches and restaurants lining the harbor and squares.

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A major shopping thoroughfare in Bastia.

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Interior of the Oratory of the Confraternity of the Holy Cross. This church contains the Holy Crucifix of Miracles, discovered drifting on the sea by two fishermen in 1428.

Bastia’s Citadelle streets were fairly quiet, and the area had a non-touristy feel. There are good signs pointing out historically significant buildings in this area.

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The Louis XVI gateway into Bastia’s Citadelle.

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A street scene in Bastia’s Citadelle.

 

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An old building in the Citadelle. I’d hate to have to work on or rebuild these walls!

Bastia has decent sized airport, so it was easy to fly back to Nice from here, which kept us from having to backtrack across the island to Ajaccio. This third post concludes our tour of Corsica. We highly recommend visiting this wonderful island!

The Isle of Corsica – One of the Hidden Gems of France – Part 1 of 3

When we mentioned to friends that we were going to Corsica, the typical response was “where is Corsica?” Even though it’s part of France, relatively few people in the U.S know much about this island. For the record, Corsica is just north of Sardinia (another great island, which belongs to Italy) and is closer to Italy than it is to France.

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A map of Corsica. We started in Ajaccio on the west coast and ended in Bastia on the northeast coast.

Corsica is a relatively remote part of France and Europe—it’s rugged, mountainous, and sparsely populated, especially in the interior. Corsica has had a tumultuous history, with several nations (such as Spain and France) and medieval city states (such as Pisa and Genoa) staking their claim here over the centuries. Even today, the island is a very independent part of France, and there have been separatist struggles over the years. As a tourist, there is very little evidence of this, except for some banners or signage in the interior villages of the island.

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A burned out car near Ajaccio – evidence of the Corsican mob? Hard to say.

As a sign of its independent roots, Corsica has its own language (more similar to Italian, although everyone speaks French also), and road signs are in French and Corsican.

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An example of the excellent food found in Corsica – with heavy Italian influence.

Corsica offers the tourist a large variety of things to do: hiking, climbing, four wheeling, mountain scenery, kayaking, beautiful beaches, prehistoric sites and some very cool old fortified towns with huge bastions. We visited in October, and while the island was quieter, the weather was still good. During the summer, the towns on the coast are a magnet for sailboats and yachts from all over Europe.

We spent about a week on Corsica, starting our visit in Ajaccio and then taking a clockwise one-way route through the island. We rented a car and although distances aren’t far, the roads are winding and fairly slow. Luckily the local drivers were pretty patient with us as tourists, but I pulled over to let them pass every chance I got.

Ajaccio. We flew in to Ajaccio from Nice. It was a good place to start our trip. Ajaccio is the capital of Corsica and the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. It has a quaint old quarter, situated on a bay on the west coast of the island.

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A view of Ajaccio’s harbor.

Napoleon, the early 19th century emperor of France, looms large over Ajaccio, his image can be found in several spots in Ajaccio.

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Statue of Napoleon in the form of a Roman emperor in old town Ajaccio.

One of the main sights in Ajaccio is Napoleon’s home and the church where he was baptized.

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The street in Ajaccio where Napoleon was born. His house is the building with the green shutters behind his caricature.

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The orange hued Ajaccio Cathedral, where Napoleon was baptized.

Like many costal Corsican towns, Ajaccio has a 15th century fortress guarding the entrance to the protected bay. The fortress is still used by the military and therefore is off limits to tourists.

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Ajaccio’s Citadelle or fortress, built originally by the Genoese, housed resistance fighters during World War II.

Coastal and Mountain Scenery. We took a day trip north of Ajaccio through the mountains and along the coast. It is a stunningly beautiful island, and even in October I was impressed how green the island is. We had just one day of rain during our visit.

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The village of Ota, near the Spilonca Gorge, a mountain park and hiking area.

There are little villages nestled high on the steep hillsides. The backcountry has some great trails and rushing rivers. The coastline of Corsica is a mix of rugged terrain and secluded beaches.

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The beautiful coastline on the southwestern side of Corsica. In the distance is the island of Sardinia.

Towers. There are 15th and 16th century towers dotted all along the coast, 91 of them in total, which were watch towers on the lookout for pirates and also light houses for the Genoese sailors.

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This tower, called Tour de la Parata is close to Ajaccio.

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A view of the small town of Porto, north of Ajaccio, with its 15th century tower (left side of image).

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Another tower along the west coast of Corsica.

Many of the towers are not accessible, but a few are. They give the coastline a unique feel, standing as they have for centuries against the wind and the waves.

Pisan Churches. Also throughout the island are tiny churches from the medieval era, many built by the Pisans in the 12th and 13th centuries. Each is unique, but the style is generally familiar to what one finds in northern Italy.

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The little 13th century Saint Michel de Murato church near Bastia.

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A close-up of one of the carvings on the exterior of Saint Michele de Murato.

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This 12th century church, Eglise de la Trinite et de San Giovanni, is near Aregno, Corsica.

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La Canonica. This little church was built by the Pisans in 1119 on the site of a 4th century basilica. It sits next to some Roman ruins, near Bastia.

In parts 2 and 3 of my posts on Corsica, I will review other sights and towns as we traveled south and east around the island.

Picturesque Sights along the Lot River in South Central France

The Lot River region of France is filled with many beautiful sights –natural scenery, attractive villages and historical sights. The sights below are south of the beautiful town of Sarlat-la-Caneda and north of the city of Toulouse.

The sights in this post are in a small area just north of Toulouse, France.

The sights in this post are in a small area just north of Toulouse, France.

Bonaguil Castle

Bonaguil Castle is 60 km (37 miles) to the west of Cahors. It was one of the last defensive medieval castles built. Although it was originally constructed in the 1300’s, it was extensively rebuilt at the end of the 15th century.

A view of Bonaguil Castle from the village.

A view of Bonaguil Castle from the village.

A view of the entrance to Bonaguil Castle.

A view of the entrance to Bonaguil Castle.

The moat around Bonaguil Castle.

The moat around Bonaguil Castle.

The castle sits in a very picturesque spot on a hillside overlooking a tiny village. Underneath the front edge (closest to the town) of the castle are some interesting tunnels. Be sure to explore them.

Looking down from the castle ramparts.

Looking down from the castle ramparts.

Puy –l’Evêque

Just a scenic little village on the Lot River, near Bonaguil Castle. Worth a short stop to wander the charming streets.

One of the many quaint streets in Puy l'Eveque.

One of the many quaint streets in Puy l’Eveque.

A view of the town from the Lot River.

A view of the town from the Lot River.

Cahors

Cahors is a 2,000 year-old town. Its famous fortified medieval bridge (Pont Valentre) over the River Lot is one of the most photographed monuments in all of France. It has 7 pointed arches spanning the river and three towers.

The medieval bridge crossing the Lot River in Cahors.

The medieval bridge crossing the Lot River in Cahors.

Another view of the bridge (Pont Valentre) in Cahors.

Another view of the bridge (Pont Valentre) in Cahors.

It was built between 1308 and 1360.There is also a great cathedral here, the Cathédrale de St-Etienne.

Figeac

Another picturesque town along the Lot River, with number of small hotels, making this town a good base for exploring the area.

A view of the town of Figeac.

A view of the town of Figeac.

In the center of Figeac.

In the center of Figeac.

Just outside of town are a number of picturesque villages, including Espagnac-Ste-Eulalie (see below).

A village outside of Figeac.

A village outside of Figeac.

An old mill outside Figeac.

An old mill outside Figeac.

Espagnac-Ste-Eulalie

This is a tiny village with a beautiful 12th century Priory of Notre-Dame-Ste-Eulalie and an elaborate bell tower.

The beautiful hamlet of Espagnac-Ste-Eulalie.

The beautiful hamlet of Espagnac-Ste-Eulalie.

Oradour-sur-Glane: Remember

The town center of Oradour-sur-Glane.

The town center of Oradour-sur-Glane.

A news article this past week caught my attention about the little town of Oradour sur Glane in south central France, near the city of Limoges. For most of us, the name of this town would not hold any meaning and yet it’s the sight of one of the greatest tragedies in WW II, the brutal murder of 642 men, women and children.

Oradour-sur-Glane is 23 km northwest of Limoges, France.

Oradour-sur-Glane is 23 km northwest of Limoges, France.

My wife and I, my brother and parents-in-law had the privilege of visiting this village memorial a few years ago.

My brother on a main street of Oradour-sur-Glane.

My brother on a main street of Oradour-sur-Glane.

Here’s a short version of what happened:

On 10 June 1944, four days after the Allied invasion of Normandy, approximately 150 Waffen-SS soldiers entered the tranquil village of Oradour-sur-Glane. Under the pretense of an identity check and then a search for weapons, the soldiers divided the inhabitants, the women and children were marched over to the church and the men were divided into six groups and led to different barns in the town.

The SS used machine guns and hand grenades to disable and kill the women and children. The church was then set on fire, even though many of the women and children were still alive.

A plaque on the church in memory of the women and children who died here.

A plaque on the church in memory of the women and children who died here.

A view of the church where the women and children were shot and burned.

A view of the church where the women and children were shot and burned.

The men’s fate in the barns was similar, they were shot in the barns and badly wounded, but while some were yet alive the soldiers piled wood and straw on the bodies and set the barns on fire.  One woman and 5 men somehow escaped.

A plaque on one of the buildings where men were shot and burned.

A plaque on one of the buildings where men were shot and burned.

After killing all the townspeople that they could find, the soldiers set the whole town on fire and early the next day, taking stolen goods from the houses, they left. Many of the soldiers then worked their way up to Normandy where a number of them were killed fighting the Allies in the early days of the Normandy invasion.

On the orders of General Charles de Gaulle, the town was not rebuilt and the whole village now stands as a memorial to this terrible tragedy.

A treadle sewing machine in someone's home.

A treadle sewing machine in someone’s home.

Remains of autos in a garage.

Remains of autos in a garage.

Remnants of another home with what looks like an oven and bed (lower right corner).

Remnants of another home with what looks like an oven and bed (lower right corner).

A powerful quote by Claude Roy (1949) in the Visitor's Center.

A powerful quote by Claude Roy (1949) in the Visitor’s Center.

You park at a visitors center and a walking tunnel takes you under the road and over to the village where plaques mark the spots and in most cases denote the numbers of those who died that terrible day.  This ghost town, left untouched for almost 70 years, greets every visitor who enters with only one English word:  Remember.

References: Materials at the Visitor’s Center, Oradour sur Glane.

Le Mont-Saint-Michel –The Very Symbol of Medieval Europe

A view of Mt-St-Michel from the causeway. The Arcade Tower in lower center provided lodgings for the Abbot’s soldiers.

On the northwest coast of Normandy, France lies the most striking image of medieval Europe – the abbey fortress of Le Mont-St-Michel. The fortress and tiny village is now an island connected to the mainland via a causeway.  At one time the area surrounding the mount was forest and now it is a vast tidal flat—the tides are very strong and in the Middle Ages provided excellent protection, along with the natural defenses of a steep hill surrounded by walls and towers. There is no better image of medieval Europe than this soaring abbey sitting on a rock pinnacle surrounded by a village and walls and towers.

Exterior view of the Refectory and Knight’s Rooms. The three stories of the monastic complex were built in only 16 years.

Interior view of the Knight’s Room. The room was named after the Knights’ Order of Saint Michael created by Louis the XI. This was the scriptorium (or study) where the monks devoted their time to copying texts and studying ancient manuscripts.

The site was dedicated to Saint Michael, the patron saint of high places on the 16th of October, 708 by St. Aubert, the bishop of nearby Avranches.  Construction of the abbey and associated buildings were done in phases over hundreds of years, requiring design ingenuity and engineering due to the steep slope of the mount and the weight of the huge stone buildings. The site became a Benedictine abbey in 966, and a few monks still remain. The abbey buildings we see today are mainly from the 13th – 15th centuries, although the original foundations of the abbey date back to 1017. The picturesque belfry and spire were added in the 1800’s.

Walking up the Grand Rue to the Mt-St-Michel Abbey as pilgrims have done since the 12th century.

Mont-St-Michel was a pilgrimage site, and saw a large number of pilgrims, including children (called “The Pastoureaux”) which first took place in 1333, and continued until the French Revolution in the late 1700’s. They were typically boys ages 8-12, sent by their parents to ask the Archangel Michael to save their families from the plague. Many of them never made it home, due to the dangers and risks associated with such a trip.

A view of the abbey towering over the village.

The drive to Mont-St-Michel takes about 4.5 hours from Paris (235 miles or 378 km).  We flew in to Paris in the morning, rented our car, and were at the mount by early afternoon. I recall the last segment of our drive, just as we passed the town of Avranches, when my daughter yelled out “there it is!”  It was thrilling to see the mount in the distance, soaring above the grey sea against a cloudy sky.

No problem parking on the causeway on our way in to Mt-St-Michel.

This area of France has a number of interesting sights including the beaches where the Allied forces landed on D-Day in June 1944. I suggest visiting Mont-Saint-Michel early or late in the day—the mount receives over one million visitors a year, and is one of the most popular sights in Europe, let alone France. If you want to reduce the crowd effect even more, visit off-season. We visited in November and had no problem parking or gaining entry. The walk up to the abbey is very steep, with many steps along the way.

Mont-Saint-Michel is 378 km west of Paris Charles De Gaulle airport.

If you visit France, do not miss the premier sight of Mont-St-Michel. Also, just across the English Channel near Penzance, England is the “sister” to Mont-Saint-Michel, called “St. Michael’s Mount.” While not quite on the grand scale of Mont-Saint-Michel, it is still a great sight, and is also an island just off the coast, with walkway that is covered at high tide. View my post on St. Michael’s Mount here.

Reference:  Mount Saint-Michel by Jean-Paul Benoit, Editions Jean-Paul Gisserot.

Three Non-Touristy Towns in France

What I love about France is that it has something interesting to see at almost every turn.  In just about any part of the country, one can be charmed by the history, architecture, people, food and/or the natural scenery. We were on our way from Chartres to the Loire Valley by car and decided to take a day “detour” to the charming towns of Vitré and Le Mans. Both of these towns are not on the main tourist route but are worth a stop if you have the time. Our third stop was at the little village of Sainte Suzanne, in between Vitré and Le Mans.

The towns of Vitré, Sainte Suzanne and Le Mans are southwest of Paris

Vitré

Vitré, at the very western edge of Brittany, is about 75 miles west of Le Mans. This part of France has a close historical connection with the UK (think “Brittany” and “Britain”), with the local (nearly extinct) Breton language being closer to Welsh and Cornish than French. Vitré feels a bit like England with the half-timbered homes along the narrow little streets. We found the locals very friendly, and one gentleman we met on the street serenaded us with a couple songs, including one from Elvis, when he found out we were from the U.S!  Vitré has a picture-perfect chateau (Chateau de Vitré), which is a museum, but since we were there on a Sunday morning it was closed.

A postcard view of Chateau de Vitré

A narrow little house in Vitré

One of the interesting old streets in Vitré

Le Mans

Long associated with automobiles (‘24 hours of Le Mans’) Le Mans also has one of the most striking Gothic cathedrals in France. The Cathédrale St.Julien which dates from the 12th century has huge flying buttresses. The cathedral has a number of stained glass windows from the 12th and 13thcenturies. The center of the town is also very historic and has some ancient walls remaining. On this trip, we just visited the Cathedral and the old section of the city right next to the Cathedral.

The Gothic flying buttresses of Cathédrale St.Julien, Le Mans

The elegant stone architecture of Le Mans

Sainte Suzanne

This is a charming little village just off the route from Le Mans to Vitré. It is no more than a few homes around an old castle, restored chateau and church. We enjoyed exploring the little streets and seeing the local life, which I suspect very few tourists ever have done.

Green pastures surround the village of Sainte Suzanne

The old castle at the center of Sainte Suzanne