Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Normandy Part Trois: Balleroy, Coutances, Granville, Villedieu-les-Poeles, and Mont St. Michel

Day 5 (Tuesday, September 1, 2009)

Much to my disappointment, I awoke to a cloudy morning in Bayeux. After getting ready and packing my bags, I walked over to a nearby grocery store and then a patisserie in order to stock up on some food.

My first stop of the day was a small town called Balleroy, where I had wanted to visit it’s chateau. The approach to the chateau was via a grand avenue that had identical trees lining the street the entire way. The chateau was commissioned back in 1631, and was owned for several centuries by the Counts of Balleroy. In 1970, the famous Malcolm Forbes purchased the palace and restored it. He also decided to create a museum within the chateau dedicated to ballooning, an avid pastime of his. Upon arrival, I noticed on the entrance sign that the chateau was closed on Tuesdays. I wasn’t too disappointed with this news though as I would soon be visiting many chateaus in the coming days when I headed over to the Loire Valley. Instead, I decided to just walk up as close as I could to the exterior of the chateau and snap a few pictures. Along the short walk, I met a very friendly black cat whom followed me along the path. I also met what I assumed was one of her kittens, an extremely cute black and white cat. I was in absolute heaven as I missed my own kitties dearly and was in need of some kitty loving. After obtaining some great shots of the beautiful exterior, I walked next-door to a church, took some photos, and then said goodbye to the cats.
Chateau de Balleroy 
An outbuilding at Chateau de Balleroy.

One of my kitty friends.

Next, I drove over to a town called Coutances. While unknown to most foreign tourists, this town of about 10,000 people is well-known in France for it's cathedral and it’s many botanical gardens. My first stop was naturally, the Cathedral. Apparently, the famous painter Victor Hugo had once said that the church was the prettiest he had ever seen (not including the one at Chartres). While I wouldn’t agree with his opinion in terms of the interior of the church, I did find its exterior to be quite interesting and much different than most other churches of comparable size.
Interior of Coutances' Cathedral 
Interior of Coutances' Cathedral
Exterior of Coutances' Cathedral.

From the church, I walked two streets over to the Jardin des Plantes. This 19th century landscaped garden is free for all to enter and was filled with countless colorful and very beautiful flowers. After enjoying the pretty flowers and taking lots of photos, I headed back to the car.
Jardin des Plantes
Jardin des Plantes
Bee on a flower at Jardin des Plantes.
Jardin des Plantes

My third stop of the day was to a city called Granville, which apparently prefers to be known as “the Monaco of the North”. During my short visit, I was unable to determine why it was such a popular place to visit in Normandy, especially with so many other towns whom have so much more charm and personality. Unfortunately, my visit occurred on a mostly cloudy day, so my assessments and opinions may not have been entirely accurate. I suppose it’s location directly on the water has a huge draw for the holiday seekers, but it’s not a place I will ever be running back to in the future. During my short visit, I saw a great view of the ocean from a military lookout on the very northern part of town. I also passed by a waterless marina (yes, you read that correctly) that was filled with dozens of boats drudged into the sand; very strange but certainly interesting to photograph!
Lighthouse in Granville
Waterless harbor in Granville.
Pretty water of Granville.

Afterward, I drove towards another small town, this one called Villedieu-les-Poeles, which is famous for its manufacturing of copper pots and pans. I didn’t do too much in this small but pleasant city except for walking around many of its back streets and photographing some of the interesting things I saw along the way. Towards the end of the walk, I stopped in at a bakery to purchase some bread, and then walked over to the nearby grocery store to buy some meat in order to make sandwiches, which I munched on during my way to Mont St. Michel.
Pretty church in Villedieu-les-Poeles.
Serene setting in Villedieu-les-Poeles.
Copper pots for sale in Villedieu-les-Poeles. 
Copper pots for sale in Villedieu-les-Poeles.

I had dreamed of seeing Mont Saint-Michel for 14+ years since learning about it during my first year of French class in high school. Years later, I found out that there were several small hotels on the actual island, which intrigued me greatly. Once I had decided to visit France for a month, it was an absolute requirement that I not only visit the island, but that I also spend the night. 

As I approached the abbey from a distance, I let out a small sigh from the excitement within myself; I couldn’t believe that I was finally viewing the island with my own two eyes instead of via a video or photograph; it was a very special moment for myself. As soon as I found a good point to pull over, I stopped the car in order to take some photos.

Originally, Mont Saint-Michel was connected to the mainland via a thin natural land bridge. At high tide, the bridge would be covered by water, so people could only cross it during times of low tide. However, through the centuries, development to the surrounding land had decreased the amount of space between the shore and the island. These changes resulted in less water flow, and thus, the eventual build-up of the causeway due to silting-up of the bay. Currently, there are a new bridge and dam that are being built along the Couesnon River, which should be completed by 2012. When this construction work is finished, water will be able to flow completely around Mont Saint-Michel, allowing it to once again be an island.

When I finally arrived at the island, I was directed into a massive parking lot that had to have had literally thousands of spots. Luckily, since I was staying on the island, I was allowed to park in the very first lot. Even luckier, I somehow managed to snag a spot in the very first row, which was awesome since I had to carry my luggage with me!
The most amazing parking spot EVER!
An up-close shot of Mont St. Michel.

As I walked up to the hotel with my luggage, I had to navigate around the hundreds of people that crammed the winding and narrow street on Mont St. Michel. I had read and had been warned that the crowds were ridiculous, but until I saw it and experienced it for myself, I really had no idea! Fortunately, my hotel, Le Mouton Blanc was only about a ten minute walk from the parking lot. My room, while simple, had a ton of character, especially with the wood beams and the great view of the street from the window.
My room at Le Mouton Blanc.
View from the room.
After settling into the room, I walked up through the swarm of people to the abbey. Unfortunately, in addition to having to contend with the massive amount of people, I also had to walk up a ridiculous number of stairs; I was quite warm by the time I got to the entrance of the abbey!

The area upon which the abbey is built has been famous for centuries since 708, when the bishop of Avranches was said to have seen a vision of St. Michael the Archangel, who instructed him to build a church on the rocky island.  Throughout the centuries, the very small abbey slowly grew into the massive complex that it is today.

One of my first stops on the tour of the abbey was the west terrace, which provided an amazing view of the surrounding countryside and ocean; I had only wished that that weather would have been a tad bit better so that I could have obtained clearer photos. I also found the cloisters and it's gardens beautiful, especially with the sun streaming in on the bright green grass and flowers. The rest of my tour however, was quite rushed, as one of the workers was literally on my tail, shutting the doors behind him since the abbey closed at 18:00 that day.

Inside the cloisters of the abbey.
Inside the cloisters of the abbey.

From the abbey, I walked back to the hotel along the ramparts, which also provided great views of the countryside. Along the way, I checked out many of the posted menus at the restaurants in order to decide on a place for dinner. I also made the mandatory stop at La Mère Poulard in order to hear and see the famous omelets being whipped up. This restaurant has been cooking up giant omelets for "pilgrims" since 1879. While it probably would have been fun to eat at the restaurant, the prices were so beyond ridiculous (30 Euros/$45 USD per omelet) that I didn't even give it any thought. I mean, seriously people, come ON! Who in the world is willing to spend THAT much money on an omelet? Do you have any idea how much you are being ripped off? I consider it to be a travesty, especially considering how much profit the restaurant is making off those eggs!
Cute old building on Mont St. Michel
Mont St. Michel
A view of the abbey. 
Old fashioned entrance to Mont St. Michel.
Street of Mont St. Michel.

La Mere Poulard.

I walked back to the hotel to freshen up for a bit, and then headed immediately back out for dinner. I selected a restaurant called Chez Mado, which happened to be located directly next to my hotel. I decided on the three item course; I selected the jambon (ham) as an appetizer, the poulet (chicken) for the main, and profiteroles for dessert. All of the food, while a bit more expensive than what I normally prefer to spend (20 Euros per person) was quite good and beautifully prepared. My favorite part of the meal was definitely the profiteroles, which were filled with the most delicious vanilla bean ice cream.
Chicken dish.
Delicious profiteroles.

About 45 minutes after finishing dinner, I headed out to the causeway in order to take pictures of the island lit-up at night. It was a simply stunning sight, and I felt so fortunate to have finally been able to see the famous island for myself. In hindsight, I would have preferred to drive further off the causeway in order to get photos of the island from different perspectives, but I wasn't sure how easy it would be to leave the parking lot, and I definitely didn't want to give up that first rate parking spot!
The beautiful abbey lit-up at night.

When I finally walked back up to my hotel, I was amazed at how quiet and empty the streets were compared to how it had appeared just two hours prior. Those wanting to visit the island and spend the night should really aim to arrive in the early evening and head out first thing the following morning. This will enable you to enjoy the island without experiencing the insanity that exists during the daytime.

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