A Breath of French Air - our Normandy road trip
Updated: Jun 9, 2021
France. The country that keeps on giving.
It's fair to say that as the husband of a Frenchman, I get to spend a bit of time in France.
And it is equally fair to say that I love the place!
So when Julien recently proposed that, rather than take our usual flight to Bordeaux, we drive down to visit his parents this time, I was immediately on board.
Visions flashed before me, of meandering drives through the bucolic countryside of La France Profonde. Of châteaux in the distance and vineyards as far as the eye can see. All punctuated by pit stops for fluffy croissants and strong french coffee.
And so our great french road trip started to take shape.
Of course, reality is sometimes somewhat removed from the daydream. The many hours spent staring at seemingly endless tarmac - the same dodgy french pop songs on loop on the radio. And in all honesty, french truck stops are no better than any others when it comes to depressingly bad coffee.
But I am getting ahead of myself, so back to the beginning…
Setting off from London on a sunny Friday, we took a late afternoon ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe.
"Ferry... hmmm...", I hear you say. And you would be right. Water is not my natural element. And the thoughts of crappy canteen food onboard, and over-stimulated under-educated children running riot underfoot, do not make for the best start to a holiday.
But those who know me well know that I am nothing if not organised. Motion sickness tabs taken, personal cabin reserved and favourite snacks pre-purchased - and the ferry crossing passed without incident.
That first night we just needed somewhere to crash after a late arrival, and by a stroke of good luck we ended up in the thoroughly charming guest house of 'Villa Mon Repos', just outside Dieppe (highly recommended btw - as the sterling tripadvisor reviews will attest - if you ever find yourself in Normandy and in need of some hotel accommodation). The room was spacious and classically decorated, and the bed comfortable for 2 weary travelers.
We were up bright and early the next morning and ready to set off, only to find that our 2 thoughtful B&B hosts had prepared us some fresh coffee and croissants to go, even though we had declined breakfast the previous evening. It's the little things that can really make a stay special, and we will definitely be back at Villa Mon Repos when next we pass through Dieppe.
Mont Saint-Michel and Saint-Malo
The first day of our Normandy road trip saw us making our way leisurely down the North-Western coast of France, ticking off items like the bucket list-worthy Mont-Saint-Michel.
With its monastery dating back to the 8th century, this UNESCO World Heritage Site sits atop an island 1km off the coast, rising from the ocean in a vision of instant instagrammability. We burned a few calories navigating the narrow alleyways and stairs, stopping for the breathtaking views and to catch our own breath. Then we marveled at the awesome fortifications of the monastery which sits atop the mount surveying the surrounding area, and the beautiful cloister within.
Over the years the monastery has served variously as an abbey, fortifications against invasion (it has never been conquered, despite the many attempts by the English), a prison, and lately a cultural heritage and pilgrimage site.
Mont-Saint-Michel is an unmissable stop on any self-respecting road trip itinerary of the Normandy area. Though maybe skip the famed local restaurant La mere poulard, despite its notorious omelettes and long history of welcoming celebrities... As Julien was quick to point out - what were already quite possibly the world's most expensive omelettes came served with a side of world's most surly waiters!
Then onward to the port city of Saint-Malo we went, for some sunset sand-in-our-toes beach walking - dog walkers, kids and their indulgently onlooking parents, and other hand-in-hand couples for company.
The Old Town district of St-Malo is a historic walled city, and a walk along the ramparts is a must - views across the ocean. Then make sure to wander around the charming alleys and streets. All of which merits a stop for a galette, a traditional breton savoury pancake with fillings - go for the 'Galette Complete', a ham cheese and fried egg combo. We stopped at the Creperie Margaux restaurant on Place du Marche aux Legumes, and the galettes were delicious!
That evening saw us bed down at the romantic Château d'Apigné hotel just outside Rennes. All fairy tale spires and ivy-covered walls, it is accommodation in a disney-esque setting without the wallet-busting price tag of some of the grander castles. The rooms are traditional and large, and we had a comfortable stay. Do check availability for the hotel restaurant though, as it is not open every day.
The next morning, after a satisfying breakfast of eggs and delicious continental pastries, we hit the road again, well rested and motivated for the 5 hour drive south. Our destination, for a few days of relaxation and family time: the wine country south of Bordeaux.
Up next... Part 2 of our French road trip, as we visit some amazing Loire Valley castles…