Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Trail Of Bread Crumbs: Bicycling Through Western France

 By Kristy McCaffrey

On the second day of a bike tour through the French countryside of Brittany and Normandy, the differences in navigating style between my husband and I come to light. Our tour company—Backroads—has provided us with excellent equipment and enthusiastic guides. Each morning, we’re given a detailed itinerary of the ride for that day. It includes odometer readings and very specific instructions for EVERY turn we must take. Over a 20-mile ride, the list is well over a hundred directions.

I almost laughed out loud the first day we received these. This is far too complicated, I thought. I’ll just follow the person in front of me. Well, turns out I was the slowest of the group. My husband very graciously rode with me, but that meant we had to find our path ourselves. My odometer never worked, so I relied on visual cues. He was devoted to technology. Naturally there came a time when we got lost, and our differing approaches required negotiating. I’m happy to report, however, that our marriage was strong enough to handle this, and we only took a wrong turn five times.

In an effort not to slow my husband and I down further, I
attempted to photograph while riding. This was
the result. Luckily, I crashed into a soft wheat field.

We were invited on this grueling (I mean fun) vacation by my husband’s brother and his wife, Pat and Anne. Whenever an opportunity enters my experience that I’d never before considered, I know that I must pay attention. If not, I’ll miss those bread crumbs along the way. You know, those unexpected moments that occur—those connections, those insights, those meaningful encounters.

My husband, myself, Anne and Pat in
St. Suliac, France.
“Serendipity is the faculty of finding things we did not know we were looking for.”
                        ~ Glauco Ortolano

Shamans say that everything in the world has a voice. A bike tour, as opposed to a bus or car tour, places you front and center with the earth beneath you, the wild wind around you, and the sunshine warming you. The intensive exercise breaks you down, both physically and mentally, and within these cracks will enter the lush, green, fully-alive French countryside, vibrating in your bones and beckoning you to connect.

Each day, we rode approximately 20 miles, either in the morning or the afternoon, depending on what sites there were to see. There was always a longer option, usually an additional 20 miles, for those desiring more. We did occasionally ride on busy roads—and I won’t lie, these were nerve-wracking—but we were, for the most part, on backroads winding through picturesque farmland. The tour company’s name is appropriate.

My early bread crumbs consisted mainly of horses and cows. Roaming in pastureland, they live an idyllic life and I stopped more than once to take a photograph and perhaps become acquainted. I had no idea I’d make so many animal friends on this trip. On the second day, I coasted down a long hill and met this lovely guy at the bottom.

Here are a few more of my French amis.

The milk from these cows will be used
to make the famous Camembert cheese.

We began our trip in St. Malo, a walled port city on the English Channel and apparently the jogging mecca of Europe, if all the runners passing us on the beach—and some were quite old—was any indication. St. Malo was known in the past as the home of French privateers, or pirates. I did keep my eye out for Captain Jack Sparrow.

St. Malo, France.

View from our hotel window our first morning
in St. Malo.

He joined us for breakfast.

We explored quaint towns such as Dinan (dating back to the 13th century), entering on a bike path that paralleled the River Rance, a salt water estuary. It was here that we enjoyed a Breton mainstay, a crepe known as a gallete. Delicious and very filling. We also experienced the sometimes spotty service of French waiters. I can honestly say that I’ve met some of the nicest people in all of my travels while in France, but alongside that has been some of the worst restaurant service. Be prepared to switch eating establishments occasionally so you don’t go hungry.

Dinan, France.

In Normandy, we spent two nights in the town of Bayeux, founded as a Gallo-Roman settlement in the 1st century B.C. and bisected by the River Aure. A magnificent gothic cathedral, consecrated in 1077, anchors the town but even more famous is the Bayeux tapestry, an embroidered cloth nearly 70 meters long. It commemorates the Norman conquest of England in 1066 by William the Conqueror, constituting storytelling for the masses who couldn’t read. (I wish I had a picture but no photography was allowed.)

The River Aure.

All we had to do was walk out of our hotel to our waiting bikes. Bliss.

Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux.

My husband and his brother.

Two significant bread crumbs on this journey were the opportunity to visit Mont St. Michel and the famed Normandy beaches of D-Day.

Mont St. Michel is a monastery dating back to the 8th century. Before that, it was an island known as Mont Tombe. According to legend, in 708 A.D. the Archangel Michael appeared to the Bishop of Avranches and instructed him to build a church. Today, it is one of the most visited landmarks in France. Our tour revealed that an entire village is situated within the lower levels of Mont St. Michel, complete with hotels, restaurants and gift shops. If you ever drop in, I suggest making a weekend of it.

The magnificent Mont St. Michel.

The cloister in Mont St. Michel.

The view from Mont St. Michel.

I was quite unprepared for the emotional impact of visiting the Normandy beaches that witnessed the invasion by Allied forces on June 6, 1944. I knew it would be humbling, sobering, and sad. A great wound continues to pulsate, and each visitor is called upon to add a prayer, a loving embrace, to the restless and dedicated spirits that are still present. If you listen closely, you can hear the whispers of pain, but also the resolve of courage, and there is a blessed abundance of peace to be found. The monuments, the cemeteries, and the museums all honor and pay respect to one of the darkest periods of humanity. But despite the deep thread of grief, you leave feeling uplifted. Alongside great evil is always great goodness, and it shines brightly here.

View of Utah Beach from Pointe du Hoc. This was a German fortified
area that was taken on D-Day by a U.S. Army Ranger Assault Unit.

A section of Mulberry Harbor, a portable, temporary harbor built by
the British in World War II to aid the Allied invasion of Normandy
on June 6, 1944.

Our guide, Sophia, and my husband riding along Omaha Beach.
The wind blew stinging sand into every crevice not protected and
we rode nearly standing still.

Me at Omaha Beach. Blustery hardly
describes the windy conditions.

The American Cemetery at Omaha Beach.
This is considered U.S. soil. Only about 1/3 of
those killed before, during, and after D-Day
are buried here. Many families chose to bring
their loved ones home.
The Caen Memorial War Museum.

On the final day, our group shared a picnic lunch at the Caen Memorial War Museum. It was simple, colorful, and prepared with consideration by our guides. Good food, good friends, and gratitude. All vacations should be filled with such. Always be on the lookout for those bread crumbs.

Our lovely group of guests and guides.

“Instructions for living a life.
  Pay attention.
  Be astonished.
  Tell about it.”

            ~ Poet Mary Oliver

Smile. You're in France.


  1. I never had a great desire to tour France until I read your post. Beautiful country, and it looks like you had a great time. Thank you for sharing.

    Robyn Echols w/a Zina Abbott

    1. Hi Robyn,
      I had no idea the rich history we would experience. And bicycling revealed the area in an entirely different way than just driving through it. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Kristy,
    I really enjoyed this blog. It really makes me very anxious to see some of the same sites when we visit in September. I am especially anxious to see Mont Ste Michel and the normandy beaches!!

    1. Hi Aunt Barbara,
      I look forward to hearing about your trip when you return!! You'll have a great time.