Part of my travel plan was to visit a few towns outside Paris. The research, if you could call reading the Lonely Planet as research, took a few days and I had penciled a visit to the ancient town of Rouen and Mont St. Michel as potential destinations.
The first day trip was to Mont St. Michel, which is touted to be the second most iconic image of France. St. Michel is a small island off the west coast of France. During high tide it is completely surrounded by the sea and during low tide the water goes out nearly 10km within a few hours. The narrow strip of land that connects the Mont to the mainland has now been reinforced and is accessible during high-tide as well. The Mont is a small self-contained community based around a monastery built atop the hill-island. Many would have seen videos of the famed omelette from La Mere Poulard, a restaurant and hotel in the Mont. The omelette was one of the reason for the visit.
The TER (shorter runs of TGV) ride from Paris to Rennes was fantastic. I took one of the early trains that run during the day and so there was no crowd. The famed ‘window seat’ on a TGV is an issue only on the fully-booked trains that connect Paris with other main cities, particularly the ones connecting cities of neighboring countries. I realized the train stop at Le Mans and promptly got down for a stroll on the platform. I can now proudly say that I have set my foot on the city of Le Mans! It’s a pity that the annual ‘24 Hours of Le Mans’ was scheduled for the weekend and I was within touching distance to attend it and yet would have to ignore it. So much for being a racing fan! I would later learn that Audi has won the Le Mans crown back from Peugeot this year.
The views of the countryside during the train ride were picture perfect. There was a slight drizzle and the train was cold inside. The intermittent sun set up the countryside ablaze and the alternating green and yellow fields with laden wheat was a great sight. The fields were mostly yellow and yet to turn to the characteristic ochre before harvest. I guess there are a few weeks left for harvest. The connecting train to Pontorson and the bus ride to the Mont itself were uneventful except for the cold weather. I was unprepared for the cold weather and had no warm clothes. The train ride was quite bumpy during some short stretches that make travel in India quite a luxury. No, I am not joking.
The Mont was of course visible from the bus as we rode the lone road to the hill. The swampy sides had thick growths of grass and sheep were grazing gleefully, ignorant of us weary travelers. The tourists in the bus were all chatting up busily and you could learn everything about the place in that short 10-minute ride. I learned that the grass in the marshes are salty and hence the lamb doesn’t require salting!
The view of the Mont and, once inside the abbey, the views of the sea are nothing short of stunning. The near-symmetry and steepness of the towering abbey, the shifting sands around the Mont, the blooming flowers on both sides of the road, the serene atmosphere of sheep grazing calmly. One note of caution though, you really have to be out there early in the day to experience the best of this place. An hour late and the place gets swamped by tourists.
The inside of the abbey is an example of minimalism in ‘French church architecture’. When I say minimalism, I mean a church sparse on accessorizing details like elaborate stained-glass windows or rows and rows of ornate lamps and other smaller sculptures. Enter into any church in France you see ship-loads of minor details and accessories. Such details are missing in St. Michel. I guess it is not due to the lack of want but rather due to the remoteness of the terrain. This lack of accessories in fact highlights the triumph of the basic architecture. The symmetry and the high-arched Gothic arches add an ethereal feel inside.
I hadn’t had breakfast and I was really hungry from all the walking and climbing. Once outside the abbey, I paid a visit to La Mere Poulard. I had a mini debate on whether to just try the famed omelette or go for a meal. You only travel a few times to every place (assuming I come back again some day in the future) and it is important to have a full-body immersion to experience whatever the place has to offer. I went for a 3-course meal that would make my walking back a little easier due to the lighter wallet. The entree was seafood. Salmon and mussels fresh out of the sea, just seasoned to taste and a salad to go with it. The question in the west coast is really wine or cider. It was cider for me and it stayed that way till the end of the trip. The main course was omelette. It was very fluffy, light, and creamy unlike any other omelette I have had. It just tasted a little plain but the texture and smoothness of the omelette was very good. The dessert that followed was heavenly. Homemade ice creams in strawberry, mango, and lemon flavor topped with tangy fresh fruits. The ice cream melts in the mouth. When I reflect upon the meal, sometimes I feel it was a rip-off, but thanks to Poulard I have developed a liking for seasoned fresh salmon. The meal itself was not a bad experience, I think the hype is so much there is no way the meal is going to satisfy anyone’s taste. But in any case, dismissing Mere Poulard as an omelette place is an insult to French cuisine. The ambiance and the food is really enjoyable, albeit wallet-busting.
I returned back to my ‘BnB’ as fast as I could due to the plans for the next day. On the way I paid a little bit more attention to Rennes. It appears to be a more industrialized city, with tall and modern buildings. Cars everywhere. One thing I noticed was that although it was a little away from Paris, it is in no way immune to the vandals of modern days. Every conceivable wall was covered in graffiti. That’s the scourge of cities. Later I would see complete trains in Rome covered in dreadful graffiti. It’s not that I hate the art, it’s that mindless spraying is harmful to the eyes!