Monday, August 6, 2007

Rennes Without Reservations and the Mountain Monkery

For best results, kindly begin reading at the post immediately previous to this one, just below this one. That'll get you from Amsterdam to...well, just plain "Damn!", to "Damn fine, thank you." Er, that'll all make sense once you read it. I promise...~ed.

Rennes without Reservations(cont.)
...access by unknown and conceivably unfriendly strangers. We had our McGuyver moment when we took a length of black string and ran it between the necks of two empty water bottles which we cached in the shadows flanking the bottom of the escalator. Balancing a few coins on the cap of each bottle we ensured ourselves a bit of warning and an unpleasant surprise for anyone approaching unheralded.

We were roused early by a sudden grinding that marked the furling of the security grate that was our back door all night. Teeth chattering and more than a little grumpy from a night of only snatches of sleep on a hard, cold tile floor, we broke camp, dismantled the alarm system, climbed aboard the train and soaked in the magnificent luxury of a heated, upholstered train car. The sudden improvement in circumstances combined with the certainty that we were finally on our
way--and the brilliant sunrise over the French countryside--combined to lift our spirits dramatically. We arrived in St. Malo and decided that we were tired of public transportation; since we'd already slept on the ground and gone through the ritual of breaking camp we figured we'd just stay in backpacking mode and walk the 3 kilometers to the hostel. The walk helped not only to unwind knotted muscles but also gave us a wonderful view of St. Malo as it, too, roused itself for the morning. We passed a boulangerie just as its pretty young boulangere was opening the doors and grabbed the first baguette we saw, munching it contemplatively as we walked.

Once at the hostel we found that the room was not ready, as we'd hoped. Instead, something better: we hadn't been charged for it! Of course, this meant that we didn't have a place to crash and catch up on that sleep of which we'd been so cruelly deprived. It took only a minute of pondering, however, to realize that we were nearly standing on miles of nice warm bed; after all, St. Malo is known througout France for its wonderful beaches. We ditched the receptionist and our traveling clothes with an alacrity that bordered on insulting and fled for the sunny sand where we showed our appreciation for the scenery by prompltly passing out cold. Cold tiles and a dark train station were nothing but a fading memory and our time in St. Malo was of to a decidedly agreeable start (only slightly marred by the matching pair of brilliant red, totally lopsided sunburns we awoke to).

Monkery on the Mountain
Mont St. Michel was one of the places I'd been to before but I wanted to take Patrick there and visit it again for myself. It's probably Normandy's best known feature and, as far as I'm concerned, one of the jewels of France. The whole of the town is as fantastic as it is
improbable. The mountain rises out of the ocean itself, a steep jutting peak contrasting with a landscape of rolling hills. The massive tide fluxations of the Normandy coast mean that at times the ocean moat becomes instead a surreal expanse of tidal plains; a strange, reflective desert of shifting, sucking mud stretching for miles from the base of the mountain. Add to this strange scene the massive gothic abbey perched at the apex of the mountain, courtyards and chapel appearing to hang in space supported by no natural formation. Even from afar you can make out the golden figure of the Archangel Michael rising high above the tallest spire. The whole
structure appears to be straining heavenward. It has to be experienced to be understood and I was looking forward to being there again and sharing it with Patrick.

We caught the bus out of town, sharing it with all the other tourists and just following the crowd to make the correspondence in Pontorson, just a few miles from St. Michel. When the bus disgorged its scuttling mass of human cargo we vaguely remembered that there was a secondary, less-used entrance to the town but we demurred and decided to again follow the crowd. And what a crowd it was. St. Michel is a huge tourist spot, and so linearly designed that every inch of the switchbacking main street is peopled like a metro station at commute
time. It's a shame that so many people see it this way; I sense that in the silence of the early morning and late night the city reveals much more of its dignified and storied thousand year history.

Being in a crowd of tourists is always a bit of an affront to the sensibilities and we soon found a narrow, unmarked stairway rising steeply of the street level that caught our interest. It was heading up, which was approximately the right direction, and it was being used by exactly no one. These were all the selling points it needed; we took it. As we practically licked the stairs in front of us we gained ground enough to put us even with the rooftops along the street and wondered, as we wound through narrow alleys and MC Escher-like passages, if the joke was on us and we'd end up having to backtrack down to the madding crowd with our heads hung low. Just around the next corner, however, the stairs deposited us onto the cobblestone main street...right below the entrance to the abbey! We rejoined the crowd, having essentially cut in line ahead of 500 people, and wended our way up to get tickets, all the while joking in polyglot with our fellow line-standers that we might be smarter to gang up and call ourselves a "group" for the privelege of using the fast lane. We took our lunch on the vast terrasse of the abbey while we enjoyed the expansive view of French countryside and tidal plains from a sheer 100 meters above sea level.

A French docent warned us in conspiritorial tones that the English guided tours were hell at this time of the summer (and that, despite our clever plan, the French tours were "double hell") and so we opted for audioguides and our own pace to experience the abbey. I say "experience" because "see" does not encompass the feeling of grandeur, history, and spirituality of the place.

I was happy to hear confirmed my understanding of the legend of the founding of the abbey. In the late 10th century a local bishop had a dream in which St. Michael the archangel, commander of the armies of heaven, appeared to him and commanded him to build a monastery on the spot. This bishop, being a reasonable and prudent man, did pretty much nothing. After all, he knew that the devil could speak in dreams as well as the angels, and the point of a mountain seemed a dodgy place to build anything. Soon enough, though, the dream was repeated, with St. Michael appearing in heavenly glory to issue his command. The bishop was shaken but still sat tight, unwilling to stake his reputation or perhaps even his mortal soul on some nocturnal smoke and mirrors. This probably would have been the end of discussion, but, as the story goes, St. Michael wouldn't take no for an answer. Returning a 3rd time to the sleeping bishop, the archangel extended a flaming finger and punched a hole in the bishop's forhead. This was apparently all the proof that the bishop needed, for he jumped to work on the abbey immediately and personally supervised a great deal of the construction of what became one of the holiest pilgramage sites in France. (Amusing side note: the stained glass window that commerates this event takes slight liberties with the story, depicting the archangel merely laying his finger upon the bishop's head, as if by way of blessing. Apparently cranial puncture by angelic digit is not appropriate material for church windows.)

We finished our tour with still time left before the busses arrived and wandered what to do. We tried the boisson regional, a refreshing but filling apple cider that the Norman farmers produce with as much care and fierce dedication as any french vinter. Wandering down to the alternate entrance from earlier in the morning we confirmed that we could have dodged the crowd even better by entering through the gate ominously marked "Police Nationale". Apparently that's mostly to scare away the tourists. It apparently works. We chatted with several groups of French scouts in their very rugged and European-style uniforms; we were wearing the neckerchiefs we'd bought at Kandersteg in hopes of striking up conversations with other scouts on this 100th anniversary of the Baden Powell's founding of the scouting movement.

Finally we descended to the very base of the rocky mountain, where it disappears into the muddy tidal flats. Last time I was here, with a tour group and a chartered bus, there was no way I could have gotten all the way back into this out of the way spot, and I certainly wouldn't have had time to go OUT there. This time, however, we were on our own time and our own dime, lending a wonderful freedom. It looked like fun. It looked like a mostly good idea. It looked...amazingly muddy. Stripping down to pants only, we left everything of value just around the bend, safely out of sight and safely out of the morass. Tentatively we squished barefoot out onto the flats, sliding in the gooey mud as it alternatey slid out from under us or squirted between our toes. With an ungainly shuffle/skate we moved out past the dangerous rocks and found a ford across the delta the separated the "beach" from the plain proper. Once out there it was simply incredible. To be at eye level with the tidal plain allowed you to realize how vast it was, and walking out from the base of the mont we realized that we had a priveleged view that few tourists can ever get. No cars, no busses, no throngs of people...this is probably as close to what it really looked like in its heyday as you can see. We certainly took photos and gamboled around on the surreal landscape, sometimes sliding around, sometimes singing to an ankle, knee, or further.

That ought to get us up to speed. There are still 2 more days of St. Malo and 3 more days of Paris to share, but I'll do those once we're stateside.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Where am I going and why am I in this handbasket?

Yes, we're alive! I feel compelled to apologize for the dearth of updates (I'm sorry!) but I shan't dwell explaining it and instead I'll do my best to rectify it. At the very lest I'll provide some thumbnail sketches that you can ask for stories about later.

Last we spoke we were leaving Amsterdam via a day train, with no reservations. This fairly casual, off the cuff style had served us quite well to this point. Crowded Cinque Terre made room for us at Mama's pensione, Nicole and Olivier opened their arms to strangers in Fribourg, and Hili appeared as if divinely summoned to welcome us to Klosterneuberg. Even Budapest somehow guided us to the right place through a series of happy chances. We did well and perhaps were even a bit spoiled. So much the better. All the while we knew we were trading certainty for freedom and as we worked our way back west we started trading the other way. You want on the train, you reserve ahead of time and pay for the privelege. Same for hostels in the big tourist cities.

{They know the backstory, cut to the chase. Yessir!}

Let this diagram represent our intended route:
A) Amsterdam-->Paris-->St. Malo

Let this dog turd represent our actual route:

B) Amsterdam-->Brussels Nord-->Brussels Midi-->Brussels Centraal-->Paris Nort-->Paris Montparnasse-->Rennes--> NIGHT -->St. Malo.

Yup, thats right; after more than 11 hours of traveling we arrived 60km short of our goal and missed the last train by 30 minutes. Ouch. And we thought we had already paid for the hostel in St. Malo, so we didn't relish finding and paying for yet another room, in Rennes, at 10:00 at night. We elected to stay the night in the station and catch the first train in the morning. Whereupon the local yokels informed us that the station closes at night. I had some choice words, but we had no choice. It's really quite perspective-broadening to be put face to face with how little circumstances care if you are pissed at them; pretty soon I had to just let it go as getting mad was utterly not going to accomplish anything. Instead we turned our attention to something that I had never considered before: where's a good spot to sleep outside in an urban area? Alongside my newfound respect for homeless of all stripes I also recalled all my camping experience. Where's a good spot to sleep ANYWHERE? Well, I thought as we surveyed our concrete landscape, might as well start with the 5 W's of any survival campside: Weather, Wood, Water, Wigglies, and Widowmakers. Wood and water weren't a concern as we weren't planning on building a fire and boy scouts always bring extra water, but we still wanted a place out of the weather, away from any wigglies, and clear of any dangers that might make for unpleasant rousings, in this case other indigents, trains, and cops, in about that order. Fortunately, in a "you can only get better from here" turn of events, we found the escalator down to the entrance of the closed metro station. Stopped for the night, the escalator formed a narrow staircase down to a cave-like burrow that ended at the drawn security door that led to the station. Out of sight, out of the weather, and with a natural choke point to limit...

Continued in next post for reasons of readability and because this box in the Heathrow airport is crippled by the protective features they've installed on it.