Sunday, July 13, 2014

To Brittany and Beyond

Six years ago I blogged about my extraordinary experience at the IEEE EMBS summer school in Brittany, France. We were on a tiny tidal island in the Gulf of Morbihan near the Bay of Biscay. This summer I was back there again as a lecturer and had an even more fabulous experience. The school relocated to the Côte d'Armor area, and we were housed in a lovely abbey on a narrow peninsula jutting into the English Channel. Brittany (French: Bretagne, Breton: Breizh) has a rich history. A very long time ago our Neanderthal cousins would roam the place. More recently, it has been home to Celtic populations. The local vernacular Breton (nowadays largely overshadowed by French) is a close relative of Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, and other Celtic languages from Great Britain. Parts of Brittany were occupied or destroyed during WWII. In fact my visit to the city of Saint Malo strongly reminded me of a great novel I read based in the then German-occupied Guernsey, an island not far away from the Saint Malo coast. The trip to Saint Malo, which was part of the school program, was on the night of the Fête de la Musique, a music festival that takes place on summer solstice, the longest day of the year. After a fascinating tour of the historic walled part of the city, which was wiped out during WWII and rebuilt later, we roamed around listening to an assortment of local bands playing music from genres ranging from traditional Scottish or Breton to French or English rock. I tried some delectable kouign-amann from a local bakery and dined on buckwheat crepes (both the savory version, known as a galette in Brittany, and a sweet version with salted caramel), a Breton specialty. The school program also arranged for a trip to Dinan, a medieval town nearby, where we walked down to the beautiful banks of the river Rance. Like last time, school menu featured regular seafood extravaganzas with juicy langoustines, mussels, scallops, escargots (sea snails), oysters, and fish. Not a desserts person, I would still find it hard to resist the mouth-watering crumbles and cakes. I also got to taste the far, a flan-like traditional Breton dessert. The fresh fruit plucked from the abbey gardens were otherworldly. 

Brittany was breathtaking. But on my way there, I took a short detour to the world famous Mont Saint-Michel, the second most visited attraction in France after the Eiffel tower. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Mont Saint-Michel is a rocky tidal island in Normandy, off the coast near the Brittany-Normany border. It houses a magnificent fortified abbey, which stood unvanquished through many wars and attacks in history, most famously the Hundred Years' War. The island is surrounded by salt marshes which witness massive changes in water level with the tides. The abbey has some beautiful Romanesque architecture with some newer Gothic touches. Without further ado, here are some photos from the trip. As always, I will let the photos tell the rest of the story. 

View of Mont Saint-Michel. A shuttle bus services runs early morning through late night connecting the mainland with the island.

Magnificent granite ramparts

A closer view of the abbey from the village.

Small turret in the stairwell

Statue of the archangel Michel (Michael) atop the monument

La salle des Hôtes or the hosts’ room, where guests of importance were received.

The cloisters

This crypt is very literally named as Crypte des Gros Piliers or crypt of the fat pillars.

Another crypt

Near the entrance to the Saint Malo walled city or "La Ville Intra-Muros". The city rampart and the château appear in the background.

The château of Saint Malo

Little rocky islands with fortresses are scattered near the shore. Some like this one are walkable at low tide.

City buildings with granite facades

More city buildings

Sunset on summer solstice day. The sun set after 10:30 pm. After a long dreary Boston winter, the extended hours of sunlight felt most welcome. This here is a lighthouse on a rocky island off the shore of Saint Malo. 

Flower pots with lovely blooms adorn windowsills and balconies in Brittany. This is from a home in a Dinan.

River Rance in Dinan

A bridge on the River Rance

One of the beaches in Saint Jacut de la Mer, a peninsula on which the school activities took place. 

The abbey where we stayed through the duration of the school. This is the view of the other wings of the abbey from my room. 

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