When we take a trip, I’m used to spending a good two to four weeks in a couple of carefully selected countries. Coming from Perth, one of the most isolated cities on the planet, it’s a massive undertaking – both financial, and physical – to get almost anywhere (even a flight from Western Australia to the east coast is a five to six hour transit, and a money sink to the tune of up to $300). Considering the cost and time it takes to maintain a travel habit while living in Australia, each trip needs to be crammed with as many sights and activities as possible because we cannot afford to take more than one trip to most destinations without sacrificing another unvisited locale. However, when it came to planning our first Euro trip over Christmas and New Year, things were a little different.
It’s not that shipping off to Europe is cheap – far from it – the thousands-of-dollars hole in our savings account can attest to that. The reason this trip was different is simple and unavoidable – family. Linh’s family are spread all around the world, many of them in the Netherlands and France, and a great deal of our friends live in the European Union (although we still missed out on catching up with many long-missed faces). Clearly considering this, a single trip is out of the question. By a similar token, a flight to any European city puts us well within range of dozens of enticing countries and countless unmissable destinations. This is irresistible for someone whose nearest incoming customs queue is over 3000 kilometres away. Our trip to Europe therefore became less of the usual mad dash to see as much of a country as we could, and more of a ‘cherry picked’ mad dash to see as much as we could while still remaining in range of family and friends. Initially, we expected a far less hectic experience than our usual holidays, but we very quickly realized we were mistaken. We spent much of the holiday rushing between relatives and catching the sights that we could (I guess that’s the cost of not visiting for over three years). Despite the short stays in each country (The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, France, Germany and Austria), we managed to pack in a great deal to each outing.
Between Christmas (which we spent in London) and New Years (which involved a great deal of amateur backyard pyrotechnics thanks to the legality of fireworks in The Netherlands), we took the nine hour drive through Belgium and took a brief tour of France (or at least the province of Normandy and Paris). We began this part of our European adventure by driving from Heerhugowaard, which lies north of Amsterdam, through Belgium and into France. The initial, nine hour drive took us to one of Normandy’s most renowned sites – Mont-Saint-Michel.
We arrived about an hour after sunset, having navigated the endless toll points thrown at us by the French highway system, and did a few extra laps of the tiny village of Saint-Georges-de-Grehaigne before we found our hotel, Hotel Le Saint Georges at an unassuming intersection. The rooms were rustic, and altogether lovely, especially considering the reasonable tariff. After a quick photo of Mont-Saint-Michel (about 10 minutes’ drive away) we turned in for the night.
Day two in France involved less distance, but a significantly higher level of excitement as we headed back to Mont-Saint-Michel for a long awaited visit (this site has been pretty close to the top of my all-time ‘must visit’ list for as long as I can remember). In recent years, a great deal of work has been done to ensure that there is a balance between accessibility for tourists and consideration of the waterways of the Couesnon River that surround the monastery and village. The information centre close to the shuttle bus station is an absolute must for anyone interested in the conservation and protection of both the site, and the surrounding bay (along with the massive tides for which this region is renowned). The free shuttle bus that now takes tourists along a raised roadway allows a little more control of the massive crowds that are drawn to Mont-Saint-Michel each year, and facilitates a clear flow of the tides that deposit silt through the river’s delta.
Mont-Saint-Michel itself was every bit as amazing as I had imagined, and no collection of images can really match the experience of walking through a monastery and fortified village that has stood since the 8th century. The narrow alleyways and commanding views from the defensive walls make this one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites that you should definitely not miss. The shops, pubs, restaurants and museums inside the walls are worth a look, but for the best views, and to make the most of your time, head up the stairs to the monastery and take the self guided tour. Mont-Saint-Michel is an operating Monastery and there was a service in progress as we explored the halls.
After making our way through Mont-Saint-Michel we met up with one of Linh’s cousins who explained the rivalry between Normandy and nearby Brittany over the Monastery (which lies on the border of the two provinces) as she guided us through farmland towards the seaside town of Cancale. While small, Cancale was bustling and well worth a few hours wandering along the waterfront. Again, this would be a brilliant spot to witness the impressive tidal forces that act upon the coast here (thanks to the nearby English Channel). We moved on before the tide came in as Nathalie (Linh’s cousin) promised that she had organised an even nice spot to stay.
Twenty kilometers further along the coast we arrived in St Malo, which initially appears like any other regional town, but as you reach the town centre and imposing walls rise up before you, it rapidly becomes clear that it is anything but plain. St Malo was once known as a base for Corsairs, but today the walled city is far more likely to host cruise ships and ferries than privateers. The cobbled streets are lined with hotels, shops and a glut of excellent-looking restaurants offering all manner of seafood delights. Our confusion as we approached was explained when the GPS directed us through the castle walls to our hotel. After finding a park, we spent a few hours sampling the food and wandering the streets before retiring to our room overlooking the city walls. We had prior knowledge of St Malo, but after a night behind the ramparts, rated it almost as highly as Mont-Saint-Michel.
As we reluctantly departed the next morning and headed for Lorris, to visit some more relatives, it was clear that even a short break is long enough to get a fairly good picture of a region. We by no means did justice to Normandy or Brittany and I most certainly plan to return to visit some of the hundreds of sites that we only had time to drive past (from Dunkirk, the Somme, and the Normandy Landing sites from World War Two to less historically pressing sites like Le Mans). The great thing is that Europe is one of the few places we will visit regularly, so the things we missed on this trip, and the things we saw as we passed have already made their way on to the list for the next time we find ourselves visiting Linh’s French relatives. If that wasn’t enough justification for a number of return journeys – boy, do they know how to cook!