Lyon To Bretagne And Back Again
Experiencing the famous European August holiday
While in English it is known as Brittany, or Little Britain, Bretagne is how the French refer to the northwestern most region of France. Just as Michigan is geographically distinctive for America, Bretagne is easily spotted on a map, as it is a large peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, reaching almost as far west as Dublin.
For our very first French August holiday, we traveled by train across the entire country of France to reach Quiberon, a small isle off the southern coast of Brittany. The journey took roughly eight hours and required us to take three different trains. First was the national intercity TGV, followed by a regional TER, and finally a little local train that took us from nearby Auray onto the isle of Quiberon itself.
The TGV is an intercity railway that runs between major destinations in France and western Europe, and will get passengers to just about any large city in France, as well as other destinations including London, Geneva, Madrid, Milan and Munich. Our journey on the TGV was from Lyon to Nantes, which took a bit more than four hours, and first took us by Paris on our way to the Atlantic coast. We had lots of a legroom, an accessible bar car with many options of food and drink, and access to tolerable toilets. Ayla was able to lay out over both our seats and get a good nap, while I still had plenty of room to get comfortable.
The moment we stepped off the TGV, the journey became hectic. Gare de Nantes, the train station where we transferred, was a nightmare. There were no monitors to tell us where we needed to go next, and we had exactly 18 minutes to get from the TGV train to our connection. This was not a lot of time considering that we couldn't figure out where to go, and the train station in Nantes isn't exactly small. In a moment of desperation, I rather aggressively approached two staff members and asked for help. They told us where to go, however even with that information it was still a bit confusing. The train station in Nantes is by far my least favorite in France so far.
Once we got to the actual train, there was a long line at every door to board. I picked one, and NYC'd our way on board, probably causing a few bruises with my suitcase in the process. Inside my luggage I had three bottles of wine, two liters of beer, and a bottle of Pastis, a popular French liquour, which made the entire experience a rigorous one.
Once on board, we powered our way through the cars looking for a seat until we were met with an impossible blockade of people. It was there that we stopped, and it was there that we spent the next 60 minutes.
The train was delayed about 15 minutes from actually leaving the station, and during the first few stops, more people actually boarded. The situation got so bad that the toilet became entirely inaccessible. Worse yet, the bike rack was near our exit, so at each stop when people exited, they were delayed by people struggling to get their bike off of the rack.
After the first hour, we migrated onto the next car and found a seat for Ayla, as well as a more appropriate place for my suitcase. I however would remain standing for about another 40 minutes, while also feeling the increasing urgency of urination.
Overall, the TER experience from Nantes to Auray was hellish, and I would avoid it if possible. That said, had I used the toilet beforehand and had been traveling lighter, the experience would not have been as terrible. It still beats sitting on a U.S. interstate in the middle of nowhere because of a closure on the road.
Once in Auray I tried to find a bathroom, however there was only a public toilet which was clearly crowded and disgusting, and was being trolled by local junkie beggars.
I was not in any mood to deal with foreign language drug addicts, and so I sought other options. Inside the train station was a diner style restaurant, and a door with a keypad. My life experience told me that this secure door must be the entrance to an exclusive bathroom for customers only, and as hungry as we were, I decided to splurge on lunch at this fine private toilet establishment.
The food was excellent, and a great introduction to Brittany. Ayla had an incredibly delicious ham and cheese plate, while I ate a yummy Galette, served with egg, ham and cheese. I washed my meal down with a Panaché while Ayla enjoyed a strawberry juice.
The bathroom was also welcoming, and we both made good use of it before hurrying over to the third and final train, le tire bouchon. The name literally translates to corkscrew, and is the same description used for a wine opener. While this train was certainly not anything to rave about, it was a welcome change from the hellish experience we had just gone through. Just under 40 minutes after the train left the station, we arrived in Saint-Pierre Quiberon.
The rest of the week was lovely, as we enjoyed seeing a variety of sights including ancient monoliths dating back 7,000 years, functioning residences from the colonial era, two starkly different coastlines just a 10 minute walk from each other, and modern architecture that preserved the notable Breton style of the region.
The best part of the week was the food. On the first full day we ate fresh oysters for lunch and home cooked crab for dinner. For the first time in my life I actually saw how live crabs are handled and cooked, and I also got to taste the difference between crabs living in a tank, versus those that were in the ocean that very same day. The same for fish, as we got to eat three different kinds of local fish that were served up the very same day that they were hauled in from the part of the Atlantic known as the Celtic Sea.
Ayla and I also learned how to make crepes, and we each managed to turn out one good version of the French pancake. Also noteworthy was the dry cider, a local specialty that is an excellent compliment to many of the Breton dishes. Perhaps my favorite however was the recipe I picked up for sauteed leeks, which calls for dicing up the rather bland vegetable and marinating it in equal parts salted butter, water, and olive oil, before adding in créme fraiche. Upon returning home, I promptly went and purchased a fresh leek as well as the other needed ingredients.
Each day was a routine of eating breakfast with about seven kids and six adults, followed by either sailing, walking the coast, going to the beach or building a bike a rack (more in a moment).
Lunch and dinner ran in the same manner, with the kids eating first, and then the adults relaxing and chatting over wine, beer or pastis while eating a plethora of delicious local food. A couple of times we ventured over to get ice cream for everyone, an experience which in itself was worth the eight hour journey.
As is typical, the final day of vacation came a little too early, however the journey home was much better than the one out. The only difficulty was in Paris, where the weather was nasty and the connection required that we traverse through the city from Gare de Montparnasse to Gare de Lyon. The bus didn't seem to be running, and so we had to take the Metro, which required a lot of walking, lots of stairs, and droves of irritating travelers who were also ending their respective vacations. Luckily for me, my suitcase was much lighter.
Perhaps one of the best parts of the adventure was the makeshift bike rack that two of us adults made out of leftover wood. Drawing on our respective engineering prowess (looking stuff up on google) we figured out how to throw together a way to house the many bikes that were laying around the garage. Using an old rusty handsaw, a hammer as old as the monoliths, and really cheap wood, we created a functional masterpiece that will no doubt endure the test of time.
In summary, Brittany is a beautiful place with a cool oceanic climate and regular periods of light rain and cloud cover. It was never very hot, and there is no shortage of outdoor activities to partake in. The cuisine is unique, and the French flag is a rarity, as people from this region are Bretons first, before they are French. In place of the drapeau tricolore bleu, blanc, rouge, is the national flag of Brittany, of which the origins date back nearly eight hundred years. While it never feels like you are not in France, it also never really feels like you are.