Monday, May 31, 2010

Brittany and Cancale

Susie and I arrived in Brittany on Saturday afternoon. We're staying in a gite outside the village of Saint-Coulomb, which is about half way between Saint-Malo, the celebrated resort city and port, and Cancale, a smaller city on the Bay of Saint-Michel that is famous for its oysters. Saint-Malo struck us as big, busy, and touristy. Cancale, although it has its own tourists, feels more of like a working city.

We've spent a couple of days visiting Cancale, even taking in an English-language showing of "Greenberg" at the city's municipal movie-theater; we were two out of a total of six customers. Perhaps a theme of unbalanced and angry New Yorkers in self-centered Los Angeles does not draw them in, here.

Like most of the cities and villages in Brittany that we've been able to see so far, Cancale is largely built of stone, especially granite. Cancale's church and sober houses crowd on the heights above the shore.

Oysters, their cultivation, and their harvesting play such an important role in Cancale that the city's main square, in front of the church, has a statue/fountain of women washing oysters in baskets. The people of Cancale have made their living from oysters for many years. There's a painting by John Singer Sargent that shows the oyster gatherers of Cancale in 1875. At restaurants along the coast of Brittany, the menus advertise "huitres de Cancale." I came across a report, though, that although some Cancale oysters are still the indigenous delicate oyster of Brittany, these are disappearing and have been largely replaced by a faster-growing breed from Japan. Restaurant menus distinguish these as, respectively, plattes and creuses.

You can buy oysters, along with other seafood, at Cancale's weekly market, held on Sunday mornings in the streets behind the church.

Or you can buy oysters from the sellers whose stands line the quay right where the oysters are cultivated and gathered. As compared to oysters sold in restaurants, these oysters are sold at miracle prices. As attested by the piles of oyster shells and lemon rinds below the quay, many are eaten on the spot.

Cancale's oyster beds, acres and acres of them, lie right next to the city. As the tide starts to go out, the oyster beds begin to emerge from the water.

And when the tide is low, you can begin to see the extent of the oyster beds.

The oyster gatherers head into the beds, using tractors to haul the oysters back to shore near the city's port area of La Houle.

La Houle lies on the other side of the jetty from the oyster beds. It looks over moorage for commercial and pleasure boats, most of which end up beached at low tide.

The waterfront at La Houle is lined with restaurants, ranging from elegant places with pastel cotton napkins folded into wine glasses to creperies with paper place mats. Almost all of these restaurants give place of pride to seafood, and especially oysters.

Cancale also has stretches of coastline that remain much wilder. A trail, at times a little rough, runs along, up, down, and around the headlands.

From the trail, you can see rocky beaches and islands, including the Ile de Rimains, which has a fort built at the end of the 18th Century to plans designed by Vauban. The island is private property and once belonged to the late Lionel Poilane, the famous baker of bread.

As you walk back into town, you can see the variety of stone houses that typify buildings here. While perhaps not as welcoming as houses in some other parts of France, Cancale's houses can have a lot of charm.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Morette, Savoie

Le Col de la Colombière

The Col de la Colombière, a mountain pass in the Savoie that connects the town of Cluses and the ski resort of Le Grand Bornand and then on to Thônes, has frequently served as a mountain stage of the Tour de France, most recently in 2009. From the pass, looking southwest, you can see la Tournette, the mountain that rises opposite the gite where we were staying.

At the pass itself, you find views of the rugged formations of the Aravis range.

As the snow fields melt, they feed streams that tumble from the mountain in long waterfalls.

As Susie and I walked around the pass, a bouquetin (a kind of wild mountain goat) looked down at at us from a ridge just above the pass.

And over the lower ridges, fantastic peaks of the Aravis beckon you to explore further.

The Salomon Contemporary Art Foundation

A renovated 16th-Century chateau, in the village of Alex, between Thônes and Annecy, houses the Salomon Contemporary Art Foundation. This unexpected and delightful museum, more properly called the la Fondation pour l'Art Contemporain Claudine et Jean-Marc Salomon, presents truly contemporary work that reflects the artistic judgment of the Foundation's founders, who created the Salomon ski (and now snowboard) equipment and apparel giant.

The museum's building, the chateau d’Arenthon, contains three floors of galleries, plus a gift shop and a salon de thé/library. After seeing the exposition with Susie, I skimmed a great book on Shepard Fairey while sipping a soft drink. Sculpture gardens surround the chateau.

The current exposition, "Collection 3," shows works from the private collection of Claudine et Jean-Marc Salomon, primarily figurative drawings and paintings. The exposition displays its most abstract works in the top-floor gallery.

The exposition contains many memorable works, all by artists born after 1960. One fun piece was Shepard Fairey's ersatz record label for "The Last of the Rebel Waltzers," part of an extensive series of related works. This particular work includes several long-running Fairey motifs, including "OBEY" and the abstract Andre-the-Giant-in-a-star logo. You can buy (at exceptionally reasonably prices) original works directly from Shepard Fairey at his Web site,

This large untitled work by Olivier Masmonteil struck me as a clever commentary on the relationship between landcape and abstract painting.

The building itself is interesting, combining Gothic architecture and contemporary art. Here's a view of across the entry toward a circular stairwell visible through a window.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Dueling Flowers

In a recent posting, Susie shared some of her pictures of the flowers we'd seen on our hikes in the mountains of the Savoie. These come up awfully fast as the snow melts. M. Credoz said that the leaves had only been out on the trees for about three weeks, and that he had watched the spring climb the slopes as trees higher and higher up leafed out.

Anyway, to pay tribute to these inspiring signposts of spring, and to complement Susie's posting, here are some of my floral photos, principally from our hike to the Plan du Tour.

La Montagne de Sullens

Susie's and my last longish hike in the Savoie was on the west side of the Montagne de Sullens, which rises, southeast of Thônes, to just over 6,000 feet. Starting out below the Col du Plan de Bois, the trail wound its way around the northwest slope of the Montagne de Sullens. We could see across the valley clear to the Col de la Croix Fry, where we'd started a hike a few days earlier.

And in the valley below was the village of Manigod.

To our east rose the Aravis mountain range, with the pyramidal Pointe de Merdassier and the jagged Etale. There's a trail up the ridge of the Merdassier, but taking it involves climbing something like 2650 feet straight up.

The slopes of the Montagne de Sullens were dotted with chalets for working farms. This 0ne had laundry hanging out to dry. Note the massive protection against avalanches and falling rocks.

Our path wound south, with the Montagne de Sullens on our right, and the pass of the Plan du Tour ahead, as our goal.

The Montagne de Sullens, at least on its east face, is awfully barren. It reminds me of mountains in Scotland, perhaps not coincidentally because in both places sheep or goats have probably eaten most of the vegetation.

While the goats continued to munch, off to our right, we reached the Plan du Tour, having climbed about 1,400 feet along the way. At the pass, we enjoyed the great vista to the south before retracing our steps downhill to the car.

Le Plateau de Glières

Thônes, the nearest city to our Savoie gite, lies in the valley of the Fiers river. The river runs below high sedimentary formations; the heights just west and north of Thônes are the Plateau de Glières, whose great cliffs give the formation the look of a natural fortress.

Interesting waterfalls, including this spectacular twisting torrent, drop from the top of the cliffs toward the Fier.

People had lived around the plateau for thousands of years. Indeed, there's a major archeological site at the foot of the plateau, along the river Fier, near the town of la Balme-de-Thuy. Human beings began living in a shelter under the cliffs--a shallow cave, really--between 9 and 10 thousand years ago. Thones's city museum displays some of the items found at the site. People can only visit the site a few times a year, as it's still under active archeological study.

In World War II, the Plateau de Glières served as the setting for the Battle of Glières, between the Free French fighters, called the Maquis, and the combined forces of the Vichy regime and the Third Reich. By the winter of 1943-1944 the Maquis had conducted attacks on Vichy forces and was preparing to support the Allied invasion of France, then expected to take place in the spring of 1944. The British forces chose the Plateau de Glières as the best site at which to parachute loads of weapons and other supplies for the Maquis.

The situation on the top of the plateau was harsh, with cold and snow and with little food. The 270 or so Maquis soldiers, led by Lt. Théodose Morel (nicknamed "Tom"), were there to collect the parachuted supplies. However, the major drops were delayed. The first big air drop didn't occur until the 10th of March; Tom had been killed that morning in action at Entremont. After the drop, the Vichy forces, the "Milice," tried to attack the Maquis on the plateau but were beaten back. The Germans then brought in 14,000 troops plus 4,000 Vichy soldiers to stop the Maquis. Despite the long odds against them, the Maquis held out for days on the plateau. But faced with overwhelming Axis forces, they were forced to withdraw. Many of the Maquis were killed in combat, captured and then executed, or captured and tortured to death. Among those on the plateau killed by the Germans was Edouard Credoz, the uncle of one of the owners of our gite; at his death, Edouard Credoz was not yet 19 years old.

Edouard Credoz, "Tom" Morel, and 103 other French and Spanish dead, killed in the fight against the Axis, lie in graves in the Nécropole Nationale des Glières, in the hamlet of Morette, on the north bank of the Fier, opposite the south flanks of the Plateau de Glières. Many of the dead had been summarily executed in the field next to the memorial. The Germans planned to throw the bodies into a lime pit, but the mayor of Thônes, at great personal risk, managed to organize a proper burial.

Lt. Morel had first been buried on the top of the snow-covered plateau, during the fighting. His remains were later moved to the Glières Nécropole and are remembered with one of the cemetery's bronze markers.

The site of the memorial includes, in addition to the cemetery, three buildings that comprise the Musée départemental de la Résistance and the Mémorial départemental de la Déportation. The Resistance Museum is housed in a chalet, moved to the site, of the kind in which the Maquis sought shelter.

These museums educate visitors about the history of the resistance in Savoie and about the Nazi's deportation and murder of millions. The exhibits are well done, fascinating, and moving.

I'm glad to note that, while we were there, groups of school children toured the site and the museums.

In death, the resistance fighters buried at the Glières cemetery inspired other resistance forces in France, and especially in the Savoie, which was the only region in France to be liberated by resistance forces. The city of Annecy was the last German stronghold in the region to fall. The operations of the Maquis were daring and resourceful, capturing hundreds of Nazi soldiers and quickly obtaining the commander's surrender. The resistance forces drove their trucks into the liberated city.

Today, the memorials and museums serve to keep alive the history and memory of the resistance fighters of the Plateau de Glières. And the Glières cliffs, once a defense against Nazi attacks, now have a much happier role as an aerial playground for parapenters.