When we reached France we set the sat-nav to avoid big towns and drove to the part of Normandy where the River Seine snakes towards he coast. It was there that we got our first surprise. Free river ferries! The busy little vessels certainly added a bit of colour to our meanderings and we used seven of them.
We became ferry junkies and worked out a permutation of crossings that gave us the best out of the roads and villages that lay to the south. Most were in regional parkland and an area of forestry and farming.
The ferries present surprisingly little delay to the traffic. Half a dozen vehicles drive on to one end of the vessel and moments later drive off the other end onto the opposite bank. We visited the little village of La Bouille which was ancient and brightly painted with flowers every where. It was rather like a scene from a child’s fairy book and a very pleasant place to sit in the sun by the river.
We returned following another riverside road and boarded yet another ferry which took us across to Duclair where we could drive down the other bank.
The next day, smitten by the ferries, once more we crossed the water and explored further, we were forever stopping to take pictures. The fields were full of apple trees and a farmer drove a small tractor that was just big enough to fit between the trees. A trailer was being towed carrying boxes of apples, and his wife who who was sitting on top of them, gave us a friendly wave.
We were able to sample a couple of windfalls. They were delicious and went well with the bread and cheese we eat at one of the riverside picnic tables. We watched a couple of barges go by; big powerful things pushing up huge bow waves and I made a mental note to try and return in the spring when the apple trees would be in blossom. As it was, the villages were full of flowers and an ancient bike placed by a road sign was smothered in geraniums. Generally the cottages that we passed looked fairly ancient, a few even having thatched roofs, but it was different at La Mailleraye sur Seine, where we caught the tail end of the morning market, the buildings looked sparkling and new.
It was a place that was heavily shelled and suffered damage in World War Two. Now attractivly restored it is popular and motor caravans parked at an ‘aire’ by river bank. Many of the people were retired and a sign on the on the rear of one vehicle added as touch of humour, it read “Adventure before dementia.”
We moved our adventure on and headed towards the Brittany coast. Since time was precious we had adopted the idea of using the motorways to get to our target area fast and then enjoy it by exploring the local roads.
When we reached Brittany we were aware that part of the ruins of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall defences had survived but as we followed the rugged coast it was not ruins but cafes and views of the pretty bays that occupied us. That was until in the Gulf of Gascony, pointing my camera at some photogenic old wrecks at Larmor-Plage near Lorient. I saw in the background the gaping mouths of the U-boat Pens. They were instantly recognisable and familiar from the old newsreel films on TV about the torpedoing of shipping in the North Atlantic in WW2.
The concrete bunkers were built by Nazi Germany during the Occupation, to shelter 2nd and 10th flotillas of U-boats of the Kriegsmarine, Their presence was the reason of the destruction of much of the city of Lorient by British and American bombers in January and February 1943, and in May, 1945. The pens concealing the U Boats were protected by about a million cubic metres of concrete and 15 000 people laboured in their construction. Unable to affect the bunkers the allied airforces set about wiping out everything that sustained them.
One of the massive bunkers is open to visitors and there are guided tours, most of which are in French, but you can explore one and a submarine using an English translation on a headset.
From the outside the submarine looks sleek black and menacing but what impressed me was the sheer functionality of it and how they used every centimetre of space inside. Not that I would like to have lived in the narrow confines of the forward torpedo area in which 35 crewmen worked and slept.
Now of course all is peaceful and the area is a boating enthusiasts dream. Sailing schools abound and in practically every bay you find yachts and dinghies tacking back and forth. At Guidel-Plages we sat outside a café enjoying a coffee as we watched youngsters racing small catamarans.
To the South the estuary at La Roche Bernard is particularly attractive and to the North anyone from the West of Scotland would immediately feel the Celtic connection. The buildings and with the dark slate roofs, and the dense trees seemed so much like Argyllshire.
At Erdeven, which has a seven-kilometre long beach, there are ruins of the Atlantic Wall defences, but there are historic connections that go back much, much further. There are hundreds of massive megalithic standing stones in the area and taking the D781 road towards Carnac we stopped at Kerzerho. We found the large stones perfectly aligned. The place had mystic atmosphere and you could not help but wonder what the people were like who placed them there over four thousand years ago. And wonder why?
Report by Allan Rogers