Shoulder season is one of the best times to visit Europe and late spring is the perfect season to see the French country side. Hotel prices are still reasonable and most attractions are open and are not overrun with tourists. The highways in France are easy to navigate and with all the technological options, gone are the days of getting hopelessly lost and confused on the road. My cousin and I decided to do a 4-day road trip to visit towns in the western part of France as it is one area we have yet to explore. Our destinations for this trip were Paris to Mont St. Michel, Cancale, St. Malo, Dinan and Giverny on our return to the city.
Day 1: Paris to Mont St. Michel
Mont St. Michel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a small island off the coast of Normandy that is topped with a medieval Benedictine monastery. Over hundreds of years, the ramparts were built around the island to keep the English forces out, which was followed by other buildings that lined the steep village streets. Most of them have now been converted into museums, hotels, restaurants and boutiques. Water rushes in and out of the bay each day and surround the island making it feel even more remote during high tide.
We drove from Paris to the new car park, approximately 1.5 miles away from the island, and took the shuttle to the entrance. As we were staying on the island at the historic Auberge Saint Pierre (250 Euro/night) and knowing that we would have to do a lot of walking to get to the hotel, we only took a small overnight backpack. We patted ourselves on the back for the smart decision as we saw many tourists struggling with their rolling luggage up steep hills and flights of stairs.
There are only a handful of small inns on Mont St. Michel, which were very expensive ($250+/ night) with many cheaper options outside of the island. We opted to stay inside the town to experience the village without tourists at night and in the early morning. This was the right decision for us as the island was deserted around 5pm, leaving only a handful of folks wandering around in silence. It was a completely ghost-like atmosphere juxtaposed to the bustling and crowded touristy vibe earlier in the day. We watched as the tides came into the bay during sunset, seemingly cutting off the abbey from the modern world. Waking up to sunrise over the island and to birds chirping outside the window was worth the pricey lodging.
Things to Do:
The best thing to do in Mont St. Michel is getting lost along the winding streets and discovering random sites along the way. The village itself is very small and can be walked within an hour or two. I would recommend the following sites:
1. Abbey of Mont Saint Michel (8 Euro/adult) – We walked along La Grande Rue and up the winding stairs to the abbey. We didn’t need StairMaster after that walk! The Abbey has many rooms to explore including the church, cloisters, refectory and monk’s promenade. It’s a great way to spend 30 minutes to an hour learning about the various purposes the abbey served over its colorful history.
2. The small graveyard below the abbey (where we struggled to make out names on the tombstones that had been faded with time) – This area also afforded Instagram-worthy views of the abbey.
3. Walk along the ramparts and see the differing perspectives of the Normandy bay, especially during the changing tides when water rushes in and surrounds the island.
4. There are other museums such as Logis Tiphaine Museum (a historic house of Knight Betrand du Gueslin), Historical Museum (a small museum that contains 1,000 years of the island history) and the Museum of Sea and Ecology (houses 250 ancient models of boats). We did not have time to visit these museums in person, but would have loved to spend some time there.
Place to Eat:
Everything in Mont St. Michel is average at best, with popular tourist choices such as crepes, simple French food, and pizzas. There are some places worth stopping by, but due to limited options, they tend to be swarmed by tourists.
1. La Mere Poulard – This is arguably the most famous restaurant in the village and also one of the most recognized in France. They are known for their rich and fluffy soufleed omelets whipped up in copper bowls and cooked over an open fire. We selected the set Menu Mere Poulard at 65 Euro per person, which included appetizer, entrée and dessert. In hind sight, it was too much food as everything was extremely luxurious. It was interesting to watch chefs make the omelets in the fireplace in a very countrified kitchen. Other than that, the omelet was very rich and the egg butter foam on the omelet was a bit over the top as all I could taste was fat. The food was good, but wasn’t worth 65 euro per person. I would recommend just going for 1 omelet to share for two people, which still costs around 40 to 50 euros.
2. Creperie La Sirene – This little creperie is hidden at the back of a souvenir shop and has a good selection of Breton galette, both savory and sweet.
3. Le Terraces de la Baie for a great view for lunch.
4. Coffee at any of the cafes along the ramparts for an afternoon break and to people and bird watch.
Day 2: Cancale and Saint Malo
Nearby Mont St. Michel is Cancale, a place that locals recommend for the best oysters in France. We drove one hour from Mont St. Michel to the seaside market where there were various stalls hawking fresh oysters of the day. After browsing for 15 minutes, we selected a few dozen oysters from Jean D. Cancale including the Pied de Cheval at 6 Euro/each. It was half the size of my face and very meaty. The vendor gave us an impromptu shucking lesson while she prepared the oysters for us. She made it look a lot easier and faster than when I tried it at home. Afterward, we made our way to the “stairs” by the harbor with trays of goodies and proceeded to eat and throw the shells onto the “beach” like the locals. These were the freshest and tastiest oysters that we’ve had in a long time. Absent of being completely stuffed on oysters, we would have kept on eating. This is a must stop destination for oyster lovers.
Another short 30-minute car ride later, we arrived at a charming bed and breakfast, L’Hôtel Particulier Ascott, located in Saint Malo. This port city in Brittany has granite ramparts surrounding the old town. Walking through the cobbled streets of St. Malo’s old town feels like you stepped back into history and gives an authentic glimpse into Brittany’s seafaring past.
There are many reasonable options in St. Malo. We opted to stay at L’Hôtel Particulier Ascott, a quaint three-star bed and breakfast, to fully experience the country road trip. This 19th-century mansion sits in the residential area of Saint-Servan, right at the mouth of the Rance River and just 1,300 feet from the beach. The inn is managed by a sweet couple that provided just enough personal touches. We were made to feel at home right from the start. The room was small but very comfortable with modern amenities. Breakfast was served with an assortment of pastries, cold cuts and yogurt. The whole experience was what one would expect of a memorable European B&B.
Things to Do:
1. Cathedral – The main attraction in old town is the 12th century cathedral that was built in the Roman style and houses the graves of Jacques Cartier, a navigator who discovered Canada, and Duguay-Trouin, who I have no idea what he accomplished.
2. Walk the intra-muros – This district is all cobblestone streets with restaurants, boutiques, creperies and getting lost along the winding roads is the best way to explore.
3. Walk along the ramparts – Climb up the stairs at various access points in the old town to the ramparts and stroll along the bastions, guard towers, posterns, canons and sentries. You also get a panoramic view of the bay and its island. The loop should take about an hour to complete.
4. Castle – The 14th century castle is located at the Saint Vincent gate and currently houses the history museum of Saint Malo.
5. The various historical houses including:
– The 15th century stone house of Duchess Ann
– The 17th century house that is half timbered and where the International House of Poets and Writers is currently located,
– The Corsair’s Abode which was the 18th century Afield Hotel.
Place to Eat:
Saint Malo is known as a seafood destination in the Brittany region with many restaurants specializing in seafood towers. Some notable eateries that were recommended to us:
1. Le Beurre Bordier – An artisanal butter that is churned by hand in a wooden kneading bowl daily. The butter is then shaped by hand and struck with a box tress paddle to form a regular and made-to-measure packs. We purchased sampler sets for breakfast and gifts. I can easily say that this was some of the best butter I have ever had. They also have a restaurant, Autour du Beurre, which highlights their famous butter creations.
2. Le Comptoir Breizh Café – Their specialty is buckwheat gallettes and soup.
3. Le Chalut – This is a Michelin restaurant for seafood hidden in a maze of streets. Reservations are highly recommended.
Day 3: Dinan
After a hearty breakfast in the beautifully curated parlor at the B&B, we drove 30 minutes to Dinan, a medieval village that is so pretty, it could fit into one of the Disney movies. The village is adjacent to the River Rance and is built up along the surrounding hills. The town has some of the best preserved medieval architecture in Brittany with buildings dating back to the 13th century. Dinan’s historic commercial center, Place des Merciers, is lined with Instagram-ready half-timbered and arcaded buildings. You can meander around the town for hours and not get bored of the normal town life.
Dinan is a small village so options such as Airbnb or the Ibis Styles in centre ville could be your best bet. There are a few high end options that are available by the river as well. We stayed at the Ibis Styles, which was an affordable option and reminded me of the Marriott Courtyard in the US. It was conveniently located right by old town so we were able to explore on foot and ditch the car for the day.
Things to Do:
There are a few sites worth seeing, but the best thing to do is to wander and get lost. The theme of this road trip was to explore and see where our feet took us, usually to pleasant surprises. Dinan is a small town and the architecture is very well preserved.
Walk along the ramparts and see what you can discover. The ramparts stretch along 2km around the old city and affords magnificent views of the town and Breton landscape.
1. Chateau de Dinan – This traditional 14th century castle includes keep and gate that join the medieval ramparts enclosing the old town. The castle visit encompasses a self-guided tour of its many rooms and has interesting facts about life in the medieval times. The audio guide is in French; however, they have placards in English in each room.
2. St. Sauveur Basicilica – This 12th century cathedral is situated in its own square and boasts Gothic and Romanesque architecture. The church is also surrounded by bakeries and cafes in case you need an afternoon break.
3. Rue du Jerzual – Dinan’s steep main street with numerous cafes and shops housed in buildings from the 13th century, which leads to the Dinan port.
Places to Eat:
There are many places to eat traditional Breton food and some recommendations are:
1. Crêperie Ahna – This small restaurant made the best crepes in town and is always packed.
2. Fleur de Sel – This restaurant has great regional cuisine. Reservations are highly recommended.
Day 4: Back to Paris with a stopover at Monet’s House in Giverny
On our last day, we stopped by Giverny to visit Monet’s house at the peak of springtime. Since it was a week day, it was not overly crowded. If possible, buy the tickets online prior to going otherwise the ticket line can be very long (in French time). The flowers were vibrantly showcased in a formal garden like they were depicted in various Monet’s paintings. The famous pond and Japanese bridge are smaller than I had imagined, but very pretty nonetheless. One could imagine Monet spending hours amidst the inspiring visual splendor dreaming up his next creation. The other highlights of the attraction were walking around Monet’s house and admiring its well preserved furnishings and numerous canvases of art. The visit took around 2 hours and was just enough for a break before returning to Paris.
This itinerary was short yet it allowed for us to see the best of each site and left us wanting to come back again soon. Western France is filled with small towns that time has seemingly left untouched that beckon to be discovered by those looking for the simple country life.
Author: Chau Hoang