I feel that I visited a virtual place, thanks to the gorgeous weather in regions not known for such a thing. As the photos indicate, sun and mild temperatures prevailed, humidity did not.
My first encounter with Kent was a ploughman’s lunch at the Brown Trout pub, a perfect first meal after a transatlantic crossing. Then on to John’s home village, Benenden. Winding along narrow, well-kept country roads, we passed hedge rows, vibrant hydrangeas, and hop gardens. John’s parents live in a large, rambling house with parts dating from the 16th century. Three months of rain (before our arrival) made the garden grow, and grow, and grow. Except for the little Christmas tree that John’s family replants every year after its brief, festive stint in the house.
A bedroom window overlooks the late-summer rape fields, Pickle the cat watched over her new brood of kittens, and pears and greengages ripened in back.
In Canterbury, where John went to grade school, we wandered the ruins behind the dormitories where teenagers sneak out to drink and hang out. (A far cry from the convenience store parking lot where my high school classmates would congregate.) The campus connects seamlessly with the Canterbury Cathedral, where we spent a moment in front of an unassuming memorial to Thomas à Becket. Later, from the walls of Bodiam Castle, I saw the tops of oast houses, where hops are dried.
The wedding we attended served nouveau Indian cuisine in tiffin boxes and held a clubby dance party in an otherwise venerable old townhouse. We stayed in Brixton, where a West Indian pub did both West Indian and pub quite well. A free morning was spent walking the South Bank, popping into the Tate Modern and tearing me away from a little boutique I hope to visit again.
My cousin and his wife drove us to Waterloo Station to catch the Eurostar. Four hours later, we were in St Germain des Pres. The Hotel Delavigne, recommended by a friend, was comfortable and friendly. My vivid but placeless memory compelled us to walk around until we found a place I had enjoyed a few years before: La Bastide d’Opio, an adorable restaurant that flavors its tuna with lavender and its lamb with lime. Mmmm…
Saint Malo is an historic port town in eastern Brittany. The walled old town was beautiful but far too crowded. Fortunately, our lovely Hôtel du Palais (much more attractive than the Web site suggests) was a few blocks away from the craziness. The concierge recommended the dinner at the Brasserie Amoricaine, the best and lowest-price meal of our entire stay.
We rented bikes from Les Vélos Bleus and followed the shore roads for a while. Saint Malo has charm well outside of its old town, and I would counter the Rough Guides and instead recommend staying outside those walls. Everywhere , hydrangeas blossomed, linking Old Europe with New England by its flora.
The Hôtel Le Chatellier is about 1km outside of the village of Cancale. The staff and decor were quirky but homey; the grounds spacious and well kept. Room #6 is on the top floor, large, airy, and worth a return visit. Cancale itself has two parts: the town square, which is quiet and pretty with a side-street creperie that serves delicious galettes on an outside terrace, and the port, a bustling tourist section where oysters and beer are consumed with little ceremony. At low tide, the boats rest directly on the sea bed.
With friends who were vacationing from the South, we took lunch in the medieval town of Dinan, and visited the Menhir du Champ Dolent, an ancient megalith now surrounded by cornfields. We tried the plage du Verger but much preferred the gorgeous, quieter beach just next to it, the plage du Saussaye. We watched the sun set from the Pointe du Grouin.
One of the trip’s highlights was an evening spent in Mont Saint Michel, a monastery on a small parcel of land that becomes an island during low tide. In July and August, the abbey remains open until midnight. Most tourists had left by late afternoon, and we climbed sporadic flights of stone steps away from the ridiculous souvenir shops and terrible restaurants up to the abbey’s entrance.
Just as sunshine transforms Brittany into something rare and special, evening transforms the abbey. From a daytime museum whose walls recite dates and names, it becomes a space to explore and contemplate. We strolled from chamber to chamber with quiet delight. In one room, a cellist played a minimalist piece that allowed each note to resonate in the arched stone ceilings. Other rooms had artful installations that were simple and pure, diffuse lighting and sounds that shimmered. When I turned a corner into a chapel and saw the sun setting through the tall doors, my heart stopped. I ran out onto the terrace to watch the sky and the sand change with shifting light. All of travel’s planning and motion fell away, leaving me completely and contentedly in the present moment.