If there’s one thing the French do well, it’s trains. I boarded my TGV straight at CDG Terminal 2, met up with my friend N (of previous trip fame) onboard and, without even stopping in Paris, chugged directly to Rennes, the springboard into Brittany. A quick change there, one more hour on a regional train that was, if anything, more space-age than the TGV, and we landed in Saint-Malo, famed former corsair (that’s French for pirate, arr) hub and today one of Brittany’s top tourist draws. The walled city, or Intramuros, hosts what is almost certainly France’s highest concentration of creperies per square inch, with the little remaining space being taken up by expensive seafood restaurants and hotels, all of them overflowing with blue and white nautical kitsch.
After a perfunctory tour of the city wall, with the collusion of my friend we set about on the main theme of the trip, that is, eating. On the menu were galettes (savoury crepes), scallops, cider and, above all, oysters. The coast of Carcale is one of France’s if not the world’s top oyster regions, and even fancy restaurants were selling them fresh for under a euro a piece. But N pulled off the culinary coup of the trip by spying a take-out window, offering big, chunky size #2 oysters for a scarcely credible 6 euros a dozen. On request, the shop even shelled them, laid them on an iced tray, threw in a sliced lemon and wrapped the whole thing in crinkly gift wrap plastic, without charging a cent extra. Until this day, I hadn’t been much of an oyster fan, but these, indeed, were something else.
The next day’s agenda was a day trip to Mont Saint Michel, a remarkable demonstration of what the French could come up with when threatened by something scary enough, like my forbears the Vikings. As a set of models inside the complex demonstrated, the Mont was once just a pyramidal pile of rock, which over the centuries was carved and constructed into a pyramidal fortress-cum-abbey. Surround it by some of the world’s most formidable tidal flats, replete with quicksand, and even the most determined berserker will opt for an easier target instead.
Today, though, Mont Saint Michel’s defenses are wide open and the island is thus rampaged by ravenous hordes of tourists on a daily basis. The rather inaptly named Grande Rue, in particular, was so crowded you had to squeeze past all the Japanese tour groups snapping away at chefs in pseudo-medieval costumes whipping up omelettes, sold at 30 euros a piece (if you could manage to get a reservation). We then had to queue some more for the privilege of paying 10 euros to get into the Abbey, which was worth the visit though — after the Revolution, it was turned into a prison, and the cargo elevator operated by prisoners trudging inside a giant human hamster wheel could have been straight out of Sade’s demented fantasies. For lunch, we picked one of the less popular restaurants on the ramparts (which, on the eve of May Day, meant one which actually had two seats free) and tested the famed Mont Saint Michel omelette (fluffy but bland), the famed local sheep (near-inedibly stringy) and some more oysters (excellent).
The next morning we climbed back on the train and zipped through Rennes, Paris and past CDG another hour north to Lille, at the fulcrum of the Paris-London-Brussels train lines, where N is finishing up her studies. I was expecting a grimy industrial town filled with car factories and workers in overalls, a sort of proletarian Brussels, but nope, Lille’s cupcake-pretty central square wouldn’t look out of place in the 1st arrondissement of Paris and there were a lot of fancy boutiques, chic cafes, hip bars and fancy restaurants selling the same Carcale Bay oysters for five times the price. Unfortunately, it being May Day, almost all of them were closed and it took some serious legwork to find a place to eat dinner. It was packed to the rafters, of course, and we waited among an hour before we finally got a distinctly mediocre meal redolent of Belgian blandness wafting over the border. (There was one reminder of France though: the beer was tasteless.)
My last day in France dawned to warm and cloudless. Just for yucks, I tried Lille’s cute little toy metro for the few stops to the Lille Europe TGV station, surely one of the more striking modern train stations out there. A lunch of a stuffed baguette and Orangina, a few pictures of the French couple canoodling inside the modern sculpture outside (my kingdom for a telephoto lens!), and then it was time to wave buh-bye and hop on the TGV again.