Friday, June 29, 2012

A wander in medieval Vannes

adventures in medieval Vannes 

Vannes is one of those cities I think I could live in. It's big enough to be very vibrant ( plus, the university means there is a decent population of non-crusties) but small enough that you can wander it's medieval centre-ville on foot and not feel overwhelmed. The old city cascades down the hill to the river port in a tangle of cobbled streets and overhanging half-timbered buildings, many of them encroaching so far into the open space of the lanes that the upper stories appear to be on a most perilous lean. On the afternoon I visitied, the temperature had finally shot up into the high 20s after several cooler days, and old men in white singlets, cigarettes dangling, hung out of upper story windows and chatted to each other as the world went by beneath them. 

Vestiges of Vannes' medieval city walls still encircle the old town, and are studded with a couple of squat towers, arrow slits overlooking the river, and with two of the orignal massive gateways. Beneath what remains of the chateau, the moat has long been filled in but, as in many French towns like this (Hennebont in Morbihan and Angers in the Loire spring to mind), they have now been filled in with beautiful formal gardens, their geometry traced in pink roses and dense lines of dark green box. I spent several happy hours here, chasing one alleyway into another, and finally wound up down at the riverside,  so close to the sea that the smell of salt water and mudflats where equally mingled. 

From there, I found my way back to the station and jumped on train to Auray, with the intention of meeting friends for dinner at Auray's lovely little medieval port of Saint-Goustan. However, typically for me, I got just a leetle bit lost trying to walk from Auray to the port. (I don't know why, but I find I am congenitally unable to orient myself to a map!) Swallowing my pride, I finally asked a harmless-looking old chap coming out of the boulangerie clutching his baguette (for dinner, no doubt) for directions. After about 20 seconds and the first set of very complicated instructions, he asked me where I was from. When I told him New Zealand, his face lit up and he started talking about rugby and the All Blacks, which seems to be a universal icebreaker in this country. He then said he would have driven me to the port but his car was at home. No, no I said, 'c'est pas grave', I have loads of time, it's a lovely evening and I *want* to walk. 10 minutes down the road, what happens but the old boy comes driving up beside me in his equally-old and crusty car, and calls out the window, 'You are a New Zealander and a rugby fan! We can't have you getting lost!' (Presumably, the English are left to their own devices...) So, long story short, yes, I disregarded a lifetime of parental advice and accepted a ride from a stranger. A few minutes later, he dropped me off at the port of Saint-Goustan, another enclave of winding streets and pan-de-bois buildings hugging the bank of the river Loch. I met my friends for dinner and we enjoyed a veritable banquet of local seafood while sitting outside next to the water. The scallops (St Jaques) were a highlight as were the whole, very large grilled sardines (pilchard-sized) and the tiny, sweet and tender local mussels. Formidable!

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