Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bless bless

Fearful of running out of time, we got out of bed early to say goodbye to Reykjavik and drive our rented Hyundai back across the fields of harsh black lava half overgrown by mosses and tiny plants to the airport in Keflavik. We had packed the night before, and we were even able to stuff into our well-traveled backpacks the additional clothes we had shipped to Iceland.

The last time we flew out of Iceland, the airport counter was mobbed and we barely made it on the plane before the doors closed. This time, we had nothing to worry about. The airport was virtually deserted, and the desk clerk, with nothing better to do, fell all over herself to wait on Darien and Antonia while I struggled with returning the car -- either my Icelandic or my credit card failed me, for I was unable to use the self-service option to refill the tank. The shuttle driver who took me to the terminal explained a bit about the history of why the airport was built at Keflavik, extolled the 70 degree heat wave we were suffering, and told me that vik means "bay." I hadn't known that, or more likely I had forgotten that.

We ate a little, drank some dark coffee, and Darien purchased a fifth of Brennevin for a friend. Evidently, some people actually do choose to drink it. I had my sunglasses repaired at an optical shop that had already opened and Antonia spent twenty minutes dousing herself with perfumes in the duty free shop.

We were finally ready to board.  We still had several movies to look forward to on Icelandair, an eight hour layover in Boston (napping on vinyl airport chairs, pushing Antonia around on a luggage carrier, lunch at Legal Sea Food, scoring handfuls of free samples of beauty products from a maid in a hallway at a neighboring Hilton, Antonia and Darien becoming so airport-stupid that a barista mistook them for foreigners and kindly showed them how to count out American money), and Peter and Jonathan almost making it to the airport in Richmond on time to pick us up. That was the future. The present had us looking through the window of the gangway, waiting to board. Across the tarmac, 115 kilometers distant, Snæfellsjökull's white ice glimmered in the morning sun. That the mythic mountain across the vik is usually obscured, and was now revealed, could only be explained by the influence of the dancing huldufolk on its ley line. Bless bless, Ísland.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Black coffee, blue sea

The wind blew all night. I heard the whistling whenever I stirred, not in darkness but in soft light. We rose early, simply because that was when the light intensified. We marveled that the laundry on the line next to the farmhouse didn't take flight, as the wind blew so hard the sheets and shirts flew parallel to the ground, like beagles straining at the leash. We went up to the big house for breakfast. The food wasn't as bad as I feared, and it certainly filled us up. Tina told us it was too windy to take the horses out. They would be spooked by the wind, she said, and it would be no more pleasant for the riders. That was too bad, since it was something all of us had been looking forward to. Wind in Iceland can be treacherous. It will rip the door off a car when it is opened, flip the car over, then use the blowing volcanic sand to strip it of its paint. Don't mess with the gray areas on the map in Iceland, and don't mess with the wind either.

We checked out of Lýsuhóll and drove down the peninsula toward the white domed glacier. At the cutoff to Budir, we instead turned right. The peninsula narrows here, and the sharp ascent skirts the eastern flank of Snæfellsjökull toward Breiðafjörður, the large bay to the north and gateway to much of the Westfjords. We gained the summit and drove a bit before turning around and heading back down. Our goal was Arnarstapi, a small fishing village with a monumental piled rock sculpture of Bárður, who was part human and part ogre. Bárður stands sentinel, gazing out to the sea.
Bárður's story is told in the Saga of Bárður Snæfells. He was descended from giants and men. Bárður was the son of a king from Northern Hellaland in Scandinavia. He staked claim to the land of Laugabrekka by the Glacier at the end of the 9th century. Later in the life Bárður's giant-nature became ever more apparent. In the end, he disappeared into Snæfell Glacier, but did not die. Bárður became a nature spirit and the local folk around the Glacier petitioned him in matters large and small. (From plaque at "Bárður Snæfells, Deity of Mt. Bárður Snæfell" by Ragnar Kjartansson)

We were leery of the arctic terns, or what Icelanders call kria. They nest by the thousands here and are aggressive in protecting their young, dive bombing and pecking at the heads of intruders with their sharp pointed beaks. Today they are quiet, however, and simply screech and swoop. We stood at the rail of a wooden bridge crossing a stream and watch the kria play in the water. Periodically, one or two would dip into the water and let the current carry them downstream toward us, dipping their heads in the water and fluffing their wings, before rising up again and taking flight. They took great joy in entertaining us on the little glacial rivulets.

We found a path snaking through the lava field and hiked westward along the coast for two and a half kilometers, past gray wooden signs for Draugalag, Bolholar, Natthagi, and Einbui. I've poked around a little since, and I am still not sure what the signs mean. My best guess is that they indicate the names of ancient family farmsteads or place names from a millennium ago. The area had been settled 1,100 years ago, and its history is chronicled and maybe even embellished in some of the sagas. [See Maria Roff's explanation of the names in the comment to the post.]

The trail leads along the edge of a cliff formed mostly by jagged lava, but some of the rock are basalt pillars that seem to have shot straight up from the earth, puncturing the surface. To our left the Atlantic was impossibly blue. It was easy to see in the lava sculptures surrounded by the seawater images of people, of animals, of other creatures. On our right, the glacier (Snaefellsjökull) and the mountain (Stapafell) watched our progress. We marveled at our luck with the weather. It was a good 70 degrees (or 21 in Icelandspeak) and sunny. The cold and wet weather gear we had shipped out was superfluous.

After several easy kilometers, we found our destination in Kaffihús Hellnum, gray cement and burnt red steel roof. It was once a tiny, one-room fishing bungalow. Now it is a restaurant with a few tables inside and an attached wooden deck facing the ocean, where one can watch the waves tease the rocks. We were too heated to sit outside, so we sipped our espresso and shared a chocolate cake at one of the tables inside. The whitewashed interior walls are bare. The last time we were here, the work of Icelandic artist Adalheidur Skarphedinsdottir hung there. After that trip, Darien surprised me by giving me an ink print of Adalheidur's for my birthday. It now hangs in our living room.

We hiked back to our car quickly and began the drive to Reykjavik, but this time we stayed on the asphalt. We passed Lýsuhóll and saw the wind had settled enough that the horse riders were out. We do not stop. In Borgarnes, we call our friend Thor and ask him where we can buy the national dish pylsur (or hot dogs made from lamb), which for some reason Darien and Antonia really seem to want. The pylsur has a tough casing and is smeared with mayonnaise and sweet mustard, which one can tolerate by flushing with water after every bite. We cut almost an hour off our trip by paying a few kroner and taking the tunnel that burrows under the Hvalfjörður fjord. It is almost six kilometers long and 165 meters below the surface. We pray for the skill and knowledge of Iceland engineers.

It was getting late by the time we returned to Reykjavik. We still had shopping to do, so we went straight downtown. Antonia and Darien followed their gathering instinct by poking around in a wool shop and a bookstore, while I amused myself on the street. I sat on a bench outside the wool shop. Next to me sat a pile of yarn and needles, with a sign inviting passersby to stop and knit a bit. Several did while I sat there. A small record store on a hill, which looked no different from the houses surrounding it, had a band playing in its backyard. I stopped in. A half dozen other people watched. The band sang in English, but after each song addressed the crowd in Icelandic. They complained about the economic conditions and sang American songs of protest. The music was decent. Darien and Antonia wanted to make a hat trick of it and go to a hot pot for our final day in Iceland, so I went to the third floor of one of the larger bookstores and drank coffee and wrote and daydreamed. Evening was approaching, so I returned to The Three Sisters to take up residence again, but this time we were in a different building closer to the docks. The two ladies showed up shortly after.

We met Thor downtown for dinner. He wanted to dine somewhere nice, but that meant he had to leave his wheelchair below and struggle up a flight of steps, which he was happy to do. I again passed up the horse meat on the menu (here called foal, an appellation I'm not sure is better or worse) and stayed with the tried and true fish. Thor works as an editor and translator for scientific works, so we talked about his work, and living in Iceland, and literature, and culture, and Italy. He told us his daughter was sensitive to certain types of psychic influences, and that Iceland is crisscrossed with ley lines believed to have certain powerful, mystical qualities. The hidden folk of Iceland are often found around these centers, and Thor told us several true accounts, worthy of being written in the newspaper and retold over and over. One of the most powerful centers is out at Snaefellsnis, where we had just been. I am not certain if Thor really believes in the ley lines and huldufólk, or if this is what all tourists are told to make certain we come back. If that is magic, it works.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Glimpses of eternity

Darien and I rose early and walked downtown for provisions. Marketing in Iceland is a challenge, since it is so expensive to get food in. Vegetarians suffer here. We were soon in our rented car on the road, heading toward the former gathering place and parliament of the ancient Iceland clans, Thingvellir, and then eventually out to Snaefellsnes. On a sudden impulse, we pulled off the road to revisit to Halldor Laxness's home, Gljúfrasteinn. The Nobel poet is among the most revered of contemporary authors in Iceland -- sort of the Bjork of literature. Darien was hoping she could find an English translation in the shop of something she hadn't read yet, but no luck. The weather stayed warm and sunny, and the stream behind the white walled house still ran cold and clear.

We continued up the highway so Antonia could get a look at Thingvellir. Apart from its historical interest, Thingvellir is a geological marvel, where one can look across the plain and see the results of glacial movement and the fissure of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge tectonic plate, to say nothing of seeing distant geothermal steam billowing out of the earth. We would have liked to take a hike across the lava fields, but didn't have time. Instead, we asked one of the rangers about the gravel road cutting toward Snaefellsnes. On the map it looked shorter than heading back to Reykjavik and back up the coast, but we knew that it was unlikely to save time, even though it was a mere 50 kilometers away as the crow flies. The ranger said the national road service had given the nod to the route, and she thought our little Hyundai could handle it. Looking at the map, we saw it just skirted the gray wilderness. We were in an adventure mood, so we plunged ahead.

We climbed slowly up the road, tailing a pale blue and white van. At a fork in the road, the van went right. We stopped and studied the map. Left seemed safer, so we took that. Looking back, we saw that the van had reconsidered and was turning around. The grade in some parts was quite steep, so I left the car in second gear, sometimes slowing to less than 20 kilometers per hour. We passed a car parked on the side of the road. A blanket was spread out and a couple was sunbathing surrounded by the lava outcrops, moss, and sedum; I resisted the urge to take a novelty photograph, but now wish I had. In parts the road turned into a jittery washboard, and the jarring slowed us down, but sometimes I could get up to 40. When the road smoothed a bit, there were often large stones in the middle, so I had to decelerate again so I wouldn't kick one up under the chassis and damage something. We passed a dead lake, with nothing growing around it, and saw glacial mountains in the distance. We were told afterward that there were a number of waterfalls to be seen along the road, but we didn't notice them. Maybe we were focusing too hard on staying on the road. No one passed us, and few cars came the other way. In spite of the stark moonscape environment, we weren't bored. The colors -- greens, golds, dark blue, umber, and infinite shades of gray and brown -- kept our interest, and there was always something new to see. We traded several hours of time on a dusty road for glimpses of eternity.

Eventually, the road began to level a bit, and we came into a valley with farms. Sheep, horses, and wheat fields were our companions for the last half hour before we hit the asphalt again. We could see Borgarnes, a coastal town of 2,000 leading up to the foot of the Snaefellsnes peninsula. Gas was in order, since there were long stretches of empty road ahead of us. We knew there wasn't much in the way of food in Borgarnes, but Darien called ahead to our dinner destination and ended up with a recommendation. She is very resourceful that way. We ended up at Landnamssetur, which was not a bad restaurant by Icelandic standards, and where "tender horse flesh steaks" really was on the menu. I settled for a salad with smoked wild trout with rye bread baked at a hot spring -- the waitress wasn't sure how they did it, but evidently the baking dish is buried in the heated earth near a geothermal eruption and slowly baked for hours. Even if you don't have a thermal spring handy, you can still try your hand at traditional Icelandic rye bread. I was still hungry so I ordered a quiche, which had some indeterminate green leafy substance baked into it. Antonia and Darien decided upon the buffet, which had a very nice soup and tasty hummus. Unfortunately, the tourist shop lured the two in after lunch and we did not escape without a few purchases. The building were we ate was built in 1887, among the oldest in Borgarnes. For a country that has been around for over a thousand years, buildings don't last all that long.

We headed out to the peninsula toward the Snaefellsnes glacier, or Snæfellsjökull. This is a mystical place for Icelanders, where the hidden folk (huldufólk) are common and strange things can happen to the unaware.
I once visited a cave at the foot of the glacier where eerie singing voices are heard, and have seen rocky outcroppings in the shape of creatures that seem to move.  
I once went horseback riding and lost my wallet, and searched for several hours. Several months later someone sent it to me, saying it was found on the floor of the cabin I stayed in.
It was at Sanefellsnes that Jules Verne found his passage to the center of the earth here. I had to slow several times for sheep in the road, and brake hard once when a farmer decided now was a good time for him and his dog to move his herd of cattle across the road. We crossed glacial rivers and whizzed past plains that would be flat were it not for the black lava rocks that rose up everywhere. The mountains have rugged, vertical cliffs at the top, then slope rapidly down from the crumbling stone, gradually flattening out enough that you can imagine the cliff rocks at the top breaking and pulverizing and slowly forming the base. The mountains grew closer to the shore, encroaching upon the sea, as we continued along the peninsula, slowly squeezing out the land and pastures.

We spent the night at Lýsuhóll, a horse farm with a half dozen modern Scandinavian style cabins. We shared one with a few other travelers. A herd of the diminutive Icelandic horses -- don't call them ponies -- grazed right off our front porch. Tina showed us around. She was German, working temporarily on the farm and taking visitors out on rides. She was waiting for her job as a teacher of the developmentally disabled to start later that year in Germany. The farm itself uses animal therapy with troubled youngsters, so it was good training for her. Next to the property was a school, but at this time of year when the students were gone it was converted to a spa because of the hot springs that bubbled up there. Antonia and Darien of course decided that additional schooling was in order. I stayed behind.

In the evening we went to the Hotel Budir for dinner, reputedly one of the best restaurants in Iceland, even though it sits on an isolated spit of land on the edge of the Atlantic surrounded by lava wilderness. It was a over a kilometer from the main road out to the hotel. On the way up to the lonely hotel, we saw a young man walking, carrying a guitar case and rolling his luggage behind him. He was walking away from the hotel toward the main road. We constructed several stories about him, and hoped we could pick him up on the way out.

We had been turned away last time we were at Budir because we didn't have reservations, but this time the restaurant was only three-quarters full on a Friday night, so we had no trouble getting in. We sat in a windowed room near the bar, having a glass of wine, and looking through a brass telescope at the distant mountains across the water and soaring birds. The ring of one of our cell phones unsettled us. It was Peter, who had a question for us. "If you were going to have body work done, where would you take your car?" he asked, which was his way of informing us he had hit a deer on 64 and almost totaled the RAV. Gabriel and a friend were with him at the time, but no one was hurt other than the deer. At least we could dine in peace.

I had three types of lamb for dinner. The most interesting was a dish in which the lamb was shredded and heavily spiced. The potatoes were thinly sliced and layered, with lots of butter between. The wait staff was either very haughty or very obsequious. The hostess would barely look at us, while the waiter repeatedly interrupted our meal to ask permission to fill our water glasses. They were very small glasses, so he asked a lot. Another waiter, his blond hair in a tight ponytail bun, had eyeglasses he said were of German design. They looked like they were inverted, with the frame on the bottom and the lenses sitting freely on top. They were wrap-arounds with an aluminum look to the frame -- all very trendy. "It makes perfect sense," he told us. "Your vision isn't blocked by the frame." Plus, it looks very smart.

We walked outside afterward, peeking in the windows of the wood frame church and reading the gravestones near by. We went up to the edge of the shore. The waster was deep, deep blue with swirls of green. It was past 11 PM and still the sun reflected off the mountains across the water, and on the white glacier in the distance. The gulls sounded the close of a day that never ended.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Deal of the Universe

We left our rooms (with by now dry clothes) by 6:00 AM for the hike down to the bus station, over the cobblestones with our fully loaded backpacks. Just when I was starting to feel comfortable with my French, the simple act of trying to buy a bus ticket destroyed my confidence, but eventually we got it straight. We arrived in Deuxville with ten minutes to spare (but not enough time for a croissant), heading back toward Paris. We stopped near the old opera house so Darien could look for phantoms. She and Antonia ordered too much food (they are inconsistent meal sharers), and to top it off Antonia had to send hers back because of ... well, it was unappetizing and inedible. As we got up to leave what was a mediocre meal, she noticed that ten euros had been tucked under her plate, which showed some class. She and Darien refuse to acknowledge that this was their last meal in France.

We had to work a bit, but finally figured out the train to Charles de Gaulle airport. We gambled that we needed to be in terminal two and lost, which put us half an hour behind where we should have been as we scrambled back to terminal one. The line for Icelandair moved very slowly, and we were virtually the last ones on before the doors were shut. Antonia and I rewarded ourselves by watching Sherlock Holmes. We practiced Icelandic on the TV screen. Antonia gloated over her scores, and Darien corrected us.

We were greeted in the Reykjavik airport with complimentary shots of brennivin, the Icelandic schnapps made from fermented potatoes that literally means "burning wine" but is known by the simple name "black death." If you drink it quickly, you can get it down. There is a reason one can't buy it in Virginia. We rented a small, tinny Hyundai with strict orders not to enter the interior of the island with it -- the so-called gray area on the map that requires proper equipment or you die.

We found our way easily to our familiar hotel, The Three Sisters, but before going in we had a food crisis to manage. Darien had only one place in mind -- the little, greasy hamburger stand on the edge of the wharf across the street from the Sisters called Hamborgarabúlla Tómasar – Búllan. We ate frequently there in 2006 during our previous visit. It is plastered with rock and roll fliers and posters from fifty years ago. Darien forgives or overlooks the lack of cleanliness. We all selected their Deal of the Universe (burger, fries, and drink, which we all upgraded to milkshakes). Darien and Antonia salved their conscience by ordering the vegetarian option made with some sort of falafel mix, but cooked on the same grill with the high-fat burgers. I don't play games and just order the meat. I was sure the brennivin would kill whatever was in there.

They boy behind the counter was 17 and very friendly. He had lived in Iowa for five years, and then in the San Fernando Valley until his high school was closed because of drugs and he called his grandmother and said he wanted to come home. That was his story, anyway.

We went over to The Three Sisters and met Sandra, one of the ten children of Thor and Sonja. The last time we had visited Sandra had been living in Sweden. There was a minor mix-up of rooms because Darien had forgotten the little detail of Antonia traveling with us, so there was only one bed. It was all straightened out and all of us then fell deeply asleep, exhausted and excited.

We woke up at some indeterminate time. Maybe it was 8:00 PM, but it could have been noon with the way the light suffused the room. Light in Iceland is different. It seems to permeate everything, as if it is coming from more than one source. Colors are more vibrant and buildings glow. Awakenings can be disconcerting, since one's sense of time is disrupted. The familiar markers of day and night are fused into one.

Antonia and Darien went off to a hotpot to relax (one of their main goals) and I wandered the streets. Darien found me at 11:00 PM in a coffee shop and we returned home. We slept with the blinds open. I slept fitfully. Each time I woke up, it was light. There was no darkness. Only the quiet told me it was night.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Showers of rain, showers of sparks

Bastille Day, our last day in France. We had our petite dejeuner in the old, thick-walled tavern, sharing a table with a British couple. We discussed our respective health care systems and travel. Liliane spoke with us about travel arrangements; she was going into Deuxville in the afternoon to pick up her husband from the train and it was agreed that Antonia would drive with her so she could purchase our tickets.

Antonia and Darien had an urge to shop, so I ventured off on my own. I wandered all through the old part of town and along the wharves. Eventually I found myself high above the town in the hills, where there was newer residential construction. I worked my way along the edge of a valley and came down at the Rue Republique, a street I was familiar with. I passed the lavatoire where the people used to wash clothes and La Forge workshop, with its wild murals and sculptures. There was a note waiting for me back at the room, telling me where to meet the other two. I walked back to the cafe district along the wharf and met up with them, where they had already selected a table and umbrella and a red wine. Lunch was punctuated with increasing frequency by firecrackers being set off by young people near the water.

After we returned to the room, Antonia left for Deuxville and Darien and I went to pick up some groceries for breakfast, since we would have to be at the bus station at 7:00 AM. Dark, bulbous clouds gathered overhead. We watched them race across the sky, but I thought we would have enough time to look at the gardens and walk up the ridge on the eastern side of our inn. Wrong. While on the ridge, a few large drops fell, then suddenly torrents of rain. We were on streets without any shelter and the water running down in rivulets. Our clothes stuck to our bodies and our hair dripped and our shoes squished when we walked. We made several wrong turns before we found our way back, soaked and dripping. The bathroom had a towel warmer heated via the hot water pipes, and we used that to set our clothes out to dry.

As promised, we returned to Au Bouillon Normand for dinner, where we had a table reserved for us outside, but guarded from the coastal cold by glass and plastic walls. In addition to the two sons, their sister was also working this evening. Once again, the food failed to disappoint. Our hostess brought us three complementary aperitifs in honor of Bastille Day. I asked one of the boy waiters how one says Happy Bastille Day in French, but he said it was not a greeting that was exchanged. "It is not important," he said. "It is only important to the president and them." The firecrackers continued during dinner. We saw kids as young as five lighting them. My main course was veal. Antonia and Darien had cod with large morel mushrooms. Partway through dinner, a parade marched by, with drums and brass horns and people following holding paper lanterns on poles with candles inside. There was some commotion when several of the lanterns caught fire, sending smoke into the air. We ordered espresso and calvados again after our desserts. His mother finally gave the youngest boy permission to leave, and he hurried off in search of mischief. Bastille Day must be important to him as well as to the president.

We strolled over to the water's edge where a crowd was gathering in anticipation of fireworks. Darkness falls late at this time of year, and it was almost 11:00 PM before they started. They got off to an anemic start, but turned in a respectable show as they got warmed up. We whooped and cheered like French patriots with each burst of gold, of red, of blue, of silver. "Thank God for the Chinese," said Antonia.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How to eat a mussel

Antonia rose at 4:00 AM to watch the tides sweep in. Darien and I contented ourselves with walking onto the balcony to soak in the moonlight. Even the night gulls were silent. We took Antonia at her word that she actually hiked back up to the monastery. No one else was awake on the island. Even Mont Saint-Michel's ghosts were sleeping.

We rose early to attend Lauds up in the monastery before breakfast. We waited in front of a massive oak door with a half dozen other people. A balding, bearded monk unlocked the door to let us in. He had a decidedly modern watch in his pocket that he eyed carefully, and then precisely as the 7:00 AM bell tolled he took out a large brass key and locked us in. He also used some sort of magnetic device he pressed against the wall to securely lock the door. It was a mixture of ancient and new that made me think of James Bond movies. He escorted us up several flights of stone stairs to the chapel. When we entered, one of the sisters was in the center of the chapel, pulling a rope to ring the giant bell high above in the tower. She was wearing a robe of soft pastel blue. With each pull of the heavy rope, she was lifted eighteen inches off the ground, swaying slightly, before the pendulum of the bell lowered her back gently. She finished the call to bells and donned a white robe over her blue, to match the other nuns who had been waiting. The priest who let us in was the only male attending. He knelt in front of the altar to the left; the eight or so nuns knelt to the right. The service was mostly in French, and mostly sung. I'm glad we didn't miss it, but didn't want to take photos. We were escorted down the same stairs by the priest. The fortress door was shut behind us and locked, returning the community to its isolation.

We finished packing and went down for our petite dejeuner at the hotel. We ported our luggage off the island and met on high ground our same red-shirted bus driver with the round belly. He didn't bother to get off the bus to help us stow our luggage. There were only four passengers, but already crowds were streaming in to visit the rocky island. We stopped in the village for one other rider before continuing.

The bus took us back to the station at Pontorson. I had 45 minutes before the train left, so I dashed off on foot into town to look for an electrical adapter. Most of the shops were not open yet, and the ones that were did not have anything. Finally, a clerk directed me to a computer store, where it was suggested I just replace the plug-in cord to my computer transformer with a European style connector. For six euros I was back in business and jogged back to the station with enough time to chat with some Americans and a New Zealander on the platform. We took the train to Caen and walked over to the bus station right next door. We bought our tickets to our last destination in France, Honfleur. We knew the drill now, and stored our own bags under the bus.

We rode for more than an hour before arriving at the station near one of the several little bays that define Honfleur. The buildings escaped the bombs of World War II, so the architecture is better preserved than in many other French towns. Our inn -- La Cour Ste. Catherine -- was built in the 17th century, as described in a little leaflet I read:

The most of the buildings around the courtyard date of the 17eme century. It built near the old well and the remparts. It was a convent of the Augustines nun's congregation. The old porch and the breakfast room are of this period.
At the 20eme century, the place began a cidery. A press for apple juice and cider were put in the principal building and a coffee grocer's in the office.
In 1975, the first renovation began as part of safeguard area. The rooms have been renovated since to 2002.
Well, I would hate to have had to write that in French.

It was a good fifteen minute walk over cobblestones and largely up hill. Liliane was our proprietress. She also runs the American Cafe in the building, where Christian (large, big girthed, gap toothed, smiling and joking in halting English and unintelligible French) cooks. He made our lunch and we read the movie posters on the walls. Liliane introduced us to her short-tailed cat, Casimir. I took this as a sign of something, I don't know what, since he was not particularly friendly.

The picturesque town was filled with tourists and bad art in the shops, but all very photogenic. Whereas Parisians seem to enjoy parading to display their style and fashion, in Honfleur showing off one's dog seems to be what is important. The church is called Eglise Sainte-Catherine. It is built of timbers and masonry and decorated in a style Antonia referred to as belonging to someone's grandmother. It was not built to support the steeple, so the steeple is on the ground across the street.

The essential parts of the town are quickly covered. It is a warren of alleys and small, twisting streets. We listen for cars approaching so we can squeeze against the walls and let them pass. We see old community laundry facilities, the library, and La Forge, a sort of artist workshop that we would love to tour, but is closed. We wandered into a drug store and met Christian. We didn't recognize him at first, holding a helmet he uses for a small scooter, and laughed some more. We pantomimed what we wanted in the store, and with the help of a couple of boys found that they didn't have what we wanted. Back at our room -- which amazingly enough is on the first floor, a small compensation for being so far up the hill -- we discover the Internet (or "wee-fee" as the French say) is not configured properly. I don't have the courage to explain to Liliane in Frenchy English how to fix it, so our Internet drought continued.

For dinner, Liliane recommended Au Bouillon Normand, near the water but away from some of the more popular places. It is excellent. I start with oysters again, which are even better than what I had in Mt. St.-Michel. Darien and I have fish. The owner speaks very little English, her two boys who serve a little more. They don't understand our jokes, but laugh anyway because they know they are jokes. Our hostess is very warm and helpful. At one point she comes out to show Antonia how to pry open her mussel shells with another shell, and then use the shell as a set of tweezers to eat the meat. She even hand feeds a few to Antonia, who gleefully opens her mouth like a young bird. We end with espresso, which one of the boy waiters recommend we take with shots of calvados, alternating sips of the two. This same sort of apple brandy had probably been made in our inn the previous century. Before we leave, we make reservations for the next evening on the patio. It was just that good.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sleeping with the monks

It was still raining when we woke up, and neither the bakery nor the market were open. We were scheduled to leave Paris and thought about taking a taxi to the train station, but the expense and Pascal Un convinced us otherwise. We fell back on our Metro standby. The first car we were on was hot, crowded, and suddenly stopped moving. The minutes ticked away, chipping away at our hopes for making the station on time. The Metro started -- and stopped again. We finally got to our transfer point, and hopped on the car that took us to the station. We thought we had reserved enough time to catch the train, but it was seeming more and more improbable, particularly as the walk from the Metro to the train station was a good hike. In the station, we saw some of the choristers in line to change money for their trip back to the States, but we hurried past, hoping against hope we would make it on time. While we did get to the ticket booth before the train left, we hadn't the foresight to make reservations the night before. Fortunately, there was another train leaving the next hour. We resorted to our typical response in time of crisis and found a place to eat.

I experienced my first pay toilet in the station. Clerks at the counter accepted the coins, and one could even pay to bathe. Male and female areas were divided, but there was no wall shielding the clients from the open reception area near the clerk. One knew very well what those men standing facing the wall were doing.

We settled on the train at last and had a very smooth trip to Rennes. I was beginning to love the French intercity rail system -- clean, efficient, and fast, even if you do have to pay to use the facilities. We grabbed baguette sandwiches smeared with butter in Rennes and changed trains for the trip to Dol de Bretagne. When we arrived, and in my rush to leave the train, I unplugged my laptop but forgot to remove the plug adapter. Things began to look bleak for continued Internet access.

We spent a lot of time in the train station figuring out how we were going to leave the next day, but Antonia eventually figured it out -- one more train ride, this time to Pontorson. We then boarded a bus for our night's lodging in Mont Saint-Michel. The portly driver was quite friendly, but evidently handling luggage is not in his job description. He did deign to open the bin on the side of the bus for us, but we had the task of stowing our gear and locking the door ourselves.

It was only a fifteen minute ride to the abbey. The driver told us where he would meet us the next morning (on high ground to avoid the rapid rise in tides) and we dragged our luggage through the main gates of the monastery. It was a steep ascent over rough cobblestones. The narrow street was filled with tourists, and the shops carried all manner of gewgaws and kitsch. We found our hotel's reception desk, then were escorted even higher up the tiny island, largely above the crowds, to our room. We had a balcony with a lovely view of the bay and causeway to the mainland. There are plans to turn the causeway into a bridge to let the water flow freely around Mont Saint-Michel again, with the idea of removing the silt that has built up over the years. If we turned around on our balcony and looked up, we could see the spires of the monastery looming dramatically above us.

We went back down to the market area and ate inferior crepes and coffee at our hotel's restaurant. We feared this would be a portent of food on Mont St.-Michel. After the refreshment, we walked along the ramparts, up steep stone stairs, through narrow alleys, past moss-encrusted walls of oranges, umbers, and greens. We tried to attend evening service in the monastery, but evidently Mondays are the monks' night off. As the tide began to come in, the gendarmes started to clear people off the beaches. The rapid change in tides and quicksands are a constant danger.

We decided against the 30 euro omelet made "in the traditional French style," but watching the men beat the eggs in large copper bowls while tapping out a rhythm with their whisks was very entertaining. We were getting hungry again and took the advice of one of the tour books and hunted out Chez Mado. We were pleasantly surprised at how good it was. I ventured the oysters for my appetizer, which were excellent. I had to help Antonia finish her very large bowl of mussels.

I had the foresight to ask at my hotel desk for an adapter, but didn't realize until later that it was the wrong type. I used the remaining power in the computer to re-charge my camera. We were beginning to starve for Internet.

We paid eight euro each to tour the monastery. It was a combination of the melodramatic (one room had a mist machine and billowing blue sheets to emulate the sea) and the starkly beautiful. Some rooms had solo musicians playing -- a harpist, a flutist, a cellist, a harpsichordist. We explored a garden court, old prison cells, and stunning views of the bay from the upper plaza.

The tourists had fled with the last buses off the island and the rising tide. The streets were near deserted and dusk turned to dark. The gulls still cried out, circling the towers, and a cat ran before us down a stairway. As we made our way back to our room and beds, we could almost hear the voices of monks, chanting their evening prayers, in the monastery built into the rocks of Mont Saint-Michel.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Singing for your supper

We were due at Notre Dame for mass at 11:30, the scheduled time for the choir. On the metro, we met Leon the Singing Dog. Leon and his master, a Frenchman in a pale aqua pastel buttoned shirt with no sleeves, wore matching hats. When the Frenchman set down the woven basket he was carrying, Leon would jump in to be carried onto the train or up the stairs. The Frenchman gave us a handwritten card with a Web address so we could enjoy the wonders of Leon later.

The choir was positioned behind the altar and hard to see, except for Darien, who was on the end closest to the congregation. I could hear Antonia's voice, but not see her. The cantors were wonderful, but several choristers told me Antonia upstaged them. I didn't disagree. Like fish in a rain-swollen river, the crowds circled us on the periphery throughout the service, most with cameras and often with flashbulbs punctuating the service. Several thousand people attended the mass, not even counting the fish swimming on the edge.

We metro'ed back to the apartment to drop off the music and robes. We walked back through the Marais so Antonia could purchase some jewelery for a friend. We found something in a little boutique where several artists had wares, surreptitiously buying Antonia a set of earrings at the same time. Darien and Antonia bought a falafel afterward, and let me finish the pita after telling me how good the filling was.

Back at Notre Dame, we arrived in time to hear most of an organ recital, which was marred only by the incessant chatter of the crowds around us, even among those ostensibly there to listen.

We  drifted off in search of the Musee d'Orsay. Antonia's internal GPS was upset by sunspots again, however, and we ended up going in the opposite direction. Darien was beginning to fracture. We slowed the pace and fortified Darien with strawberry gelato and Perrier. We were close to the Cluny gardens, but by the time we got there they were closed, so we strolled over to the Luxembourg gardens and sat for a while in Saint Sulpice church, listening to a bit of organ and choral singing and looking at the murals by Delacroix.

There was an attempt to arrange dinner with some of the choristers, but we wandered around Montparnesse for close to an hour trying to get our bearings and find their hotel. A barista in a sidewalk cafe was very helpful. We finally found our friends, but most of the restaurants were closed because it was Sunday. The hotel manager tried valiantly to get us taxis to a restaurant, but it just wasn't working. Half of us went on and the other half stayed behind to eat bar pizza, drink beer, and watch the final game of the World Cup.

The metro back was hot, crowded, and loud with raucous Spanish partisans. The Spanish cafe near our apartment overflowed with revelers, but they soon quieted down.

That night, the lightning and storm came furiously. Antonia got up and shut the doors to our balconies to save the wooden floors from the rain.