In this first holiday diary for this blog we return to Brittany in France. France’s West Country, complete with Cornwall, which is called Cornouaille here, and Land’s End, or Finistère. However, here Cornouaille is a part of Finistère rather than the other way around. We have been here often, both before and after John’s stroke. It has become our tradition to start off the holiday with a breakfast with croissants in a roadside restaurant in Belgium, about two hours drive from our house. Of course, when we were both driving, and shared the packing we could leave at six o’clock in the morning to have a good start, beat all the traffic jams, and get to the restaurant at breakfast time.
Now it takes a lot longer to get ready in the mornings, and I pack everything on my own, and do all the driving, so I have arranged for one of our carers .to come a bit earlier than usual and get J ready while I pack the car. It leaves me a lot less hassled than when I have to do everything on my own. Also, I have had the foresight to send the restaurant an email to reserve our croissants, so we can keep up with the tradition.
If you look at the map, Brittany seems to be in Northern or Middle France, but Finistère is at the Western end of it, so with 1000 km it is too far to drive in one day. This means we will make one stop on the way, about halfway there. By now, the way there is quite familiar, so as soon as we are in the car, ready to go, we both relax into the holiday mood. After about twenty minutes J. dozes off, as usual. I don’t encounter too many traffic jams, even though there are plenty of roadworks
We reach the roadside restaurant at Nazareth within the appointed time, and they still
have our croissants waiting for us! A good start. Afterwards J. wants to try the toilet. They have a disabled toilet, but it is in use by someone too lazy to walk downstairs. When it is our turn I inspect the facilities. There are grab rails next to the toilet, but there is not a lot of room to manoeuvre with a wheelchair, and for me to help J. make the transfer. But you learn to be pragmatic in such situations!
We continue on the motorway into Northern France, past Lille into Picardie. There are always loads of parking and picnic places called aire along French motorways, especially the toll roads. As I have learned in the last few years, there are wheelchair toilets on most of these aires. They are always mentioned on the road signs. Two hours after our first break we stop for lunch on one of these aires, near Amiens. J. stays in the car, but I stretch my legs. We eat our sandwiches and drink something before we start on the last leg of today’s journey. On the one hand we enjoy the countryside around here, but there is one bit of this journey J. dislikes: the Pont de Normandie. This is the bridge over the Seine near Le Havre, which is quite high so big ships can pass under it without having to open the bridge. The weather is very nice, so we make good time.
Overnight stay in Caen
Finally we arrive at our first hotel, a hotel of the French B&B-chain, on the ring road around Caen. The B&B-hotels are budget-hotels, always somewhere in the outskirts of a town or city, that always have a few rooms suitable for disabled. However, during the years they have also taken over hotels from other chains, e.g. Villages Hotels, in which the rooms are smaller and quite often not really suitable for wheelchair users. Being a budget hotel, the room in this hotel is not very big either, but it is on the ground floor, with a disabled parking spot right in front of it. There is just enough room for a wheelchair next to the bed and at the bottom of the bed. There is just enough room next to the toilet in the bathroom for a wheelchair, although not a lot of room to manoeuvre. The bathroom also has a walk-in shower and a washbasin that you can wheel under. A plastic stool is supplied with the shower, but that does not look very sturdy. The double bed is not very wide for two, and it is on the low side, so is the toilet. That is probably because the French are not usually very tall. However it is only for the night and these are things that we have learned to live with. After all, you don’t expect an electric bed with monkey pole in a budget hotel, or in any hotel for that matter. It is a bit hard on my back, because it means I have to make more difficult transfers. I use a special belt for that, and J. helps me a bit in the transfer because once he is on his feet he can keep standing for a minute or two. I just have to help him to get up or down, to balance and to turn around.
As usual there are some simple restaurants in the direct neighbourhood of the hotel and we choose the Italian grill-restaurant on the other side of the parking lot, so we don’t have to get back in the car. The food is good and the service very friendly, and not having to drive I can also enjoy something to drink with my meal.
From Normandy to Brittany
When we wake up the next morning there is some lingering early morning mist. We don’t take breakfast in the hotel, but I get everything back in the car and then we go off again, further south. We know there is an aire with a petrol station not far away along the motorway which sells very nice coffee and croissants, so we stop there and have our breakfast in the car. Once we get to Brittany we don’t continue along the motorway, but take the coastal road around the Bay of Mont St Michel. The Bay is famous for its shellfish and from previous visits we know a little place along this road where one of the producers lets you sample his wares. He has set up a few tables and chairs next to the road, overlooking the bay and the oysterbasins. You can order a portion of oysters in a choice of sizes or a portion of mussels. Then there is a snack cart next to this place where you can get some chips to go with it. We get a portion of each and share them. Plenty for lunch, you can’t get them any fresher!
After lunch we drive on, going south across Brittany after the Bay. The only problem with no longer being on the motorway is that there are no aires either, and so no disabled toilets to be found. In previous trips J. would not drink anything during the day so he wouldn’t need the toilet. But that is not ideal for his intestinal problems, so I am glad he gave that up. It now confronted us with the lack of toilets on the way, though. So I drive as quick as I can, without any further stops to the B&B where we are going to stay for a few nights. L’orée de l’océan is in a converted barn next to a very nice farm house, close to the express road around Brittany and just outside Concarneau. The owner Joëlle is a perfect hostess, who not only runs the B&B (with 3 rooms) but also two holiday lets on the side. Our room is on the ground floor and is very spacious, with a very spacious ensuite bath room. On the other side of the hall is a kitchen-diner where breakfast is served in the mornings. Breakfast usually includes some home baking, pancakes or Far Breton or things like that. There is also a tv in this room, which is for the use of all the guests. As before the bed and toilet are on the low side and there is no showerchair provided. The B&B is very comfortable though, and we highly recommend it.
For us it is an ideal place from where to make little trips around the region. We have been here so often that we know everything there is to see here, and for now it is enough just to drive around a see familiar site to revoke memories of earlier holidays. J. reminds me that is was originally a Keith Floyd or Rick Stein programme on tv that brought us to Concarneau for the first time. Over the next few days we go to the old centre of the town a few times. It is fairly wheelchair friendly, although when it’s busy, it can be difficult to find a parking spot on the harbour. To get into the Ville Clos you always have to get over some cobbles, but as always we are rewarded with the Celtic Music of Micamac played in the square by the entrance gate. The old town is full of shops and restaurants, but we always go back to our favourite places to eat our favourite dishes. One of them is a fresh tuna steak in Concarnaise-sauce. We also like to go back to an area on the other side of the bay, called le Cabellou, where we used to stay on the camping before J. had his stroke. From the restaurant there you have a lovely view over the beach, and at this time of year you can usually catch the sunset over the bay during dinner.
Driving around the area we sometimes have problems again trying to find somewhere with a suitable disabled toilet (sometimes there are disabled toilets, but not suitable for a wheelchair user), which means we then have to hotfoot it back to the B&B in the middle of a trip. Although it is September, we are quite lucky with the weather this year, so we manage to see quite a bit in the few days that we are here. Sometimes just driving around the countryside, or along the coast, but we also visit a lovely little museum that shows the history of beekeeping. Driving around also revives our dream of ever owning a longhouse or a farmhouse somewhere around here, if we ever have enough money for it.