You may have noticed that a recurring theme in this blog has been the pattern of proud accomplishments followed by pitiable humiliations resulting from my tendency to make assumptions.
For example, I thought it odd that the check-in time at my B&B in Pontorson, Normandie-Basse was 5:00 pm which is extremely late considering that the only train arrives in the morning. Still, I assumed I would be able to leave my bags at the train station or the B&B office and go out and explore. Well, there was no train station (or rather a tiny defunct one.) There was only a platform. Furthermore my B&B was locked with the curtains drawn. There was a hand-written sign on the door stating check-in is at 5:00 pm with no exceptions and this was confirmed by the tourist office who said it was no use asking them to phone the owner, Catherine.
This is one of those times when you must turn on the charm and cast yourself on the mercy of the charming young man at the tourist office. They are not supposed to hold baggage but they will if you are sufficiently sweet and imploring. I proceeded to take a walk and was astonished to find that Pontorson was absolutely the cutest French town imaginable, very old, very well maintained, with flowers everywhere and real shops frequented by locals. This was not just a tourist front or a movie set. Residents later informed me that the town had not always looked this way. English people had bought homes here which they renovated into charming vacation cottages. The locals had been shamed into keeping up appearances and were now just as house and town proud as the newcomers.
The weather was perfect with a slight sea breeze and so I decided to take the bus to the island of Mont St. Michel, about a 15 minute trip. I got there just as the last tour bus dropped off its passengers for a three hour visit. I had made a grave mistake in timing. The ancient narrow streets were packed with souvenir shoppers. It was hot and claustrophobic and there was nothing to do but climb onward and upward to the abbey at the top.
At one point I saw a Thai man laughing with his friends. He had just bought a souvenir hat only to discover it was made in Thailand! The craze for finding just the right snow globe, doll (dressed in traditional Norman costume), or painted tray or local cidre (lightly alcoholic cider) in souvenir bottles was just laughable. I walked out to the muddy beach and looked for shade to wait out the two hours until the bus was to arrive.
While waiting, I met two Australian ladies who said that thirty years ago one could stay at a hotel on the island and, after the last 5:00 pm local bus left when the tide came in, the place would be peaceful and charming and mysterious, a pleasure for sunset roaming. The ladies had hoped to recapture that experience but now buses ran until midnight and the streets where noisy all night long. What’s more, the bureau of tourism was now constructing a super tramway so they could bring even more tourists in 24/7. Depressing.
When I finally got to my B&B at 5:00 pm, Catherine could not have been more welcoming and I was delighted when I found my room was actually an attic with several airy sunny views of gardens, the church, and cute shops. It had two King beds with perfect shabby chic decor (the table had tea cups and Russian chess set.) The room was large enough to hold a square dance.
When you are a lone budget traveler in Europe you get so used to staying in rooms that you could swear are converted 19th century broom closets, these lucky breaks are a great pleasure. Even though it didn’t get dark until midnight, I just stayed in the room reveling in luxury.
Breakfast the next morning was extremely well-presented with Catherine entertaining the guests in her perfectionist hostess way. She had been so shocked at my hanging my washing to dry in the bathroom and window, she had substituted her own rotating drying rack and rearranged the clothes. I found out why check-in was so late. Catherine works nonstop. She only has four rooms and they are constantly booked. She does all the work herself and the neighbors say she never gets out for leisure activities anymore. She is a slave to the B&B and her own perfectionist standards.
After breakfast I decided to rent a bicycle and ride the eleven miles to Mont St. Michel before the tour buses arrived. The only bike rental place was at a nearby extremely plush campground that was more like a country club with lovely gardens, fountains, stunning swimming pool, and every amenity imaginable. I was fascinated by this look into a certain lifestyle that is very European and fairly common among the retired middle class. I would see these people shopping in the grocery stores, picnicking with friends in lovely scenic spots, riding bicycles which they had brought on the back of their campers, playing games, and hiking with light day packs. To me this appeared to be a delicious lifestyle for those who could pull it off with style. While their campers were state-of-the art and somewhat expandable, I doubted that any of these people were wasting money at expensive restaurants or buying absurd souvenirs.
The bike ride along the river on the auto-free greenbelt was simply glorious and I could see Mont St Michel in the distance most of the time. On the way back, I stopped at one of the towns between the island and Ponterson where prices at seafood restaurants weren’t quite so high because they had no view of the Mont (trust me, you pay for views at restaurants). The food was wonderfully fresh and delicious including cold snails and prawns and a fabulous hot grilled fish accompanied by the local “cidre rose” which I loved.
I ended this perfect day with a long snooze for I was exhausted after about thirty miles of bike riding. I woke, refreshed, to a glorious bright sunny morning and quickly dressed for my brief walk to the train platform. Catherine seemed surprised when I checked out and I was wondering why she hadn’t laid out the fancy breakfast.
I walked to the train station and waited patiently. French trains always seemed to be late. A man came by and asked in French what time my train was to arrive. I told him 9:00. He remarked that I would be waiting twelve hours. It was now 9:00 at night. Once again my unquestioned assumption (in this case that it was 9:00 am in the morning) had done me in.