The River Rance

Foggy view from my art table this morning.

Most of the week was foggy, rainy, windy and cold, just what you would expect in the middle of January. It made it easy to just stay inside and work on some projects at my art table. After several days, however, I began to long for some time out of doors. Around these parts, everyone is focused on the weather and plans are made based on the closely watched forecast. When we lived in California I never thought twice about what to expect in the days ahead, it was very predictable. Living here, however, I’ve gotten into the habit of checking to see what the coming days might hold. A complete change in conditions can be remarkably swift.

At the eastern end of Dinard you get a beautiful view of St. Malo and it’s cathedral steeple.

When the sun icon, with a few clouds around it was displayed next to Friday on my weather app, during a week without any sun icons at all, we decided to spend that afternoon on the Rance, a favorite landscape of mine.

When we drive from our house in Montmirail towards St. Malo and Dinard, the first view of water we have, is the Rance as it flows towards the ocean. It is always a sight that thrills me. There is something about a river, as it meets the ocean, that I find particularly wonderful.

View of the point at which the river Rance meets the sea with the dam built from one bank to the next.

The Rance splits St. Malo from Dinard as it enters La Manche. In 1966 the first tidal power plant was built as a dam connecting the two sides. We drive over this barrage every time we either go to St. Malo or back home. EDF, the French electric company maintains the station which is still the second largest in the world. It supplies 0.012% of all French electricity, or to say it another way, 12 out of every 10,000 French light bulbs could be lit by the power of the Rance Tidal Plant. It is a clean and renewable source of energy, not creating greenhouse gases and is certainly a safer option than nuclear, but of course it does have an ecological impact. The river has seen a loss of biodiversity and suffers from progressive silting. We don’t love dams.

The meandering Rance River.

We have spent a certain amount of time on the Rance, as some of the communities along its banks are favorite haunts of ours. Dinan, a beautiful Medieval town, with charming half timbered houses is at the far end of the estuary, where the Rance becomes narrow. St. Suliac, a Plus Beau Village (labeled one of the 159 prettiest villages in France), is where we spent a week with our family last spring, just after the confinement was lifted.

There are working farms along the banks of the river.

There is less population along the river so it has a countrified feeling as opposed to the rather highbrow atmosphere of Dinard or the very touristy St. Malo. The river itself is quite serpentine, having cut a very interesting path through the land. As we drove along, the river would be on our right at one point and a few meters later on our left. Wooded islands dot the riverscape.

There are boats moored everywhere along the river.

As I stood on the banks of the river at one of our stops, I watched a flock of talkative geese fly past, heading perhaps back towards Dinard. Like them, I find an environment that offers both ocean and river, salt and fresh water to be rich and satisfying.

This overview of the Rance meeting the Sea was borrowed from this site.

Starting Again

On Monday when we left Montmirail, we woke up to a dusting of snow.

We took a rather long holiday break to spend Christmas with our local family at our home in the countryside. Since this blog is dedicated to our experiences on the Brittany coast, I have taken a break from posting as well. We are now back in our little apartment by the sea and it seems that while we were gone the oceanscape didn’t change much. The tides still roll in and out with predictable regularity and the sun still rises and sets on schedule. These certainties have a calming effect.

From my own point of view, this new year offers an opportunity to take another look at my personal life and to use the changing of the calendar as a prompt to make my own alterations. In other words, make some resolutions. Anyone who has known me long probably recalls that the first of January is one of my favorite days. I appreciate signs and portents and I am not at all hesitant to find significance in the human construct of a calendar year. I fully believe that extra energy for my own change accompanies the turning over of the year. And since I feel that way, it tends to work that way for me. The beginning of a new year always brings hopeful expectations.

The glassy sea with swirling “tidal shadows” caused by the water flowing around the rocky outcrops.

I stopped long ago with resolutions about losing weight or exercising more. Mine tend to revolve around art goals, although this year, as explained in a recent post, my art year began when we moved to the sea, and I am in the middle of a project which will go on until we leave again.

I do have some new things I want to explore, including making my own stamps, which I have already begun to do.

I have carved a few images from ordinary erasers I bought at the supermarket.

That’s a simple and fun idea, and the stamps can be used in my journal, in letters, to make package tags or in multi-media illustrations. I will add them to my on-going monthly Sense of Place book project.

I mounted the finished stamps on little logs I brought back from our firewood stash at the Maison

This year I decided that my real resolution is to experience more joy. It is very easy to get swept away by the bad news of the day, I certainly often do, but adding my distress to the general gloomy outlook is probably not helpful in the grand scheme of things, and I feel convinced it does not accomplish much either for myself or the rest of the world.

Standing in a shaft of winter sun, with the wind brushing my cheek, leaning out a window to listen to song birds greet the morning, watching the gold yellow dawn disappear into blue, smelling the rain on bare earth, or tasting the salt in the sea air, all these joys I have experienced, They are available every day. I think of joy as a current that flows unseen through the air. I just need to locate it and stand in the middle of it and allow it to wash over me. It only requires that I forget myself for a moment, because joy really is completely impersonal.

We were surprised to see someone right outside our window sailing past on the day we returned. We could almost touch her, before she floated away.

Happy Holidays

A beautiful December morning in Dinard

We will be at home in our little village of Montmirail until next year. I look forward to talking with you again then. Meanwhile, enjoy your celebrations. I send you all best wishes.

It’s always something, to know you’ve done the most you could. But, don’t leave off hoping, or it’s of no use doing anything. Hope, hope to the last.

– Charles Dickens

A Sense of Place

Brush made from pine needles

When we decided to spend several months by the sea in Dinard, I had only one hesitation, and that was giving up my atelier, where I am used to spending most of my days. Our apartment in Dinard is small and is also carpeted and furnished with antiques, neither of which are paint and mess friendly. Doing some kind of art project is important to my well-being, and I was not at all confident that it would be easy for me to find a good artistic rhythm here, although if any environment is going to inspire me, it ought to be this one. I realized immediately that I would have to restrict my art materials and the size of my products. I decided to bring mostly pencils, pens and watercolors.

There is a desk in the dining room under a window with a lovely view, facing St. Malo. It has a leather top, which we have covered with a sheet of plastic so if I spill some water or my watercolor paints drip, no harm is done.

Soon after arriving, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to create a project that would express the unusual place we are living, and comprehensively, through the months, express my experiences here. I wanted to call it A Sense of Place, which is the title of a book in my library that deals with travel writing. I realized that if I made my artistic products all the same size, I could in the end, put them together in a cohesive way, perhaps a book for each month. I chose a rather small format (12 X 16 cm) and began to create pages. I was able to bring some cyanotype supplies and my eco-dyeing kit. I began in October by gathering all the various forms of seaweed I noticed on the beach. I dried it and then made a cyanotype print of each one, that I blanket stitched onto a piece of felt. They became pages in my first book, which I put together at the end of the first month we were here. It also included photos, some watercolors, fabric dyed with pine cones collected from the back yard and even a piece of cloth which was “painted” with soil from our garden. With Rick’s help, I made a kind of folio to contain all the individual “pages.” The paper I used for my outside cover is the bag from the Aigle boots I bought in St. Malo for walking on the beach. The inside cover is a tourist map of Dinard. I wanted all the elements to be from this place.

I was happy with this idea, although I have to work to make each month different from the last and to reflect some aspect of what we are doing during that time. In November I decided to try to use elements collected from our environment for “mark-making,” the concept of exploring and focusing on the actual marks an artist makes, rather than what those marks are meant to represent. I started by taking a pine twig found on the ground outdoors, whittling the tip to make a point and then dipping it into ink. I also made a brush out of pine needles (pictured at the top of this post).

The last was a brush created from gull feathers. It made a pretty one, but I wasn’t too enamored with the marks it made. It was a bit difficult to control.

I also looked on ebay.fr for some old postcards that I could include. I bought several. The one pictured below, from 1900 (just six years before the house we are staying in was built), was the most exciting. I was attracted by the little drawing of St. Enogat, but when it arrived in the mail a week later, I was amazed to see that the woman who wrote it was staying, presumably, at Les Herbiers, which she has indicated on the drawing. That is exactly next door to where we are.

I finished up the folio for November using a marine map of our location and filled it with photos, drawings, artifacts and cyanotypes.

The nice thing about the format is that it allows for many different kinds of images.

The idea is to have a whole coordinated series of “books” which can contain very nice memories of our time here.

I have always wanted to keep a nature journal, so I am trying to do that as well. There’s a wonderful on-line free class offered by a scientist/artist named John Muir Laws, from the San Francisco Bay Area, who gives weekly video lessons/ideas about keeping such a book. I can highly recommend it, suitable for children and adults.

Walking

All the way through to the very end of November we had the most wonderful weather. The sun shone most every day and the temperatures were mild. Since December has arrived, it has been dark skies, whistling wind, rain whipped windows and chilly conditions. Last night, after the lights were out, I watched the shadows of the trees dance along the walls as the full moon cast animated shadows. I have scarcely been out for a walk this week. I had planned to post some photos of afternoon strolls taken the last week of November, so I will stick with my plan.

Dinard, like all the Breton coastal towns, has a wonderful system of trails. From the eastern end of our beach, you can join the path which has been carved out of the cliffs (visible in the photo above). This is called the Clair de Lune trail. Last night, with the moon suspended above the cliff face and making golden ripples on the sea below, I think I understood how it got its name. The path goes from the harbor, at the eastern limit of Dinard, past the town center and all four of Dinard’s separate beaches. St. Enogat is at the western limit of the city. The walk along the cliffs takes about an hour from one side of town to the other, with a wonderful view of St. Malo across the water.

Each beach is a little different in character. The beautiful old houses above all lead down to their piece of the coast.

The harbor offers casual and very fancy restaurants, as well as views of some of the most extravagant Dinard properties. The ferries from St. Malo and the local islands arrive there.

Past St. Enogat the trail continues west, although the name changes. From here it is part of Le Sentier des Douaniers, a system of paths that encircles the entire Brittany coast. They were originally created in 1791, after the revolution as a way for customs officials to survey the coast and prevent smuggling and pirateering. In the 1960s the trails were refurbished. They are now part of The Grande Randonnée (GR) long distance foot paths of Europe.

Between St. Enogat and St. Lunaire, there is a small beach with a cove, named The Ghost Fairy Grotto. There are several legends about this cave involving ghostly beings who interact with fisherman and townsfolk. In 1877 the Lumière brothers shot their first color motion picture here.

The pathway is beautifully maintained and winds through woodland, grassy fields and residential areas. All proprietors are required to give passage to hikers along this trail.

Even a few steps from downtown, you can find large swaths of open land with natural grasses and coastal undergrowth, or small stands of oak or pine. There are paths throughout and they all lead, inevitably, to the sea.

Food, Glorious Food!

Fresh scallops at the Dinard daily market

While my friends at home are celebrating Thanksgiving this week, it seemed like a good time to discuss eating. We spend most of our days and all of our evenings indoors due to our confinement, so cooking has taken on outsized importance in our daily lives. Happily we are living in a spot where there are many options when it comes to shopping for food products. We have more or less given up super markets.

This morning was crisp and clear and we had a wonderful time at the market shopping for supplies. Since we have been mandated to leave the house only for an hour of exercise, or to shop (for an indeterminate amount of time), going to the marché is about the biggest entertainment we have, so why rush through it? We took our sweet time. There is so much to see and appreciate.

The Dinard market is renowned for its selection and quality. The first time we saw it, we swooned. We have been to some very nice markets in France, and this one can rival any of them. It offers so much, and features only food. Often French markets have a lot of stalls with clothes and doodads which for me really takes away from the pure experience. This one is open every morning except Monday and has indoor and outdoor stalls. Today we bought some sourdough bread baked in a wood fired oven and covered with pumpkin, sunflower, sesame and poppy seeds. We got some salmon pâté and some gorgeous fresh tomato spread.

Of course there is almost every kind of fresh fish you can think of for sale at the market. We bought some swordfish one day, as this is the season and made a delicious meal with ginger and garlic. I had the urge a week or two later to make ceviche. The fish monger sold us some beautiful sea bass and prepared it for us perfectly, removing all the scales and bones with his special knives. We enjoyed watching him ply his craft. The fish is “cooked” in lime juice and the result was definitely memorable.

We were here for several weeks before we discovered the Grand Frais, which is something like a warehouse of every kind of food you could ever imagine. It’s enormous and offers produce that we can’t find anywhere else, such as Asian greens. The volume is overwhelming and the quality impressive.

The tomatoes pictured below are just one example. They look like cherries, and come in every color, shape and size you could ever want.

For Rick’s birthday, earlier this month, I made salmon cakes and salad with smokey egg plant dressing. It went over well.

Another evening we made a mushroom lasagna which took us about 4 hours to put together and about 15 minutes to eat. It was spectacularly good. Since it was far too much for the two of us, we ate a third and froze the other 2/3rds, so our return on investment won’t be quite so dismal as it seemed at first.

Here are a few other recipes we’ve tried: shitake mushroom and spinach, ramen noodle soup and teriyaki salmon bowl. All recommended.

I have been reading a series of murder mysteries that take place in Brittany, written by Jean-Luc Bannalec. They are full of interesting facts about Breton history, geography and culture. The Missing Corpse takes place in Pont Belon, home to some of the most famous oyster beds in the world. I have just read that oysters are considered one of the healthiest foods on the planet. Even the Ancient Romans understood the medicinal benefits of these delicate little creatures. In my book a doctor puts the main character, detective Dupin, on an oyster diet, which involves eating 36 a day, 12 oysters at each meal. Oysters are the best source of zinc that there is. Zinc has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and plays a significant role in many metabolic processes. It’s helpful to the immune system, protein synthesis and growth in general. Oysters contain an array of nutrients and vitamins, while having absolutely no fat or carbohydrates. All 20 amino acids are contained in an oyster. Last, but not least, they also contain dopamine, which explains why I always feel so good after consuming a plate full.

We hadn’t eaten any oysters at all since moving to the coast, which when I think about it is crazy. I love oysters. We usually save them for holidays and special occasions, but why? They are available in profusion, at every market and on street corners throughout the city. My book convinced me we had to change our way of thinking about this topic and avail ourselves more frequently of this fresh local delicacy.

Today at the market we bought a dozen of the number 3s for a grand total of 6€. We intend to try the many different vendors and varieties on offer. These ones, we were told, are from the Cap Fréhel, just down the road to the west. The man who sold them said they were harvested at the foot of the castle there. I loved having this precision. He opened one for us to show us how beautiful it was inside and how clear the liquor. He knocked each one against another as he put them in our bag. The solid clacking sound proved that each one was healthy and fresh.

It’s lucky for us that we have such lovely shopping options because we go almost every day to gather our ingredients. Since we live in a seasonal rental apartment, the refrigerator is about the size of a large suitcase. I repeat myself when I say that food shopping, and the resulting good eating, has become one of our greatest pleasures in this life.

The Sea Giveth and the Sea Taketh Away

Have you been following the cycles of the moon? I certainly didn’t while we lived in other locations, but here one can’t escape the influence the moon has upon the environment. We had a new moon this week and with it came the usual high coefficient, in other words we had some very low and some very high tides for a few days. That dead planet in the night sky exerts a huge gravitational influence on the water at our feet.

It was a long walk to the water line. It had receded so much, that one could almost imagine walking to St. Malo. And one could definitely walk into downtown Dinard on the beach which is normally not possible at all, as there are cliffs which separate the various Dinard beaches from one another.

Of course at low tide one can find attractive little treasures.

From top and right to left: unidentified shell with five growth ridges, unidentified attractive purple variegated shell, three limpet shells (little cones), beach glass (broken bottle top made completely smooth), two red cockle shells, back and front of a scallop shell.

High tide was quite dramatic. Waves crashed against the wall and sprayed water onto the lower garden. That occurred after dark, so I was not able to get a photograph.

In the morning we discovered that a night of pounding surf was able to wash away at least six feet of sand from our beach front. The level of sand a day before was to the bottom step of our stairway. I conservatively calculated that about 1000 tons of sand was swept away over night.

Our neighbor tells us that we ain’t seen nothing yet. The waves were very tame by coming winter storm standards. I wonder if we’ll have any sand left at all by springtime. Apparently this displacement occurs every year. Next spring the city will bring bulldozers down to the beach and return sand to its normal level. I guess that means it will be awhile before I use these steps again.

I checked to see how much the ocean has risen in the last hundred years, so I could understand if this phenomenon was happening when the house was built. I found out that a century ago the ocean was only 8-10 inches lower, which I can’t imagine could make such a difference.

Another charming gift received this week was a view out our window of a brand new sailing freighter, built locally, and leaving St Malo harbor bound for New York with 14,000 bottles of French wine on board. Our friend Bernard, who descends from several generations of Breton sailors and keeps up with such things, alerted us to its schedule. One can monitor all ocean going vessels in real time on marinetraffic.com. The ship, called Grain de Sail (a play on words), has a crew of only four. After dropping off their cargo, they sail for Central America to fill their holds with cocoa and coffee before sailing back home.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Rick noticed that we have some new residents in town. At first he saw them bobbing on the waves and took them for ducks, as they are rather small. Once we observed them on shore, however, it was clear they are geese. We identified them as Brant geese that have just arrived for the winter from the Arctic, where they mate and rear their chicks from late spring. They make a nice addition to the ecosystem.

Humans and Other Interesting Creatures

Even though we are in the middle of a new adventure, in a place and in an environment we have never lived, we find ourselves falling into habits. We get up at more or less the same time each day, we sit down in the same chairs for coffee, we follow a similar routine. It is natural to fall into patterns.

While we follow our new morning rituals, we have been able to observe someone else’s. Every day, as we sit at our window sipping coffee, we get to watch the same interesting drama play itself out. First, a man and his two collies, one tan and white, the other black and white, come down the main St. Enogat steps onto the beach. The man lets the two dogs off their leashes and the tan one makes a dash towards the edge of the surf, right under our window. Every morning, without fail, he barks at the tide as he chases it in and out, back and forth, occasionally biting at the water. His companion dog, the black one, stays glued to his master’s side as the two of them wait and watch. The human is an attractive older man, always dressed in red pants, blue boots and jacket, a knit cap and a black face mask.

The black collie has only three legs and so he rocks as he follows his master. The tan dog also has a kind of rocking gait, which at first I thought was possibly a learned behavior or a gesture of solidarity, but when I once saw him up close, I noticed that his two back legs work as one. These creatures, all three of them, have found a place in our hearts and in our own morning program. Their distance company on the beach marks the beginning of our day. We also see them in the afternoon and in town.

Of course as time goes along, we get to know, at least by sight, the other characters who make their daily visit to the shore. There is the elderly and rather overweight gentleman who runs up and down the beach several times in the afternoon, impressively pushing himself forward as he huffs and puffs. There are the two women who, dressed in wet suits, walk through the water from east to west, talking as they ambulate. There are kite flyers, boogie boarders and some who swim even in chilly weather. Mostly, like us, there are the mask-wearing bundled up couples who enjoy their stroll while watching the rhythm of the waves.

We often see what I would like to call an entire herd of oyster catchers, the black and white sea birds with long orange beaks and legs that frequent the local beaches. They always arrive in a mass and each one takes up his post. They all stand perfectly still, perhaps listening or feeling some vibration. Then they peck away at the sand below their feet to find a tasty burrowing morsel. After a few minutes they all disappear together.


During very low tides human oyster catchers appear, perhaps they are too difficult to see in this photo, but they line the edge of the water and search for little morsels as well. In truth, neither the bird nor the human is likely to find an oyster, far more likely a mussel.

There are a couple of guys who consistently fish at the water’s edge, casting out their short line, waiting for a bite. They are very patient, casting over and over again as the tide rolls in. We have never seen them catch anything, but they never seem to lose heart,

We also occasionally have a rider and his beautiful horse that gallop back and forth. Even if we don’t see them every day, we often find hoof prints in the sand.

My favorite observation was of a cormorant, almost as big as a swan, diving under the surf and swimming completely submerged for many seconds as she searched for her breakfast. Above, closely tracking her movements, was a seagull who had every intention of stealing her meal. The sea gulls seem to make their living illegally in constant petty larceny. One morning Rick was leaning out the window eating his morning toast when a seagull flew right into his face in an attempt to rob him of his meal. Scoundrel!

The back windows don’t look out onto the ocean, but we often find ourselves there nonetheless, as that is the direction from which the sun pours in at midday. There is a beautiful Scots Pine and a small olive tree that live in the back yard. They attract lots of in land birds who forage under their branches.

Ships and Boats

Our telescope, used at home for star gazing, now lives at our window in Dinard.

“Look at the two sail boats. The one in front is moving slower than the one just in back. The one behind took a sharp tack towards shore to avoid getting in the wind shadow of the one ahead. He’s tacking on the leeward side and the two are converging. The one behind is overtaking the leader to windward. Ah, but now he’s stuck in his wake up against the rocks. I imagine he’s yelling ‘Sea room!’”

This was the narration I had from Rick one Saturday morning in October as he was gazing out the window watching a couple of sail boats in the middle of a race. The vocabulary was mostly unfamiliar to me. Rick’s enthusiasm, however, was infectious. He himself has participated in many sail boat races on the San Francisco Bay, but there has not been much sailing in his life since we’ve been married. I wrote down the conversation in my journal so that I could remember it. For the first couple of weeks, we were able to watch sailing races each weekend, and many sailing vessels often all through out the week. Now that we are on lock down, the sailing boats have mostly disappeared.

While there is virtually no pleasure boating at the moment, marine life does go on and we still have lots of ships to observe as they follow the shipping lanes in and out of St. Malo. Fishing boats, ferries, freighters, even Rescue boats.

Yesterday morning we watched as a large ferry was moving through the bay, being closely followed by both a helicopter and a coast guard speed boat. We then noticed that there was a man shinnying down a rope from the helicopter to the ferry and then back up again. We realized it was a training exercise, as there were no people on the ferry. The coast guard was likely following so closely in case the trainee fell into the sea. Which he did not.

There are always fishing boats, mostly trawlers, to watch. One late afternoon we saw a large boat heading out from St. Malo towards the open Atlantic. With the telescope, we could see many fishermen, dressed in their waterproof gear standing side by side on the deck, watching the shore slip past. We could read the name of the ship, it was called the Joseph Roty II.We looked it up and were able to discover that the ship was part of a fishing fleet out of St. Malo called La Compagnie des Pêches. The ship was on its way out for an extended expedition along the north coast of Spain and all of the west coast of France.

While we’re relatively isolated over here, in our beautiful ocean view apartment, knowing no one and able to visit with nobody, it is extremely entertaining for us to watch life go by outside and imagine the sailor’s life. If you have to be locked down, this is not a bad place to be.