Travel Report: Belgium and France October 19-November
I was flying into Brussels International just in time to see the sunrise. I was traveling to Belgium for Erik Deneyer’s, my Dutch publisher’s, 40th birthday. Since I would be in Europe anyway, Editions Paquet, my French publisher, invited me to spend a couple of weeks in France. I was a bit hesitant because of the length of time, but Sharon said, “Go.” This would be my third European trip this year and, at more than two and a half weeks, my longest.
I had arrived at LAX at 5:30 the previous morning for a 7:30 American Airlines flight to New York. I was traveling alone, something I frequently do, though reluctantly. I was, however, bringing along a small teddy bear. If nothing else, Foggy Bear will make photos a bit more interesting.
The flight to NY went smoothly. I do not sleep well on planes, so managed to get some writing done, and even thumbnailed a few pages. We arrived early, but what was even better was that my 6:30 flight to Brussels was departing from the gate just opposite my arrival gate. I would not have to change terminals as I have had to do on other occassions.
Friday, October 20
Erik’s nephew Raf met me at the airport. I had met him and Sylvia when I was in Belgium almost 4 years ago. They have a new home where I will be staying a couple of nights. They also have a new baby. Norah was 9 months old, and a cutie, with a beautiful smile that comes from the heart as only a baby’s smile can.
After freshening up and resting a couple of hours at their home in Lochristi, Raf drove me to Brussels and I again met Erik at his bookstore, Het “B” Gevaar.
Raf and I walked to the nearby Belgian Centre for Comic Strip Art. Comics in Belgium are called “strips” after their newspaper counterpart, even though most are like the French Bande Dessinee--hardcover, about 48 pages, and full color. The strip centre is a wonderful museum in a refurbished 100 year old art nouveau-style building designed by Victor Horta. We introduced ourselves, and a curator took us on a tour. There were displays of art, animation, and models. There were also school groups touring the museum. With about 700 working strip artists in Belgium, it has the most cartoonists per capita than any other country.
We headed back to the bookstore at 4:30. There were already six artists signing, and a line had already formed for me. Beer and wine were served to the artists, though I stuck to sparking water. The signing lasted for a couple of hours, after which we had a small buffet.
A group was going out for drinks, but, still jet lagged, I asked to return to Lochristi.
Saturday, October 21
My body clock had not adjusted to European time, so I had a fitfull night’s sleep. By 5:00 am, I fell into a deep sleep and did not awaken until 11:30.
We breakfasted, then Raf and I drove to Gent (“Ghent” in English, “Gant” in French). Ghent is a cobblestoned medieval town with canals, much like Brugges. I remember Brugges as being very tourist oriented, with even a large parking lot for tour buses. Ghent, though also tourist driven, did not seem as much so, and was the more “authentic” of the two. There are three main churches in Ghent. St Bavo’s Cathedral, the largest, houses two paintings that I studied in college art classes-- a Reubens, and Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Lamb.
Raf took me along the “grafitti street”. To curb grafitti on historic walls, the city allows taggers to express themselves on walls along a narrow street, which are whitewashed every month. It must work, because I did not see any grafitti anywhere else in Ghent.
We walked up a long, dark, cramped corkscrew stone staircase to the top of the Het Belfort, or the Belfry, a bell tower with a magnificent view of the town. The belfry is capped with a copper weather vane fashioned in the likeness of a dragon. On the building’s four corners stand statues of crusaders known as the “Mighty Men of Gent.”
We continued to explore the town. In the US, there is a coffee shop on every block. In Belgium, it is chocolate shops. We went into the world renown Daskalides Chocolatier, where I bought a few sweets to take home. Raf treated me to a small gourmet box which I also brought back.
We had coffee, then drove to Brussels. I am not a coffee drinker in the US, but the coffee in Europe is different--rich and thick in tiny cups, often accompanied with a small piece of dark chocolate.
There was a constant line for the signing. Different artists were signing every day, and I learned there were some customers making a daily 7.5 hour round trip commute from Amsterdam to get everyone’s signatures. Post signing, we went out to a nearby Italian restaurant where I had a very good linguini carbonara, though it was served without the raw egg.
Sunday, October 22
Raf and I again visited Ghent, this time to take a boat tour. “Ghent” means “confluence”, and it is the site where four rivers meet. Though we had seen Ghent yesterday, the river tour was well worth going on. The pilot told the history of the city in four languages--Dutch, French and German (Belgium’s three official languages), and English. One interesting bit of information was that the red “paint’ on many buildings was originally ox blood. The smell from the rancid blood was so bad that even the rats stayed away. People then were more concerned with rats and the plague, than with the odor.
We took a short walk around the maze of streets that housed the castle attendants, then went into the Castle of the Counts. There is a great view from the parapets, and artifacts inside, including a torture museum (but no touching the guillotine).
The last time I was in Belgium was in a late April, the last month with an “R” and the end of the mussel season. Everywhere I went I heard, “Sorry, no mussels. Too late.” This time I was at its height. We went to a restaurant at a plaza across from the castle, and I had the mussels naturale, with onions and celery. It was a huge serving, and came in the mussel pot it was cooked in. We also had French fries with mayonaisse, which is what they are topped with in Europe.
We drove to Brussels, and arrived shortly before the signing.. I saw my friend Mauricet again. I had last seen him two years ago at San Diego. Hermann stopped by to see me and wish Erik a happy birthday. He could not stay long though, as he was scheduled for a signing at another store. We had both been guests at a festival in Gijon, Spain. I had last seen him when I had an exhibit at the Japan Tower, next to the king’s residence. There was quite a crowd, and I probably signed longer than I should have. My had was a bit stiff when I ended. David Lloyd, who was in Paris for a signing, arrived by train to see Erik and wish him a happy birthday. He had done a signing for Erik when the V for Vendetta movie was released in Belgium.
I declined an invitation to go out for drinks, and Erik drove me to my hotel. The Derby is an older hotel, though not so by European standards. At least it had an small elevator that a person with luggage could barely fit into. My room was on the 5th floor (6th floor in the US). It was a spartan room, but clean and comfortable, and very near a metro station. Like most older European hotels, the bathroom seemed to have been installed as an afterthought. There was a skylight that, when I stood on a chair, gave me a view of the rooftops and chimney pots of Brussels. I could imagine Cary Grant as John Robie the Cat skimming across the tiled roofs.
Monday, October 23
Like many European hotels, breakfast was included or at a nominal cost. However, because The Derby is an older hotel, there was no breakfast room. A light, typically French breakfast of coissant, bread, cheese, and coffee was brought to my door.
The temperature had dropped considerably from the previous days. Then it had been about 20 C. Today it was more like 14 C, with the threat of rain. The Merode metro stop was literally meters from the hotel entrance. I bought a 10 jump card, and metroed to the De Bruckere station in the city center. I had forgotten my Brussels maps at home, so made my best guess as to which way to go. Fortunately I was correct, and soon arrived at the Grote Markt, or Grand Marketplace. The large plaza is bordered by the beautifully ornate, impressive guild buildings. I went to the visitor center and got city and a metro maps.
Having gotten my bearings, I walked to the famous Brussels landmark, Manneken Pis, a fountain of a little boy urinating. There is still a controversy as to who that boy actually was and why he is peeing. He could have been the son of a great general who, during a seige, bravely entered the enemy’s camp and peed on their fire. In another story, he was the son of a mayor who went naked around the city peeing without discretion.
I continued to the Tin Tin Store, the cathedral, then went in search of a hobby store. Lunch buddy Mike Kazaleh collects Match Box-type cars. Whenever I can, I pick up a European car for him. I found a hobby store the last time I was here and picked up a Smart car--one of those nifty sub-sub compacts. The store was not where I remembered it, and I searched the area to no avail. Erik later told me that it had moved.
It began to rain. I did not bring my travel umbrella, so I bought one at a souvenir store for 5E. The rain stopped five minutes later, and I would not have to use it throughout the remainder of my trip.
Cartooning is called “the ninth art” and is highly regarded in Europe. One person in France equated the respect an auteur receives to that of a film director. There are buildings decorated by strip artists in Brussels. I found four of the six buildings.
I went to the old fish market area for lunch. It is now made up of seafood restaurants. I had the fish soup, mussels, and flan for 12E. Water with gas was another 5E.
I walked to Erik’s store and signed books for customers who did not make it to the weekend’s signings.
We went out to dinner with Suzanne, Erik’s lovely and very charming girlfriend. I had stoemp (mashed potatoes with greens, in this case leeks), topped with two sausages, on a pond of brown gravy. It was delicious and filling.
Tuesday, October 24
We had planned to have lunch with David Lloyd, but he had misread his flight and was scheduled to return to England earlier than he thought. But we were able to spend some time together. He was in Argentina just a week ago, and will be in New York in February as will I.
Erik drove me to the Atomium, a huge structure based on the iron atom and built for the 1958 Belgian Expo. It had been renovated, and reopened in February. Entering the building was like entering a time capsule. There were displays of cars, Barbie dolls, and other artifacts from that period. It also had a 1950’s look at wht they thought the future would be like. There are nine huge spheres comprising the Atomium. We traveled from one sphere to another by escalators or stairs. The top observatory is accessed by an elevator on the ground floor. There is a gift shop that even sold 1950’s Barbie dolls, but at modern collectors’ prices.
We lunched at the neighboring Mini Europe, a small theme park, where I had a smoke salmon entree, brocette of beef, and coffee.
We drove on to Antwerp, sometimes in a heavy downpour, but by the time we got there the rain had all but stopped. Antwerp is a predominantly Dutch city. It was one of Belgium’s two major ports, but now it is known for it’s diamond merchants. It’s name literally means “hand throw”, because according to legend a hero cut off a giant’s hand and threw it across the river. The town was founded on the spot the hand landed.
We parked, and walked along the river to the castle. We continued to the Grand Marketplace where there is a statue commemorating the throwing of the hand. From there we went to the home of Reubens, the grand train station, and, of course, the diamond stores. Suzanne joined us as it was getting dark. Though she works in Brussels, she lives in Antwerp. She gave us an insider’s tour of the city.
Wednesday, October 25
Erik picked me up at The Derby early in the morning. I had a 8:40 train to Paris Gare Nord. We arrived at Brussels Midi Station with lots of time to spare. I had brought one suitcase and packed a second, soft-sided bag. I hoped I would not have to use my second bag until the end of my trip. However, I had accumulated enough books and stuff that I already needed it.
It was a direct train, and I arrived at Gare Nord at 10:10. I went downstairs to the metro station and caught a metro train to Gare Lyon, having to change only once. I arrived at Gare Lyon in plenty of time for my 11:00 TGV direct to Lyon.
Lyon, in the Rhone Valley, is in the southern half of the country. It is sometimes called “the second city of France”. What I did not know is that Lyon has two train stations served by the TGV. I detrained with almost everyone else at Place Dieu, quickly realized my mistake, and hopped back on again.
Gwen, from BD Fugue, met me at the Lyon Parnese station, and we taxied to the store. It was still early, so we lunched outdoor at a nearby restaurant. I had the savory pork innards cooked in red wine and the best creme brulee I have ever had (and I have eaten a lot). The brulee had a hot, crackly crust, and a very cold custard. There was also a touch of liqueur in it. The restaurant owner asked for a sketch. After he had seen what I drew, he asked permission to frame it for the wall. As a thank you, he gave me a heavy, hand blown water bottle of a kind that is renown in the Rhone Valley area. Gwen and I took a short walk around the city center area so I could get my bearings, then went to the signing.
The BD Fugue Cafe is a two level book store, with a bar upstairs alongside book. I was signing with Luca Erbetta from Italy. His second tome, Watch, had just been published. Like many BD artists, he inscribed his books with beautiful water color paintings. I did mine with quick sketches. We also traded drawings. I was getting a nice collection in my sketchbook on this trip.
The Hotel Bellecordiere was nearby. It is a small, very clean, functional room. The strange thing about it is that there are no right angles. The bathroom is shaped like a pentagon, the closet is triangular, and the main room has nine walls, ten if you count one that is six inches wide.
Lyon was built at the confluence of the Rhone and Saone Rivers. Our group of five crossed the Saone to the Old City. We chose a small restaurant where I had the escargot in pastry as an appetizer, duck cooked in wine over asparagus and mushrooms, and a fondant (chocolate cake) with chestnut ice cream.
We walked back to the hotel where I had the best night’s sleep since arriving in Europe.
Thursday, October 26
I had been away from home for a week, but it seems much longer. I had been keeping in touch with Sharon via e-mails. I was even getting used to those European keyboards.
The weather in Lyon was very nice, warm and sunny. I breakfasted at the hotel, then walked to the post office to buy stamps. I had been sending out a lot of post cards on that trip.
I crossed the Saone to the Old Town, and rode the funicular to the Basilicade Fourviere, the church on the mountain that overlooks the city. I inadvertently bought a round trip ticket, but that came in handy as I forgot that I had to get down the hill as well. I wandered the church grounds, taking in the great panoramic view of the Rhone Valley. It was just a short walk to two Roman amphitheatre--Hadrien’s Theatre and the Three Gauls. There were also Roman ruins around which I explored. I returned to the Old Town and visited the St Jean-Baptiste Church.
Crossing the river once more, I found a hobby shop and bought a car for Mike. I wandered around downtown Lyon for a couple of hours, then returned to my hotel. If I had more time, I would have liked to visit the aquaducts outside the city.
Mickael and Thomas from Momie Manga met me, and we walked to their store for a signing. Manga are Japanese comics, which are very popular in Europe as well as in the US. They are usually black and white, and smaller, though thicker, than the French BD. There are 3,000 translated manga titles published in France, making it the largest manga publisher in the world after Japan. My Usagi French editions follow the manga format.
We dined at a small, but excellent, restaurant, staffed by the chef, her daughter, and a waitress. I had a great view into the kitchen from where I was seated, and could watch as she cooked. I had langostini prawns flambe for entree, filet mignon with caramel sauce and basalmic vinegar as main dish, and coffee for dessert. It was so good I even took a photo of the restaurant staff.
Friday, October 27
I met Mickael at the nearby commons, and we walked to the trolley stop. All trolleys and buses in Lyon run a circuitous route to the City Center and to one of two train stations. Though I had arrived at Lyon Parnese, I left through Lyon Part Dieu. We got to the station with time even to enjoy a cup of coffee. The train departed at 9:00, passing farms, towns, and the occassional castle. It was a direct to Paris, and I arrived at Gare Lyon at 11:00. Fanfan, a friend who lives just outside of Paris, met me at the station and we took the RER to the Opera area and the Hotel Best Western Astra-Opera.
This was my first time in the Opera area, and we walked over to the building the area is name after--the Opera de Paris Garnier. From there we took the metro and RER to the Grand Arch, the largest of Paris’ three arches. This modern building is so big that the Arch de Triomphe can fit under it. I did a two hour signing at the Virgin Mega Store with Cyril Knittel, another Paquet artist. The first two people in line had come from Russia for this signing. Apparently, there is a connection between France and St Petersburg.
Fanfan and I metroed over to see the catacombs, a fascinatingly macabre place. Bones in Paris’ cemeteries had been dug up and transferred to one area underground. It took a hundred years to set up the catacombs. Whole walls are made up of bones, arranged in beautiful, elaborate patterns. You get the feeling that you are in a long, dimly lit maze. Every so often, there is a carved quotation about the nature of death. We wandered around down there for an hour or so.
It was rush hour when we emerged, and we caught the metro to Sacre Coeur, a church on a hill with one of the best views of Paris. We traveled through a couple of stations, then the train stopped. A suspected terrorist bomb was found in the next station. We hurried topside and hopped on a very crowded bus. It was so crowded that it could not make any stops, except to drop off passengers. Police cars screamed past us. The bus driver later told us that he had heard from his dispatcher that the bomb threat was a false alarm. We passed the station where the incident occurred, and continued on the metro to Sacre Coeur.
We walked up the steps to the church. It truly has a marvelous view of the city. We went inside. There was a choir of nuns just setting up. I imagined them going into a routine ala Sister Act. When they started singing, it was so beautiful and clear that at first I thought it was prerecorded.
We rode the funicular down, and had coffee at one of the many restaurants. I also had a tarte tatin, a crustless apple pie.
Fanfan and I said our good-byes for the day, and I metroed back to Opera. Unfortunately, the metro did not stop at the RER station we originally arrived at, and, of course, I had left my street map back at the hotel. I figured that if I found the Opera House, I would easily find my hotel. How hard could that be? After all, the entire area is named after the Opera. I made my best guess as to the direction, and half an hour later I was completely lost. In Paris. At night. I popped into a convinient hotel, and the nice receptionist did a Mapquest search for me, and printed out explicit directions, though in French. Ten minutes later I was at my hotel, and found there was a metro stop just half a kilometer away.
Saturday, October 28
I went down for breakfast. It was American style, so the largest breakfast I have had in more than a week--scrambled eggs, even. I had a 10 am interview at the hotel. The interviewer thought I would have a translator, and I thought he would be conversant in English. We managed, but I probably did not answer the questions he asked.
I had an 11:30 interview at Coyote magazine in the Jardin des Plantes Quarter. I was running a little early, so made a detour to Notre Dame. It was a warm, sunny day, and a bit humid. The days had been exceptionally warm--about 27C--since I had arrived in France. There was a long line--about 50 meters--waiting to get into the cathedral. I had seen it before, so just walked the perimeter. Ground Zero, the point from which all distances in France are measured, is right outside the cathedral There was a line of people waiting to place their heels on the point, and spin around. I joined the queue, and when it got to my turn, I placed Foggy Bear on the point and took a photo. Foggy was getting a nice collection of pictures of his trip to Europe. We had originally bought him in a small shop in northern Spain.
I got to the Coyote offices just a few minutes late, and we taped an interview.
The Asylum book store was just a block away. Fanfan was already there, as were a few early arrivals for the signing. A party of seven of us lunched at the Cafe Tozzi, a 400 year old restaurant. I had the pan roasted duck with potatoes--very garlicy and delicious. I finished with coffee and that rich, dark bitter chocolate that I like.
The signing started at 2:00, and there was a solid line through 6:00. Thomas from Berlin, Germany flew in just for the event. He gave me a small loaf of heavy, sesame seed encrusted German bread that weighed at least two pounds. It was so dense, it must have been baked in a black hole. Cosmo from the French fan club was also there. I did a magazine and an internet interview while signing.
We--Fanfan, his girlfriend Morgane, Thomas, Cosmo, and I--walked through an outdoor market place to the Pantheon. The market place was very much like Rue Cler, but much narrower and not as upscale, but much more interesting.
The Manga Cafe, where I did my second signing of the day, specializes in translated Japanese comics. The store had been opened only since July, and had already established itself through imaginative marketing. They have a free reading library, a huge reading room with comfy chairs, free self-serve drinks--sodas, coffee, chocolate--and free instore arcade games. I started signing at 7, and finished at about 9:30. It was a long day, and my hand was a bit cramped. I finished by doing a large drawing on their wall. There are already a few mangaka who have contributed pieces.
I was surprised to see Thomas was still there after the signing, so when the store owners invited me to dinner, I asked if he could dine with us as well. I had the homemade froi grois, a thick beef steak, and three flavor creme brulee--vanilla, chocolate, and coffee each served in a small cup.
I was driven back to my hotel. Even at night, I would not want to drive the chaotic streets of Paris.
Sunday, October 29
The time changed at 3:00 am. Clocks were turned back, so I had an extra hour’s sleep. Still, I went down for breakfast at 7, when the dining room opened. By 7:45, I had checked out of the hotel and was headed for the metro station. I was hauling two full, heavy bags by now. This being the usual rush hour, I would have taxied over to Gare Montparnesse on any other day except Sunday. As it was, there were few people on the metro. I changed lines once, and arrived at the train station by 8:45.
Fanfan would accompany me to Mont St Michel. We had arranged to meet at 8:40, but when he did not arrive I trekked over to our car (#15) and stowed my bags. He soon came running up. His RER train had been cancelled, and he had to catch a later train.
The two and a half hour trip to Rennes was very pleasant. At Rennes, we caught the bus for the one and a half hour ride to Mont St Michel in the Normandie region of France.
The Hotel Formule Verte was closed for lunch, so we took our bags to a restaurant and lunched ourselves. I had the fish terrin, and ham with fries. Our hotel had still not opened, so we stowed our bags at another hotel and walked the one and a half kilometers to the abbey.
The extreme tides that this area was once known for no longer rises and falls as much as it did. A lot of the beach area is turning into marsh lands, pastures for grazing sheep. There is a dam being built that, hopefully, will return the tides. The abbey was built to crown an island that is linked to the mainland by a causeway.
We entered the walled city, past the many restaurants and souvenir stores at the bottom. We continued up the cobblestoned street, past various lookouts, to the abbey. There is one main street that meanders uphill, with small passages branching off of it. One passageway we walked down was about 18 inches wide and about 30 meters long, barely room enough for a person.
The abbey of St Michel is very beautiful, brighter and airier than others I have visited. It is very tall, done in the elongated Gothic style. The steeple is crowned with a statue of St Michel fighting the dragon.
We had to get to the hotel before 6:00 when they close to take their dinner break. We retrieved our bags from the neighboring hotel and checked in. We found a nice restaurant for dinner. I had the plateau de mer--a cold seafood feast including langotinis, prawns, winkles, whelks, and half a dozen raw oysters. It was followed by local camembert cheese, and sorbet with fruit.
We took a walk to see the abbey. It was lighted up from below. Beautiful.
Monday, October 30
I had fresh fruit at breakfast, something I have I not had for a week and a half. I also had coffee, croissant, and a hard boiled brown egg. Brown eggs seem to be the more common in Europe. On the way out, I took a locally grown apple. It was sweet and crunchy.
Fanfan and I wanted to take a walking tour of the delta, but, apparently, the tour is booked up months in advance. We took a walk anyway, but along the river and through the French countryside. We passed pastures, leek and lettece fields, farmers harvesting their crops by hand, and we even saw a flock of peacocks, something totally unexpected in France. The road ended, and we went through a gate along a dirt road and saw the western face of Mont St Michel that few visitors make an effort to see.
We backtracked to town, and ate at a creperie that, for some unkown reason, had a lifesize statue of Oliver Hardy in front. There was a much smaller Stan Laurel inside. I had the crepe with mushrooms and ham and, for dessert, a flambe crepe with pineapple and chocolate.
We walked back to the abbey, and wandered the battlements and shops. I seriously considered buying a beret, but, after I saw myself in a mirror, knew I could never pull it off. Maybe a Basque beret?
When it got dark, lights flooded the abbey towers, even illuminating a circle in the clouds above. We looked for a restaurant. Madam Poulet’s is famous for its omelettes. The prices did not seem too bad either--25Euros--until Fanfan pointed out that was the children’s menu. 40E seemed a little steep, but when would be the next time I am in this area? He pointed out that was the lunch menu. Next down the list was the dinner menu--65E (almost $85) for a plain omelette was just too much for my budget. We chose a more modest restaurant where I had mussels in light cream as entree, an omelette for main course, and “Uncle Luigi’s tiramisu” for dessert. The omelette was very impressive. At about 2 inches thick, it was the fluffiest and lightest that I have ever eaten. I do not know what is added to the eggs to make them rise so much, but it is beaten a very long time. The inside is half cooked, spilling out when cut open. There is no cheese or anything else inside, so it is not an American-style omelette. It was not particularly tasty, but not bad either. Certainly not worth 65E. I found out later that Mont St Michel is reputed to have the tastiest lamb chops in the world because of the briny grass that the sheep feed on. I’ll have to try it whenever I return.
We walked back to the hotel in the dark, the lighted abbey behind us. Mont St Michel is one of the three most beautiful places that I have seen. The nighttime illumination only enhances its beauty.
Tuesday, October 31
I met Fanfan downstairs, and we walked up the street to catch the 9:30 bus to Gare Rennes.
Cyril Knittel, who I did a signing with in Paris, lives in Rennes and met us at the train station to take us on a tour around the old city center. He took us to the cathedral, the local residence of the king, the old city walls, and other sights. We went to an Italian restaurant for lunch. I had a pasta carbonara with the traditional raw egg. I cannot get it this way in the US. I finished with creme brulee--a trifle overdone, but still delicious.
We crossed a large, beautiful city park to the studio that Cyril shares with three other auteurs. The city rents these studio spaces at very low cost to encourage the arts.
We went to a cafe for coffee, then to our 4:30 signing at the Virgin Megastore.
Cyril’s girlfriend, Morgan, had a birthday celebration at a tavern that night. Two of the guests were classical violinist, who played so beautifully.
Wednesday, November 1
Today was All Saints’ Day, a holiday in France. We had seen a couple of trick-or-treaters last night, but dressing up and going door to door for candy is very new in France.
We went down for an early breakfast. I had a heavy, high protein American-style meal--eggs, sausages, etc. Fanfan had a typical French croissant, yogurt, and fruit. I took a hard boiled egg. As I was breaking it, I told Fanfan that when I was in Poland there was an immerser at one hotel so you could cook your own eggs. I prefer a three minute egg. When it broke, I was surprised that it was still raw. I then noticed the hot water immerser on the buffet.
We walked to the train station, and caught the 9:30 to St Malo. It was a regional service, and made three stops along the way.
St Malo is a beautiful, walled city in Bretagne, remembered because it was the home of the corsairs--the privateers often called “the king’s pirates”. It was named after the Welsh monk, Mac Low. Our hotel, the Anne du Bretagne, was in the walled Old City.
It was low tide, so we took a walk along the beach. There are many small islands just off the coast, most of them either have a lighthouse or a fort, an ideal setting for a pirate town. We took a tour of Fort National just off the coast, where you could walk to at low tide.
We lunched at Restaurant Zolibato. I had an appetizer assortment of cold seafood, including the freshest oysters I have ever eaten. That was followed by mussels cooked in cider, an assortment of cheeses, and hot pears with chocolate. That dessert came close to beating out creme brulee as my favorite French sweet. I ended with coffee with that rich, dark chocolate.
We continued our walk around the ramparts, then went to the Corsair Museum. Even though the French our guide spoke was incomprehensible to me, I enjoyed it because he looked so much like Mr. Bean.
Back to the ramparts, then down to the main cathedral. The building was very heavy, and the interior dark, so unlike Mont St Michel. We took a walk to the Street of the Dancing Cat. When the English attacked in 1693, the only thing that was killed in St Malo was a cat. The city named a street to honor that brave feline.
We had dinner at La Dent Creuse. I had the pureed fish soup, and mussels. I know I have been eating a lot of mussels, but the mussel and oyster beds are 15 kilometers away and it is the height of the season. Mussels were inexpensive, plentiful, and delicious.
I went for a nighttime walk after dinner to the casino. I expected a crowd, especially on a holiday, but there was no one there. I later learned that casinos in France are not necessarily the gambling establishments that are in Las Vegas. It could be a convention center.
Thursday, November 2
We rented a car, and Fanfan drove us east along the Emerald Coast. Our first stop was at the carved rocks of Rotheneuf. For 25 years, Rev. Abbe Foure, deaf and unable to speak, carved statues in the rocks along the coast to honor God. More than 300 images exists, some faces, some fanciful creatures, and some full statues. It was an amazing accompishment. However, comparing the statues to old photos, you can see the ravages that time and the elements have taken.
Continuing east, we would stop occassionally at a beautiful sandy beach or to see a house on a island, until we came to Pointe du Grouin, the Point of the Pig’s Nose. It is a beautiful finger of land that extends into the sea, with views of the entire bay from St Malo to Mont St Michel. There was a German bunker there, a remnant from WW2. We walked and climbed over rocks to the extreme point of the pig’s snout.
We drove on to the oyster beds of Cancale. It was low tide, and we wandered around the oyster cages and the beached boats. Stalls along the road were selling fresh oysters for as little as 4E a dozen. There was a landfill of shells where people had discarded them after eating a dozen or so. Restaurants all featured seafood, many displaying huge plateaus with large crabs, oysters, mussels, langostini, prawns, etc. Sharon and I had such a plateau in Cognac, the first time we were in France. We could not finish it. The couple next to Fanfan and me did, though. I was content with the fish terrin, mussels, and phare Bregagne, a type of local flan named after a lighthouse. We were in Cancale maybe ninety minutes. During that time, the tide had risen dramatically. The oyster beds were now completely submerged, and the beached boats were afloat.
We drove inland to Mont Dol, basically a 200 foot tall massive granite rock in the middle of the flat countryside. There is a park-like setting on the top with a stream, a small church, and a tower dedicated to Mary. There is also a restaurant and a windmill. From the top of the mountain you can see as far as Mont St Michel and beyond.
We heard there was a megalithic site with menhirs nearby. We would have driven right by it if a passing motorcyclist had not pointed to it as he whizzed by us. I guess we looked like tourists. A standing stone--menhir--was alone in the middle of a field. A tractor was plowing around it. At one point, it looked as if he was going to hit it, but stopped inches from it, and went around.
It was not yet dark, so we back tracked a bit to Dol de Bretagne to see the famous menhir there. According to legend, when this 30 foot obelisk sinks into the ground, it would be the end of the world. No need to worry yet. It was standing very tall. We could walk right up to it and touch the granite.
We drove back to St Malo, and returned the car.
We were to meet Pierre Paquet and the others for a 8:00 dinner. By 8:45 they had not arrived, so Fanfan and I ate at Zolibato, which has become my favorite restaurant in St Malo. I had the green salad with bacon, paella, and the chocolate covered pears. We found out later that Pierre and the others were still at the festival setting up the booth.
Friday, November 3
It was the first day of the St Malo Quai des Bulles: Festival de la Bande Dessinee. I went down for breakfast, and I again met Pierre, my French publisher, and many artists from the Paquet stable. It was good to see my old friends again: Nacho and Aja from Spain, Lapone from Italy, Michel from France, Valentin and Marine from Switzerland, and the others.
The festival did not open until 2:00 pm, but Fanfan and I went to register before the crowds. At auteur registration, they found my badge quickly and gave me a satchel-type portfolio filled with some neat swag, including a water color set.
We walked along the pier, past a corsair ship, and across the locks. It was low tide, and boats were lying on the sand. There is a German blok haus, a WW2 memorial, on a hilltop at the edge of town. It was a lot bigger than I imagined it to be. There were heavy, iron turrets surrounding the area, pockmarked with shrapnel. Some gouges were as big as my hand, and as deep as my fist. The turrets were made of steel about 8 inches thick.
We walked back to the city, and out to the lighthouse at the end of a very long causeway. It offered a wonderful view of St Malo.
It was not yet 2:00, but we got into the festival through the auteurs’ entrance. The festival building is a very long enclosed pavilion, much like those that are used in Angouleme. Publishers and dealers set up booth spaces, and feature auteur signings. St Malo is the second largest BD festival in France, but attendance is much, much less than the 250,000 at Angouleme. The signings began. There was a constant line. The organizer of the Salon BD Auvers-Sur-Oise, 30 km outside of Paris, came by and invited me to be their guest in 2007.
The festival closed at 7:00, and we met for dinner at 8:00. I dined at a table with Pahe from Gabon, Lacas from Portugal, and Fanfan. I met a couple of Paquet’s Korean cartoonists. I used up whatever Korean I knew in about 30 seconds. They were impressed, but are probably still wondering why I wished them a merry Christmas, and asked them, “Ohde-ay eesum-ne-ka yok-chan (which way to the train station)”?
Saturday, November 4
The festival opened at 10:00. There was a line to get in, but we flashed our auteur badges and walked right in. It was fairly busy, but there was a sudden lull in the afternoon. I took that opportunity to walk the halls. I saw Ted Naifeh, whose Polly and the Pirates was just translated to French. What more appropriate city to make its debut than the city of the corsairs? I also said hello to Croatian artist Igor Korday. We had both been guests at the Gijon, Spain festival in 2001. Near closing, a publisher came by with wine and chocolates.
Sunday, November 5
I walked Fanfan to Gare St Malo. He had a 7:50 train to Rennes, then on to Paris. Exiting the station, I was suddenly enveloped in a thick fog, which dissipated as I walked back to the Old City.
After a small breakfast, I walked the ramparts for the last time. The fog from the train station had now reached the coast, losing the city turrets in the mist. It was nicely eerie to be alone on the ramparts.
The festival was fairly slow compared to the previous days, but I was exhausted. Perhaps the last two weeks had caught up to me now that I was going home soon.
Paquet artist Arnaud Boutle offered me a ride to Rennes, since he lives there. It would be much nicer than taking the train. We left St Malo at about 3:30. All afternoon, friends were saying their good-byes. It was a pleasant hour’s drive. Arnaud dropped me off at the Hotel du Brest, across from the train station.
Restaurants in France generally do not start their dinner service until 7:00 so I explored the city for a couple of hours. Most of the stores had already closed, though. It was my last night in France, so I wanted a special meal. I ate at the Le Blue Marine, not far from the hotel. Assorted cold seafood for entree, Duck with a honey balsamic vinegar sauce for main dish, and an excellent creme brulee and coffee.
Monday, November 6
I caught the 6:10 Illes Europe train to Charles de Gaulle airport. There was some commotion outside the terminal with fire engines, police checking under cars, and a big traffic jam, but, thankfully, that did not affect my departure. I flew in to Chicago O’Hare. Airports were on an orange alert because of the elections the next day. I had two hours to make my connection, and made it with time to spare. After three hours on the train, five hours at CDG, nine hours on the plane to ORD, two hours waiting for my flight, and five hours to LAX, it was a long day but it was nice to be home again.
It was a great trip. I have to thank Fanfan for taking tine off from work to travel with me. It is no surprise that once he left me, I became hopelessly lost in Paris. Thanks to Raf, Sylvia and Norah for taking me into their home (special thanks for Sylvia for doing my laundry). To the stores that helped sponsor my trip, and, of course, my publishers, Enigma and Editions Paquet, for inviting me.
Whenever I travel, I find more places I would like to visit. I would have liked to have gone to the D-Day beaches while I was in Normandie, but I’ll have to save that for another trip. The same with southern France. Visiting Lyon just gave me a taste. I would love to go back for the full meal.
If you would like to see more photos of my trip, go to:
http://albums.photo.epson.com/j/AlbumList?u=4425627 Click on any of the folders. If you need a password, it is: usagi
Don’t forget to check out Foggy’s photos. Due to some foul-up though, his pictures actually start with image 25, continues on, and ends with image 24.