What do you do when it's gorgeous out, you know tomorrow is a teachers' strike and you only have about 10 days left in beautiful Brittany? Why you go to one of its most hopping ancient cities: VANNES! We were last there as a family on January 23 - exactly 6 months ago, so it was high time to go back. The thrill was not just in the return, but in seeing absolutely everything about the city transformed. When I think of how closed and quiet all of Brittany was when we got here, compared to how open and boisterous a place it is now, I start to understand more that seasons aren't just seasons around here, they are lifestyles. And as charming as we found the winter graced by the color of moss only, I suppose that most Bretons, having endured enough cold and wet winters, simply stay indoors. Because now, they are out! The parking lots are full, the streets are crowded, the fish market (above) is open... We had lots of things we were hoping to do, and my goodness we did them all, and added a bunch of distractions along the way. Seeing this beautiful fish market reminds me of the North Carolina coast so much - the smell of fresh seafood, the expert hands preparing the fish, the careful considerations of the customers (seafood is and always will be a huge, big deal, a treat to share), the echoing space (the smell has to go somewhere, eh?). It's glorious, and the kids were duly impressed by the enormous spider crabs and sea snails and various and sundry fishes whose second eyes had migrated to the first so they can swim flat.
So why love Vannes? This is why love Vannes:
That one can happen upon a scene like this one (on the first tiny "square" within the old city - the one where saint Vincent Ferrer lived while he preached in Vannes), makes this city a magical place for me. I love that climb up into it, that old safety of "intra muros" (within the walls), today made into a comforting meander. And the girls' immediate response was priceless.
And then, the discovery of a lifetime: the Museum of Archaeology of the Morbihan at Vannes!!!!
This was the first object that greeted us when we walked into the medieval section and I flipped out! This was one of Michael Camille's favorite pieces - it's in his marvelous book, The Medieval Art of Love - I remember looking at just the one panel reproduced of this marvelous "coffret" (a kind of treasure box for personal use) and teaching it. And then, there it was! The museum text adds that it was probably brought to Vannes from Spain (where it was made, but in what context in Spain, home of convivencia where Jews, Christians and Muslims all lived together?) on pilgrimage and left at the cathedral as an offering. It portrays scenes of chivalric romance: a woman and a troubadour, two knights (one almost completely behind a a huge shield), a tent and a horse, and this wonderfully strange scene of a woman talking with a monk while a horse waits nearby. A marriage gift? A knight's travel box? And what tales does it tell? We had some fun with the monk and the lady, but otherwise, I just couldn't take my eyes off of it: that it would survive from the 12th century, made of wood, travel to so far - it's enough to make you want a book of it (said she having just read People of the Book).
I looked up to see Oliver standing absolutely still over this book - turns out it was a breviary with illuminated initials in classic 13th century Gothic script. I looked at other things and looked over again and there he was in the exact same position. I went over to him and asked him what he thought, and he just looked up at me and said beseechingly, "I want to turn the pages." A bibliophile is born: this was pure desire, just to touch the book (and he knew it was parchment), to feel its pages (the smooth side, the hair side), to hear them move. I haven't seen that kind of open, honest desire for a book as object... maybe ever - Michael Camille and his love of manuscripts would come the closest. My dear Oliver actually wanted to hear what it was like at the Bibliothèque Nationale when I was able to handle manuscripts - my wild tales of adventure!
And then upstairs a very minimal and clean museum lay-out: these exquisite little cases and the cool lighting: it was all pre-history all the time up here with really pristine, beautiful examples of axe heads, stone tools, and (Iron Age!) metal objects.
All this with a little history lesson from Eleanor:
Continuing with the "eat your way through Brittany" endeavor, we ate out on a terrace near the port, foresaking the picnic we'd been thinking about.
But it was much cooler under those umbrellas, I tell you, and when a Croque Madame as gorgeous as this one comes your way, you're glad you're "en terrace." Both girls love the Croque Madame - some kind of culinary feminism, as they both really emphasize the "Madame" when they order it.
We then plunged into the cool depths of the Aquarium, and it was here that both Mac and I realized that, yes, much had happened, had been happening these past six months. When did Eleanor start calling "Regardes!" out to her sister (Come see!)? When did they start naming sea life in French? When did Iris start photographing things for school projects? At some point, there was a change, another layer, and now here were the kids at home in Brittany, remembering every single thing about our first visit. It was some kind of return, some kind of revisit - but with this ability to see in between the two visits. Rare and wonderful: like the kids were seeing old friends, but now calling them all by their French names. Our favorite was "Madame la Crocodile" for the crocodile named Eleanor that had been found in the Paris sewer in 1984.
And ah, because in springtime, out come the carousels along with the crocuses, the kids rode the one at the port - Iris spinning in a hot air balloon basket, and Eleanor triumphant on an elephant. A good time was had by all!
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