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great road trips

Deb Shennette and her father Gary Shennette at Absinthe Restaurant, HonfleurGary Shennette

In the winter of 2010, my father approached me with a brilliant idea. He suggested we take a summer vacation and do a road trip from Calgary to California. I couldn't think of anything worse than a driving vacation, I hated driving, but loved the idea of doing something special with my father.

What I hadn't yet told my father was that our family had recently decided to pursue a life-long dream to move to Europe, anywhere in Europe. My husband quit his job as the vice president of a small oil company; I advised my partners that I would be leaving the law firm that we had built together for more than 15 years; and we took our youngest child out of high school. We had no idea what country or city we would call home, we had no jobs in Europe, and we had no friends there. By sheer luck, my husband Barry landed a job with an American oil company that had offices in Paris. He didn't even have to ask me, he knew that in terms of dreams of Europe, Paris trumped all. So in 2010, we moved to the "City of Lights" for three years.

When it was my father's turn to visit, he had a familiar epiphany: "Why don't I come for two weeks and we can spend the second week doing a road trip through France?"

Over the next several months, my father and I exchanged e-mails as he mapped out his idea of what this trip would look like. When I got the final version, it had us driving 1,500 km in five days . Over Skype, we negotiated the plans and plotted a path from Paris through the Loire Valley, over to Brittany, along the Emerald Coast, and then back up to Normandy, finally returning to Paris.

My father Gary, a professional photographer who taught at Ryerson University for 25 years, captured our trip with hundreds of images. It was long and tiring but magnificent and memorable. My time in France, and especially this trip, changed my mind about driving. When I look back, it is these spectacular road trips that I remember most and long to repeat. Perhaps that road trip from Calgary to California may still be in the offing. Who knows?


In the second week of this trip, we loaded ourselves and my two dogs into the car and took off. We travelled south on the A10 four hours to Tours, the capital of Indre-et-Loire. We arrived in the late afternoon and walked down Rue Colbert, past the beautiful and ornate St. Gatien Cathedral. It's construction was started around 1170 but not completed until 1547, as such its architecture spans the Romanesque, flamboyant Gothic and Renaissance styles. Despite its mixed pedigree, the Cathedral has a beautiful cohesive appearance, especially when lit against the night sky. Near the Cathedral, in the garden of the Musée des Beaux-Arts, we stood in awe of a giant Lebanon Cedar tree planted by Napoleon. And along Rue Colbert, at number 39141, a plaque recorded that this had been the location of the manufacturer who created the armor for Joan of Arc in 1429.

Many tourists are visiting France this summer and fall to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. During the war, Tours became a garrison for 25,000 American soldiers who arrived there in 1917. They established factories for the manufacture of textiles, an army post office and a hospital at Augustins. It was also home to three America Air Force Squadrons. Tours paid its respects to its American soldiers with the building of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Loire, which was opened in July 1918. The Bridge was severely bombed during the Second World War for strategic purposes, but was rebuilt in 1978.

Chateau Azay-le-Rideaufor The Globe and Mail Gary Shennette  


The next morning we took the short drive to Azay-le-Rideau to visit the Chateau which my father had loved but I had never seen. The town was magical. If Hollywood envisioned a French chateau town, it would by Azay-le-Rideau. Built between 1518 and 1527 on an island in the the Indre River, it is a spectacular example of early French Renaissance architecture.

Beyond the Chateau lies Azay-le-Rideau, which is almost as picturesque as the Chateau. We stopped beside a park leading to the Chateau and walked across the foot bridges and photographed the river with the rowboats tied up against the buildings, on the river bank. It was truly like a living, breathing painting by Monet.

We drove along the D751, to the Gratien and Meyer Winery outside the picturesque chateau town of Saumur. The chateau of Gratien and Meyer, sitting atop a towering limestone cliff, sells its crements at a fraction of the price of champagne. The vineyard was established in 1864 by Alfred Gratien, of the famous Champagne House. It is now owned by the German company, Henkell. Its sparkling wine, Crement, is made in the same way as the famous Champagne but is created from the red and white grape varieties of the Loire. The winery caves have been dug directly into the porous stone below the Chateau and house the crement bottles in this naturally cool environment.

Hotel outside of Angersfor The Globe and Mail Gary Shennette  


Our next stop was Angers, a place which became my second home in France. Angers is 300 km southwest of Paris at the meeting point of the Mayenne, the Sarthe and the Loire rivers. A vibrant and thriving mix of culture and commerce, it is home to universities and museums. It showcases the versatility of French architects in converting and repurposing unused churches, abbeys and other crumbling ancient French buildings. On one of our daily walks, my language teacher, Emmanuelle, took me to the Gallerie David d'Angers, a stunning art space set inside the crumbling walls of a ruined Abbey and protected overhead by a glass roof. Angers is home of the original botanical gardens and boasts the Gardens du Mail, with its extraordinary fountain and carousel.

Poutine shop St. Malofor The Globe and Mail Gary Shennette

The next morning. we continued on to St. Malo, a walled port city in Brittany in the northwestern part of France, on the English Channel. It is characterized by a colourful history of pirating. Its history is also connected to that of Canada. Jacque Cartier, the discoverer of Canada, lived in, and sailed from St. Malo. There is the 15th-century Manior de Limoelou in St. Malo, which houses a museum dedicated to Cartier. The ancient walled city is beautiful with its cobblestone streets, beautiful granite buildings and impressive homes of wealthy ship owners called "Malouinieres". The most spectacular part of St. Malo is its beaches. Heading along the beach from the walled city is a coastal path originally created for use by tax collectors in their war against smuggling. The paths allow walkers to follow the coast line and the beaches. We were delighted to find a poutinerie run by Canadians from Quebec. Across from the old town are two small islands, one of which houses the tomb of the writer and politician, Chateaubriand. Every four years, the Transat Quebec-St. Malo sailing race is held. This race for ocean yachts begins in Quebec City and ends 2,897 nautical miles later in St. Malo. The next race will be held in July 2016.

Deb & Dogs Hotel Port Jacquet for The Globe and Mail Gary Shennette  


We backtracked along the Emerald Coast to St. Cast-le-Guildo on the northern coast of Brittany. We checked into the Hotel Port Jacquet, which perched on top of the cliff with a view of the vast beach, from one angle, and the new marina from the other. The hotel recommended La Mariniere for dinner, and we walked down the pathway weaving through the houses on the cliff, to the beach. We were so close to the water that again, I had to have mussels and fries for dinner. They were fresh-caught and the meal was approximately 10€ per person plus wine. It began to rain, so we had another glass of wine to wait it out – but the rain was unrelenting. I asked the restaurant owner if he would call a taxi to take us back to the hotel. He returned to tell us that "the taxi" was unavailable. However, when he heard that I was going to walk up to get the car for my father, he pulled out the keys to his own car and asked the waitress to drive us back to our hotel.

Harbour Honfleurfor The Globe and MailGary Shennette  


The next day we made an early start on the long trip to Honfleur in Normandy. We made only one stop along the way, at Villedieu-les-Poeles to visit the ateliers (workshops) for the manufacture of copper pots. My father and I share a love of cooking and an admiration for French copper cookery. In February, 2013, while living in Paris, I had the chance to see and hear the magnificent new bells of Notre Dame de Paris. Of the nine bells, eight were manufactured in Villedieu-les-Poeles. We arrived in Honfleur in time to catch the vibrant Saturday market which sells everything from raincoats to wicker baskets to food. Honfleur is a beautifully preserved, ancient port on the southern bank of the estuary of the Seine, across from Le Havre. Anyone visiting will experience a sense of déjà vu, for its picturesque port homes and streets will be familiar scenes from museums, calendars or Christmas cards painted by Boudin, Monet and Jongkind of the Honfleur school, which significantly influenced the Impressionist Movement. La Ferme Saint Simeon was the home of the artists in Honfluer, which Boudin described as "the most ravishing spot in the world". Honfluer also has a history linked with Canada. It was from there that Jean Denis departed for Newfoundland Island at the mouth of St. Lawrence and where Samuel De Champlain's expedition left for Quebec City.


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