Running Race, and a Book on Africa




One of the blow-up arches ready to welcome the runners back

Another serendipitous find in Vannes. Two actually: a special running race and a photographic book exhibition.

At the time we were there in June, Vannes was hosting a very special Trail Running event: the L’ultra marin, billed as a race around one of the most beautiful bays in the world.

Vannes sits at the head of the Gulf of Morbihan and so is perfectly situated to be the center of the activities linked with this race. Runners run all the way, or part of the way, around the bay/gulf—definitely an endurance race if they go the whole way round. It’s a distance of 177 km (110 miles), along mostly coastal trails from one cove to the next, passing small villages, fields, salt flats, ancient menhirs. Only 20% is on roads. The trail is open and monitored day and night and participants can turn it into a major sporting challenge.


Vannes marina


redtruckThe L’ultra marin activities and information are focused on one side of the Vannes marina, near the Vannes Visitors and Information Center, and there was a definite buzz, a feeling of anticipation and excitement. We strolled all around the marina one morning, looking at stalls with runners’ needs (clothes, special energy foods and drinks etc), and marveling at the energy. That was the first time that we saw a bright red La Tinitaine biscuit truck, not realizing that those biscuits are very popular in Brittany. The following week, near Auray, the town where we stayed next, we actually found the La Trinitaine factory and outlet shop and went in to visit and sample (see upcoming post).



One of the photos in the book

Earlier in our Vannes visit, on the other side of the marina we’d found the homage to Charlie Hebdo’s Georges Wolinski, which touched us deeply (see an earlier post). Now, at Le Kiosk, next to the Vannes Visitors and Information Center, a compelling poster stopped us in our tracks. It was of an African man, head wrapped up in a scarf and eyes blocked by sunglasses, with “Afrique(s)” [Africa(s)] written below him. We are originally from Africa, so this was like a magnet for us: we had to see what it was.

Well, it was an exhibition of about 40 of the photographs by French photographer Pascal Maitre from his book “Incroyable Africa” (Unbelievable Africa, or Amazing Africa). It’s a wonderful collection of stunning photos, telling a fascinating story (multiple stories really). A story of 13 countries in Africa, told by Maitre, who visited the continent many times. They were often places that were difficult to access, but places he could get to because he knew the terrain and the people. He must really have got the trust of those people to be able to take some of those photos we saw—some very intimate, others very graphic, or very poignant. Some are about nature, some about economic and working life, others about beliefs, many about conflicts and their consequences (and those African countries have had their fair share of war and civil conflicts), some about night life. All telling about life as he saw it in Africa.


Book cover


Rod peruses the book

Pascal Maitre was born in 1955 in Buzançais, France, and studied psychology before beginning a career in photojournalism in 1979. He’s worked for many magazines and the international press and has received many honors and awards. Although he’s worked around the world, most of his work was in Africa, a continent for which he had/has a special affection. He’s now based in Paris but still travels to Africa frequently.

The exhibition in the Kiosk was free (No photos of the photographs), and there were copies of the book to look at too. It ran from June 8-September 4, 2016, so we are very happy that we found it—a bonus to find something of Africa in Brittany.

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A New Favorite Restaurant




The black stone Cathedral is the backdrop

L’Oustagou in Clermont-Ferrand

1 rue du Terrail (just off Place de la Victoire, overlooking the back of the Cathedral)

This might be our new favorite place in Clermont-Ferrand and one of our best in France. It’s billed as a traditional Auvergne restaurant and the food is excellent, as was the service.

It’s in a great location in the middle of the historic city center, but it’s quieter than other restaurants around Place de la Victoire and has a special view of the wonderful black-stone cathedral.



The terrace is just on the other side of the road from the restaurant


Luscious geraniums in planters

windowIt’s a pretty place, grey stone outlining red window frames, a bright red store front, and many flower planters, both lining the outside terrace and on the building’s windows.

We sat outside on the shaded terrace (a huge umbrella canopy and leafy trees), as it was very hot that day. Most other people did the same, so the wait staff were scurrying ni and out. The terrace is on the other side of the road from the restaurant entrance, and the seating area is separated from the small street by planters overflowing with red geraniums. We sat next to one and it was delightful—shady, green and pretty.


Great food


The salad auvergnate is heavy on cheese


An exciting photo—-see the geraniums reflected in the wine bottle?

The restaurant has all kinds of specials, written on a blackboard, and two menus but we just opted to share our two platters, which was more than enough. Some of the regional offerings are truffade, aligot, frogs legs, Auvergnate stew, and stuffed cabbage.

We had 2 kirs, a bottle of Auvergne wine, a large charcuterie and cheese plate, and a large salade auvergnate, all served with very nice crusty artisanal bread. The total of 58 euros is quite reasonable for a great meal in France.

It’s open from 12-2pm for lunch and 7-11pm for dinner.

Can’t wait to get back!



On the red store front, a fun picture of famous Auvergne folk

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Found: Murals and Signs in Brittany


Brittany has a long tradition of special holidays and celebrations, often involving dancing and very distinctive costumes. Here’s a mural found in the Quimper train station—it looks like a happy occasion.


The Bretons also have a long history involving the sea. This mural, found in the old walled town (Ville Close) in Concarneau, is a bit chipped and damaged, but you can still see the story it tells.


These two signs were in Quimperle, but we saw them in multiple places. They are great, as they are so descriptive, plus they are also written in Breton language. You can see that it’s very different to the French. They are both about picking up after yourself, one with cigarette butts and the other with dog poop. In both, the person is thinking “Someone will pick it up!”  Then underneath it reads, “And you. What are you doing?”



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Vannes: A Beautiful Town in Brittany


Gardens in the former moat and part of the old walls


A lace decoration at the start of the marina—lace is famous in Brittany


Marina, looking towards Place Gambetta

Vannes: A Picturesque, Walled Medieval Town in Brittany

France has no shortage of beautiful small towns and villages—in fact, it’s really quite hard to find an ordinary or ugly one. Often, the main local road goes through the middle of a village, with shops and houses lining either side. And you’ll always find a large church or two, and the main town square, where you’re almost guaranteed to find a café/bistro/bar/restaurant—-buy a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and linger at an outside table, watching local life go by.

So then, what makes the old walled city of Vannes in Brittany stand out? We’re speaking of the old city (Vieux Vannes) here, not the crazy urban sprawl that has grown up around it.



The Prison Gate

First is its location. Vannes is at the head of the Gulf of Morbihan, a very large area in the north west of France with a deeply indented coastline and many islands. On the south side of the old city a canalized port, which provides access to the Gulf, leads right up to the lively Place Gambetta and Porte St-Vincent, the main entrance to the walled city today. The harbor and marina are always bustling and it’s fun to sit at a café terrace in Place Gambetta and watch the activity. When we were there, a special road race was underway, an ultra-marathon around the Gulf de Morbihan, so there were many stalls and tents set up.


Place Gabetta and St Vincent Gate

The walled city is roughly oval in shape, with other gates (portes) on the north and east sides. On the north is Porte Prison, which used to be the main entrance to the city. Dating from the 13th and 15th centuries, criminals were imprisoned here.


The old wash-houses on the river


Tour de Connetable in the old walls

Lovely formal gardens, planted in what was the moat below the walls (ramparts) on the east side, offer good views of the impressive walls and of the city’s old wash-houses (lavoirs) next to the gently gurgling Marle River. The wash-houses date from 1820 and were still in use after World War 11. South of the wash-houses, Chateau de l’Hermine, also facing the gardens, was built in the 18th century on the site of the residence of the dukes of Brittany. Parts of the walls are still the original Gallo-Roman walls, but you also see the Tour de Connetable, built in the 16th century, with its pointed roof and mullioned windows. Here and there it’s possible to climb up onto the ramparts.


One of the lovely squares


One of the streets leading to the Cathedral

It’s the delightful tangle of cobbled alleyways within the walls, however, that makes Vannes so special. The walled city is a medieval jumble of houses, narrow lanes, and a magnificent church with a large semi-circular frieze above the entrance. The honeycomb of narrow streets is lined with well-restored timber-framed buildings, many now housing small specialty shops and cafes or bistrots. Wandering around is a pleasure and you really do feel as though you are in a different era. The layout has nothing really straight—cobbled streets go up and down the gentle hill and come in at angles in various squares. It’s mostly pedestrianized and the whole is easily walkable.

The main squares are Place Henri-IV, which has the oldest half-timbered houses, and Place des LIces, also lined with timber-framed houses. Many of the houses around here have unusual decorations, like animal carvings or pillars. One of the most famous inn signs is that of “Vannes et sa Femme” (Vannes and his Wife), the couple who ran the tavern.


Vannes and his Wife

churchfront-copyA magnet for visitors and locals is Cathedral St-Pierre, built in the Flamboyant-Gothic style but with neo-Gothic additions. Notable is the doorway to the Cathedral, in the Flamboyant Gothic style and richly decorated, a sort of medieval comic strip carved in stone. A rotunda chapel contains the tomb of St Vincent-Ferrier, a Spanish monk from Valencia, famous for his preaching about reconciliation and peace as he traveled all over Spain and France. He arrived in Brittany in 1418 and was given a small house in Place Valencia near the Cathedral. He died in Vannes in 1419 at age 69 and the city has embraced him as their own. We had lunch at a creperie called Creperie Saint Vincent one day.


hydrangeasVannes is also beautiful for its small gardens dotted around in unexpected corners of the city (besides the formal flower beds in the former moat). Many of the plants are ones that don’t like frost, suggesting that winters cannot be too cold: for example, large magnolias in the rampart gardens. Vannes (and all over Brittany) delights with huge, multi-colored hydrangea bushes.

Just outside the walls on the NW side is the Hotel de Ville, which was very close to our hotel, the Hotel Escale Oceania, perfectly placed for getting to the old city on foot. We arrived in Vannes by train and really enjoyed wandering around on foot for a couple of days.

The history of the city is also interesting. Vannes dates back to Roman times, when it was


A whimsical carved wooden post

called Darioritum. In the 5th century it became a diocese. The great Breton warrior Nominoë set out from here at the beginning of the 9th century to unify Brittany. He defeated the Franks and extended the boundaries of Brittany. In the 14th century Vannes became the capital of Brittany and in 1532 the Breton Etats (Council) assembled to ratify the Act of Union with France. Today it’s a university town, administrative center and the capital of the Morbihan.







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Vannes: Tribute to Georges Wolinski



The pretty setting for the tribute along one side of Vannes marina

Vannes, June 2016:

Hommage a Georges Wolinski (Tribute to Georges Wolinski) (1934-2015),

Journalist, Author, Press designer, assassinated 7 January, 2015 at age 80.

At 11:30am that day, two gunmen with assault rifles and other weapons forced their way into the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris—a French satirical weekly newspaper—and 12 people were killed and 11 others injured. In the two following days there were several related attacks, which killed another 5 and wounded 11.


Boards with copies of Wolinski’s work set out along the marina

boardOn January 11, 2015 about 2 million people, including more than 40 world leaders met in Paris for a rally of national unity. The phrase “Je suis Charlie” became a common slogan of support. On our visits to Paris and France in 2015 we saw many instances of Je suis Charlie painted on walls, postboxes, metro entrances etc.

Wolinski was born in 1934 in Tunis to Jewish parents. He began cartooning in his 20s, contributed to several magazines and co-founded a couple of satirical magazines. He won various prizes, including the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angouleme (2005) and Legion of Honour (2005).

A special exposition on Wolinski was put on by Paris Match and le Salon du Livre en Bretagne (the Book Salon of Brittany) in Vannes June 10-11-12, 2016. We were lucky as the exposition continued for a couple more weeks and we caught it later in June. It was set out along one side of the Vannes marina, a very pretty setting next to the water and the boats moored in the marina, and a small park on the other side.


cartoonA series of boards with blown-up copies of some of his work—images, stories, cartoons—were ranged along the marina. Many people paused to look and read and I’m happy we had a chance to see this and to think again about that awful attack.

One poignant information board quotes words of his wife Maryse Wolinski. “Cherie, je vais a Charlie.” (I took the liberty of translating her words into English).

Cherie, I’m going to Charlie.”

Those were the last words Georges said to me the morning of January 7. Three hours later the count was 12 dead. Among them, Georges, hit by four Kalachnikov bullets. Forty-seven years of life together smashed. I swung between insomnia and nightmares, shock and denial, confinement and anger, obsessed with this question: how could a scene of war have been produced, in France, in the location of a satirical paper? Drawing strength from grief, I searched to understand, through the story of that day January 7, 2015 and those that followed, where/how to find the faults. From this quest I came out annihilated. Henceforth I am the one who goes.”


His wife’s words

I’m glad we saw the small exhibit/tribute. We all, as humanity, must not forget.





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Laennec and the Stethoscope

This is for my daughter, who is a nurse.


The towering Gothic Cathedral of Saint Corentin, Quimper


Part of Corentin Square

The stethoscope is probably the most recognisable of all pieces of medical equipment, and even young children identify it as representing a doctor or a nurse.

So, when we were in Quimper, Brittany, and we read there’s a statue to honor the inventor of the stethoscope, we determined to find the statue.

It’s actually very easy to find, as it’s on one of the city’s main squares: Corentin Square. The square is dominated by the huge Gothic Cathedral of Saint Corentin, and is ringed by shops and cafes. To one side is a typical French carrousel, and the statue is close to this.


Laennec statue


Sign near the statue about Laennec

René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec was a French physician who studied at the Ecole de Médecine de Paris. He was born in Quimper in February 1781and died in August 1826. He invented the stethoscope in 1816 while working at the Necker hospital, and pioneered its use in diagnosing various chest conditions.

In 1869, thanks to a collection by a group of French doctors, a statue to the memory of Laennec was erected on the Corentin Square.

Laennec first studied medicine under his physician uncle in Nantes until he was called to serve as a medical cadet in the French Revolution. He returned to his studies in Paris in 1801 and was noted as an excellent student. He began working in the Necker Hospital when the French monarchy was reestablished in 1815.

How did the invention come about? The story goes that in 1816 shyness led Laennec to invent the stethoscope. He was examining a young woman complaining of heart problems. At that time, doctors generally listened to patients’ heartbeats by placing an ear against the patient’s chest, but the conservative Laennec was uncomfortable with this. So, he rolled a piece of paper into a tube and pressed it to her chest, allowing him to hear the sounds of her heart.



Made of wood and brass, this is one of the original Laennec stethoscopes, c1820. Now in Science Museum, London

After this paper experiment, Laennec built several hollow wooden instruments attached to a single microphone at one end and an earpiece at the other, and named the instrument the stethoscope. The word comes from the Greek words ‘stethos‘ for chest, and ‘scopos‘ for examination.

The instrument was soon adopted across France and Europe, before spreading to the US. Laennec died in 1826 of tuberculosis, aged only 45, but was aware of the importance of his discovery, calling it “the greatest legacy of my life.”

The evolution of the stethoscope

The stethoscope we know today doesn’t look like that of Laennec, as it was monaural. In 1851, Irish physician Arthur Leared invented a binaural stethoscope, made of a durable plastic. Doctor Nathan Marsh of Cincinnati patented, also in 1851, the first commercially available instrument, made of India rubber and wood. However, it was too fragile to be widely used.

The next year, New York-based doctor George Cammann adapted the design for wider commercial production, using ivory earpieces connected to a metal tube held together by a hinge. Known as Cammann’s Stethoscope, variations of the design have been in use ever since. Cammann never patented his design, as he believed it should be freely available to all doctors.


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Honoring Breton Seamen and Their Families


Monument aux Bigoudens


Notre Dame des Carmes


Pretty little river port

As I mentioned before, Brittany has an extremely long, indented coastline and much of their history and economy has been tied to the sea—and still is in certain places, especially with fishing and oyster farms.

Pont l’Abbé is a pretty small town with a tiny river port leading to the coast, not far from Concarneau. The town was founded in the 14th century by a monk from Loctudy (the fishing port at the mouth of the river estuary). He built the first bridge across the river estuary, hence the name.

L’eglise Notre Dame des Carmes, built from 1383-1420 in the Gothic style, dominates one of the squares near the river. It has many old statues and a pretty rose window over the high altar.

Besides visiting the church and the old bridge, the main reason to come to Pont l’Abbé is to look for the monument on the river walk that is a tribute to the wives and families of fishermen and to the world of the sea. We found it under a row of trees, surrounded by a colorful flower-bed.


closeup2Called The Monument aux Bigoudens (Delwenn ar Bigoudenned, in Breton), it is a masterpiece in granite by Francois Bazin, inaugurated in 1931.

Dressed in the traditional Bigouden fashion from the early 1900s, these four women and a young girl of five years are praying for and thinking of their husbands, fathers and sons at sea. Their contemplative postures show feelings of suppressed and dignified suffering as many fishermen are lost at sea, often in terrible storms. On either side of the women of the statue is a cast bronze bas-relief showing famous Breton legends. It’s worthwhile spending a bit of time trying to figure these out.


Bronze bas-relief on one side

Bigouden is an area of Brittany south west of Quimper, the name coming from the


Bronze bas-relief the other side

distinctive head-dress worn by the local women of the area. The name then came to designate the women of the area and, later, all its inhabitants.

Driving to Pont l’Abbé makes a very pleasant short day trip from either Quimper or Concarneau (we were based in Concarneau).

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