Chasing Menhirs & Dolmens after the D-Day Beaches
Normandy, France is absolutely beautiful. It's green and rolling and rich in history. In fact, its history predates writing and if you are so inclined, its all around you to seek out. Finding it takes you off the beaten path and exposes you to a whole other part of the French countryside.
The first time we rented a car in Europe, we rented that car in France. We had previously traversed France a couple of times by train before we got brave enough to rent a car. We were inspired by talking to some American tourists while in line to visit the Louvre. After that conversation, we were convinced that we could do it if they were able to do it.
We landed in Paris, rented our car and drove towards the D-Day beaches at Normandy. As we headed out, we had never heard of a menhir or a dolmen nor did we have any idea that they would become an obsession that would occupy several days of our trip.
We stopped in Rouen to shake off the jet lag the first night and were surprised at just how beautiful the ancient city was. As beautiful and ornate as the old buildings were, you could still make out the scars that were surly inflicted upon them during the Second World War. There were also more historic scars of sculls and crossbones carved into old timbered building, a legacy inspired by the plague and an interesting memorial in the square where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
Rouen proved to be an excellent launching point to the D-Day Beaches. There are still a lot of WWII remnants around the five beaches, some of them are obvious while others are tucked away and must be sought out. Being there gives you a sense of and better understanding of the struggle and loss on both sides of the conflict. The best preserved remnants are the concrete bunkers that formed part of the Nazi’s Atlantic Wall. Of the bunkers, some are still intact with guns still in place; others are hollow and burned out while still others are smashed to hell. There are two metre thick reinforced concrete blocks strewn about bomb craters three metres deep. There are also bunkers with steel plates ten centimetres thick that had been pierced by shells. In some cases the incoming shells had ricocheted off and left scars in the metal just like a butter knife removing a sliver of icing from a freshly frosted cake. These remnants are indeed fitting reminders of the chaos of that time.
We left the beaches with a deep sense of reverence for the bravery and sacrifice of the men who had fought there. The many war cemeteries located just inland were another sobering reminder. It was also heartwarming to see how the French appreciate the soldier’s efforts to this day as all of the war cemeteries were perfectly groomed complete with fresh flowers.
While heading west towards Brest we noted an ancient site marker on our CAA road map. Being that it was only a short detour, we decided to check it out.
What we had stumbled upon was our first dolmen. Dolmen’s are ancient tombs. Some of them predate the great pyramids by more than 1000 years. We are all familiar with Stonehenge and though unique, Stonehenge is not alone. There are prehistoric megalith rock structures all over Europe and there just happens to be a concentration of them in Brittany.
Our first dolmen consisted of massive stones that were stacked in parallel rows that held even more massive stones as a roof. It was amazing. Even if it were constructed today, it would still be amazing.
After a closer inspection of our map, we noticed that many more ancient site markers were present. Impressed by our first find, we were inspired to find others over the next few days as we made our way from Brest to Quimper to Carnac to St. Nazaire.
We had a great time touring the countryside. Our quest kept us on the smaller roads. We found menhirs in the forest after a walk and on the plain silhouetted on hilltops. We found dolmens in farmer’s yards and parks and even one of the more interesting ones (because of its size) located in the centre of a small town, right at the crossroads. The granddaddy of them all was the Carnac stone alignments which consist of more than 3000 stones. The area was scattered with alignments, megaliths and dolmens and we took the time to visit most of them.
We look back fondly on our sidetrack to seek the ancient rocks. It’s amazing how spontaneity creates some of our most cherished memories. I think we enjoyed the search as much as we enjoyed the discovery. It would be possible to dedicate a whole trip to finding them all. In fact, you would need to start in Scandinavia and end in the middle east to visit them all. Maybe a trek worth pursuing…
From St. Nazaire we traveled back west though the Loire Valley visiting that area’s many Chateau’s and vineyards.
It was the car rental that made it all possible. It was about stepping out of our comfort zone, gaining confidence and going deeper than ever before.