The year is 1112 and a young adventurous knight named Rivallon le Roux, a member of the family of the Lords of Dinan, feels the call to join fellow Crusaders and make the long trek to Palestine. He leaves his homeland and small town of Dinan, founded in 1000, in the Brittany region of France. In Palestine, in the midst of violent religious strife, he vows that if he is delivered safely home he would pay for the building of a new church, named Saint Sauveur. His prayers were answered and by 1120 he was building the magnificent cathedral, high on the hilltop of Dinan, overlooking the valley and River Rance.
900 years later, I was awake at dawn in the small garden of that same Saint Sauveur, watching the sunrise over the valley and ancient city ramparts, waiting for birds. The sun rises late along the northwestern coast of France in October and there is no possibility of seeing or photographing birds until 8:30AM. I had sporadically been looking for the shy French birds in Paris, Giverny, and Normandy, but this was my first dedicated session for birding since arriving in France.
For resident birders or frequent visitors to Europe, forgive my enthusiasm in seeing many of your common birds for the first time. Even the Carrion Crows and Jackdaws defacing the Gothic spires of Saint Sauveur were photographed. The Wood Pigeons are like feral “pigeons on steroids”, according to my co-traveler. I had three good shots at photographing the Short-toed Treecreeper on the trunk of an ancient tree, but was foiled each time by either low-light or the bad timing of a Frenchman walking his dog. A Winter Wren and both the Eurasian Blue and Great Tits showed up along the garden wall. Black-headed Gulls patrolled the river and Eurasian Blackbirds and loud Magpies flew in and out of the large oaks, probably dating back to the early days of the cathedral. I spent the entire session in that garden.
The morning calm was interrupted by a small group of Brittany students entering the churchyard and carrying clipboards, clearly on assignment. I tried to ignore them but they came right up and started asking me questions in their language. My “Je ne parle pas francais” response just tweaked their interest more. They were excited to learn I was from near Washington DC, USA. It turned out to be a fun time with them practicing their rudimentary English skills and me resurrecting some French from multiple years of training decades ago.
Dinan is one of the few entirely walled towns in Europe. It initially started in the valley along the riverbank, but for security it moved up the hill and grew behind the impressive ramparts. It is just far enough off the tourist mainline to maintain its historic charm with narrow cobbled streets, overhanging half-timbered houses, and many small shops and restaurants. The food has a decided Breton flavor with seafood, galettes, and hard cider on every menu. It is just a short hop to Mount Saint Michel and the seaside port of Saint Malo. We stayed at the Hotel Arvor, about 3 blocks from Saint Sauveur and I give it my highest recommendation. www.hotelarvordinan.com
Rivallon le Roux’s ancient church has evolved since its construction in the 12th century. The initial Romanesque appearance is still visible in the three entrance arches and the south half of the nave. It has a unique Persian influence reflecting the experiences brought back from the Crusades. During the 15th century and Dinan’s golden age, a distinct Gothic expansion was undertaken adding the chapels along the north side and a towering spire and bell tower. During the French Revolution the church became the “Temple of the Supreme Being”, and then was a hayloft, before returning to its pure ecclesiastic function in 1800.
The quiet, slow motion birding in this garden, along these ancient ramparts, in the shadow of the church spire, and in a land where English is a foreign tongue, made for an unforgettable morning.