There were two vans filled with 14 intrepid travelers from around the world. The first one of us to spot an exceptional view as we traveled in France, through Brittany, shouted “Beauty on the right!” There was “Beauty on the left,” of course. Our heads swiveled as we attempted to take in the views throughout our travels from one place to another. These four words became a constant refrain we each called out as we were so moved.
The seed for taking this pilgrimage to visit sacred sights in France was unknowingly planted a number of years ago when I read a book entitled, Secrets in the Fields: The Science and Mysticism of Crop Circles by Freddie Silva. It was fascinating and scholarly and I loved it! Little could I have imagined I would someday be traveling with the author whose work I so admired.
In 2012, I was talking with a childhood friend and mentioned reading the crop circle book. As synchronicity would have it, she had heard Freddy Silva speak in person and suggested I sign up on his website to receive information. Two years later, an email came inviting 12 people to join him on a tour of sacred sights in France in spring, 2015. We would walk amid, around and within standing stones, holy wells and Gothic Cathedrals. It was perfect timing and Tom and I were ready!
We arrived in Paris May 25 for a lovely two-day holiday prior to meeting our fellow travelers in Chartres. Arriving by train in Chartres, we took the 12-minute uphill walk with our luggage to Hotellerie St. Yves. Built on the site of an ancient monastery, this simple hotel in a 17th-century building is complete with carved archways and exposed beams.
That evening was a meet and greet with wine, homemade breads and tapenade. Sitting in a circle we met our beautiful, gentle guide, Marianne, who would also be leading us in optional yoga sessions every morning before breakfast. We then met Freddy Silva. I found his energetic presence larger than I anticipated. He exudes great warmth, mastery and passion.
Of the 12 people in our group, half of us were from the Midwest! Amazing! Other fellow travelers were from Oregon, Australia, and British Columbia. As we went around the circle introducing ourselves, it became apparent we would be a coherent and bonded group! It was an impressive beginning! And that energy of camaraderie, kindred spirits, and personal connection with sacred space continued to infuse our entire journey.
Our hotellerie was a 3-minute walk from the 13th-century Chartres Cathedral, providing easy opportunity to meander there numerous times over the next several days and become familiar with the Cathedral, both inside and out. Chartres Cathedral marks the high point of French Gothic art. The vast nave, in pure ogival style, the porches adorned with fine sculptures from the middle of the 12th century, and the magnificent 12th- and 13th-century stained-glass windows combine to make it a masterpiece. The Chartres labyrinth was closed for construction, but we were able to spend our mornings, after yoga and breakfast, walking the hidden labyrinth behind our Hotellerie.
We dined leisurely in outdoor cafes and wandered in and out of little shops around Chartres; my favorite was a large candy store, filled with macaroons, glaced fruits, sugar-jellied candies and Metchnikoff, delicious pieces of chocolate made with a mixture of praline-noisette, chocolate, and butter and encased in a thin layer of Swiss meringue. In the evenings we sat outside watching the dazzling light show projected on the Cathedral walls as music played.
Our next destination was Giverny, located on the right bank of the River Seine. It was our entry to the Neolithic Age, or the New Stone Age, beginning roughly about 10,200 BC and ending between 4,500 and 2,000 BC. Traditionally considered the last part of the Stone Age, the Neolithic commenced with the beginning of farming, which produced the “Neolithic Revolution“. It ended when metal tools became widespread, giving rise to the Copper Age or Bronze Age; or, in some geographical regions, in the Iron Age. Of course, that’s not what I was thinking, as I leisurely strolled through Monet’s home and gardens. Rather, I was thinking, “I’m walking inside a painting!”
From there, we traveled to our lovely Hotel Roche Torin, from where we would begin our journey to Mont St. Michel. Our hotel provided an amazing view of this Gothic-style Benedictine abbey, built between the 11th and 16th centuries and dedicated to the archangel St. Michael. Perched on a rocky islet in the midst of vast sandbanks, it is exposed to powerful tides between Normandy and Brittany.
Many in our group were dedicated to taking the 5-mile, almost two-hour, barefoot pilgrimage to Mont St. Michel, while dodging quicksand and the fastest-rising tides in Europe. At some points, there’s almost a 50-foot difference between the very highest and lowest tides. At low tide, the water’s edge recedes by nine miles or so from the coast. Unfortunately, because of my hip pain, I was forced to join several other of my travel companions and take the short version – a van across the causeway.
Visiting the Benedictine abbey and cloisters atop the mount has always been the main goal for pilgrims and tourists alike. We leisurely climbed the steep winding steps through the village streets lined with busy shops, restaurants, little passages, alleys and hidden gardens to get to the abbey. The walk along the walls provides splendid views of the Bay and the twice-daily tides. It was an extraordinary experience and I understood why approximately 3.2 million visitors a year make Mont St. Michel France’s most popular site outside Paris. It is ‘improbably strange and beautiful’, as French author Guy de Maupassant wrote.
We stopped for lunch in the medieval town of Vitre; with its quaintness and fairytale castle, there was, indeed, beauty to the right and to the left!
For me, one of the most powerful sites was our next stop, the La Roche-aux-Fées, which means The Fairies’ Rock; its name comes from a legend claiming the stones were placed by fairies. Roche-aux-Fees is a Neolithic passage grave, or dolmen, thought to date from between 3000 and 2500 BC. This tomb is one the most famous and largest Neolithic dolmens in Brittany, It consists of more than forty stones, forming a corridor four times longer than wide. The heaviest weighs about 45 tons – imagine fairy magic placing those stones! Its northwest-southeast axis, places the entrance in alignment with sunrise at the winter solstice. It was a formidable and magical place!
We arrived late that afternoon at Talvern, an exquisite nineteenth century farmhouse that was to serve as our B&B for the next several nights, launching a three-day immersion in stones. We were engrossed in the two-mile long huge standing stone avenues of Carnac, a commune beside the Gulf of Morbihan on the south coast of Brittany in northwestern France. Carnac is renowned for being the site of one of the most extensive (10,000) Neolithic standing stones, known as menhirs, in the world.
We took a morning boat ride across the Golfe de Morbihan, a natural harbor in the south of Brittany, to view the half-submerged stone circles off the island of Er Lannic and enter the carved passage mound on the island of Gavrinis, The area around the gulf features an extraordinary range of megalithic monuments. There are passage dolmens, stepped pyramids with underground dolmen chambers, stone circles, and giant menhirs, among others. The passage grave of Gavrinis, on a small island in the Gulf, is one of the most important such sites in Europe. Some of the ruins have been dated to at least 3300 BC — 200 years older than England‘s Stonehenge. All sacred! All breathtaking!
We had entered the land of the great megaliths. Megalithism, a worldwide phenomenon consists in using large bocks of stones to build cultural structures. Megalithism is one of the main characteristics of Western Europe Stone Age. In the 19th century, it was believed that these rough-hewn stones, set up by man, dated from the days of the Celts. Modern archeology has shown they were erected by Stone Age people living between 4500 and 2000 B.C. These people were concerned mainly with farming and animal husbandry. They lived in communities that were already well organized, sufficiently so, in fact to be able to collaborate on major building projects. Barrows, Cairns, dolmens and menhirs bear witness to the art and architecture of these very ancient civilizations.
I stood beside, walked around and, sometimes, when so moved, hugged the single tall, hand-erected, prehistoric standing stones called menhirs. They are either isolated or part of a whole. It is theorized that these menhirs can serve a variety of functions: as a mark to symbolize or sacralize the borders of a territory; to represent a grave stone commemorating a past event and helping to keep its memory alive or to denote an “axis mundi,” connecting heaven and earth. A single menhir may also serve as a monument, designating a particular place as sacred. When menhirs are found in a row, they can indicate a direction; and in a circle, they represent the limits of a sacred area in opposition to the pagan surroundings.
We climbed inside dolmens, prehistoric megalithic tombs consisting of a capstone supported by two or more upright stones, most having originally been covered with earth or smaller stones to form a barrow. We meditated, toned and, in our own timing, became one with each ancient site, absorbing the still and primordial energy.
Toward the end of our journey, we visited the Chapel of our Lady of Bequerel, an ancient worship place, which lent itself to the water healing properties for sore mouth from a fountain under the altar; it was a place of purification for pilgrims.
And then we were off to the medieval island of Saint-Cado, a former sardine port, to tour the Chapel of the Knights Templar.
Our farewell dinner at Talvern was festive, as we prepared to return to Paris and, from there, resume our everyday lives. Two weeks before, 12 people came together to embark on a sacred journey; each came in anticipation of experiencing an intimate relationship with sacred spaces. We all agreed that expectation was met, and, while we might never see one another again, we would never forget the divineness and the beauty we shared.
“What do sacred sites do for us? And to us? For decades I’ve researched countless megalithic sites around the world. It soon became apparent that temples and standing stones speak. The spirit of place is aware of your presence and purpose at sacred sites. It scans your energy field. Should your PIN match, you engage in an intimate conversation, and your relationship with sacred space begins. – Freddy Silva