Friday, August 21, 2009

Destination: Saint Pierre et Miquelon (part one)

In my last post I related how it was that St Pierre and Miquelon was a travel destination I had thought about for a very long time (see post of 17-August-09.) I had often tried planning a visit to this little bit of France in North America, but the trip had not happened for one reason or another. Last year however we had enough frequent flyer miles to obtain a free flight there. I also found a travel agent in St John’s, Newfoundland, who put together the travel package that we liked for a very interesting price. It included a car with unlimited mileage, the trip to St Pierre and Miquelon with accommodation there and a week roaming around Newfoundland staying at small inns along the way.

Postcard - photo by Jean-Luc Drake

We flew from Atlanta to St John’s with a stop in Toronto. A car was waiting for us and we drove to the hotel downtown St John’s. It was dark and we got lost but finally arrived at Delta Hotel St John’s. Next morning we left on our way to Fortune on the Burin Peninsula, the embarkation town for the ferry going to St Pierre. As soon as we left St John’s we felt that we were far away from civilization with hardly any vehicles on the TransCanada highway. This was raw wilderness - full of large boulders, lakes, low balsam and aspen trees, a couple of curious moose along the road, more green meadows and no houses. Grandiose landscape surrounded us. (Click on the pictures to enlarge them.)

We stopped one night at a Bed and Breakfast in little Marystown where the hostess was from Liverpool, England. The next day after lunch in yet another little town we arrived in Fortune at the ferry dock. This was 21-August 2008, exactly a year ago today. We were a bit early and had to wait for a couple hours on the windy wharf before we could embark on the Atlantic Jet, a hydrofoil which makes the trip to St Pierre in an hour.

The sea was rough but when we arrived it did look like somewhere in France. The gendarmes (policemen) were there with their flat-top képis and the French flag, bien sûr. A minivan was waiting to take us to our hotel which was not far but up a very steep hill. We then walked back down the hill to the main area, called Place du Général de Gaulle who came to St Pierre in 1967 and made a speech in this square. I did not take a picture of this square but here is a stamp showing “la Place.”

Across the square is the Alsatian style post office with its early 20th century praying monk style roof. Upstairs is the stamp collecting area which is called “philatélie” in France.

Stamps started being made in St Pierre et Miquelon in 1885 as a means to add extra surcharge on French stamps. In 1909 they started their own stamps with the picture of a fisherman. (see below.)

First mention of the islands was from the Portuguese in 1520. In 1536 Jacques Cartier claimed the archipelago in the name of the King of France. Settlements of Europeans in St Pierre et Miquelon dates from the 16th century and are some of the oldest in North America. A large segment of the people is from the Basques regions in Spain and France, the rest from Normandy and Brittany . We were there at the beginning of the yearly Basque festival where there is folk dancing, pelote Basque (paleta game) contests, games of force with continuous entertainment and food available. It was a beautiful day and we certainly did not believe we were in North America. Below is the fronton Basque which is the high wall used in playing the Basque game pelote and a postcard of the Basque festival.

St Pierre et Miquelon islands are part of the French Territorial Collectivity. The islands are 4500 kms from Paris (approx 2800 miles) and 26 kms (16 miles) from the coast of Newfoundland , and have 2 mains islands, St Pierre, which has about 6700 inhabitants and then Miquelon , which can be reached by boat (1 hr) with 700 inhabitants. Other islands are Langlade (with summer residents, but no running water or electricity) and 4 more little islands. Many French government employees work there and get quite an additional pay for being so far away – so there are a lots of them, and they work less hours. They are on temporary assignment and count for about 1/3 of the inhabitants. English is spoken more – in hotels and restaurants and shops, than in Quebec . The accent is either like standard French or close to the Norman accent for the native St-Pierrais and not as pronounced as in Quebec. St Pierre is the smaller island at the bottom of this postcard.

Just listening to all the French being spoken made me feel at home as well as seeing the bistros, cafes, bars, little restaurants, great smelling bakeries, impeccable politeness of the shop keepers and the Gallic joie de vivre. The charming harbor, the brightly colored houses with narrow streets radiating uphill are an invitation to stroll. But watch out - you cannot bring your car on the ferry, but the local French drivers are there in their Peugeot and Renault speeding in the little streets.

Pictures of the Cannons established in the 19th century as a precautionary measure during the Crimean War, and the Pointe aux Canons automated lighthouse.

One thing is the same as in France – only one church or cathedral to serve the whole town. Indeed Saint-Pierre Cathedral, built in the style of Basque churches, sits in the middle of town. The 100 years old stain glass windows were a gift of Général de Gaulle and unveiled during his 1967 visit. There is one mass on Sunday and we peeked in to see how many people were attending. Since there were so few I could count them – 51 worshippers (including some tourists). This is typical of a French town of 6000 or 7000 people and reaffirmed that I was not in the US or Canada.

Something peculiar to St Pierre though are the front doors, called “tambours” which protrude into the street and provide a place to brush snow from your clothes and shoes in winter.

We did think (for just an instant) that we might like to see all these colorful doors in winter, but after looking at some of the pictures of St Pierre in the snow our southern blood started to coagulate.

Pictures courtesy Jean-Luc Drake

Our tour package included a little tour of St Pierre and it took us on top of a hill where I took some panoramic pictures. (Don't forget to click on pictures to enlarge them.)

We could see the ghost village of the Ile aux Marins (Fishermen Island) across the bay and decided to go there and visit it next (to be continued.)


DJan said...

What a beautiful place! And I am pleased to learn that somewhere outside of France there is another place that you might feel at home (in the summer, that is).

I learn so much from your posts, and I am glad that they don't go away. Now if someone asks me if I know about St Pierre, I can say yes, let me show you!

Friko said...

You do take the most wonderful trips! No wonder you call yourself Vagabonde.

One church per town or village in France, do you have no protestants? Or maybe the churches are not all catholic?

Baino said...

Looks gorgeous. I've often wanted to see Newfoundland and St Lawrence sound which was mapped by James Cook who discovered Australia! Until then, I'm enjoying travelling vicariously through you. Cheers :)

""°o.O Nancy O.o°"" said...

*** Bonjour Vagabonde ! ***

Quel plaisir de venir sur ton blog ! On voyage sans même bouger de notre bureau ! :-)
Tu nous fais découvrir St Pierre et Miquelon ce coin de France peu connu de l'Atlantique nord, merci beaucoup Vagabonde !

*** GROS BISOUS en direct d'un autre continent ! et BON WEEK END ! ***

blog :

claude said...

Nice trip, Vagabonde !
We watched one year ago, on the french TV a report about St-Pierre et Miquelon. That was very interesting. You make a good description of that place and you photos and pictures are great. Thank you for sharing with us.

Elaine said...

What a nice trip. It really looks like a beautiful place. I liked the tambours. Here a lot of houses have an arctic entrywqy, which is similar. The interesting thing about the tambours is that they are all basically the same except all different colors. I assume that photo is a postcard. Did they just pick out colorful houses or are there a lot of brightly painted houses?

The pictures of winter do look a bit scary. Located where they are they obviously get a lot of wind and when you combine that with snow you get some pretty severe condition. Here we have a lot of snow but very little wind, so we don't often get snowdrifts. Our climate is very dry and there they have a lot of moistue in the air, which causes the snow do do strange things. I think you're right to not want to be there in the wintertime, nevermind your southern blood!

Fennie said...

It is so interesting, isn't it, the way ideas float around in the ether. I mentioned St Pierre et Miquelon in a blog I wrote (not Corner Cupboard) in July when in the context of the moon landings I was talking about the New York-Paris air race and Lindbergh and the unfortunate disappearance of L'Oiseau Blanc that is now thought to have come down near these islands. People are searching for wreckage even as we speak.


for more information from those looking for the wreckage.

Shammickite said...

Hello Vagabonde: I have just cone back from a vacation in Newfoundland, I am posting a few blog posts to show some of my pictures. I love Newfoundland, it reminds me of the coast of England where I was born. I have visted NF many times yet I have never been to St Pierre et Miquelon, but I think that if I go to St Johns again next year, I'll book a trip to the islands. My son and his wife went about 4 years ago and loved the boat trip and staying there overnight....
Great pictures and I'm sure that finding out that there are islands so close to the shores of canada, and yet owned by France and populated by French people is quite a surprise to many readers of your blog!

Marguerite said...

What a dream vacation come true! St. Pierre is so picturesque and you have captured it beautifully with your incredible photos! Now I have a good idea of the place where my ancestors took refuge, so many years ago. I would love to go there, but not in the winter! Merci for sharing this wonderful post!

Darlene said...

My cleaning lady just left and she was thrilled to see your pictures. She is a French woman who married an American GI after WWII. She didn't know about the French territory and said she would have to go there.

I hope she can, because it would be like a bit of home.

Jean said...

Comme la mer est l'herbe verte !
Je suis surpris par la vie de ces couleurs dans un lieu que dans mon imagination je voyais froid, un peu comme le Groeland ...
De bien belles images !

TorAa said...

I read this post with great enthusiasme. Very well written and covered with facts and illustrations many bloggers can learn from. Even a Norwegian, like me.

Funny you mentioned de Gaulles visit in 1967. When he was there and in Quebeck, I had a summer-job in Paris (Societe General). In the bank the day after his fameuse: "Vivre Quebeck libre", all my collegues shooked their heads and said: Maintenant, il (de Gaulle) est vraiment vieux / Now, he is really old.

Kenza said...

Bonjour Vagabonde
Je viens te remercier pour tous les adorables commentaires que tu as pris le temps de m’écrire pendant ces deux semaines ! Comme tu dois t’en douter, je rentrais tard à l’hôtel et mon temps de connexion était souvent limité, c'est pourquoi je ne pouvais pas répondre…
Je suis heureuse de te compter parmi mes fidèles lecteurs, je mets ton blog dans ma liste " les amis du thé au jasmin".
Très amicalement, Kenza

Karen said...

Another wonderful post. I almost feel as though I were following you along on your trip and it also makes me want to plan to got there. I'm ashamed to say that I still haven't been to Canada, although it's one of those trips that is in my head and may become a reality in the next year or so. I'm determined to see Quebec and Montreal and a side trip to your islands would be a treat.
Thanks for your post on my blog. I agree about the French bashing and whenever I hear any of it, I am not shy about correcting them. I love France and the people are lovely and spending the month of October there will probably be one of the highlights of my life. said...

The summer of 1975 was a memorable one. A couple friends and I daringly hitchhiked across eastern Canada. The sentimental memories of my travel journal are still with me.

We were prairie kids and still wet behind the ears. None of us had been east of Regina, Saskatchewan! As we thumbed our way towards Manitoba, and through Ontario and Quebec, and then around the Maritime provinces of New Brunswick, P.E.I, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, we were continually awestruck by the diversity of our Canada.

The longest haul was across the vastness of 'the rock', namely Newfoundland. The thought of sitting on the roadside in torrential rain still gives me a chill. But we were determined to get to Fortune Bay to make it across to St. Pierre et Miquelon, France. Luckily, we did not know what was in store for us, as that ferry ride was about to be the greatest feat of all.

Being a prairie girl and having no experience at sea, I stepped reluctantly onto the platform to the small ferry. Had the captain known there would be a storm at sea, we would not have left shore. But this prairie girl was destined to learn the meaning of seasick. Miraculously, as we pulled into the harbor at St. Pierre et Miquelon, the storm calmed and the sun came out from behind the clouds to welcome us.

We stayed several nights at a 'pension' (bed and breakfast) which immersed us in the french culture. The family showed us around, making our experience of this authentic piece of France a memorable one. Walking those narrow European streets, I resolved to one day go to main France and travel Europe. I fulfilled my dream the following year. St. Pierre et Miquelon unleashed the travel bug in me!

Pondside said...

Beautiful, just beautiful!
Those jutting out front doors are typical of many parts of Canada too - they make sense in a winter storm!
This post made me wish to visit these islands the next time I go home to Cape Breton.

Vagabonde said...

Thank you all for visiting my blog and leaving comments – I enjoy reading them very much. Welcome to new visitors, like Original1 – yours must have been an exciting trip. Thanks for sharing.

Merci à toutes et tous mes lecteurs pour vos gentils commentaires qui me font beaucoup plaisir.

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