France 2010 – Part 1 – Normandy
Saturday 19th June
As always on Sparshott holidays, no time is wasted and we have an early start, leaving the house well before 6am to get to Dover. Standing on the outside deck as we dock in Calais, it’s growing warmer already and I know we’ve left the changeable English weather well behind. The drive down to Normandy is uneventful but it’s a pleasure to meet our hosts again after four years.
After a quick change of clothes, time to head out and reacquaint ourselves with the towns on the Normandy coast, heading into Courseulles-sur-Mer for dinner. We also find some local cider and strawberry-flavoured jaffa cakes (!) in the local supermarket – perfect for an after-dinner snack in the beautiful garden. S laughs at me for wanting an early night – and then falls asleep in his clothes.
Sunday 20th June
Fathers’ Day – and not only in the UK. The French make a much bigger thing of it however and there are celebrations happening everywhere (I don’t find this as difficult as I was expecting however – but I must remember to call Mum later). We catch up properly with Mylene over a breakfast of creamy warm brioche and a whole loaf of local dark bread for S.
We briefly revisit Bayeux and St Mere Eglise, looking for a replica WWII gun for S, though the closest we can come is a very convincing plastic one. We explore Carentan’s Fetes des Peres celebrations, held in the harbour, with some unusual and amusing water-based activities.
But – we can’t wait any longer – off to Omaha Beach to get some sand between our toes. It feels fantastic to feel the sun on our backs and a warm breeze in our hair. S finds an almost complete cuttle-fish ball. We try – and fail – to work out why there are several quite fresh onions just lying randomly on the sand.
I do remember to call Mum later, from the restaurant in Bayeux, over galettes. Which actually literally means wafer – but is also applied to savoury pancakes made with dark (as opposed to white) flour.
France 2010 – Part 2 – Loire/Tours
Monday 21st June
Now we’re properly relaxed and in holiday mood, it’s time for our first foray into regions previously unexplored – we drive to our next destination, Céré-la-Ronde, near Tours. I actually get to drive! Which is not as alarming as I was expecting. Everyone else on the road, after all, is also driving on the ‘wrong’ side – and it’s actually very difficult to take the wrong direction on the roundabout. Since S is therefore navigating, he gets to take me on a magical mystery tour, looking for our home for the next five nights. Well, I asked to stay in a chateau… and what a chateau! This is like a luxury hotel, complete with its own menagerie of llamas, wild boar, sheep, horses…
I’ve been really looking forward to some real French cooking and we head out to Montrichard with mouths watering. Nothing looks inviting so it’s off to Chenonceaux, where we know there are several very nice hotel/restaurants. Unfortunately, we’re not quite in tune yet with continental meal-times and none of them are yet prepared to serve non-residents (even with a drink!) Eventually, stomachs complaining, we end up in St Aignan at a very pretty hotel on the banks of the river. The waiters are prompt and quietly spoken in the quiet restaurant – well it isn’t quite yet high season after all – but we remain thwarted by the most bizarre meal, nothing like the traditional French cuisine I’d so been looking forward to! At least I’m avoiding putting on any weight so far… except through alcohol.
Tuesday 22nd June
The weather had grown steadily warmer the further south we ventured yesterday and this morning dawns hot and sunny. S is delighted to find several swifts’ nests, complete with young, in the roof space above our room.
Villandry is our first stop today, hailed in the guide book as the chateau with the best gardens, as this is the only chateau whose gardens are kept in the traditional manner: combining flowers and vegetables in a functional but also aesthetic layout. The chateau was bought by the great-grandfather of the present owner in 1906 and subsequently restored to its original design.
We head into Tours after lunch and end up the main square, watching the second half of what turns out to be France’s last world cup match. The locals are rather half-hearted in their support, after all the press reports of fallings-out with the coach, mutiny by the players and the exit of Anelka for his dissent with team management. Of all the French people we have discussed it with, no-one has a good word to say of Domineck – a view also shared by the French sixth-form student who strikes up a conversation with us.
Wednesday 23rd June
Wednesday morning we take refuge from the increasing heat in the Troglodyte Caves near Vouvray. With 750 metres’ worth of tunnels and at a maximum temperature of 13 degrees, this is a very atmospheric and slightly eerie experience. It’s also informative, the caves having been formed by the mining of tofu (pronounced too-fuh) which was used to build the chateaux (there are a lot of similar caves in the area). After the mining, the caves were inhabited and I am amused to find, even down here, a Rue de la Rèpublique.
We reach the winery in Vouvray to take the tour slightly later than anticipated, having been delayed just outside Tours by a flat tyre (luckily, S being the eternal boy scout, we have a full-size spare). It takes a while to get the most out of the wine tour, the guide speaking perfect English but with a very thick Loire accent. This must be why, even though I’ve been trying to use my French as far as possible, that everyone keeps replying to us in English… ! So S now begins to tease me about my lack of French accent (though Isabelle tells me it’s actually very good. It might be; it’s just not from the Loire, obviously).
After stopping to buy a bottle of their 2009 (I later learn, back in England, that 2009 is expected to be one of the best years) we make for Amboise. Over more Leffe Ruby (yum) we are entertained by a very enthusiastic American, cheering on his team against Algeria. We end the day back at the chateau, in the garden watching the sun go down, finishing the jaffa cakes and bottle of red we brought with us from Normandy.
Thursday 24th June
We have a long drive this morning as we plan to visit Orleans. The city was much damaged during the war and unfortunately much of its architecture is therefore post-war. We drive on to Chartres, another place I particularly wanted to visit, the cathedral being a draw for pilgrims through the ages – architectural as well as religious: Chartres was the first to use flying buttresses as a support for a light and airy central nave structure and therefore would have felt very different to congregations used to the old style of church architecture. Along with the 176 stained-glass windows it would have been – and still is – a magnificent sight. Currently in the process of being cleaned, if you imagine the newly-built cathedral in fresh creamy stone with the sun flooding through the intricate windows – it must have been fantastic.
On then to Blois for dinner, another Loire town that has grown up around a tightly packed medieval centre of narrow cobbled streets. Another World Cup match to watch over dinner – this time Japan v. Denmark – but without any Japanese or Danes to make it more interesting.
Friday 25th June
This morning, S is being a little more cagey than usual about our first destination. We pull through a set of rather imposing gates, with no discernable change in the general layout of the road or landscape and S announces ‘this whole area is still owned by the castle that it’s named for’. This can only be Chambord, who’s chateau is described rather aptly as having a roof resembling a crowded chessboard.
The castle itself is huge and takes the greater part of the day to explore – and I swear the part open to the public still only scratches the surface of what’s actually here. Most impressive are the double-helix staircases (two staircases in one stairwell, what warped and feverishly genius mind conceived that?) and the roof space, which can also be explored in all its Alice in Wonderland glory.
Today is the hottest so far and the lake in front of the castle looks very inviting. I guess a €20/half an hour boat hire is a little on the pricey side, but what the hell? We’re on holiday – and how fabulous to have the little lake to ourselves. It means we also get a perspective of Chambord that we would not otherwise have seen.
Partly in a bid to beat the heat, we head upwards next, to Sancerre, perched almost precariously as it is at the top of a hill. A pretty little town, very easy to explore and, from the keep at the top of the hill, with fabulous views of the surrounding countryside. Which is absolutely dominated by vines, as far as the eye can see, in every direction (predictably enough, I guess).
The charm of Sancerre notwithstanding, we decide to press on to Bourges for dinner, which turns out to be a good choice. Hindsight being the wonderful gift it is, I am glad now that I enjoyed the duck as much as I did… but more of this, later.
France 2010 – Part 3 – Loire/Nantes
Saturday 26th June
I wake this morning with a sore throat that has been steadily worsening over the last day or two, but which I am not going to be able to ignore for much longer. Despite this, we have an easy drive down to the coast south-west of Nantes to the popular French holiday destination of Les Sables d’Olonne. On the Atlantic coast but warm and almost Mediterranean in atmosphere, this is yet largely unexplored by British holidaymakers and we are starting to rely more and more on my recent French lessons.
We almost miss the signs to our second chateau of the holiday, this one much more in the feel of a stately home in its decoration and with a very inviting-looking pool. I desperately try to keep up with the stream of sight-seeing recommendations from our hostess – easily the most enthusiastic tourist guide for the region we could ever meet. (I’m pretty sure ‘un peu’ means ‘a little’ and not ‘I’m completely fluent’). S sees me gazing longingly at the pool and I agree to a deal: if we can find me a swimming cozzy I’m happy with, I’ll allow him to teach me to swim. That’s one I feel I can comfortably leave to fate to decide
As it turns out, the very first shop we venture into, despite the language barrier, comes up trumps. €105 later and I have a cozzy that doesn’t do the miraculous and hide what I consider to be the deficiencies in my figure – but manages at least not to accentuate them. And I’m actually looking forward to getting into the pool tomorrow…
My French lessons pay off when I am able to perfectly request directions to the nearest chemist, and understand the answer! Unfortunately, I am unable to properly appreciate the tuna steak I eat for dinner, or the morsel of perch that S transfers to my plate from his. I do manage to do rather more justice to the Lemon Mystic pression we are served while listening to the live band afterwards however. And this despite the fact that we are forced into an early night as I now have alternating hot flushes and shivering, accompanied by a now raging sore throat…
Sunday 27th June
I sleep like the dead for about 5 hours and then spend some time in restless agony. Breakfast is quite lavish but I can manage only one slice of the softest brioche. S takes pity on me and announces a quiet day. We had understood enough from our hostess yesterday to gather that Noirmoutier is accessible by two roads, except at high tide – so take the high road. I’m feeling much better than I did last night, though my throat is still very sore, and we keep our eyes open for chemists – predictably enough for a Sunday however, they remain steadfastly closed.
We return to the chateau in the early afternoon to find it, and the pool, gloriously deserted. I am pleasantly surprised to find that this swimming lark is not as difficult as I thought and we have a very enjoyable hour or so splashing around. Maybe it’s the heat that has affected my throat, as it feels much better when I get out.
We have a repeat of the mission of our first night in Tours, trying to find somewhere to eat, before we give in and return to Les Sables and a restaurant recommended by our hostess (who we have affectionately come to refer to as Madame). It does indeed live up to her recommendation; though pizza probably isn’t the wisest choice for me, it is delicious.
Monday 28th June
I manage to impress Madame so much at breakfast with my grasp of French, asking for an English-speaking doctor, that she finally relents and peppers her conversation with some English. This is every bit as bizarre as it sounds, but at least the conversation is a little more interactive now. She very kindly calls the doctor and manages to set up an appointment for 1.30pm that afternoon. (‘she doesn’t mean in an hour and a half, does she?’ asks S anxiously. ‘Nope, one hour thirty was a literal translation. Trust me’.)
Having several hours to fill before the appointed time, we raid Madame’s leaflet carousel and take ourselves over to a local botanic garden. So sure are we by now of where we are however that we miss a turn on the way back and turn up late for the doctor. He remains unruffled however, being a very nice man, and diagnoses me with a throat infection, also correctly surmising that I have had a slight fever at some point in the last few days. We leave clutching a prescription for some cough syrup, some hefty soluble paracetemol (I have to break these into four to get them to dissolve) and some Amoxycillin.
Mightily relieved at the thought of imminent recovery, we drive to Nantes. We spend some time exploring the town, admiring the shops (trying to keep away from the shoes), avoiding several random singing pedestrians. We fail miserably to find the tourist tram (though we do find the stop for it), or a guitar shop. We finally wend our way to La Cigale, an art deco restaurant in the corner of one of the main squares, which is constantly busy. We stop for one beer before the waiters start laying the tables for the evening dinner service. And by the time we’ve read the menu, the place is full once more. We gain yet more brownie points with Madame when we tell her next morning where we ate.
Tuesday 29th June
It’s time for one of the highlights of the trip for S – a visit to the tank museum at Saumur. He’s long wanted to see a Panzer ‘in the flesh’ and today’s the day! We wander into pretty Saumur afterwards for another beer, before heading off to Angers. They have a beautifully preserved tapestry based on the Book of Revelation, housed in the moated castle.
The entrance to the medieval town can be seen from the castle battlements and, intrigued, we head over there next. Unlike most of the other towns we’ve explored, the old streets of Angers have been left unchanged with no commerciality, though the buildings are lived in. Walking through the medieval streets feels like stepping across the threshold of a time machine: the buildings are sympathetically looked after, not in the least run down but also no overt modernisation to the facades and it’s very quiet with no traffic. On a Tuesday afternoon there was absolutely no-one else around and it felt quite atmospheric, in a refreshing sort of way. It was a pity to leave and return to the modern city.
We drive all the way back to Les Sables again for dinner and I try once more to fit my knowledge of French around a crustacean-based menu. No salmon on offer this time! – so it’s prawns and pork for me. If our assumptions are correct, there appear to be several terms for prawn. I’m beginning to think it’s an Eskimo/snow kinda thing going on…
Wednesday 30th June
For our last day in the Loire, we decide to take it easy again. We have been trying without success to find a shirt for S (to a specific design) and I have a hankering for a shorter dress. As luck would have it, all the shops are deep into sale season and we manage to grab a bargain on a lovely floaty number for me, and S spots the perfect necklace to go with it. We also take a field trip flying tour of the market and find that there are indeed, several terms for ‘prawn’. Quelle surprise….
The day is one of the hottest so far and we take advantage of another quiet afternoon in the chateau to head back to the pool. I’m feeling quite confident in my own abilities this time and even manage to swim a couple of lengths, as opposed to widths – though I hasten to add, not in one go.
The restaurants at Les Sables being arranged along both sides of the water, we decide to hit the opposite side tonight and this time, it’s my choice entirely. I decide to take a different tack with the menu tonight and choose something that I know isn’t shellfish-based but is otherwise untranslatable by me. When it arrives, I find it’s not meat either. Apart from knowing what it’s not however, I’m no closer to deciding what it is. Discussing it with Isabelle on my return, she is also none the wiser. From what I can remember of the spelling, she confirms that this is likely to mean something like ‘unspecified sea creature’ (no, before you oh-so-humourously suggest it, the word wasn’t ‘poisson’) and therefore could have been anything. I wonder if it could possibly have been squid, if exceptionally well-cooked given that it required almost no chewing.
France 2010 – Part 4 – Brittany
Thursday 1st July
Today, we’re leaving the Loire behind and heading north again. The temperature is still gloriously hot however as we pull into our next B&B. Which looks suspiciously deserted… Several phone calls, an espionage meeting with a taxi driver and a quick time-filling drive to the beach (should’ve walked) later, we leave our bags in our room and head off to Cancale.
After a stroll around the town and the market, and having bought some Leffe for later, we head down to the harbour. I have beef carpaccio, a little slither of heaven! We end the day on the patio of the B&B, drinking Leffe and watching the sun go down.
Friday 2nd July
We wake to a slightly more blustery day than we’ve been used to recently, but just shrug our shoulders and head off to St Malo. Walking round the battlements of the walled town I get struck by photography-itis and can’t seem to stop taking pictures of the abandoned fort in the harbour.
St Malo is charming and intriguing, but very expensive within the walls. Great fun to explore, but apart from more beer and food, we’re not tempted to put our hands in our pockets. Entertainment over dinner consists of watching various drivers make a sharp turn to exit the town through the narrow gate in the wall. Tip: don’t stand on the path outside the public loos or you’ll spend more than a penny.
Dinner over early by French standards, we lose the car back at the B&B and walk down to the beach. It’s hard to believe that from the middle of the village it’s five minutes to the sea… Fantastic. We watch another sunset in the brasserie (La Perle Noire) at the top of the cliff, over several more beers. And a bottle or two of wine. And a couple of whiskies.
Saturday 3rd July
This morning, we’re off to Mont St Michel, somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit. We take the scenic coast road. This almost feels like home, the landscape is so flat. Which means you get an amazing view of St Michel as you approach. This is one of those places in the world which looks amazing in photos – but absolutely blows you away when you see it for real. I was intrigued by St Malo yesterday, enclosed in its walls, and enthralled by Angers’ perfectly preserved medieval town, but this is really something else. We decide not to take the tour of the abbey, in favour of exploring the streets and I can’t help muttering to myself every five minutes: people live here! This is unbelievable! The first street up from the gatehouse is quite commercialised but that still somehow doesn’t detract from the enchantment of the place. Every corner you turn brings you something else to see – a tiny crammed cemetery, the front or side view of someone’s old home or a view over the endless flat landscape.
I’d love to spend a weekend in one of the hotels within the town walls, and maybe visit the abbey late in the afternoon, when the crowds are much fewer. As it is, even though we’re not in peak holiday season, there is nowhere left to sit. We perch ourselves on the edge of the fountain just inside the gated entrance and watch the endless crowd roll by.
On the way ‘home’, we take a detour through Dinard, which is very pretty but again, quite pricey. The day has grown steadily hotter from its unpromising start and I’m looking forward to trying out the sea, however. We grab the absolute minimum that we’ll need from our room and walk down to the beach. The water is cold but not freezing and we spend the next hour like absolute children; omig I haven’t done this since I was about 12! S thinks it’s hilarious when a huge incoming wave picks me up, turns me through 360 degrees and then deposits me back on the beach. I know it’s pointless to try and either stand up or resist so just let the water take me.
When we get back to our room and I try to peel off my cozzy in the bathroom, half the beach deposits itself in the shower tray. It is absolutely everywhere! Not pretty or comfortable…
Having spent several hours drinking ourselves silly there the night before, we particularly want to eat at La Perle Noire tonight. We are fortunate to find the last available table as they are holding a private party – several people get turned away or have to eat outside. The waitress seems surprised when we order a second bottle of wine but this is our last night and we’re enjoying ourselves far too much to make it an early one.
The very last thing I do before we trudge back to the B&B is take a series of shots of the sunset…
Sunday 4th July
What can I say about our last day? Our ferry isn’t until early evening and we’ve got all day to get there – but it will take the better part of the day to drive to Calais from Brittany. We stop briefly at Cap Gris Nez to admire the view and finish off a sandwich before turning our noses towards Good ‘Ole Blighty once more.
Now: where are we going next year… ?