French Lettres! A-Z d’une vacance en France

30 09 2011

Back from the land ‘du pain, du vin et du bouRsin’ and re-launching into the blogosphere.

As promised I’m marking my return with a few ‘French Lettres’, an A-Z list actually, d’une vacance en France:     

A:            Azay- le -Rideau

Our first port of call –‘Camping Les Sabots’, end of season, all very tranquil and no problem claiming the same idyllic riverside pitch as last year, cinquante quatre.  Is this a sign we are growing old and becoming creatures of habit? Six nights for E71.40 strikes me as something of a bargain!

The Renaissance château at Azay, tucked away down a leafy driveway, beautifully reflected in the River Indre, is the most captivating and photogenic in the entire Loire region – still  my favourite by a country mile, and believe me I’ve seen a few!     

By chance we hit upon an autumn/harvest festival weekend with Polish folk dancers, Portuguese drummers, a procession of antique tractor drawn floats, and the remnants of Napoleon’s army!

It was all capped by a most sensational firework display, accompanied by classical music, which we watched from our tent.             

B:            Breizh

Bretagne to the French, Brittany to you and me, and Breizh to the natives who very much consider themselves Breton 1st, French 2nd.

This distinctive north-west corner of France, with its rugged coastline and sandy beaches, a land of Celtic legend, mysterious megaliths, lace coiffe, wooden clogs, crêpes and cidre, was where we spent the second part of our holiday. 

The drapeau Breton or banniel Breiz, called Gwen-ha-du (white and black), is found in the most interesting of places, in a region where ancient tradition and a more modern ‘Breizhilienne’ lifestyle live cheek by cheek!   

C:            Carnac – Les Alignments

Our final three nights under canvas were spent at ‘Camping Des Menhirs’ , literally a stone’s throw  from Carnac Plage – but not one of those ancient granite rocks from which it takes its name! 

Nearby there are thousands, dating back as far as 4000 BC, arranged in mysterious lines, or Alignments. Their original purpose remains obscure. There was probably some religious significance or they may have been part of some giant astronomical calendar.

Local tradition claims that the reason they stand in such perfectly straight lines is because they are a Roman Legion turned to stone.

Clearly something to do with those rebellious Gallic warriors Asterix and Obelix and a magic potion brewed by the venerable village druid Getafix! (See ‘O’ below)


D:            ‘Du pain, du vin, et du bourSin…’

An early morning stroll to the local boulangerie/patisserie and the smell of warm freshly baked baguettes is undoubtedly one of the great delights of holidaying en France.

I’ve pretty much tried all the options, croissants, pain au chocolat, chaussons du pommes, but always come back to pain aux raisins – a clear winner in my book.

As the sun sinks slowly in the west, (or as the light rapidly fades and rising damp sets in, which was more often the case on this occasion) the day wouldn’t be complete without une bouteille du vin – a chilled Muscadet Sur Lie or a warming red Chinon depending on weather conditions!

When it comes to fromage, to be honest, I’m not a bourSin fan, but then that’s the power of advertising slogans for you. Although I do love the ‘du tracteur’ commercial with the couple picnicking in corn field oblivious to the approaching combine harvester.   

For me you have to go a long way to beat Gruyère de Comté and the flavoursome blue Roquefort

E:            Encore une bière…

If you only ever learn one French phrase – this should be it. A life saver!

Also the name of a popular song by French punk rock band Les Sales Majestés which you can download as a ringtone for your mobile. You would have to be desperate, but when it comes to music the French are (see ‘X’ below)

F:            Francois Premier

Francois Premier (1494-1547) reigned from 1515 until his death and is generally considered to be France’s first Renaissance monarch.

He also loaned his name to our favourite watering hole, in Azay-le-Rideau, where they serve ‘1664’ à la pression in 50cl glasses that have been nicely chilled in a cooler.   

Amongst his noteworthy cultural achievements Francois built a ‘hunting lodge’ in the Forêt de Boulogne that, due to his extravagance, turned out to be the Loire’s largest residence, the Château de Chambord, set in an estate of over 5000 hectares.

The 400 room edifice has 282 fireplaces, 77 staircases and 800 salamanders (Francois’ enigmatic emblem).

The innovative double-helix staircase was reputedly designed by Francois’ mate, Renaissance man himself, Leonardo da Vinci. It enables the person going up and the person going down to see each other without ever meeting. All great fun, as was rambling over the rooftops. 

G:           Mam’ Goudig

Mam’ Goudigis a Breton merchandising goldmine. A marvellous, fiercely patriotic and domineering animated character who seemingly spends much of her time recklessly driving a 2CV, scuba diving, surfboarding and hitting her husband over the head with a rolling pin. Click on the link for a taste of Breton humour! 

H:           Hergés Adventures of Tintin.

The bande dessinée (drawn or comic strip) genre of book is huge in France and Belgium, for children and adults alike. 

The globe-trotting adventures of French speaking, Belgian, boy reporter Tintin, his faithful fox terrier Snowy, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, Thomson and Thompson et al are still much loved.

Hergé (1907-1983), born in Brussels, created Tintin in 1929 and subsequently became one of the leading comic strip artists in the world.

Following the 9th and 10th of the 22 book series, ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ and ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’, Captain Haddock inherits Marlinspike Hall. From this point on the captain, professor and Tintin are based there and it serves as the starting point for their subsequent adventures.

Marlinspike (Moulinstart en France)although supposedly located in Belgian Walloon Brabant was inspired by the classical Loire château at Cheverny.

Tucked away in a converted stable block is an excellent interactive exhibition, Les secrets de Moulinstart which allows visitors to participate in the Tintin adventures which occurred, so to speak, on the premises. I loved it!

A new Stephen Spielberg movie of ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ is due to be launched at the end of October. Click on the link for an action packed trailer. I wonder what Hergé would make of this ‘manimated’ version of Tintin – I think he might approve?

I:             Ile de Rey

The Ile de Rey, supposedly “one of the jewels of the Atlantic Coast, in the department of Charente-Maritime”, looked great on the website and was on our provisional itinerary.

We had earmarked a campsite on the mainland close to the bridge which now connects with the island, a small seaside village called L’Houmeau – what the ‘best campsites’ book, borrowed from a friend, suggested was 200m from the beach, and close to shops, bars and a restaurant.    

When we arrived it was grey and a persistent drizzle was setting in. The campsite was open but the village was well and truly closed – until  May 2012 by the look of it. The tiny beach of black sand, wedged in next to the oyster beds offered distant views of an industrial skyline. There was an air of neglect pervading the whole area.

I fancied it would have made an ideal location for one of those after the nuclear fall-out movies, so we cut our losses and headed for La Rochelle – to over -night in a hotel!  

Top tip: don’t always believe what you read in guide books. Then again perhaps we just caught it on a bad day – but I don’t think so! 

  J:            Jambon

Jambon is an essential ingredient in my favourite French fast food snack le croque monsieur, essentially a hot ham and cheese toastie topped with an egg and Béchamel sauce, served in any café or bar worth its salt. Crown it with a fried egg and it is transformed into a croque-madame. Serve with a freshly dressed salad and frites and you’re in heaven.

Click on the link for Delia’s anglicised version – ‘close but it’s not the one’.  You can only get the real deal en France and, out of interest, the best I’ve ever tasted was at a bar called Le Rocombole in vieux Lyon.

K:            Kronenbourg 1664 – Le Goût À La Française

Founded in 1664, as the title suggests, by the Hatt Brewery in Strasbourg which is now owned by Carlsberg, so it’s probably the 2nd best lager in the world! Available in cans or à la pression everywhere, the best-selling premium in France is enjoyed by tout le monde*

French fashion designer Christian Lacroix has recently teamed up with Kronenbourg to produce a series of limited edition cans, glasses and coasters.

*Amazingly there’s actually a place called  ‘Toutlemonde’ within the Pays de la Loire region.

L:             La Rochelle – Aquarium

Not to be missed! Aquarium La Rochelle, next to the Vieux Port is celebrating its 10th anniversaire. From the moment you step into what appears to be a submarine, actually a lift, and descend to the depths of the aquarium proper, the adventure begins.

After stepping out into a transparent tunnel, surrounded by jellyfish, thereafter the marine life come thick and fast. Spread over three floors 70 different aquaria containing 3 million litres of salt water, are home to 12,000 sea creatures from 5 different habitats – Atlantic, Mediterranean, Oceanic, Caribbean and Indian Pacific.   

Stars of the show are undoubtedly the sharks and turtles. There is a clear environmental education message running throughout – La Mer N’Est Pas Une Poubelle!        

M:          Maigret

There’s been a box set of George Simenon’s Maigret mysteries sitting on the book shelf for a while – so clearly appropriate reading for our vacance en France.

Simenon was a prolific writer and there are an amazing 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories, written between 1931 and 1972.  Well I’ve now read five, anyway,  and very enjoyable they were too.

In my mind’s eye the French detective will always be as played by Rupert Davies in the 1960s, black and white, BBC series. I can still hear the Paris street accordion playing throughout  the atmospheric opening credits, as a match is struck against a wall and its flickering light illuminates the face of Maigret, lighting his pipe.  

Zut alors they don’t make ‘em like that anymore!

N:           ‘Le Normandie’

Travelling aboard a sparsely populated ‘Le Normandie’ on the Brittany Ferries night crossing from Portsmouth to Ouistreham, on the first day of the new school year, was a novelty and a delight, although I did start to feel myself morphing into a junior member of the ‘Saga club’.

There was no queuing at the bar, but I resisted the temptation to become a ‘Saga lout’ and stuck to half of bitter shandy! 

I’m not sure how they make can make ends meet on these low-season crossings – but from now on it’s the only way! 

O:           Obelix et Asterix

Back to bande dessinée with Gosciny and Uderzo’s Gallic dynamic duo – the original French resistance heroes!

“The year is 50 BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by Romans. Well, not entirely… One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders … “

 Where else could it be than en Bretagne?

Asterix is the hero of these adventures, a shrewd and cunning warrior who gains his superhuman strength from the magic potion brewed by the druid Getafix.

But I’ve always preferred his ami in the blue and white striped pantaloons – Obelix. A menhir delivery man by trade, he’s always ready to drop everything to go off on a new adventure with Asterix – provided there’s wild boar to eat and plenty of fighting; BLING, BLANG, BLONG, BLUNG!

I keep promising myself that one of these days I’ll read an entire ‘album’ in French but never seem to manage it. I just ‘read’ the pictures – the art work is great! Click on the link for a taste of the Magic Web Potion

P:            Pedal Power

Cycling is the national pastime in France  and a national obsession.  A passing  peloton , a buzzing blur of colourful lycra-clad cyclists is never far away. 

The Loire valley has a series of popular, well – marked vélo-routes. If your thighs, calves and buttocks can take the strain, which mine can’t, it strikes me as a pleasant option.  

Q:           Quiberon – La Cote Sauvage

The sky was slate grey, the wind  gusting and  rain lashing down as we set off along the Presqu’île de Quiberon to watch the waves crashing in along La Cote Sauvage.

Chris spent most of the time huddled up in the car with ‘1000 years of Annoying the French’  while, I did battle with the elements, trying to capture something of the natural drama.

Windswept and bedraggled, by the time we reached the tip of the peninsula and the old seaside resort of Quiberon, still famed for its sardines, the sun was breaking through and une galette forestiere avec une grande café, as we looked out over an empty expanse of beach, really hit the spot.

R:            Rugby World Cup 2011

The French love their rugby, and being World Cup year the Les Coqs Sportif ware out in force, sporting their  RWC 2011 shirts.

A southern hemisphere tournament makes for anti-social viewing times and it’s hard to get too excited over an 08.30 kick off but I managed to take in a Sunday morning France v Canada game at a bar on Carnac Plage, munching on un pain aux raisins and sipping strong café noir.   

A pleasant enough petit dejeuner surrounded by vocal locals, until I asked if anyone knew how Les Rosbifs had done in their game against Georgia. Allez Les Bleues! 

S:            ‘Sou’ – ‘Chez la Mère 6 Sous’     

This quirky restaurant in the medieval Breton town of Vannes owes its name to an old French coin of little value.

It was great to revisit picturesque Vannes, particularly on a market day, as we know it well from the time when Nicci lived and worked there following her uni course.

‘Chez la Mère 6 Sous’knocks out good food, and I strongly recommend la tarte flambée, but it is the décor and artefacts from grandma’s day that set it apart. There’s even a line of old undergarments pegged out in les toilettes.    

T:            Touraine  

Touraine is a huge wine producing area in the heart of the Loire Valley and the location of the most famous of the region’s châteaux.

It takes its name from the cathedral city of Tours. The French Renaissance  writer Rabelais referred to Touraine as ‘le jardin de France’ and  it still retains that aura of the French cultural myth that is ‘deepest France’.

This was our second successive holiday spent within the rural idyll of verdant river valleys, fertile orchards, rolling vineyards and opulent châteaux – most unusual for us but as my old French teacher (God bless him) used to say, “c’est belle, c’est beau, c’est bien!”  

See Une semaine en Touraine       

U:           ‘Super U’

The highlight for Chris of any French holiday is the obligatory visit or visits to the ‘Super U’ hypermarché. Quote: “I could spend all day in here!”

I have to admit I don’t object to half an hour or so pushing the trolley around the vins et bières section.

It has to be said that the range and quality of the fresh produce in the food section leaves British supermarkets in the shade – even Waitrose!   

V:            VA11 CZP – Va Va Vroom!            

This holiday was a first outing for the Citroën C3 Picasso (VA11 CZP) in its country of origin.

(I have, of course, employed a degree of poetic licence & nicked the Va Va Vroom tag line from auto rivals Renault!)

The C3P is an absolute joy to drive, spacious but compact – ‘creativity cubed’ – excellent fuel consumption and plenty of extras such as mp3 and in car mobile phone compatibility – I’m not on commission really!

Most importantly there was plenty of space for the camping gear and to stock up with wine before returning home. 

Driving in France, even on the toll roads, is a joy compared to England. Obviously it’s a bigger country but generally there is far less traffic and notably less freight being transported by road, while endless rows of red & white cones are a rarity.

It’s probably something to do with maintaining a comprehensive transport infrastructure that includes high speed passenger trains that keep to time, and being prepared to transport goods in a more leisurely fashion by waterway.

W:          Wine Route – Val de Loire

We’ve pretty much knocked off most of this over the last two years but sadly wine tasting and driving don’t mix too well, and I can’t bring myself to spit!

X:            X-Factor – French style!

French popular music is a bit of a joke. The lamentable longevity of Johnny Hallyday says it all. Click the link if you dare! 

If ever a country needed a new series of X-Factor to unearth some  ‘talent’ it is France. It’s somewhat ironic then that the 2011 competition winner was Englishman  – Matthew Raymond-Baker, a 22 year old language student studying in Toulouse, who was  kicked out following  ‘boot camp’ in the UK series!

Y:            Yachts

Our overnight stay in La Rochelle coincided with the 38th Grand Pavois de La Rochelle (the La Rochelle boat show) There were plenty of sleek looking yachts on show for those in the Eurozone with a few hundred thousand to spare. 

It was nice enough to dream, sitting on the quayside, watching the designer  people promenade, as we sipped our Muscadet avec moules marinière. Not quite champagne and caviar but c’est la vie!    

Z:            Z – 10 point Scrabble tile  

The one that I’m usually left holding. Our candle lit ‘Travel Scrabble’ Test  series (we know how to have a good time) ended all square which is probably for the best!

Zizz:       If you’ve got this far well done – you’ll be ready for a zizz right now!       

À Bientôt!




2 responses

1 10 2011

WHEW!! That was a real tour de force!! I don’t need a holiday after enjoying so much detail of yours, and i really did enjoy it, Where next, no school ties for either of you now!! Cheers, G.

20 11 2011
The Adventures of ‘Tintindiana Jones’ « Pipedreams from the Shire

[…] One example of Hergés obsession with detail, and placing his imaginary hero in a real world, is the use of le Château de Cheverny, as a model for Marlingspike Hall, or Moulinsart in the original French version. (See post 30.9.11, ‘French Lettres!  A-Z  d’une Vacance en France’ – Tintin at Cheverny)  […]

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