Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Dieppe Retro Rally. France 2007

It had been a seven hour slog of a drive from windy and warm La Rochelle in the south to windy and cooler Dieppe in the north. But by mid-afternoon we were in our pleasant but now tiring hotel, the Aguado, and in a room that was not our usual one on the town side, but one facing the 20 acre green sward with the sea beyond.
On driving into this seaside town we had noticed several old motor cars parked or on the move. And from our room we could see more vintage cars beneath us. It was the weekend of the hundredth anniversary of the Dieppe Retro Rally. Cars made in the very early 1900s to around 1937 were to give a static display, driven around some of Normandy, and then take part in a concours d’élégance – right outside our window.
About 100 cars were taking part. One looked rather like a bedstead with engine bolted on to the front and, immediately fronting the driver amidships, an enormous radiator. There were the grand and powerful-looking racing Bentleys, the elegance of 1920s saloons, and on to baby Austins. Most were noticeable for the excessive noise emanating from a few large cylinders and the rattle of well-worn machinery. Drivers and passengers sat high and exposed.
The male drivers were inclined to be ruddy faced, well-heeled (obviously), well fed, and flat or Sherlock Holmes capped. Their ladies were well wrapped up, and had an excuse to wear long skirts and fancy hats tied down under the chin. The women sat upright and, being ladylike, and appendages of lesser importance than cars to the men, displayed an air of slight reluctance to be there at all.
We were able to inspect the cars, talk to the owners, admire the engines, the just-polished brasswork, and generally be amazed at how far motoring had progressed in such a short time.
After market day, when the Grand Rue had been crammed with vendors of most edible commodities, the street had been turned over to the old crocks. There we could compare makes and see the changing fashions of carriagework over the initial years of motoring. An enormous Avians Voisin saloon limousine, black and chrome, polished and with squared-off roofwork, epitomised an age where the few car owners could be very grand indeed.
Having once owned one of the original MGs, it was of especial interest to me to see if my actual car was there, but it wasn’t. Nor was there one that quite matched it. And our family car of earlier days, a bull nose Morris, was not there either. This car of ours had a dickey seat, and passengers would have to get out on to the road and add pushing power to get the car up steep hills.
It looked fun to dress as an Edwardian dandy or a Le Mans Bentley racing driver, but I well recall having to leave girl friends in the passenger seat while I had to adjust the engine of my MG, and get covered in oil in the process. And outside our hotel room, the crew of a motorised Edwardian barouche, dressed in their finery, had to disembark while seats were lifted out on to the road as the menfolk found the box of tools and attempted to get the thing going. Starting handles were in use, and more than one car driver needed the help of passers by for a push.
When all the rally contestants had lined up their cars on the pedestrian Grand Rue of yellow bricks on edge, a large white mat was placed under each car to catch any dripping oil. And nearly every one had left their oily mark behind when they had moved off.
Then came the concours d’élégance when all cars, drivers and passengers formed up on the grass to be judged as they passed a temporarily-erected stage on which a very vociferous Frenchman explained about, and commented on, the cars and their owners. After two and a half hours of it, many of the considerable throng of spectators had wandered off.
It had been a great occasion for owners, passengers and drivers. And many a spectator must have felt like having an old car and taking part. But old cars are a constant trouble, not to mention expense. And they leak oil.
We ate well in our favourite restaurants, bought garlic in the Saturday market, stacked up the car with wine from three sources, looked for and found an excellent Normandy cider in 1 ½ litre plastic bottles, and came home after a varied and most enjoyable holiday in our ten year old, small, Toyota 4x4, a car of the modern age that has never lost a beat and shows no sign of ever doing so. And it has never, ever, leaked a drop of oil.

Friday, September 07, 2007

La Rochelle. France 2007

Thanks to a newspaper article and Michelin’s Red Guide, we had an idea in advance of where we might stay in La Rochelle.
The drive north-west to the coast was uneventful. When we reached the outskirts of La Rochelle it was a depressing scene that met our eyes. But, as we entered the district of the old port, the signs that La Rochelle was a most civilised place became quite apparent.
One-way narrow streets and lack of street-side parking places made our search for the Hotel Saint Jean d’Acre a difficult one. But we not only found the hotel, but managed to obtain a room with a spectacular view over the two great medieval towers that once guarded the port’s entrance.
The towers were constructed between 1382 and 1390 and, as part of their defensive armoury, a chain was drawn across the narrow strip of water between them.
One tower flew the French flag, the other a white flag on which was a cross, outlined in blue and, in two of its quarters, in red, a man of war in full sail and a pile of cannonballs. Both flags were flying almost horizontally in the strong breeze – as they continued to do throughout our stay, it being the windy Atlantic (Bay of Biscay) coast.
Beneath our window was the Bistro des Pecheurs restaurant, where we ate superb fruits de mer at a modest price. On the spacious pavé between our hotel and the water wandered crowds of people in the sunshine. “Wander” was the operative word, for everyone, all over town, wandered - at a slow and gentle pace.
On the water in the port and between the two towers, boats of every description went busily about their business. There were tour boats that docked nearby and plied their trade between the inner, old, port to just outside the towers, to an enormous marina of large yachts, and to the islands off the coast, including the fashionable Isle de Ré. There were small fishing boats (though no commercial ones), yachts of every size, with some under sail, speedboats, dinghies, rubber boats, gin palaces and all. The skies were blue, the sun hot, and the strong wind balmy. We found that La Rochelle was a very pleasant place to be in.
Around the crenellated battlements of the towers, tourists held their cameras out at arm’s length to photograph those beneath. The background noise was a hum of conversation and the occasional ship’s hooter. Children climbed around an enormous iron anchor on the cobbled paving to which cyclists locked their machines. The young swung on an old chain, strung between low pillars. It could have been the original chain that was once stretched across to repel invaders as, at low tide, there was no sign of one on the seabed between the towers. The scene was one of holiday pleasure.
Well into and on the quayside of the old port stood a lighthouse, striped in reddy brown. Its bright white light flashed every three seconds (except at dusk when it stopped for a period). And inland still, stood a much taller lighthouse, a green one, the light on which flashed every second. These lighthouses looked quite out of place inland – but not from the sea, where they became guide lights for ships navigating the deep channel.
Very near to our hotel was a most excellent restaurant, called L’aunis. Here we ate very well and in pleasant surroundings, drinking the new season’s red Chinon wine from the Loire, red from the Vendée to the north of us, and Chardonnay from the Isle de Ré just nearby. It is a pleasure in France to try wines that seldom reach England.
Street entertainments abounded. There was the large, gaudily-painted, two-storied carousel (small children high on the upper, inner layer) near to the ornate and rather grand Café de la Paix in the Place Verdun. A pavement artist worked on too large a scale and not very well. A Balkan group, dressed in peasant clothes sang tuneful peasant songs (a male passer by danced a jig to their music, much to the disgust of his family who walked on, pretending to disown him). There were performing dogs, animals that looked bored and unhappy with their lot. A hurdy-gurdy man had a gypsy-looking woman singer with him. A juggler/part conjurer kept a selection of transparent balls in the air, but dropped some. A Mexican-looking trio sang to accordion music in front of those eating at tables outside restaurants. A silver-painted, military-looking human statue broke off his pose to talk to and be photographed with children. The act we liked was a potter who spun the wheel with his foot, turning out candlesticks, cups and saucers, jugs and much else, all to great applause from those who had stopped to watch. He then knocked down his creations to form the original lump of clay from which they had been made. From our room we could hear the applause for his skills continue well into the night. As we turned in around 11 o’clock the scene outside was as animated as it had been all day. But when I looked out at three in the morning there was not a soul to be seen. The pavé was spotless, chairs and tables had been stacked away, awnings and sun umbrellas had been furled, and all the empty bottles from restaurants had been put into large green crates for collection – presumably for recycling. By 8 am there was still no activity or anyone about outside, and there was little movement by 10 am. Activity stopped late in the evening and started late in the morning
Although French menus are fairly predictable, there are always parts that surprise. We ate at the fashionable Chez Fred to eat mixed fish that had been cooked dry and on a very hot surface. The result was delicately cooked fish with crisp, almost burnt edges where the fillets had curled and touched the hotplate.
But Nouvelle Cuisine has spread its net far and wide. A simple and excellent item of food might be surrounded by a sea of sweet sauce, or be displayed on the plate with a few slices of colourful raw vegetable. Often there will be a cold ratatouille mix, placed artistically somewhere on the plate. A sauce of a completely different taste might be dragged around for decoration. Then the entire plate might have some coloured powder sprinkled all over it. One item in Margreet’s mixed salad was offered as duck’s liver. It turned out to be gizzards – and was tender and good to eat. With Margreet not particularly liking offal, I told her later about what she had been eating. Snails that we ate in a restaurant had been cooked in the usual way, with butter, garlic and parsley. But these were better than most. A little acidity had been added – either lemon juice or vinegar.
Beyond a medieval lighthouse, that looked more like a cathedral from an ancient illuminated manuscript, we watched children being taught to sail. They were towed out into the harbour in their little single sail boats to learn the art of seamanship. When beaching their craft back at the sailing school’s hard, they were wet and cold, but very happy about it. No wonder the French are so keen on sailing and excel at ocean racing.
La Rochelle had turned out to be a handsome town, with arcaded pavements where shopkeepers plied their, mostly fashionable, trade. It was a town that had the feel of Paris about it, with its fine shopping, excellent market, grand and mature buildings, and fine restaurants. And more than Paris, there was the port with all the activity that went with it. We liked it so much that we extended our stay before leaving to drive north, in a day, to our home-town in France, Dieppe.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

A Saint Emilion Wedding. France 2007

Map reading in France has its problems. Why, when we were quite clearly on a map-numbered road, should it have another number on its road signs?
It was explained to me that French roads have an EU number, a French national number and a local number. So that explained why I was having difficulty in guiding us around the country and countryside.
Early on a late August morning we left our Trôo cave behind and made our way south to the Bordeaux region.
From our host’s verbal description, we found the Skipwith farmhouse Gite south of Saint-Emilion in Entre-Deux-Mers (Le Cros, route de Sallebruneau, 33760, Frontenac) as, at long last, the weather was beginning to clear.
To be with a half English and half French family with bride-to-be and relations from both sides present was, in its grand scale simplicity, much like a relaxed week end party in England.
We admired the regimented rows of hedge-trimmed vines all around us and as far as the eye could see. We gathered pink greengages for a lunchtime tarte (delicious) and jam making. We drank cool local white wine and ate a light lunch beneath a tent-like sunshade.
After lunch we followed our host’s car through lanes along an impossibly circuitous route to where we were to stay – this time in a large pigsty, beautifully converted and without a trace of its former occupants. It had a shower outside and a separate lavatory that worked by pressing an electric button, whereupon the bowl filled with water, and then, with a downward spinning motion, sucked the contents to its destination with a mighty roar – not unlike those employed in ships.
The owners of our accommodation were a wine merchant, and his wife who was an elegant artist/carpenter, designing and making anything from fencing to wardrobes – mostly from seasoned oak. Her workshops took up a large part of their grand country farmhouse, a building that glowed in the southern sunshine with its yellow stone walls and pink tiled roof.
A generously-filled well supplied water for a swimming pool, set among trees and lawns. The overall theme was rustic/modern in a vineyard setting, and in such silence that one could hear only a morning cockerel, daytime woodpecker and distant chainsaw….and the lavatory. A friendly, mottled housedog patrolled his territory with much barking should anyone pass by who was unknown to him.
After exploring the nearest town, Sauveterre, with its medieval fortifications and gateways, we ate our only indifferent meal in France. We were partly accompanied during this meal by a band, whose members set up their equipment close to the tables before starting songs, but never finishing them.
And so we came to the wedding day – the very reason for our trip to France.
Our hostess at the farmhouse where we lodged, near Mauriac, gave us breakfast of coffee, a loaf straight from the oven, a slab of butter, and home-made jams. Then we changed into our finery and set off to explore Saint-Emilion (too full of tourists), some 50 kilometres away.
Beyond, in Montagne Saint-Emilion, we located the wedding church after enquiring directions from a lovely old peasant – a character straight out of some French Art film. We then found the very grand Château Fombrauge where the reception was to be held. Having noticed a pleasant-looking restaurant next to the church, we ate an excellent lunch there. Our red wine was the astoundingly good Château Maison Neuve 2004.
The service, in the mellow, brick-vaulted church, was pretty well inaudible because we were on seats at the rear among several fractious children.
Then pushing two guests into the back of our car – rather like pressing them down in a jack-in-a-box, we reached the Château, to be given Ayala Champagne, sipped to the music of a Spanish guitarist, and overlooking the panorama of the Château’s vineyards.
Then, after the speeches, punctuated by thunder overhead and a few large raindrops, some 150 of us retired to the marquee attached to the Château for a fine meal of lobster, quail and sweets - all accompanied by Château Tour Grand Faurie 1998 red wine, a white, and a sweet 2003 Château Tillac, Monbazillac.
Inside the Château, and seen through a glass door, rested row upon row of new wood casks in which wine was maturing. The floor of this almost unreal sight was unstained by a drop of the precious liquid.
Being my turn to drive, I was only able to taste the delicious and well-chosen wines. With father of the bride, Charlie Skipwith, a South West France specialist wine merchant, it was expected and confirmed that we should drink the best.
Throughout, the very pretty bride, Georgina, and handsome groom, Simon, made a glowing focus to all events.
A three piece band of jolly fellows provided pleasant evening music, and when, at my request, they played one of their own compositions (“My Heart has a Mind of its Own”), the guests stood to cheer them.
After fireworks, seen from the terrace and launched from the vines (I trust the spent gunpowder did not settle on the grapes still hanging heavy on the vines), we drove back to our lodgings in complete darkness, getting somewhat lost in unmarked lanes around the Saint-Emilion vineyards. It was a 50 km test of eyesight, nerve and endurance as we conducted the car through the circuitous roads of Entre-Deux-Mers. It must have been the Monbazillac on Margreet’s breath that scented the night air so pleasantly as we drove through the foreign night.
Guests returned the following day to Château Fombrauge for cold collation and what remained of the fine wine, which, no longer being the driver, I was able to enjoy to the full,
The wine merchant owner of our lodgings came to drink an aperitif with us as we sat outside our room that evening. We shared wines. His preference was for Château Ducla as his daily wine and Premius (available at Auchan, though we couldn’t find it in Dieppe) as his other preference. As the distributor of Yvon Mau wines in France, he should know a thing or two about what to choose.
Then, after enjoying the whole occasion of the English/French wedding so much, we were on our way to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast to the north.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Troglodytes. France 2007

I have been caving once before. It was in Bulgaria. The cave was the size of a cathedral, with its climbing, descending, and crawling tracks slippery and dangerous.
The only pleasure that I found from this minor expedition was getting out of the cave in one piece to breathe real fresh air.
I suppose that there is pleasure to be gained from mucking about in caves, but it is not my idea of fun.
So why were Margreet and I about to spend two nights in a cave, with me being such an anti-troglodyte?
One reason was recommendation, the other that it was in the Loire, in France, and about half way between Dieppe and Frontenac, in Entre Deux Mers where our hosts lived, and Saint-Emilion where wedding celebrations were about to take place.
Up at 3.10 am to pack the car, we were away from the port of New Haven on England’s south coast by 5.15 am.
In the lea of chalk cliffs the sea was fairly calm as we set forth across the Channel toward Dieppe.
Out at sea we encountered large, white-topped rollers, coming from the direction of the North Sea. So the ship rose on the crests and sank into the troughs, corkscrewing just across them as we went. There was a crash and a shudder as we hit the wake of merchantmen crossing our bow.
In a cabin we were able to lie down and be rocked by the motion of the ship over waves. And, without the incessant Tannoy messages delivered to the public areas, we were able to enjoy the isolated and comparatively silent experience in spasmodic sleep.
It was wet in France as we slogged away, mostly on motorways, southwards to Rouen (where we got a bit lost), and then past Alençon and Le Mans.
Then, what looked on the map as a nice cross country drive through Loire countryside, turned out to be a landscape of rather ordinary forests and farmland.
To find our cave when we reached Trôo (pronounced Trow) was a matter of several askings and misunderstandings. But after conducting our car up a narrow cliffside track, which started with a No Entry sign, and past cliffside houses and steps to caves, we were greeted at the roadside by the owners of our Gite.
Our cave, with access steps cut into the sandstone cliff face, had its own front door, window and small balcony. The inside was impressive, with its multi-vaulted ceiling and undulating walls apparently hewn by ancients with deer antlers.
The cave however, had been re-modelled and modernised with stove, fireplace, crucifixed alcove, microwave, bath, shower and WC.
I could quite understand cave-dwelling, had I been dressed in bearskin, cudgel in hand, and dragging Margreet inside, safe from a dinosaur who might then peer through the entrance to see what was worth eating. But why go to so much trouble and expense, in a more comfortable age, to live inside a rather damp and dark cave? (Disney might see a theme park in it.)
Friends, from New Delhi, who had rented a nearby cave with reinforced concrete roof, had more comfort, and even television. So we drank together there before walking down the cliffside track to eat a meal off square plates (square plates now seem to go with Nouvelle, or Nouvellish Cuisine). The local Vin Gris had charm and the Loire’s red Chinon even more so.
As “trogs” do, Margreet and I climbed steps and goat tracks to see the cavities of others and the fine and simple Norman-arched church and fortifications at the summit above. In the church were proper wooden seats for the worthies and tiny protuberances on which the choristers could rest their bottoms.
At a rather charming restaurant hard by the church we drank local cider, and decided to return for lunch. The blackboards of dishes on offer looked inviting.
We were the first to arrive at the restaurant. No one appeared to greet us or offer a menu, but there were noises coming from the kitchen behind. Madame was there, cooking what appeared to be the only main dish available – the plat du jour of guineafowl.
She had only cooked four portions and a table for three had been booked in the restaurant.
We soon realised that we were not only the guests but the waiters as well, as Madame was rather large and too lame to do more than cook and hobble. The guineafowl was delicious. The other three had to share what remained in the pot. A chocolate cake, made by the Patronne, was quite superb. Lame and alone, she made up for the deficiencies by being a great cook. Because what she had prepared had now been ordered, people were turned away. We learned later that those who ate there in he evening had to stack away the chairs and tables when they had finished their meal. The experience was one of charm, gastronomic excellence, and friendly eccentricity.
Beside the rather damp atmosphere of our cave, there were particular smells attached to it. There was the pleasant one of wood smoke from past fires, the other was something more obscure and not very nice.
It was not until we were sitting outside on our cliff-shelf balcony that the origin of the other smell was revealed. In its own little cave, accessible only from our balcony, lived a black rabbit. Kept in by a metal grille, dark in its cave and of dark fur, the creature was visible only by its blinking eyes. Perhaps caves of the long past were as smelly as this rabbit’s.
In the evening our kind host and hostess came with local Vin Gris and bites, which we enjoyed, squeezed together on the balcony. After they had left we ate our picnic half way between the rabbit’s den and an alcove for its food, where mosquitoes lurked.
I must be in a minority with my views of modern trogloditism, for the visitors’ book was full of enthusiastic praise for the uniqueness of the experience – and unique it was.
A friendly dog, who liked to roam our accommodation and bit its fur with venom, scratching mightily, may, or may not, have been the provider of fleas that then befriended us.
We were now off to take part in the objective of our journey, a lovely wedding in Montagne Saint-Emilion.