Where were we?
This week found us heading north, for cooler climes, and in the gradual direction of the Amsterdam to Newcastle ferry. We began the week still in the Arcachon bay, then headed to Poitiers and thence further north and west into Brittany.
Where should we have been?
We should have been in Kyoto, exploring its historic streets and temples, and trying not to stare too much at the sight of geishas and maikos in full dress and make up.
Mid-week we would have headed south and west, probably to Kyushu and Hiroshima and thence to explore the Seto Inland Sea.
We imagine that Olympic fever would have been increasing too. The opening ceremony should have been yesterday.
What did we actually do?
After our exertions on our Tour du Bassin last Saturday we decided we deserved a quietish Sunday. After a lazy morning we piled into the car and headed off to the beach.
The problem was, of course, that on a hot weekend in the school holidays, everyone else had had the same idea. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the beach stretches for more than 100 uninterrupted miles north to the mouth of the Garonne and beyond, there was nowhere to park at our chosen beach. We drove round, and round, and round the car parks before, for the first time any of us can remember, giving up for want of a space.
The next beach to the north is called Le Jenny. We headed there. Until we were brought to a halt by a sign:
We are peely-wally Scots (some by residence if not birth) and there’s not enough suncream in the world for that kind of behaviour.
Further north again, to Le Porge Océan, where a van pulled out of a space with perfect timing.
Happy days! The beach was, predictably, very busy, but the water was fabulous and the sand at times painfully warm underfoot. The Atlantic waves, unimpeded by Cap Ferret, as they had been in the shadow of the Dune du Pilat, broke with dramatic crashes of surf.
These were perhaps a little too dramatic: Harriet, having a wonderful time with the girls at the breaking point, timed a wave badly and resurfaced without her sunglasses. Having lost her previous pair in the Mediterranean she is going to keep her new ones well away from the sea (ocean).
Our next destination was Poitiers. We took the allegedly scenic route there, away from the song of the cicadas, and avoiding the motorway tailbacks which seemed to be a particular plague in this area. Unfortunately Harriet’s carefully planned route proved to be rather dull, and too far west to go past any spectacularly expensive wines, as Ben had perhaps hoped.
Still, we enjoyed a lovely crossing of the Garonne in the very efficient and well socially-distanced ferry from Le Verdon-sur-mer to Royan.
Poitiers itself was really just a stopping point for us but Ben enjoyed a run through its historic centre and we appreciated some of its grand architecture and its position nestled up against impressive cliffs.
Harriet was very taken with the vast passionflower rambling over the wall of our neighbours’ house too.
Many years ago Lucy was given a beautifully illustrated children’s atlas. She loves it and it has given hours of pleasure. It has also strongly influenced our trip. She was adamant that she wanted to visit Mongolia because of what she had seen in the altas. We haven’t got there yet but we will…
It also featured Futuroscope. This is a slightly unusual theme park near Poitiers, and was the main reason for us being in the area. It is ostensibly themed around “multimedia, cinematographic futuroscope and audio visual techniques” (whatever that means). In practice it has rides and experiences housed in fantastically designed buildings, themed around science and technology and of varying degrees of scientific accuracy.
The more scientific ones have excellent commentary, entirely in French, which provided a great opportunity for Ben and Harriet to practice their simultaneous translation and to wrack their brains (more of a struggle for Harriet where science is concerned) for the correct terms in English (optical microscope was a particular stumbling block).
We all hugely enjoyed the 4D experience Ride around the World, in which we had a front row seat in a futuristic balloon as it soared over mountains and oceans. Snow fell around us and warm winds blew. It made Ben very sad that we hadn’t been able to do any of it in reality.
The “dynamic” experiences (the ones where you sit in a jolty chair and get shaken around while a hand held camera film jerkily plays in front of you and you get occasionally splashed with water) met with varied approval. Harriet was not keen at all, but Magnus (who gets wildly travel sick) thought they were wonderful.
There is only one rollercoaster and it had a queue of Disney-esque proportions. Undeterred, Ben and the girls undertook a mission to Mars. They came out perhaps more exhausted by the wait than thrilled by the ride but said they had enjoyed it nonetheless.
Having arrived shortly after 10, we left at after 7 pm, secure that we had overlooked nothing, and not feeling any great need to go back.
And thence to Brittany. As we drove, the fields of sunflowers became maize and then wheat. We took the opportunity on the way to buy some essentials: new sunglasses, Lucy’s fourth pair of flip flops, and a cafetière for Ben after one too many houses with a different coffee-making system for which we don’t have the right equipment.
We are staying in Ploërmel, a smallish town in the centre of Brittany, perhaps 30 minutes north of Vannes. The house is far the biggest AirBnB we have ever been in, with, blessedly, separate bedrooms for Magnus and Lucy.
It also has chickens, who get an honourable mention for beastie of the week. They are making us feel very at home (and happy to have something to do with leftover pasta), but, oddly, have no nesting box, instead laying directly onto the ground in the corner of their enclosure. Is this a French thing?
There was no competition for flower of the week though. It appears (and perhaps we should have known this) that Brittany is famous for its hydrangeas. The banks of the Lac du Duc, just outside Ploërmel, have a hydrangea walk, the Circuit des Hortensias. The photographs don’t do justice to the intensity of the blues.
Harriet wasn’t a fan of hydrangeas before, but she may have been forced to change her mind.
Ploërmel also has an excellent Friday morning market. We gave the children each some money and told them they could buy anything they liked but had to carry out the transaction themselves in French. Despite Magnus’ distress that no one had any lego or toy cars for sale, they successfully negotiated the purchase of some dried fruit, some wool (for making pom-poms), a number of baked goods (Lucy got a discount for her French) and a t-shirt with a tattooed and studded Disney Ariel on it (guess who).
Carnac, Quiberon and the Côte Sauvage (Sausage)
While we were in St Pierre de Chartreuse, all the children devoured the old Asterix and Tintin books which are kept there. Obelix and his menhirs are a regular feature, and in Asterix and Son Obelix pays for milk with menhirs, which the farmer puts in rows in a field. In real life, this field of menhirs is in Carnac, where we started our South Breton trip on Thursday.
Magnus was unimpressed – they’re just stones – but Harriet and Ben loved these stones, and their link across the generations. We are blessed with various prehistoric rocks and carvings near our home in the Borders and have thrilled to our visits there too. Just as with the cave we visited in the Ardèche, there is a sense of wonder and connection through the longevity of these carefully placed rocks.
We didn’t, despite this, get entirely up close and personal with them. In high season access is only in guided groups and we decided that an hour-long tour, however excellently (ahem) simultaneously translated, was probably too much for all of us. A stroll round the edge fitted the bill instead.
On to Quiberon at the southern tip of the amazing Presqu’île (literally “almost island”) which is connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, only just wide enough for the road. We stopped off at the Côte Sauvage (Wild Coast), 5 miles or so of rocky cliffs, which feature in a lasting childhood memory of Harriet’s as an elemental tour de force, with crashing waves, salt spray and beautiful chaos. This time it turned out to be more Côte Sausage, with clear calm seas and very little in the way of its more brutal nature on display, though very pretty nonetheless.
It was also home to this week’s runaway (wriggle-away) beastie of the week: Timmy. Timmy was a lugworm, peacefully minding his own business in a U-shaped burrow under the beach at the north end of the Côte Sauvage.
When we came to have our picnic on this beach there was a man digging it up with a fork. He explained to us that he digs up the lugworms, which he then sells on as fishing bait. He showed us their feathery, silky gills and explained that their blood is richer in haemoglobin than ours. Sophie in particular was very taken with them. He had rejected one as too small, and Sophie decided to call him (or possibly her) Timmy. The bond was immediate.
But short-lived. Sadly Timmy met a tragic end some five minutes later, when Sophie fed him to a waiting seagull.
Quiberon itself was a pleasant seaside town, with no shortage of shops selling stripey clothes (Harriet heroically resisted) and welcome ice creams.
Twenty years ago, when Ben worked in France, he made a good friend, Bertrand. He is a Breton, and although no longer based here, he is back for the whole of the school holidays. He lives some four hours from where we are staying so we met in Paimpol, a mutually inconvenient two hour drive from each of us – past fields of artichokes and, once, hydrangeas – on the north coast of Brittany.
We hadn’t seen him or his wife for about thirteen years and had never met their children, so it was lovely to see them all. We had a delicious meal and a wander around the pretty fishing village of Paimpol. Magnus particularly enjoyed a bit of boy time, and Sophie attempted to dig up a friend for Timmy.
The weather was trying to make us feel at home: grey and threatening rain (which on the way home became a relentless downpour), but the Isle de Bréhat nonetheless looked moody and picturesque across the emptiness of the bay at low tide.
How was it?
Magnus: I liked the beach I played rugby on at the Coat Sausage, Futuroscope and the pizza we had in Poitiers was sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo GOOD.
Ben: It was lovely to see Bertrand again, and his family, and catch up over a splendid meal.
The space we have in our Breton AirBnB feels familiar and welcome, and I enjoyed the locally-made cider here. In typical Scottish fashion I am also absolutely fine with the air being 10 degrees colder, and have had better sleep at nights too.
The very peaceful and sunny 25 minutes as we crossed the mouth of the Garonne on the ferry was an unexpected joy.
Sophie: These week I have a tie of favourite memories! One of them is going to Futuroscope because we just all went around and did everything we wanted! The other is meeting Timmy the beach worm. I also really enjoy playing and diving under waves at the beach. I like how big our new house is which gives everyone lots of space. Learning some new French at the market was interesting. I liked the barbecue and phone afternoon too.
Aurora: Futuroscope was SO fun. Meeting and killing Timmy. The market was awesome because I like buying stuff. Going to the beach. The barbecue was nice and meeting Bertrand.
Lucy: The beach was splendiforous fun especially playing in the sea. Obviously Futoroscope was excellent, I especially loved the “Extraordinary Voyage” ride. The house here reminds me of home – they are so similar. I enjoyed doing transactions at the market yesterday and the amazing crepes I have had here.
Harriet: It is always lovely to see friends and so it was a particular treat to have lunch with Bertrand and his family, not least because I had possibly the world’s best pudding. I think the coast of Brittany is wonderful. I’d take a rock pool over baking white sand any day (much as I love the baking white sand too) and I got a huge amount of pleasure over how interested and enthusiastic Sophie in particular was in the sealife (and not just Timmy).
That said, and despite the sunglasses incident, swimming in the Atlantic was a delight too.
I’m enjoying the chickens too.
Lucy: My flip flops broke again! And before we got to the beach I was worried that we weren’t going to be able to go because we couldn’t find a parking space. I didn’t like standing in the queue for the roller coaster.
Harriet: Losing my sunglasses was incredibly annoying, particularly as it was my own stupid fault. New sunglasses are an expense we can do without and given the effort we have made to reduce our plastic consumption on this trip, it was especially irritating to start throwing plastic straight into the sea. For the second time in my life.
Although the house in Ploërmel is lovely, on a location, location, location front it was the wrong choice. We (Ben) have had to do too much driving and I think we have not been able to enjoy as much of Brittany as we might have liked as a result. Of course the counter to that is if we had been somewhere more interesting wouldn’t have been forced to travel around so much…
The 20 minutes I spent in the second dynamic ride Magnus and I went on at Futuroscope were among my most excruciating of the trip. Even with my eyes closed.
Sophie: No bad bits really.
Aurora: Not having Duplo A and missing the Chartreuse because we know where everything is and lots of people speak English.
Ben: It has been a heavy week for driving, with Nantes a particular lowlight. Nantes is one of those cities which has clearly grown faster than its road system. All the driving has made me miss my old iPod too. I got a free replacement, but without my songs, all on a disc drive back home. Spotify downloads are a small substitute, but not the same.
The Around the World ride at Futuroscope was probably the best of all the rides, but its sweeping vistas of Asia, over a soaring soundtrack, brought back the enormity of what could/should/would have been, and left me a little desolate for a while.
Magnus: The sand at the beach where Mummy lost her sunglasses when I had left my shoes at our house was boiling on my feet.
What did we eat?
It was a good thing we bought a tourteau in Audenge as the only one we found in Poitiers, its spiritual home, was plastic-wrapped and uninviting in the supermarket. Instead we continued our world tour of cake with a Broyé du Poitou, a sort of cross between a cake and a very buttery shortbread. Apparently it’s all in the technique – tiny bits of dough are ripped off and then reincorporated. Once again we were amazed at the many different (yet extraordinarily similar) things you can make with flour, butter, sugar and eggs.
Brittany’s similar offering is the Gateau Breton, which is more cakey in consistency and comes often layered with fruit or other flavours. We tried pre-packaged raspberry and caramel as well as an apple one from the proudly artisanal Biscuiterie de Quiberon. We may have bought a whole one too. It lasts five days apparently.
It survived two. We are, in fact, not sure it was actually supposed to be the same thing as we bought at the supermarket. It was so much more buttery, sugary and, in fact, less cakey than the previous ones as to be unrecognisable. Aurora gave up because it was too sweet.
We may, though, have found the zenith of the flour, butter, sugar, egg combination in the Kouign-amann. This is, according to the New York Times “the fattiest pastry in Europe” and, despite Bertrand’s recommendation, Harriet probably wouldn’t have ordered it if she had known that. It’s a jolly good thing she didn’t, because it was utterly, extraordinarily, delicious: a caramelised, sugar-soaked, buttery, crispy, chewy pastry of wonder. If you go to Brittany, forget your waistline and order one.
In the spirit of trying everything, at the same meal Ben had a far breton. It wasn’t as nice (more like a clafoutis or a very thick undercooked pancake) and thus didn’t deserve to have its picture taken.
It would be sacrilege to be in Brittany and not eat galettes (rye pancakes) and drink cider, so on Friday lunch we did both, enjoying an array of pancake flavours (chicken curry, anyone?) and cider out of the traditional tea cups.
We had bicycle-shaped pasta too (not in a restaurant). Why wouldn’t you?
This time in two weeks we will be home.
Before then we are continuing to explore France. The highlight of next week is three days at Puy du Fou, the world’s best theme park (apparently) and the one place that every single French person we have spoken to has said il faut absolument y aller. So we are taking their advice. There are no roller coasters and no 4D dynamic rides, so one at least of us will be happy.