Four years ago, on a French holiday with Kate and family, we’d happened upon a B&B in Verneuil, close to Reims and run by Sabine and Simon Blin and their two children, Jean-Baptiste and Constance. It’s called Le Havre du Percheron and you can find it at 22 rue de la Tour, 51700 Verneuil, near Reims. Check out their website and see for yourself.
It’s a most beautiful place and they are wonderful people. We spent five days at their B&B in 2006 and a friendship developed, which has lasted ever since. The Blins and the Cades exchange visits two or three times a year and the timing of this visit meant that I could go too. And so it was that we spent four days with them from 14-17 May.
We can strongly recommend their B&B. The rooms are beautiful and their hospitality is second to none.This bedroom is decorated entirely in the style of Venice. And so is the en suite bathroom.
We picked the girls up from school at lunch time (with special permission) and drove to Folkestone. We missed the train we’d booked, but trains come very quickly and we only had to wait about 20 minutes to drive the car onto the next train and go through the Chunnel to Calais – about 20 minutes. Then it was a drive of just over three hours to Verneuil.
It was dinner time when we arrived and, as usual, we were treated to their usual fantastic hospitality.
Simon is the head of a champagne cooperative, BLIN, and the champagne flowed as it always does when we’re with them.
Sabine plied us with lovely food, lots of cheeses and two gorgeous French gateaux.
As it was entirely thanks to Sabine that my month in France this year will be spent in Fréjus (near St Tropez). She’d invited Florence and Pascal to dinner too. Florence’s parents own the apartment I’ll be renting. I got lots of instructions about how to get into the apartment, where I could find everything and directions to all the important places. Like the beach!
The next morning we set off for Sedan, about 5km from the Belgian border. Sabine had been to a mediaeval festival there the year before and promised that it’d be an excellent day out.
The weather was lovely. It took under 2 hours to drive there and we decided to have lunch before we started exploring. Kate remarked that we’d never had sat on the pavement in England to have lunch and I agreed. But it seemed totally natural here.
There were all sorts of amazing sights to behold. This very strange being, men juggling with knives, seeing how chain mail is made, and seeing knights, jousting at very close quarters.
It was great to see Simon and Sabine relaxing, to watch Tyla and Riley transfixed as they watched a group of actors plying their art – all in French of course!
All the organisers were in mediaeval dress. There was a man pressing apples, a woman spinning, and an amazing character who insisted on having his photo taken with all the children – somewhat to their dismay!
Tyla, the dog lover, couldn’t resist talking to every dog, especially this one.
She’s been walking her neighbour’s dog, exactly like this, ever since they moved to Queen’s Park. He died recently and she really misses him.
All the girls went for a ride. Constance, Tyla, and Riley.
But I contented myself by talking to a rather beautiful Hereford cow.
There was another tiny person waiting for a ride. It was hard to imagine how she was going to get her little legs around any of the ponies!
The children barely sat still for the whole day. They enjoyed checking out their photos, racing up and down the ramparts (until they were told that they were contravening Safety and Health regulations!) and practising cartwheels on any spare bit of grass they could find.
It was a fabulous family day out and it was amazing that we didn’t all fall asleep in one of the cars coming home. But we did go to bed early!
Sunday was the day when Kate and family returned to Calais to catch their train while I stayed on for another day. Before they left, we had a lovely relaxing time, playing table tennis, playing with the dogs in the garden and generally relaxing.
Sabine told me that Jean-Baptiste loves logic problems. So he and I had a very serious game – but as might have been expected with such an expert, he thrashed me.
It was sad when the time came for the family to go. We’d had a very special weekend.
But it wasn’t over. There was a surprise in store!
Four years previously, Simon’s cousin Clare and her partner, Manu, had been my first visitors in Camborne.
Without any advance warning, they suddenly arrived in Verneuil. And, considering that they live in Orleans about three hours away, it really was a surprise for us all.
Even though we’d only had a short time together in 2006, we’d become very close and this was a real treat. Fortunately, Jean-Baptiste captured the moment for us all.
Unfortunately, even the best things come to an end. They had to go home and we had to get to bed early because Constance was going on a field trip very early the next morning.
And so, later the next morning on 17 May, Sabine drove me to Marne La Vallée, the railway station close to Disneyland Paris, so that I could catch my train down to the South of France. But the good news is that they’re planning a trip to New Zealand in December 2011/January 2012 so at least I know it won’t be too long before I see them again.
So now I was on my way to Fréjus / St Raphaël-Valescure for a week on my own before members of the family began to arrive.
I arrived at the station at about 5 o’clock after a five-hour journey. Unfortunately, the handle of my big suitcase had broken on my arrival in London and I didn’t know the way to the apartment, so I took a taxi. Very easy. But by this time it was closer to 7.0 because the train had been late and I had to wait for a taxi at the station.
Getting into the apartment itself, however, was a little spooky. The lights in the passage on the first floor only stay on for about half a minute. With four pieces of luggage, I wasn’t moving all that fast and I didn’t know which apartment was mine! So in the middle of putting the key into the first lock, all the lights went out. I couldn’t visualise where I’d left the cases and the darkness was so profound that I didn’t dare move for fear of falling over one of them.
I was very lucky. A door down the passage opened and I threw myself on the mercy of the occupants. They not only showed me how to open the two locks (they were a bit stiff) but also how to turn on the electricity inside the apartment and the water in the room next door – which is also where I was to put my rubbish.
I was in bed by 8.0 – totally knackered!
Montpellier has been a fabulous venue for the past three years. Fréjus / St Raphaël-Valescure couldn’t be more different. While Montpellier is a university city and most of the people there are pretty young, Fréjus/St Raphaël-Valescure seems to be almost totally made up of much older people and tourists – and it’s not school holidays yet.
I went for an early morning walk to explore the historic Roman city of old Fréjus and saw the Cathédral and the Town Hall. But most of the buildings were a huge disappointment. The Amphithéâtre Romain was nothing more than a ruin, with a huge crane in the middle of it indicating that things were being done. And the Théâtre Romain on the other side of the City wasn’t much different. There were plenty of indications that things were planned, but there weren’t many views of ruins.
The signs around the City, however, led one to believe that it was all going to be so much more thrilling. The sign reads, A witness to the culture of the Roman Empire!
It’s possible that, because I was out walking so early, I couldn’t get inside any of the ‘attractions’ to take a closer look. But, in view of the amount of building going on, I’m not sure that people were actually allowed in.
So, feeling rather let down by the ancient City, I explored the beach which is 5 minutes walk from the apartment. This part of Fréjus lies alongside the edge of the Mediterranean, and is a pleasant place to spend time although I was surprised at how busy it is in term time.
One of the nice things about it is what appears to be a sailing school. Heaps of youngsters have a wonderful time improving their skills under expert supervision.
St Raphaël, which melds into Fréjus seamlessly, is a much more happening place. The station is about 25 minutes walk from the apartment. So is the Tourism Bureau where they were unfailingly helpful. There’s a large, open square, filled with tables and people drinking coffee, good shops, internet access, and most things one could need.
But it’s hard to walk along the pavement without making way for people all the way. Amazing for the time of year.
However, one highlight was The Basilique Notre Dame de la Victoire. It’s a truly beautiful building and, as well as services, holds concerts from time to time.
But I’m not complaining! I came here principally to enjoy the people and the weather, and, until my guests arrive, to put my nose firmly onto the grindstone for several hours a day to edit my book. The venue was ideal for all that! Not many distractions that could lead me astray.
The Cade family arrived very late on 29 May, scheduled to stay for a week, having taken the Eurostar from Charing Cross, via Paris and down to the south. It had proved a very long journey for all of them so they were all tired. We walked home by the side of the sea and the girls were particularly excited by the nightlife going on around them.
Their first day being Sunday, certain things, like the tourist office, weren’t open. But I’d collected some pamphlets and brochures for them to read as soon as they arrived so we weren’t totally bereft of ideas.
We took the day fairly slowly as everyone was short of sleep. A visit to the boulangerie and a few croissants later, we descended on the supermarket to stock up for the week ahead. Kate and Bret found the quality and variety in the supermarket so good that this took a very long time as they exclaimed over the various French brands that they’ve come to enjoy on their many visits to France.
So it was lunch time when we’d packed everything away! We thought we’d spend the afternoon on the beach but, to our dismay, the Mistral had blown up in full force and being anywhere near the beach was an unpleasant experience. Kate said it must be like having a free micro-dermabrasion. (Dermabrasion is apparently a cosmetic medical procedure in which the surface of the epidermis of the skin is removed by sanding!) We certainly all felt as if we’d been sand blasted! Even the girls couldn’t wait to come away, and that’s saying something.
So we had a lovely long saunter through the two towns and the family got their bearings. I’d suggested to the girls that as there were so many ice cream parlours, they might like to see what was on offer before they made a decision. However, it was just too hard for them to turn away from a choice of about 40 different ice creams so we actually stopped at the second and sat down to a huge choice with everyone having something different and tasting each other’s so that we’d know what we wanted next time!
By the time we’d been right down as far as the station and back again, with all the stops in between, the girls were shattered. But not too tired to enjoy a quick stop at a merry-go-round.
We’d had a lovely day but were all very disappointed that, after all the hot and sunny days that I’d experienced before they arrived, the weather had made the beach so unattractive.
Monday morning looked hot and sunny until we stepped outside and found that the Mistral was blowing even more strongly.
Bret and the girls and I left Kate to have a lie-in and walked into town. Imagine our dismay when we arrived there, thinking that it would open at 8.30, to find that it was closed until 10.00. The French don’t get up very early! And the tourist office, which I was sure opened at 8.30, didn’t actually open until 9.00.
So we wandered to a beautiful boulangerie to buy some croissants to take home for breakfast but then decided that it was probably a good idea to let the girls eat theirs there and then, with a hot chocolate, while Bret and I enjoyed a coffee.
Riley takes about half an hour to eat a pain au chocolat because she dissects the whole thing, picks out the two lines of chocolate, eats the croissant and then finishes with the chocolate. A messy business! However, this killed time beautifully and meant that we could then go to the tourist office when they opened.
It was obviously another day when the beach wouldn’t work because of the high winds – even though it looked beautiful.
So we enquired about buses and boats to St Tropez. When we heard about how long it took to get there and how much the ferry cost, we decided to hire a car!
We rented a brand new car for two days and also managed to score a car parking space inside the locked perimeter of the apartment block.
We actually had no idea how far it was to St Tropez. We thought we could see it across the bay from Fréjus. But it’s actually way behind what we could see on the other side of the bay. It took us ages and, when we got there, we found that it was very busy. And very pretty too.
First of all we took ourselves up to The Citadel, which has dominated the town for 400 years. It’s a listed building of historical interest and was the most important defence structure between Antibes and Toulon for centuries. It’s one of the most significant buildings on the Var coast and it offers a panoramic view over the Bay.
In 1602, Henry IV’s engineer, Raymond de Bonnefons, who was in charge of all the fortifications in Provence, undertook the building of a huge tower to defend the hill. The tower is characteristic of the 16th and 17th century fortifications around the coast – a huge building, visible from a distance, with an inner courtyard. Similar towers can also be found in Antibes and Marseille.
The building of the tower was part of a programme of defence along the coast of Provence in order to protect the country from a possible war with Spain. Its massive aspect was visible from the sea and was thought to dissuade the enemy from an attack. From the top, you can certainly see things coming from a very long way away.
However, in 1637 the Spanish did attack even though their attack failed in the face of the strong resistance from the Tropezians, supported by royal troops.
The fortress lost its strategic roll in 1873. Its ramparts couldn’t sustain the shells that had replaced the cannonballs a few decades earlier.
The Citadel was bought by the City Council in 1993 and so began a huge restoration programme.
In 2000-2001, 150 metres of ramparts around the main entrance were restored. Restoration work continues and is planned to be completed in 2010. Certainly the building is well restored and very imposing with beautiful views from its walls. Leaving The Citadel, the wind was still blowing hard.
We’d hoped to find a sheltered beach but it was hard to know which direction the Mistral was coming from 31as it seemed to swirl around all over the place.
So we spent the rest of the afternoon strolling through the city, enjoying its quaint little streets and the totally amazing yachts tied up in the harbour. This was clearly a city where the rich and famous rub shoulders – probably with each other!
Of course we had to partake of the inevitable French ice creams.
Just before leaving the City Centre, we came across a statue of Pierre-André de Suffren, dominating the Old Harbour. The statue was erected at the instigation of Emperor Napoleon III in 1866. It’s made of bronze, melted down from pieces of artillery taken in battle with the Royal Navy.
We hadn’t anticipated rush hour, St Tropez style and the drive home took twice as long as had the drive there. It was agonizingly slow and would dissuade us ever from visiting St Tropez by road again.
We’d hired the car for two days because we’d discovered a pool complex that was open – but not until 2.00 pm. Some of the best attractions in this area don’t open until late June, too late for the family’s visit. One in particular, a sort of Cirque de Soleil, would have been ideal for the girls, but it was not to be.
So we had our usual leisurely French breakfast, wandered through the Tuesday market a stone’s throw away and set off after lunch for La Vallée du Paradis, a great camping park set up with a lovely pool complex. With the wind still blowing rather strongly, it was the best place to be and, although the water was a bit too cold for the littlies, we all had a great afternoon.
On Wednesday the pool at the apartment finally opened and for the rest of the week we all really chilled out in and around it. Long days spent either on the beach or by the pool, strolls down the main street for ice creams in the early evenings, early dinner and early nights. We all began to feel very normal.
Between lovely requests from the girls for one or other of us to play in the sea, play a card game, read, draw and everything else in between, we also managed some excellent stimulating conversations and caught up with lots of family news.
Kate very kindly p3ut her lawyer’s brain over a second reading of my book – which I’d spent ten days editing before their arrival. I’d changed a lot and she made heaps of suggestions to make it even clearer. This was a great help.
And then, on Saturday morning Adam arrived from Zurich to spend a few days.
After a day by the pool and the mandatory ice cream (the choice of flavours was mind-boggling), we all went down to Frejus Port where we’d been the day before to check out the lie of the land. We’d found a lovely restaurant just by the boats and decided that this was a good place for a farewell dinner to Kate and family and a welcome dinner to Adam.
It’s called Le P’tit Lion, Quai Marc Antoine, 83600 Port Frejus firstname.lastname@example.org
This proved to be an excellent venue. Everyone’s meal was lovely and the atmosphere was very relaxed. The girls enjoyed their ice creams and there was also space outside the restaurant for them to let off steam while we finished our meals.
Our waiter was excellent and brought all of us complimentary limoncella after we’d paid the bill. Limoncello is an Italian liqueur, mainly produced in Southern Italy but also in Menton, close by. It’s traditionally made from the Sorrento lemon. It was delicious. He also offered us all a brandy to complete the meal. Kate and I declined, but the boys couldn’t resist!
It was a very happy evening and the end of a lovely week with Kate and Bret and the girls.
The next morning we all set off for the station, dragging the suitcases behind us. The timing was perfect and they all found their seats on the upper floor of the TGV for Paris and set off on their long journey back to London.
Adam and I, meanwhile, started a daily routine until he had to return to Zurich on 16 June.
After a leisurely breakfast, we walked to McDonalds where we spent a couple of hours each morning, drinking a coffee and enjoying free WiFi internet access.
We strolled home, ate our lunch on the balcony and spent the afternoon relaxing by the pool, which was often deserted.
We were never short of stimulating conversation and it was great to catch up with even more of the family news.
We had drinks at a lovely beach café and watched the paragliders hovering over the ocean beside the city centre.
Most evenings we cooked a simple meal and then continued our discussions but we’d so enjoyed our family dinner out on Saturday that we returned to Le P’tit Lion for Adam’s last night.
Adam also kindly gave my book a second reading and gave me the benefit of some critical analysis. Getting this sort of feedback from both Kate and Adam has been of enormous benefit.
Unfortunately, as had happened in Lugano three years earlier, work beckoned Adam back early and he left on Thursday instead of Saturday. It was better for his peace of mind. As it was, he was almost permanently attached to his Blackberry for most of the last two days!
Thursday dawned bright and sunny and he set off at 10.30 for a very long eight-hour drive back to Zurich.
Despite work pressures, he said he felt much more relaxed than he had when he’d arrived, and that could only be good.
I still had a week left and spent the time with daily trips to McDonald's to check emails, strolled home beside the shops, sat by the pool, or caught up with lots of admin work on my laptop. Being with the family had been very special and so was time to knuckle down and deal with deadlines.
I was very lucky to get out of Fréjus to catch a train and travel east to Italy. Two days earlier the region of Var had experienced the most dreadful catastrophe in the form of torrential rain, excessive flooding, and a huge tidal wave at 4.30 in the morning. Along the coast are campsites, well situated close to the sea, but here people had no protection and when I left 23 people had been found to have died and more were missing.
Inland a little lies the town of Draguignan, usually peaceful and quiet. But it copped all the water from the hills above it, as well as from the rivers higher up and the flooding was extensive with waters rising more than 2 metres higher than normal. Cars were piled five or six high in the most extraordinary places and the whole area was a shambles.
When I arrived at the station on Thursday morning it was clear that transport was still chaotic and, in fact, no trains were running west from Fréjus. We were, effectively at the end of the line from the east. TGVs had been cancelled but 'ters' were still running. Even though I’d booked a seat on a TGV, I was very lucky to get a place on a 'ter' and, although it stopped everywhere en route for Italy, I counted myself a very fortunate traveller.
Having left France in June, it was exciting to go back again from 4-9 September. I hadn't been to Brittany since I was there with my parents and brother in the 1950s so this was going to be a new experience.
I flew from Stansted after travelling on a small Mercedes bus from Baker Street which took 90 minutes. Being a Saturday afternoon, the roads were fairly quiet and it was a good journey. I was at Stansted really early but went through security straight away to be on the safe side. They weighed my bag and found that it was only just over 10kg, the required weight for a cabin bag when flying with RyanAir, so they let me through without question.
The terminal had been transformed since I was there last and I was very impressed. Every shop one could possibly want to visit was apparent and I had a good wander around.
Unfortunately, the experience was somewhat dampened when I came to board the plane with RyanAir. I found their ground staff surly and unhelpful and, because I had bought a lovely bottle of whisky for my hosts, was told that my bag was now too heavy and I was sent back to pay an additional Є39 and told that my bag would be put into the hold.
The seats were very tight and I wondered how anyone really overweight would actually fit! After all the wonderful hospitality I’ve been lucky enough to have enjoyed over the past four months, it was lucky that I could just squeeze in!
Arriving at Dinard, I had to wait for some time for my little case to come through but it arrived finally and I set out to look for Laurence who was coming to meet me at 6.30. Fortunately for me she was a little late and asked if I thought she had abandoned me!
It was great to see her again. She drove me straight to a monthly meeting of L’Ordre International des Anysetiers at Maroué where Jacky is the Grand Master of this particular Chapter.
Jacky and Alexandre were in charge of the cooking.
And serving. That’s Laurence wearing the striped top.
Jacky has been the Grand Master of Côte d’Armor Order for the past four years.
Once a year the members dress in all their finery – and look very smart. Jacky kindly got dressed up for me. It must be quite a sight when everyone in the order is dressed like this.
The Anysetiers have a long history. In the Middle Ages, there were many organisations that brought together people from similar professions, and many powerful brotherhoods were formed. The Anysetiers were such a brotherhood, with members who were both doctors and apothecaries who devoted themselves to the service of an ideal – to help others. Membership of a brotherhood imposed on its members a number of moral rules, allowing them to protect their legitimate business interests and to commit to practise honesty in all things.
The Corporation of Anysetiers was recorded at the Chatelet during the reign of King Saint-Louis in 1263, by Etienne Boileau, Provost of Paris.
At that time, caravans brought aniseed from China to Alexandria where the precious seeds were shipped to Genoa and Marseilles before being sent to Paris to be assigned to Anysetiers.
They crushed the anise seeds with a pestle in a rounded hammer, which is now the symbol of the Order. After they had distilled and macerated (soaked the dough in liquid to soften it and absorb the flavour of the liquid), they used it to manufacture drugs, ointments and liqueurs, not only for the Kings and Lords but also for the ‘common’ people of the day. They thus enjoyed a good reputation.
Unfortunately, the Brotherhood experienced fraud and the public prosecutor made an order in 1582 which prevented the sale of any liqueurs or spirits extracted from the aniseed. This was despite the good they had done and the generosity they had shown, especially to soldiers wounded during the Crusades. This abolition brought about the end of the Corporation of Anysetiers.
But in 1955, a group of eminent people from the world of art and culture, encouraged by a man called Paul Ricard, undertook to revive the ancient traditions of the Corporation. They re-created the Association Anysetiers to defend and promote cultural and moral values ‘which constitute the foundations of our civilization’.
In the Middle Ages, young men of both moral and solemn character could become knights. It is this knighting ceremony that serves as a model for the induction ceremony of a Grand Master today.
In 1968, wishing to expand beyond the borders of France, the Association of Anysetiers King’s College was transformed into Anysetiers International, an Association governed by a law of 1 July 1901. The Board of Directors is called the Grand Council of the Order.
The Grand Council was soon established in various regions of France, and in several other countries. To give each Chapter a specific character, it corresponded approximately to a former Province as defined in the Middle Ages.
Each Chapter was headed by a Grand Master, selected and appointed by the Grand Council for a term of three years. He was assisted by members he appointed, confirmed by the Grand Council, also for a term of three years.
Members of the Grand Council were co-opted by it for a term of three years. Half of these were representatives of aniseed drinks manufacturers offering their support to the College, and half were old Grand Masters or leaders.
In 1990, manufacturers of aniseed drinks no longer wished to participate in the financing and management of the College. Still regulated by the Act of 1 July 1901, it became a Federation of autonomous Chapters obeying its law.
To maintain this independence, members of a Chapter are now elected by the Masters of the Anysetiers Council for a term of three years.
The current statutes governing the Order today are the result of a further change in 1995 primarily concerning the composition of the Grand Council. The members of Jacky’s Chapter meet each month at a different venue and have heaps of fun!
It was a lovely evening with singing and dancing, and everyone was very welcoming and friendly.
By the time we finally arrived at their home in Guingamp, it was late and it had been a very long day.
Looking up at their home the next morning, I saw that they had hung a welcome flag from the balcony outside the window of my bedroom!
On Sunday morning we were up early for a Rotary function. A visit to the mediaeval town of Dinan, almost due west of Guingamp.
We set off early so that we arrived in time for the start of a tour of the mediaeval town with two professional guides. It was extremely educational and Dinan is a very beautiful town with much to offer.
The colourful half-timbered houses, which date from the 14th and 15th centuries overhang the narrow cobbled streets of the old town.
To my great delight, we were joined by Virginie and Alexandre who’d been members of the Rotary GSE Team to District 9940 in 2008. Virginie had been a guest in my home for several days and we’ve remained in touch.
We were also joined by Sam Trist, the Rotary International Exchange Student, sponsored by Plimmerton Club to Dinan for a year. The fact that he could join us for the day was a special treat. He’s clearly loving his year in France and is beginning to sound like a native. He and Virginie had lots to talk about.
Dinan is reputed to be one of the most beautiful towns in Brittany. It’s full of historical, cultural and architectural sites. It’s a mediaeval town, situated high above the Rance Valley, overlooking the River Rance. In early times, its position, location and fortifications attracted wool and cloth merchants, which turned Dinan into a prosperous and commercial port.
Dinan’s population is around 11,000. Its history revolves around its feuds with England. Notably, the Duke of Lancaster’s invasion of 1357 when the local hero was Bertrand Du Guesclin whose brother, Oliver, having been kidnapped, was held to ransom, by his captor an English Knight, Cambridge. Bernard challenged Cambridge in a one to one combat and won. He continued campaigning for the King of France until he died some 23 years later. His bronze statue commemorates him on that very battleground, the Place du Champs, now less importantly used as a car park.
In the centre of the town is the Basilica of St. Sauveur.
Its Romanesque porch dates from the 12th century. Inside, it’s as beautiful as it is outside. The crypt contains the heart of the 14th century Breton knight, the same Bertrand du Guesclin who was known for his dislike of the English. In fact, I felt the anti-English feeling very strongly throughout all my encounters in Brittany and it was discussed at length with
my hosts and their friends. Charmingly, of course, and generally (not personally)!
We visited the English Garden, overshadowed by the Basilica where Jacky and Virginie clearly reminisced about old times.
From the walls of the English Garden, the view of the Port is spectacular.
The town is encircled by historic ramparts and its architectural heritage has been well preserved. Including the Castle.16
The walk up to the castle is on very well formed steps. Once a year there is a procession around the whole of the ramparts which totally encircle the town. Private gardens are opened for that day so that people can walk the whole length of the ramparts unhindered.
The rue du Jerzual leads steeply upwards from the port to the rue du Petit Fort. Each year there is a race up the length of this extremely steep road to the clock tower in the rue de l’Horloge at the very top of this photo.
The clock dates from 1498. It chimes every quarter of an hour, but twenty times at mid-day. You can climb the 158 steps to its balcony and enjoy the views of the town and surrounding countryside but it is best not to arrive at the top when the clock is about to chime at noon!
We left Dinan in our various cars en route to a most wonderful Restaurant at St Méloir called Malouiniere. This was a real treat on a beautiful day with wine and canapés to enjoy al fresco before going inside for lunch.
The Rotarians were in very good form and sang lustily, accompanied on guitars by two of the Guingamp Club members.
We persuaded Sam to play for us and he was very impressive. A treat for us all.
Meanwhile, we enjoyed a wonderful buffet followed by a sumptuous dessert. The hosts were at pains to present everything most beautifully and it was a very special day out.
We were all very relaxed. Here I am with Sam, Virginie, Jacky and Laurence.
And Sam, too, was sharing jokes with Alexandre’s wife, Anne.
ll too soon it was time to go. But not before I was able to
capture some of the GSE team including Sam and Annick, wife of the Secretary to the District Governor.
And as if this wasn’t enough fun for 1one day, Jacky took a detour on the way home via Paimpol so that I could see the sea and we could all enjoy a quiet drink overlooking the harbour.
And they could relax, knowing that the day had been a great Rotary success.
Monday morning started with a bit of a lie in because we were all exhausted after all the weekend festivities – not to mention what had been going on in all our lives before the weekend even started.
When we were up and about, Jacky took me on a walking tour of Guingamp itself.
Guingamp is situated in north-west France in the region of Côtes d’Armor in Brittany. It has a population of 10,000 and although it may be one of the larger and more important towns in the area, the pace of life seems to be dictated by the meandering River Trieux, as it twists and turns gently through the town.
The 18th-century central square is a delight for those who like to sit at a pavement café and watch the world go by, whilst admiring some really beautiful architecture. In the square is a lovely Renaissance style fountain, known as the ‘Plomée fountain’, which adds a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the general ambience of the town.
The town has a rich and interesting history. This is exemplified by the remains of Guingamp’s three castles, razed to the ground by order of Richelieu and now reduced to three towers.
There was much to enjoy and Jacky took me all around the town.
The door to the Basilique Notre-Dame de Bon Secours is a sight to see.
The Basilique itself is in Gothic style with wonderful gargoyles.
We slipped down a minute alleyway to the left of this very ancient building to find a couple of strange contrasts on the Banks of the River.
A ruined building stands awaiting restoration.
But beside it is the monstrous modern building erected fairly recently by a former Mayor who held sufficient power to overrule what New Zealanders would expect the Resource Management Act to prevent. Quite how he got away with this, especially so close to the beautiful old buildings, is nothing short of a scandal (in my opinion).
As in many other towns and cities, Guingamp has more than its fair share of festivals to enjoy. There is the festival of Saint Loup, which is a Breton dance festival, and another celebration in which around 500 children dress up and parade through the streets of the town. Then there is the annual ‘pardon’ (parade), which brings pilgrims to pay homage to the ‘Black Virgin’ in the Basilica of Notre Dame de Bon Secours.
Each Friday and Saturday is a market day.
After our walk we drove west to Loc-Envel on the north-eastern boundary of the Commune de Belle-Île-en-Terre to see the Chapelle de Locmaria, built in the 15th century.
Set on a hill overlooking the beautiful village, the Chapel of Locmaria is believed to have been the chapel of a monastery of Monks Templar. Known as Notre-Dame de Pendréo (Our Lady of the Whooping Cough or pertussis), it was where people came to pray to the Virgin for the health of children suffering from that illness, which was then life-threatening, before going to the miraculous fountain a few hundred yards away on another hill. This practice is depicted in the stained glass window to the right of the high altar.
Another window relates the miracle of a horseman swept away by the sea, threatened with drowning, who called on the Virgin and was saved by her intercession.
The church also contains a magnificent polychrome rood screen dating from the 16th century. One side represents the twelve apostles, while the face turned towards the altar is decorated with Celtic-inspired interlaced foliage. There are barely a dozen rood-screens left in Brittany though in the 17th century the region boasted more than a hundred.
The exterior has a wonderful grace and elegance to it, and the interior, muted and uncluttered, feels lived-in.
This building presents many architectural features typical of the Breton Renaissance (porches, crockets, pinnacles, etc.) and many animals are represented on the exterior.
With lots of questions about the Chapelle, we drove to Plougonver to visit the Secretary to the District Governor, Jean, and Annick who we’d met the day before at the Rotary function. Jacky and Laurence told me that they know everything about the area and it was certainly a very fascinating discussion.
And finally we set off for Menez-Bré with its minute chapel and the view over the surrounding countryside.
The Menez-Bré is associated with the blind 6th century Breton saint, Hervé, who went around guided by a wolf. His blindness was considered a gift from God to stop him from being deceived by appearances. Hervé is said to have had powers of healing and exorcism; he is also credited with discovering the spring on the side of the hill.
Menez-Bré was once a sacred hill, sometimes known as the Good Giant to Bretons from this area. From up on its heights, you can get views of the western Côtes d’Armor, stretching in all directions.
We could see Guingamp in the distance and we headed home having had a great day of sightseeing.
On Tuesday morning, Alexandre very kindly came to pick me up to take me out for the day. First we went to their lovely home in Port-Blanc and I caught up with Anne while Alexandre did his best to keep up with Tom!
We enjoyed a lovely lunch together with lots of fresh vegetables out of the garden of Anne’s parents.
After lunch, Alexandre drove me to Ploumanac’h to see the Lighthouse (in the mist and rain) the surrounding rocks, which seemed almost lifelike and the Chapel.
Unfortunately, it was raining fairly heavily so we didn’t linger on the beach but travelled back to Port-Blanc via Trégastal where we saw the slightly lopsided church where Alexandre and Anne had got married.
Alexandre kindly dropped me back to Jacky and Laurence in Guingamp just in time for all of us to go to Guingamp Rotary club’s weekly meeting in their building, almost next door to the house. Still raining, it was good not to have to travel far.
On Wednesday we were off sightseeing again. Jacky and Laurence took me south-west to Carnoët to visit the Valley of the Giants. This is a totally deserted area in which it’s been decided to erect statues of 1,000 saints by the year 2012.
At the moment there are only about half a dozen giants in evidence but they’re fairly impressive. Here’s Saint Anne who’s the Saint of mothers.
From the top of the hill, we could look down at the beautiful Chapelle Saint-Gildas, erected in the style of Beaumanoir in the 16th century. On the neighbouring hills are traces of a Roman camp and a feudal mound.
On our way home we dropped into the town of Bulat-Pestivien. Once a year they have an annual parade of workhorses which are used for agriculture and the transport of rocks. We were there just a few days before the Parade and a notice told us all about it.
The notice told us to come along on the following Monday when the numbers of horses in the parade would outnumber the inhabitants, the spectacle would be full of colour, the crowd would be dense and the taverns full. What a pity I’d be back in London by then.
Behind the notice stood l’Eglise Notre-Dame, the Church of our Lady.
Several chapels have stood on this site between the 13th and 16th centuries. They were sanctuaries on major pilgrimage routes. The chapel became the parish church in 1804 and is built in two styles.
The 14th and 15th-century gothic style in the apse, transept and the nave up to and including the porch of the Apostles.
And the 16th century Renaissance style, used for the first time in Brittany on the bell-tower (1530) whose 66-metre tall spire was added in 1865.
Behind the Church is the Fountain of the Virgin. Pregnant women, mothers and nurses used to come here to drink, pray and ask the Blessed Virgin for good health and an abundance of milk. The surrounding wall dates from 1718.
Everything was so absorbing that we hadn’t noticed how much time we’d spent exploring. We hurried back to Guingamp, just in time to change and set off for another Rotary meeting, this time at Lamballe Club about an hour to the east. Jacky is the Assistant District Governor so has to visit all his clubs from time to time.
It was a particularly pleasant visit for me because the President’s daughter had stayed with me in 2009 and managed to come to the meeting too. It was great to see her again and to hear all her news of the past year.
Unlike Rotary meetings in New Zealand, the meeting didn’t start until after 8.30 and was still going strong at 11.00 pm! With an hour’s travel ahead of us, it was a late last night.
It was sad to wake on Thursday morning and realise that my wonderful visit was about to come to an end. Jacky had a business meeting to attend with Alexandre so Laurence kindly offered to take me to Dinard early so that we could enjoy some pleasures along the way.
We started off by finding an exhibition by Pfaff at Chatelaudren. The work on display was very remarkable. Laurence, particularly, was enchanted with the standard of workmanship and given her own very high standard of expertise in the area of patchworking, this was a compliment. She’d just managed to complete her latest piece of work during my visit.
It was lunchtime when we finished looking round the exhibition so we found a place for lunch and enjoyed some lovely crepes.
Then we set off to visit St Malo which I had never seen before. St Malo is a walled port city on the English Channel in north-western France.
It had some beautiful areas and is probably worth a longer visit at some time in the future.
We had time for a little shopping and a lovely cup of coffee and then Laurence kindly drove me the rest of the way to Dinard, close by, to catch my plane. The return journey wasn’t as bad as the journey out and I found the French ground staff so much more laid back. There was no question of checking the weight of my bag or finding ways to penalize me for an extra kilo – which I didn’t have anyway having divested myself of ‘the bottle’!
And with a bus driver who drove like Jehu (driving his chariot at 90mph), we covered the distance back to Baker Street in record time and I arrived back in Queens Park much earlier than I was expected. What a wonderful visit to Brittany it had been to spend time with good friends.