|Subject: Yet another LONG France travelogue!|
This is the last of my backlog of France travelogues. As well as the actual travel details there are some random thoughts on the fate of rural France.
France - April 2001
For various reasons, we ended up getting married earlier than we had originally planned. This was fine, except that we had already booked & prepaid the honeymoon and the dates couldn't be changed. This left us feeling rather flat after the excitement of planning &replanning the wedding. We still had a great trip to look forward to but we wanted something we could do right now. We want to move to France at some point but it was proving rather difficult to find work at a distance. We had planned to use the original honeymoon trip as a joint fact-finding and vacation trip. We would like to have a Bed &Breakfast or a small hotel in Brittany but I will probably have to work until we get established. I'm a British citizen so, theoretically at least, I should be able to work in France without undue difficulty. Combining these two, we decided that we could justify a short trip to Brittany as long as we regarded it as a business trip. This would also have the advantage of leaving the original honeymoon free for vacationing. As this was a business trip, we decided not to bother keeping a diary, which was a decision we have since come to regret. This journal was reconstructed from our photo album, a lot of staring at maps and several drafts which prompted an oh, what about# I managed to find a very reasonable one-week fly &drive package at http://www.go-today.com and we contacted a couple of realtors that were listing properties we thought looked interesting. I also e-mailed all the recruiters I could find on the Internet to try &set up some interviews. None of the recruiters and only one of the realtors bothered to reply. Actually, the other realtor did reply but only after we had already left! This was to be a strong clue#
We had arranged to meet the first realtor in Huelgoat on the Tuesday morning outside a hotel. As Huelgoat is very centrally located and we already had directions to a hotel, this seemed like a good place to stay. The hotel was right in front of the lake and looked very pretty from the outside so we had high hopes as we went in. Unfortunately, they didn't last long - the rooms literally stank! They smelled of mold and various other unidentifiable odors. We spent a few minutes trying to convince ourselves that it wasn't that bad and failing miserably before leaving in search of another hotel. It was a shame really - I'm sure it's a perfectly nice hotel in the summer when the rooms have aired out. It's also the only hotel in Huelgoat. The problem was that the village was too small. After a quick look at the map, we decided that the towns of Morlaix (to the north) and Carhaix (to the south) were our best bet for finding a hotel. At this point, we were seriously debating the good sense of travelling this far out of season. It didn't help that it was bucketing down with rain! One of the things we had wanted to find out was what Brittany was like out of season and we had a bad feeling that we were starting to find out. Morlaix was the bigger of our candidates so we went there first. It is actually a fair-sized city with a most impressive aqueduct spanning several hundred feet above the town. We would have liked to look around but our priority was finding somewhere to stay. The tourist office, which is our normal way of finding hotels, was closed for the season. We drove around in search of hotels but couldn't find any. This was starting to get ridiculous; a city of that size on the north coast of Brittany has to have any number of nice hotels. The problem was that the city was too large. We were starting to feel like Goldilocks! We had noticed some chain hotels on the way into town and had mentally flagged them as a last resort but we weren't quite down to last resort level yet. So, in the hope that it would be just right, we headed off in the direction of Carhaix. Following the signposts out of Morlaix, we realized that we had been directed along the pretty route. It was extremely pretty in its own way but rather desolate and rugged. Unfortunately, the feature we most wanted to see, a gas station, was noticeable only by its absence. We hadn't seen another car, person, or house in nearly an hour. Once again, in summer with a full tank of gas, I'm sure this is a very beautiful area. In the pouring rain with darkness fast approaching and the fuel warning light on, its charms were a lot harder to appreciate. Particularly coming, as it did, after an overnight transatlantic flight and a not inconsiderable amount of driving from the other side of Paris. By the time we got to Carhaix, it was completely dark and we were just about running on fumes. At this point we needed something like a miracle! Needless to say, we didn't find one but we came close enough. On the very first street we turned down there was a hotel, which was above a cheerful looking bar. It wasn't quite the idyllic country retreat we were hoping for but it didn't look too bad and we had become considerably less fussy over the previous 2-3 hours. There was no parking at the hotel but it was a miserable Monday night outside of the tourist season and the streets were pretty much deserted. So, feeling very much like a native, I parked the car at a precarious angle on the sidewalk. We rushed inside to check out the rooms, which turned out to be a little shabby but clean, comfortable, and warm. They also lacked any offensive odors and were reasonably priced. That was good enough! In fact, it was a little bit better than good enough and we went ahead and booked one of them for four nights. I left Kathie in the lobby sitting on our hefty load of suitcases and went off to park the car. Walking back to the hotel, I spotted a nice looking crêperie. The fact that it looked nice was fairly irrelevant, as it seemed to be just about the only place open. Returning to the hotel, I was rather disconcerted to find that both Kathie &the luggage had vanished! Fortunately, this turned out to have a rather simple explanation. The owner of the hotel had carried the bags up the stairs for us and they, and Kathie, were sitting in the room waiting for me. This simple act turned the whole day around and put us in a much better frame of mind. Our state of mind was further improved by the crêperie. It was very rustic with a roaring log fire in a huge fireplace and the food was excellent. As I mentioned before, we didn't keep a diary this trip so I have no idea what we had to eat. Crêpes would be a good bet though!
As arranged, we met up with the realtor back in Huelgoat the next morning. We actually arrived there a little early as we had allowed time to find gas and then found it rather easily. While we were waiting, we sat in the lounge of the hotel smelly, had coffee, and watched the weather. In the 30 minutes we were there it went from rain to sunny and back to rain. This pattern was to repeat for virtually the whole time we were in Brittany and, we have since learned, is fairly typical for this time of year. The realtor turned out to be a transplanted Englishman, which rather helped with the communication. He led us to the first of the properties; an old mill that we thought had B&B potential. It had been advertised as having two halves, one in livable condition and the other needing refurbishing. In fact, the best half needed refurbishing and the other was just about derelict. There were large holes in the walls. It probably could be made into a spectacular little hotel but I could easily see ten years of work and a lot of money being involved. With our budget, we would have had to do most of the work ourselves and I think it would have been finished just about the time we were ready to retire. We spent some time looking at the mill. I think I was more focussed on the potential and Kathie was more focussed on the actuality. Eventually, the effort involved in getting from actuality to potential began to sink in and I, somewhat reluctantly, abandoned the idea. The mill was just outside the town of Chateauneuf-de-Faou so we bid farewell to our realtor and went there to get some lunch. Chateauneuf was quite a lively little town and it happened to be market day. After lunch, we had a walk around the town and visited the very picturesque little church perched on a hillside overlooking the river. There was also a nice little monument dedicated to the Allied soldiers that had liberated the town in WWII. Once again, the weather had turned wet so we went back to Carhaix. By the time we got there, the sun was shining again. Not wanting to waste the sunshine, we went for a walk around the town. This, however, proved to be a little depressing. At least a third of the shops were closed down and shuttered and the whole town seemed to be dying. It seemed to us that much of rural France, outside of the tourist areas, is slowly dying and large parts of the country are turning into some sort of theme park for Parisians. This was a view that was to be reinforced as we went along and that many people we have spoken to seem to agree with. It is particularly true in those areas that are relatively close to Paris. It seems to start out with people buying holiday homes. At first, this seems like a positive thing with the holiday-makers bringing money into the communities but not having a big impact on the services. However, as the numbers increase, property prices are run up, the original inhabitants start to be forced out, and local businesses find that they no longer have the year-round customer base that they need to survive. It's not just Parisians; in fact in Brittany a lot of the holiday-home owners are English. Parisians do seem to form the largest fraction though. I guess that towns like Carhaix will eventually move over to an all-tourist economy. It's hard to imagine that they can compete successfully with the coastal towns in this respect though. We have mixed feelings about this. After all, we are tourists and, as such, are probably part of the problem. It seems sad that we may be helping to destroy the very thing we came to see. On the other hand, if / when we move there, we will be year-round residents and will, hopefully, contribute to the community we eventually choose to live in. In our tour around the town, we hadn't seen another restaurant any more promising than the crêperie so we ended up there for dinner again.
Today we went off in search of the second of the two properties we had picked out. This time the realtor had not replied with directions so all we had to go on was a picture of the property and the name of the village it was near. We found the village with little difficulty but there were 5 roads radiating out of it. We tried searching down a couple of them but we soon saw enough corners of houses poking out of heavily wooded areas to realize that we were almost certainly missing a much larger number that were completely hidden. We also saw enough side roads to realize that this approach just wasn't going to work and the chances of stumbling across it by accident were pretty slim. This wasn't very surprising, as the realtors deliberately don't give enough information in their listings for you to find the house without their assistance. The last thing they want is for you to contact the owner without them knowing about it. Foiled in this approach, we went on to plan B. We went back to the village to ask somebody. Unfortunately, in order to ask somebody, it requires that there be somebody there to ask. The town was completely deserted and the few stores were all closed. Looking around, we realized that we had run into an extreme case of the holidayization that I mentioned before. Most of the houses looked to be recently restored and were nicely maintained but fully 90% of them were shuttered and plainly unoccupied. In complete accordance with my theory, there were very few businesses in town and what few there were hadn't bothered to open on a rainy Wednesday outside of the tourist season. What had probably been a lively little community was reduced to a shell. This was really brought home to us when we realized that there was no bakery. The thought of a functioning French community without a bakery is inconceivable. Foiled again, we went on to plan C., which looked a whole lot like plan A., except that we were now looking for somebody to ask instead of looking for the house itself. To our great surprise, this plan actually worked. Within a few minutes, I spotted a lady at a farm. I showed her the picture &she immediately exclaimed Aah, les Anglais. We didn't know if the owners were English but it seemed quite possible as the realtor had an English address. She gave me directions and then offered to get in her car and lead us there. We declined this kind offer, as the directions were quite simple. We are quite amazed at how often we meet this kind of helpfulness in rural France. The directions proved to be as accurate as they were simple and we arrived at the property in short order. The owners were indeed English and were a delightful older couple. They treated us as guests and, as well as showing us around, served us tea and biscuits. I think they were pleased to have company, as they seemed to have very little contact with the rest of the world except when they had visitors from England. It probably seemed natural to treat us as guests because that was the only kind of interaction they had had with anybody in several years. The property itself was delightful. It was a typical Breton long house with a separate mother-in-law apartment and an attached wine cave. It had been tastefully restored and the very reasonable price included some antique Breton furniture. I think we would have given them a deposit on the spot had it been somewhere else. Unfortunately, we could see ourselves becoming as isolated as they were in a very short amount of time. There was also an attached field, which they had planted with dozens of rare and exotic trees. They were quite interesting to look at but of no practical use to us. It would have been a shame to dig them all up but leaving them there would effectively make the land useless for our purposes. This visit was far from wasted though. In fact, it turned out to be the most valuable time of the whole week. The owners were a veritable gold mine of information relating to living and working in France. As a member of the EEC, France has to allow qualified workers from other EEC countries equal access to jobs. In theory they do, but the sting in the tail is the word qualified. For any professional position, France only recognizes qualifications and education that were obtained in France. E.G. if the job requires a bachelors degree, then it must have been earned at a French university! This being France, there are no end of loopholes to these rules, but it makes it that much harder to get hired. The wife was a qualified midwife in England but the French medical authorities would not recognize her qualifications and she had spent several years commuting back to England for work. She was now in semi-retirement and was working as a self-employed translator. I have since confirmed this job situation from other sources. It seems that pretty much the only way to get professional-level work in France is to work for a multinational company and get transferred there. There is also so much red tape involved in starting your own business that it's easier to start one in England and open a French branch office! The joys of bureaucracy# This wasn't exactly the information we wanted to hear but at least it saved us a great deal of time and also explained why I hadn't heard back from any of the French recruiters. She gave us one more piece of information that explained a lot. The birth rate in France is extremely low - lower than the replacement rate. In other words, the population of native French people is declining. At first, we found this a little hard to believe and we haven't been able to confirm it from other sources. However, when you start looking around, you don't see that many families with children, you don't see that much new housing going up, you see a lot of empty space, and you see small villages dying out. All of these things are consistent with a declining population. Anyway, it now seemed obvious that we needed to rethink our approach. Looking for work in the way I had planned was almost certainly going to be a waste of time. That effectively put an end to the business part of our trip; from here onwards it would be all vacation.
We may have been on vacation but somebody had forgotten to inform the weather of the fact. Once again, it was bucketing down. We decided that we would spend one more day in Brittany &then drive up to the Loire valley. Amboise was where we got engaged so it seemed fitting to spend at least part of our honeymoon there. We had originally planned to tour the west &north coasts of Brittany looking for property. As that was now on hold, we decided to do a quick scan of the area instead and look out for places to visit in a more suitable season. We started south of Brest and meandered fairly aimlessly along the coastline to Morlaix, skipping the major cities. At random intervals, we turned off the major roads and explored some of the side roads. I can't really tell you where we went because we had no fixed plan and didn't keep any notes. It was just that sort of a day. Up until the day before we had had a plan of action and we had a different plan starting the next day. This was a sort of formless interlude between them. This is not to say that it wasn't a pleasant day. The coastline in these areas is quite rugged and we discovered no end of picturesque little bays, stunning highland views, and intriguing causeways leading out to scenic islands. We stopped and took a few photographs as we went but, most of the time, the weather was rather bracing and we viewed much of it through the windshield of the car. I can heartily recommend this area, but not in early April!
Central Brittany to Amboise is not a hard drive and it is one we are well familiar with. It would have been even easier had it not been for the unwelcome attentions of a traffic policeman! He was apparently rather peeved at the speed I had just negotiated a traffic circle and waved me over so we could discuss the matter. There wasn't a lot of discussing though, as I suddenly &mysteriously forgot all my French and he didn't speak English. To make up for this lack of conversation, I pasted a friendly smile on my face &started handing him random bits of paper. My American driver's license, both our passports, the car rental contract, etc. As this went on, the officer developed a steadily more & more mystified expression. Eventually, he thrust all my papers back at me, waved us on, and emitted an expression that I can only translate as go forth &multiply. So we did. We arrived in Amboise without further adventure and checked into our old favorite, the hotel Pergola. The owners remembered us from our previous visit and greeted us like old friends. Even the cat seemed pleased to see us but it's hard to tell with cats. The owners offered us the same room that we had stayed in before but we still had less than fond memories of lugging our suitcases up three floors and requested something lower. After checking in, we were still in time for lunch, which we had at another old favorite, the little café in the back of the Bigot chocolate shop. Except, it wasn't in the back any more. They had opened a new restaurant area alongside the chocolate shop. The new restaurant was very nice but not quite as cozy as the old one. The food, fortunately, was as good as ever. We spent the afternoon just strolling aimlessly around the town and along the river. We paused frequently at various establishments for refreshment and had a thoroughly pleasant afternoon doing absolutely nothing of note.
It's really hard to be in the Loire valley without visiting a chateau or two. We tried, we really tried, but to no avail. As is our custom, we went off to one of our favorite driving destinations - nowhere in particular! We were quietly touring around the back roads along the Loire when we rounded a corner and there it was - Chateau Ussé. This is the chateau that claims to have been the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty tale. The explanation for this connection seemed a little tenuous to us and we didn't buy it. There are apparently several other chateaux that make the same claim. I have no evidence to support one over another. The chateau itself was quite pretty but didn't really stand out from any of the others we have visited. This is very much a matter of preference. Some people feel the need to visit every chateau and find them all fascinating; others find that they all start to look the same after a while. We belong to the latter group. It didn't help that this was a guided tour and the guide's main concern seemed to be to get to the exit door first so she could stand there with her hand out. As people tried to catch up and ask questions, she just accelerated. We took a different approach and dawdled along at the rear looking at whatever caught our eye. This seemed to rather annoy the guide, as she was required to lock each room behind us. This meant she was continually rushing to the back to chivy us along and then back to the front to resume the lead. Some people just need annoying! When we finally reached the exit, she was standing there, as expected, with her hand out. I took her hand and shook it while thanking her effusively. This caused great amusement to a German couple that we had joined up with and they repeated the scene. After the organized part of the tour, we were directed towards a separate tower that is supposed to be a Sleeping Beauty museum. Needless to say, we skipped this part and went off to look at the dungeons and the gardens. As this was still early in the year, the gardens weren't at their best. We did, however, find the greenhouses where they were growing the flowers in preparation for transplanting them into the flowerbeds. They also had trees in there. The trees are in huge planters that appear to be designed in such a way that they can be moved by forklift truck. We guessed that they put them outside after the danger of frost has passed. If we ever pass this way again in a more clement season, we wouldn't mind seeing the gardens in their full splendor but we won't be taking the tour again.
The banks of the Loire are lined with caves. However, they are not natural caves; they are old limestone mines. All of the chateaux in the Loire valley (and other places) were built using limestone mined from these caves. That's a lot of chateaux, which means that there are a lot of caves. Some of them are in the form of warrens hundreds of miles in length. This is far too valuable a resource to waste and they are put to many different uses. Some are used as storage chambers and some have been expanded into houses by building a façade on the front. I have even seen one used as a Chinese restaurant. They are also the ideal environments for a mushroom farm, which is what we wanted to see. The farm was located near our favorite winery in Saumur. As our wine stocks had been greatly depleted by our wedding celebrations, we decided to kill two birds with one stone and pick up a case while we were in the area. Unfortunately, the winery has grown considerably since I first discovered it ten years before and they have moved the production to a larger facility. The sales were still at the original location but they had sold out of the wine we wanted over the weekend and weren't expecting fresh supplies until the following afternoon. By then, we would be in Paris. We actually had mixed feelings about this, as a case of wine is not an easy thing to transport on an airplane. The French will not take it as checked baggage and make us carry it on even though it is much larger, and heavier, than regulations allow. After all, regulations mean nothing compared to having your wine arrive safely! The British, on the other hand, do not share this point of view and believe that the wine should be in the cargo hold. If you are flying from Paris and have a connection in London, this presents some rather obvious difficulties. Coupled with this, a case of wine is not a light thing to cart around particularly when you have a short connection time and have to spend a good part of it in a discussion about the suitability of carrying a case of wine as cabin baggage. A mushroom farm may not sound like much of a travel destination but it is actually quite interesting. You can take a guided tour or you can take an information sheet and wander around at your own pace. As well as the various stages of mushroom growth, there were small displays showing the history of mushroom farming and a museum of mushrooms with various exotic species on display. These included one that weighed over 30 lbs. and one in a rather masculine shape which has since caused many double takes from people browsing our photo album! One thing that we learned is that this was not a working mushroom farm because it is actually impossible to visit a working mushroom farm. The mushroom beds are very susceptible to becoming infected and all contact with them is kept to an absolute minimum. We were also surprised at how colorful the mushrooms were. Why does something that grows in the dark, doesn't use photosynthesis, and doesn't need pollinating need to be colorful? Who is it trying to impress? On the way back to Amboise, we stopped at a random restaurant for lunch and were rewarded with some of the best food I have ever eaten. It was the sort of place that only has one sitting for lunch. We arrived a little late but they very graciously agreed to squeeze us in. While they were setting a table up for us, they brought us a little plate of savory petit fours as a small snack to keep us on our feet until we got our real appetizer. There was a similar plate of sweet things that served as an appetizer for dessert. This was a typical two-hour French lunch. The service was impeccable and every course melted in your mouth. Due to us not keeping a diary on this trip, we can't remember the name of this restaurant but we do remember exactly where it is and we will be back.
This was our last full day of the trip. It seemed to have passed very quickly. We drove up to Paris and checked in to the airport Ibis, as usual. After dropping off the rental car, we had a mission to accomplish. One of our companions from the last trip had purchased some Eiffel Tower earrings in Paris and had lost one. They weren't valuable or anything but she had a certain sentimental attachment to them and was quite disappointed that she couldn't wear them anymore. They had asked us, if we had time, to try &find another pair. The RER train station is in the same building as the hotel so this seemed like the obvious way to get there. We were expecting something like a subway fare and were quite surprised to discover that a round-trip for two to Paris was $30. However, we couldn't think of any cheaper way to do it so off we went. The train passes through some of Paris' least scenic neighborhoods and I can't really say it was a pleasant trip as we rattled &swayed our way past mile after mile of graffiti and derelict factories. The scenery wasn't to improve until we got quite close to the city center and then the train promptly went underground. It was a bit like approaching NYC by way of Newark but not as attractive! Coming in from the airport, there are only two choices of train to take. The only difference is that one goes straight through &on the other you have to change at Gare du Nord. I figured that it couldn't be that hard to change trains so we took the first train that arrived. This proved to be a mistake. It seems that Gare du Nord is what Dante modeled his inferno on except that he toned it down to make it more believable. There was massive construction going on. It had apparently been going on since Napoleon was a private. As a result, much of the signage was temporary. This would probably have been more useful if the permanent signs had been removed or covered up. As it was, there were conflicting signs all over the station and little guidance for a stranger to choose between them while trying to avoid the thousands of regular users who knew exactly where they were going and didn't much care if you were in the way. By blind luck, we eventually stumbled across what we hoped was the right platform &boarded the second train. I was quite relieved when the first station we passed was the one we were expecting. We soon arrived at the right station and got off the train. As we climbed the stairs leaving the station, we discovered a small souvenir stand at the top. They had the exact same earrings and our mission was accomplished within seconds of arriving in central Paris. We took a short stroll along the banks of the Seine and had another look at the Eiffel tower. It didn't seem to have changed significantly in the seven months since we had last seen it so we assumed it to be in good hands and went about our business. Our business at that point consisted of eating dinner, which we did at a nice little bistro just around the corner from the RER station. It had been a fairly cold &blustery day that wasn't really conducive to sightseeing. After having a nice meal and getting warm &dry, it seemed even less inviting. The fact that we had a very early flight the next morning didn't help either. So we went straight back to the train having covered about three blocks of central Paris. We did have the earrings though! We didn't intend to fall for that Gare du Nord trick again and resolved to wait for a direct train. After four trains had come &gone, we began to wonder if we weren't missing something. A nice young lady noticed our obvious confusion and explained the situation. The RER was on strike# A French railroad strike isn't quite the total event that you might expect. For one thing, the trains still run. They just run at random intervals on the least useful routes. In our case, this meant that we had, once again, to change trains at Gare du Nord. We thanked the young lady profusely and boarded the next train. Gare du Nord was even worse the second time around. It was now rush hour and, because of the strike, there were now even-more-temporary signs overriding the temporary signs that overrode the permanent signs. Even worse, these new signs were on easels that were placed on the floor and they were completely invisible amidst the crowds. We eventually located the right platform and were pleased to see that there was a train waiting to leave. Our pleasure soon faded when we discovered that it was literally jammed full of people and more were clinging to the doorways. This made it impossible to close the doors. There was one conductor walking the length of the train making people that were obstructing the doors get off. Needless to say, by the time he got to the end of the train, new people had arrived and they were jamming the doors at the other end. Eventually, the crowd of evicted people got so thick that the new people couldn't reach the doors and the train finally left. We had no idea if there would be another. In fact, there was and it arrived within seconds. They boarded everybody that was waiting, which about half filled the train, and it promptly left. We even had a block of seats to ourselves. Back in our hotel room, I noticed that there was no ashtray even though we had asked for a smoking room. As I was calling down to housekeeping to ask for one, I recalled seeing a sign in the lobby about getting a free night if you had any problem, no matter how small, that was not resolved in 20 minutes. We gave them 30 minutes just to be sure and then off I went to talk to the main desk. First, I confirmed that I had read the sign right, which I had. Interestingly, this sign was only in French whereas every other sign in the hotel was in French, English, and German. The manageress first tried to tell me, in English, that my problem was too small so I pointed out the sign to her. Then she tried to tell me that I had misread it so I switched to French. At this point, she gave up and we got credited for a free room. As I figure the hotel charges about double what it is worth and we have now stayed there twice; getting one of the nights for free seemed about right.
This wasn't supposed to be a vacation trip, even though it turned into one at the end. For that reason, we weren't too disappointed with the weather. However, early April is too early in the year for northern France, we won't do that again. Our main reason for going was the fact-finding part of the trip. That was a considerable success, even though the facts we found out weren't the ones we wanted to hear. The vacation part of the trip turned out pretty well too, in spite of the weather. This may not have been the best trip we ever took, but it still wasn't bad.
(Pictures are on web site.)
Terry Richards http://home.earthlink.net/~terryr999/