Saturday, August 14
For the foreseeable future we will be holidaying in August. This has a number of disadvantages in terms of cost and availability of accommodation and travel. It does have the advantage though that this is when all the excitement for tourists is laid on. August 15, the feast of our lady is a general occasion for parades and rejoicing. On the eve of this big festival, I took myself off to the church at the foot of the mountain to see the “pardon” of the Menez Hom. On the way in, I met an elderly local lady and she pointed out to me all the banners of the local towns and the mayor who was in his traditional gear. “I wouldn’t know who the mayor is,” she confided to me “except that he is the son of my cousin.” She told me that she was a native Breton speaker and only learnt French when she went to school at 6 and promptly began exchanging greetings in Breton with the equally elderly gentlemen in the parade. Mass lasted an hour and a half and had the somewhat festive atmosphere of Christmas mass at home. The church was filled with people of all ages including saintly French children. I noticed a group that I had seen at the bakery the previous day sitting silently in a nearby pew and gazed in awe.
Sunday, August 15
We took ourselves to see the parade at Plomodiern. This was terrific. It was short, not too crowded and the man who had led the bagpipe session earlier in the week waved at Michael and Daniel from the parade. Mathilde the silent’s father and sister were parading along with almost everyone else from the neighbouring parishes. The photographer from Ouest France was there and we had high hopes of making the cut for the following day’s edition as he pictured Daniel and Michael sheltering from the sun under a Ouest France advertising hoarding but it was not to be.
Our timing was perfection which almost never happens. We retired to a nearby restaurant just before the end of the parade and got prime seats upstairs from whence we could eat mussels and chips and survey the rest of the excitement. To make our happiness complete, a kind local lady gave Michael and Daniel little Breton flags (made in China, of course) and the Princess a stone painted with figures in Breton costumes.
That afternoon on the beach, Michael managed to find another English child and was ecstatic. Hugh from Harpenden was not, alas, as wonderful as Joe, but he was just fine. At least he didn’t speak French.
Monday, August 16
We went to the beach in the morning and the children dug a large hole with their hands ignoring the spades we had carted from Ireland.
They liked it. We liked it. We read our books. Something of a book crisis was approaching as herself had re-read Harry Potter books 5 and 6 several times, I had finished my books and I had read her Harry Potters, even Mr. Waffle had finished his books and was contemplating HP. Only Ouest France stood between us and disaster.
We went to a house which had been turned into a small museum. It was delightful and we had it to ourselves.
The whole place was absolutely entrancing. The children thought that it was a bit dull and the ice-cream offerings were poor. They were quite pleased with dinner in the local crêperie though.
Tuesday, August 17
It poured rain. Along with every other tourist in Brittany we went to Oceanopolis for the day. As we trudged from the muddy overflow carpark in the driving rain, I suspected that we were not going to enjoy our visit. I was correct. The place was heaving and the visit nearly killed us. Next time I will go on a sunny day. Luckily Mathilde the silent was booked for that evening and Mr. Waffle and I were able to go out for dinner to recover.
Wednesday, August 18
We drove down to the south of Brittany where Mr. Waffle had been on holiday with his family as a child (all remembered in loving detail – all I can really remember distinctly about my family holidays in Brittany is the time the girl from the tent next door insisted on playing with my slime and then dropped it on the ground and ruined it). We visited the château de Kerazan which was grand but I think that our familial tolerance levels for museums were declining at this point. We took the boat from Loctudy to Île Tudy (5 minutes each way) which the children absolutely loved but when we got there, they were hungry and demanded to go to a cafe. I got cross and things went downhill from there.
We finally got back to Ploéven to go to the soirée crêpes (local excitement with pancakes – obviously – Breton music and dancing) with bitterness all round. Michael declaiming loudly from the back of the car that all he was was a servant to his parents being dragged from place to place to do their bidding. This tetchiness was not helped by finding on arrival at the soirée crêpes that there was nowhere to sit and you might have to wait up to an hour to get your hands on a pancake. Disaster was averted by nice locals kindly finding and moving a supply of tables and chairs for us. The younger members of the party ran off with a group of feral children and, aside from the cold, it passed off better than might have been expected given the dismal beginnings.
Thursday, August 19
Michael was ill in the morning. I dragged himself and Daniel to the beach to find stones to paint and he trudged back very dolefully and promptly got sick in the toilet on his return. Heartlessly, after lunch, I left my sick son and his brother to be minded by their father and the Princess and I went shopping in Quimper. So excited were we by this outing, that I nearly completely lost the run of myself and was in the Petit Bateau queue, waiting patiently to pay over €100 for three pairs of children’s pyjamas when I said hang on a minute, put them back on the shelf and ran out of the shop. I subsequently got three pairs of pyjamas from Eurodif for €18. With the savings, the Princess and I were able to buy macaroons. And by the time we got home, Michael was better. This inspired me to try out the barbecue that came with the house (I dunno, I felt I’d like to give him a further dose of food poisoning?). This, despite the children’s interest in the novel coooking method was, frankly, not a success. Dinner was late and undercooked.
Friday, August 20
Raining again and, increasingly, the troops were getting restive and speaking longingly of home. We spent the morning in the local pub playing games of mini-foot. The Princess and Daniel are terrible (and loud) losers. Mr. Waffle and I were going out for a final French dinner together that night and I thought I would try to find somewhere nice. So I phoned my long-suffering sister and ask ed her to harness the power of the internet and see whether there was anywhere nice to eat nearby. There was; a two-star Michelin restaurant only up the road. And, in a classic my bourgeois hell moment, I knew that Friday lunch time in the middle of August would be too late to book a table for dinner that night. And I was right. Oh blah. To help me recover, Mr. Waffle took the children to the cinema while I went for a further stroll around Quimper. This sustained me during a last dinner in the crêperie. I am not sure that, if I were told that I could never eat another pancake, I would be altogether sorry.
Saturday, August 21
We spent the morning packing and cleaning. This was the moment to remove the revolting but highly effective fly paper that had been hanging from the ceiling when we arrived and swayed, increasingly ominously, over the breakfast table with its grim cargo for our fortnight in the house. Mr. Waffle did it. He is very brave.
We drove up to Mont Saint Michel and played I spy on the way. Daniel said, “I spy something red, white and blue”. “A French flag,” I said. “No, Mummy, in the car.” “I give up.” “Your eyes, silly!” No more late nights for me.
When we arrived our hotel Mr. Waffle and I were keen to get out to see the Mont but the children really didn’t see how it could be better than a two star hotel with the Pink Panther on the telly. Eventually we hustled them out under protest.
I may have been to Mont Saint Michel before. I can’t remember. I suppose an apology is probably due to my parents at this point. I do remember my mother telling me that the tide came in faster than a horse can gallop but whether this was in the context of crossing the causeway to the Mont or just the kind of general knowledge she felt I ought to have, I cannot say. Anyhow, on this occasion, I read nothing in advance. I knew what it looked like from the outside and that was it.
We arrived in the car park (not covered by water and unlikely to be flooded that evening – reassuring) and went in the gates. It was about 7 in the evening and from the moment we walked in the front gate everything was absolutely perfect. Mr. Waffle had the inspired idea of suggesting to the Princess that Mont Saint Michel was like Hogwarts and she was entranced. As the shopping districts in the HP books are inspired by twisting medieval streets she was soon happily pointing out Diagon Alley and the Hog’s Head. We stopped for dinner in a restaurant with a beautiful view out over the bay. The children were good. And after dinner we kept climbing up, up, up to the very top. The children were full of enthusiasm and ran ahead. Michael was particularly delighted and pointed out each of the many, many images of his patron saint taking out the dragon. Even though it was August, the streets were relatively empty as it was quite late in the evening. It was 8.50 for an adult to get into the church at the top of the mount and I hesitated. I have seen a lot of churches. The children, however, were keen to go in, so we forked out €17. The children were right, it was €17 well spent. The bored teenager in charge of ticket dispensing was charged with asking tourists where they were from and when I had asked for my tickets he said to me “quel département?” I was delighted with myself – he thought I was French. I think the secret of my success was that I had only to say “2 adultes et trois enfants” words which do not contain the almost impossible “ue” sound (if you can pronouce ‘rue’ and ‘roue’ differently you’ve got it, congratulations).
Then we went into the church. Except it wasn’t a church, it was a whole monastery complex. It was enormous and breathtakingly beautiful. Huge gothic chambers illuminated by the setting sun. Room after room after extraordinarily beautiful room, even the children were astonished. And the views:
The most amazing moment was when I finally thought I had reached the top. We went up a narrow twisting stairs and I expected to come out in a small turret with a view of the bay except I didn’t, I emerged in a gothic cathedral. It was quite astonishing. I nearly cried in wonder. I cannot imagine what the medieval pilgrims thought. And then in front of the church, there was a parvis with spectacular views. Off to the side there was a cloister. It’s difficult to convey how surprising it is to see all of these things on a small rocky outcrop. Then we left and ran down the near empty streets in the gathering darkness. It was without a doubt the best moment of our holidays and the most spectacular monument I have ever seen.
We were a bit reluctant to go back to Mont Saint Michel in case we somehow ruined the magic of the night before but we went back anyway because we hadn’t walked the ramparts and we are thorough tourists. It was still beautiful but full, full, full of people. It was standing room only and the children were cranky and we were worried about losing them. I went to mass which was lovely but I was conscious of poor Mr. Waffle waiting outside with the children (couldn’t face letting them run riot in a French church with only elderly people – I know, this makes me both a bad mother and a bad catholic). Mass was a welcome break from the relentless peddling of cheap tat and hoards of tourists on the streets outside and a reminder of why the Mont was actually built. As soon as I emerged we hot footed it back to the mainland. The previous evening I had looked at diners in the tacky restaurants across from the Mont and wondered who on earth ate there when they could eat on the amazingly beautiful Mont Saint Michel. Well this was my day to find out: people who ate on the Mont yesterday and couldn’t face the waves of tourists and fancied better and cheaper mussels.
We then went to a bed & breakfast we had found on the internet. It was run by a retired English couple. Normandy is awash with English people. There were times when Normandy felt like it was suffering a reverse takeover by the English. The nice B&B couple recommended that we go and visit a nearby forest and, shortly afterwards, the Princess was swinging through trees on a rope. Really. The boys were too small to go up but she was attached to a harness and sent flying for a couple of hours. She loved it. No helmet, no knee pads, no nothing. I can’t help feeling that this more relaxed attitude is delightful. The boys and I went on a little electronic boat to help them recover from their sorrow at being under 5 and therefore unable to do the rope thing.
Monday, August 23
We were all pretty much ready to go home at this point. We drove north to Cherbourg in good time acutely conscious of the horror of the journey to the ferry. We stopped off and looked at the beautiful cathedral in Coutances. We then had lunch in a brasserie congratulating ourselves on how the children’s restaurant manners had improved over the holidays (they all used cutlery, sat up in their chairs, didn’t shout, it was lovely).
As we had lots of time, we then stopped in a chateau in Pirou which was mildly interesting. When we emerged we still had three hours until the boat left. It was at this point that we realised that we had left all the children’s coats and jumpers in a bag in the brasserie in Coutances. We considered abandoning them but in the end decided that we just had time to go back and get them. Coutances had been dead as a doornail when we went there in the morning: rainy, gloomy and windswept. By the time we got back in the afternoon, all that had changed, the shops were open, the sun was shining, the good burghers of Coutances were out and about doing their shopping. The traffic was murder. I thought that we would never get out. There followed an unnerving drive to Cherbourg during which Mr. Waffle was heard to say between clenched teeth “you will never pass that caravan unless you drop a gear when we come to the next climbing lane” which remark led to some tension between driver and navigator. The children, doubtless recalling the journey to Rosslare, remained virtuously silent in the back. Cherbourg was full of traffic too. Surely we weren’t going to miss the boat? We didn’t. Next time, however, we will drive to the ferryport at 9.00 in the morning and remain there all day until the ferry leaves. Our marriage depends on it.
The boat was full of Irish people. After a month of French people, I found my compatriots delightfully chatty. You know, just exchanging little asides when we were standing looking at the same thing. French people don’t really do that. I was also quite shocked by how badly behaved some of the children were. After three weeks of French conditioning, mine seemed positively saintly in comparison to many of the others.
Tuesday, August 23
We were home. Note to file: we drove back from Rosslare in 3 hours. When I asked the children whether they would like to go to France again, they said yes, so I take it, the holiday was a success. Although Michael did say that he would like to go to England also to find Joe.
One of the courgettes in the back garden had grown to enormous dimensions while we were away and we harvested it and had it for dinner. I discovered that I am the only person in my family who likes courgette gratin. So much for all this guff about children liking vegetables they grow themselves.
And now the holidays are really over. The children are going back to school on Wednesday. The cat who was coldly indifferent on our return has now, just about, forgiven us for going away and last night consented to eat some cold roast chicken.
How were your holidays?