Thursday, June 4, 2009

By the (French) seaside

Jean-Baptiste loves the seaside
And I have only seen a tiny bit of what there is on the right hand side of the Manche.
So here we are.
I wasn’t quite at home in last year’s little peeps at Berck-sur-mer and Bray Dunes (in August) so this time we’ve tried something of a slightly different style (in June). We started off with the little village of Wissant. It’s a nice little village, quiet and not internationally commercialised, set on the sweeping sands between Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Gris Nez., the splendid views of both of which we visited (by car), the one in sunshine the other at sunset. We peeked at the pebbly beach, sheltered behind a necessary windbreak for a cup of hot chocolate on the seafront, watching a dozen veliplanchistes scooting through the waves, and consumed some micro-mussels and slightly soggy chips in a bistro. There was a pleasant little morning market, too. But, oh dear, ‘commercial’ and ‘professional’ are not the same thing and we hit a very, very curious place in the way of accommodation. We were one of two couples in the extensive ‘annexe’ of the hotel ‘Le Vivier’. Fine bed, linen, bathroom, breakfast, even quite a pretty view of the sea, but .. décor difficult to sleep inside, atmosphere nil, advertised wifi non-existent and, worst of all, service zero. If I say we waited two hours at an unmanned reception desk to pay our bill (having decided to exit after just one night) all is said. Wissant is a nice enough place, but steer clear of Le Vivier.

Rather disconsolately, we looked at the map and the various dots on the coast heading south. I’d heard of Etretat (it has a race course), and also the nearby Fécamp, an ex-fishing port, so ultimately we opted for that. We arrived in Fécamp yesterday afternoon, and all I need say is, we are spending our remaining seaside days right here.

A nice middle-sized pebbly beach with little boats, attractive cliffs, a handful of not-too-breezy waterfront cafes, and the ancient Hotel de l’Angleterre, where we are comfortably installed on the top floor (with sea view and impeccable wifi) under the care of two delightful French ladies. Fecamp is not too big nor too small, not too posh nor too ‘popular’, it is calm (well, in June, anyway) and friendly and just … nice.

Last night we supped opposite the sea, on fish soup (me) and proper juicy moules a la Cauchoise (J-B), the delicious speciality of Marc, the owner of the Café Les Embruns which, need I say, is ‘Highly Recommended’. So ‘highly recommended’ that I include its photo (that’s me in the middle, with Marc and Mme Marc).

This morning we visited the ‘Palais Benedictine’, a few blocks inland. It's an amazing place, a neo-Gothic fantasy built in the last years of the 1800s by a man whose name translates as ‘Alexander the Great’, who had decided to commercialise the 27-herb brew of the monks, and thus invented the ‘B&B’. This fairytale castle holds a 'model' distillery, plus exhibitions of art ancient and modern, and a charming artistic and hands-on exhibition (‘Parcours d’essences’) of the various things that go into the making of Benedictine. For your 6.50 you even get a little glass of iced Benedictine! A jewel of an 'exhibition'. OK. A top-notch publicity production.

Although we’d more or less decided to stay in Fécamp, Etretat and its famous cliff gate – only 16km distant -- had to be checked out, so thence we headed. It’s definitely picturesque, the famous cliff (which we duly climbed it to its very peak) is definitely notable, and you couldn’t possibly deny that the town has character by the megaton. In the days when rather less of a town was squeezed into its narrow streets (today’s traffic can barely move) it must have been delicious. It is still delightful. In June. I’d hate to see it in August. And I think I’d have liked it enormously in 1880.

And now we’re back in Fécamp. Jean has gone for a paddle, and I‘m blogging … and soon it will be time to dress for dinner at the seaside…

Footnote: after apéritif chez Marc, we are on the terrasse at our hotel where we have just consumed absolutely first-class crepes. J-B, who knows about these things, says his (he had seconds!) was the best, most sophisticated crêpe au Gré du Vent he has ever eaten.

Fecamp can do nothing wrong!

Double footnote: Yes, it can. Today I broke my titanium glasses frames and we managed to find a distinctly ordinary lunch. However, a visit to the Mariners' Church of Notre Dame de Sauveur, perched on the cliffs alongside some important and more-interesting-than-usual WW2 blockhouses and bunkers, and another to the stunning and genuinely gothic Abbiate cathedral compensated. Sigh. Nothing is perfect.

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