Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Connais tu Domfront?

Well, I’d never heard of it a month ago, and most of my French friends hadn’t either, except Pierre from the Insitut Français who was able to quote some 12th century religious relic or ruin. But this small Normandy town (see http://www.domfront.com) has forcibly impressed itself on me twice in the last weeks.
Firstly, when Brian and I were driving from St Malo to Couptrain, and as I was casually admiring the passing beauties of the town (undoubtedly the most picturesque through which we drove), we missed by much less than a metre a very bad road accident. As we continued (slowly, which saved us) along the main road, a mad local driver erupted at top speed from a side street, to our right. Brian stood on the brakes, and somehow – with a crazy curve – the madman succeeded in not crashing headlong into the passenger side of our car. Barely slowing, he somehow got past our bonnet, and zoomed away. We were so stunned, that we simply revved up and moved on. Only later did the enormity of what had almost happened dawn on us.
So Domfront has been somewhat engraved on my brain. Now, of course, its engraved on my heart, for my second experience of the town, three weeks later, was the debut of Rosy des Baux.

I now know a little more about the circumstances, for both Jack and Marion telephoned me and – how necessity cures all ills! – I was able to understand much of a telephone conversation for the first time in ages. Rosy seems to have behaved like a lady. She got away splendidly (Marion has a talent for that!) and went straight to the lead, while behind all was chaos. During the running, six of the eleven neophyte runners lost their gait and were disqualified, and one even fell. So, heading for home, Rosy had but four viable contenders chasing her. I have yet to see the DVD, but I suspect they were well spaced down the track. Anyway, none of them got to her. The horse that had trailed, Riceys, gave it a go, but Rosy held him off to win ‘comfortably’ by half a length. Since many French provincial tracks don’t time their races, nor issue margins with the results, I have no idea as to the former, but Marion reports half a length.

What I do have, via Marion, are some photos of the occasion. So here is Rosy warming up on the green cloverish grass of Domfront racecourse – grass which apparently covers more than a few holes! – wearing her brand new silks. There was quite a hoo-ha over defining the colours, between New Zealand (thank you hugely, Lyn at HRNZ!) and France, as the English and French ‘perceptions’ of such words as 'jaune' and 'or' and 'orange' seem to differ and, as a result, the original soft-boiled egg yellow now has a definite tinge of Amsterdam orange to it – but who cares?

And here she is, with Bernard, togged up in her 'après-la-guerre' gear.

I don’t know whether Domfront has a Colin Berry, but I suspect not, so for a photofinish I may have to wait eternally. Maybe Colin can do something from the DVD of the race which apparently I can get.

I am now waiting eagerly to find out where she will run next, and if it is before I am due at Dunkirk, and if it’s somewhere in that direction, I shall make a best attempt to go there. There is nothing to hold me in Paris – I came here to see my friends Christophe, Pierre and Jean-Baptiste and, after next week, when I escape from the Chinese dosshouse where I am presently immured and go to stay with Jean-Baptiste on the other side of Paris, that will be ‘chose faite’. A little breath of the French countryside to finish my stay here appeals greatly.

In the meanwhile, we make merry in the Café des Chineurs -- which has changed owners and staff since last year -- and in a variety of local restaurants. Alas, my favourite couscous house from last year is gone (with the rent unpaid, the manager ran away one night with the till) but there are plenty more, and last night I sampled a tripoux d’Auvergne – yes, its another variation on tripe, and delicious -- at a nearby bistrot.
The very drunk gentleman who kindly photographed the four of us dining al fresco the night before, at another delightful bistro, cut Pierre and I in half, so in the picture you have only Christophe and Jean-Baptiste… but, even if we aren't, the atmosphere is still there!

Yesterday, Christophe and I visited the Bibliotheque Nationale to do a little delving in the theatre collections, à propos our various books-in-the-making. And there, to my delight, I found … me! On the top shelf of the ‘music’ section, standing binding to binding with umpteen volumes of Grove, the three volumes of The Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre by Gänzl, K-F. Permission asked and given, I proudly photographed them in situ. Fancy, me in there, along with Corneille, Racine, Feydeau and Goscinny & Uderzo.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rosy goes to Domfront

Today is a big day for me. I have a horse of my very own going to the races... for the first time since dear old Cliffie (Lite Gasp) ran his last in New Zealand some two years ago.
More, she will be carrying -- for the first time on any racetrack -- my new racing colours, stitched up in double quick time on French soil, for the occasion.
I was so excited this morning, I could hardly get out of bed.
When I finally got to the café, to meet Christophe and Pierre for our morning chocolat and croissant, I cornered a man reading Paris-Turf (France's racing paper) and grilled him as to how I was going to be able to find out the result...
I couldn't keep still.
I've been saying, ten hours to go, five hours to go, three hours to go. And now its one hour to go. I shall hold the press until the result -- somehow -- comes through.


Jack just emailed from London. Teresa has called him with the amazing news ... she won! It's true. Paris-Turf's website confirms it...

The full story as soon as I have it.
Bravo l'ecurie Hue!
Bravo Rosy!
Bravo the soft-boiled egg colours: 1 start, 1 win!

Monday, July 21, 2008

A baptism of firewater

Well, we’ve been to the races again – to Graignes, out towards the Normandy coastline, and came home with a fine second placing – but this weekend racing for once took a back seat. For this weekend was an Event.

The basis for the Event was a christening, the baptism of David and Celine’s two little girls, Clara and Olivia, at the Baux de Breteuil village church, by the same elderly and humorous priest who has now been performing the Hue family ceremonies for several generations. More than fifty guests – family and friends – hit town for the occasion, which was duly consummated between midday and 12.30pm on Sunday. The deed done, grandpa Bernard’s brother, Remy, set the churchbells ringing and we all got back to the other business of the weekend. Partying. For Saturday and Sunday (and the odd small hour of Monday) were what might be called ‘one Huge Hoolie’.

It started Saturday evening, on our return from Graignes. The previous night, we’d taken six inexpert hours to erect a big blue-and-white-striped marquee, and during our absence Teresa and her support team had decked the tables, ready for the morrow, so all that was left to those baptisers who were as yet in town, as evening fell, was to forgather in the court yard and begin what somebody called ‘the warm up party’. Warm? I’d say ‘hot’. Marion can undo bottles of whisky, wine and – as pictured here – champagne faster than any man I have ever met, and we partiers kept him busy at it!

There was feasting – including a 14 kilo crate of fresh oysters that we’d picked up on the way back from the coast – there was drinking, there was singing and, around midnight, even dancing. I got to taste my first ever Normandy oyster, forgot the words of ‘My Way’ (nowadays my only song) and, in spite of my known repugnance for dance, was actually to be found wriggling about to pop music on the living room tiles until 1am

Sunday morning was taken up with preparations for and the accomplishment of the official business of the week, but, once the babes had been oiled and watered, we all paraded back across the village green to where what had been on Friday a whole live sheep was turning on the spit, and – the tent flung open – we got down to the serious part of the partying.

I haven’t got too many pictures of the afternoon’s and the evening’s jollities, I was far too busy jollying myself. I also can’t quite remember what time we called it quits and stumbled into bed. There were certainly a few ummm casualties en route – I seem to remember helping hoist a tumbled Rémy out of a flower bed while it was still daylight, and also coming at least once to the aid of Cousin Bruno, a handsome young father-of-three who’d earlier made my day by bestowing a lusty kiss, smack on my surprised, champagne-sodden lips! Jack took the smart way out of any inclination to excess, by simply falling asleep for several hours in the middle of proceedings! There were also one or two notable (no names!) absentees for the ‘clean-up call’ at 8am today. Hardly surprising.

All sorts of new and newish friends, of course. Tim and Emma (who are the new owners of Quitus, the horse I didn’t buy last year, see blog), their daughter Kate and their son Jack, who was celebrating his 16th birthday, with two pals in tow, on the self same day. Another Bruno, who talked French politics to me (and I talked back!), Bill – who gave me my drive amongst the buttercups last year – and Titi, fourteen year-old Teddy, talking to whom (French) was one of the fun events of the evening, big, quiet Dominique who had earlier played the part of godfather and, of course, all the Hue family including wonderful warm Remy and memorable Cousin Bruno.

It was one helluva party, a real, country, family party – nothing like the dreary first-night dos we used to have to suffer as ‘parties’ in the theatre – and if today is just a tad difficult to get through, in consequence .. well you can’t have joy without a little suffering.

And now the tent is down, the bottles have gone to the recycling bins, the fireplace where the mouton roasted is dead and gone, the tables and chairs stashed, the vacuum cleaner and lawnmower gone silent, and the Party of the Season is done.

And tomorrow its Paris.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Trials a la mode de Caen

A title which has nothing to do with the fact that yesterday Teresa served us up for lunch quite the best plate of tripe (a la mode de Caen, of course, for we are in Normandy) that I have ever eaten in my life. It was ‘artisanale’, home-made tripe, fresh from the local butchery which is one of Les Baux de Breteuil’s only two shops (the other being a part-time bakery), and it simply melted in one’s mouth. Dietary heaven.

But I digress.

This morning I was out of bed at 4am. Now, this is not a thing a thoroughly retired gentleman of leisure would normally do, but we were what they call ‘off on a mission’. Marion, David, Laura, Jack, Kurt and the three year-old colt Rosario des Baux had a date at the qualifying trials in the sizeable tripe-famous city of Caen. Caen is some two hours’ drive from here, the trials began at 8am, and Rosario was set to go in heat one, so it was still dark when we set off through the unseen caramel fields of barley and poppies, and the half-timbered, churched spired Norman villages, to the rendez-vous in the north-west.

Now, I’ve been to a good many qualifying trial sessions back in New Zealand, but I am here to tell you that they bear little resemblance to what I saw today. To start with, Downunder triallers wouldn’t dream of starting at eight in the morning. More like eleven. However, there is a very good reason for the eight o’clock start at Caen. But let me start from the beginning.

Caen Racecourse, owned by Cheval Francais, which runs harness racing in France, is a really fine track, situated right in the heart of the city. It has an imposing, locally-styled grandstand and admin block, a superb area of impeccable horseboxes, and the track is a grand red grit ring of nearly two kilometres round. A real racetrack for real horses. It hosts, of course, its quota of racedays, but it is also one of the country’s principal venue for trials, which are held there with great regularity and efficiency.

Imagine, New Zealand, if you can, trials where an electric scoreboard displays each heat’s field, and the qualifiers’ times. And imagine, if you can, a qualifying session – not once in a while, but regularly -- in which some 120 horses take part. And today there were something like that many there, because I saw number 114 (the saddle clothes run consecutively) warming up.

And that’s just the start of the differences. All trials are over 2000 metres. All trials are started from the walk-in start used on racedays. And the biggest difference of all? The level. The time a horse has to achieve to be allowed to compete on a French racetrack. This even differs according to the age of the horse and the time of the year. For three year-old Rosario, in July, it was a kilometre rate of 1.20.5: ie 2mins 41secs for the distance. If he’d been ready in May it would have been 1.21, if he’d waited till October it would have been 1.20. 1.20.5 for a three year-old trotter from a semi-standing start … that’s a 2 09.5 mile rate, and I reckon it wouldn’t leave too many fields-full of baby Kiwi horses on their feet.

Why so tough? There is a reason. Each year, some 13,000 trotting-bred foals are born in France, and in spite of the vast numbers of race meetings round the country (something like 30 on some Sundays), there would quite simply be no room nor opportunity for most of them. It’s actually more complicated than that, people are involved too, but that will do. So Cheval Francais fixes a qualifying limit which will cull out the under-talented horses and bring the yearly intake to the racing game down to something like 4,000. Still a lot (for many, many French races ballot out large numbers of their entries), but considered manageable.

Today showed me just how difficult it is to become one of the magic 4,000. I watched the first three heats, each filled to the brim with nine starters. A total of two horses from twenty-seven qualified. Two winners. In the second heat, run at what seemed a fair pace, everyone got sent home empty-handed.

Happily, one of the winners was Rosario. He clipped to the front, gapped the field after 500 metres, and powered away by what looked like 100 metres to win by so far that, for my camera lens to capture both him and his followers, I had almost to bend over backwards.

His time was the best of the session, 1.18.1 (2000m in 2.36.2). A 2 05.7 mile rate. My dear old Davey Crockett, who won five races for me in the 1990s, and who placed in good company at Alexandra Park in his time, never went faster than a rate of 2 05.0. My two young New Zealand trotters who qualified last year did so in 2.11 and 2.13. So I imagine they wouldn’t even be allowed to race here. It’s frightening. And it means that my new little Rosy des Baux, as yet unraced, is easily the fastest trotter I have ever owned. And I’ve owned a few.

Of course, times aren’t everything, and New Zealand-bred horses have shown in the past that they are capable of racing competitively against American and even European opposition. But all the same, I can’t help feeling glad that this year I’ve had my two New Zealand trotting broodmares inseminated by top young French stallion Love You. If one and one really does make two, Jack and I could be on to a winning formula.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


On my last year’s visit to Les Baux de Breteuil, you may remember, I met a splendid little fellow by the name of ‘Quitus du Seuil’. He was about to make his race debut, and he was looking for an owner. My hand went halfway to my pocket, and then the thought of my New Zealand paddocks, overflowing with horseflesh, intervened, and I pulled back. And so, some days later, I watched Quitus run a splendid second place at Evreux in the ownership of someone else. ‘Soonish…’ I mumbled into that week’s blog.
Well, I’m here to tell you that ‘soonish’ has happened.

The day that I arrived here, I went, of course, for a stroll round the paddocks and the barn, making friends and meeting horses, and patting the odd nose and neck. At the last box in the row, a pretty bay head put itself forth willingly to be rubbed and I duly obliged. But then, as I went to move on, a damp nose landed gently somewhere between my nape and my right ear. ‘Oy! More, please’. Given that most horses are more inclined to back away from the touch of an unfamiliar human, I was rather surprised, but I looked back into a pair of pretty dark eyes and I did as asked. I’m sure she smiled.

A few hours later, I dropped the fatal words: ‘That’s a sweet one in the last box, who is she….?’

Rosy des Baux, a homebred three year-old filly by Fier des Baux out of Milady des Baux. Already qualified and ready to race imminently. And, you guessed it, looking for an owner.
Where had I heard this scenario before?

And ‘Rosy’ … it would have to be ‘Rosy’. What is it about me and horses named ‘Rosy’?

I didn’t ask any of the questions you are supposed to ask when buying a horse. I didn’t ask to see her in action. I didn’t look at any of the crucial points of her physiognomy. After all, you may remember, I don’t even know a cow hock when I see one. What I do know is that Marion, Bernard, David and Laura Hue know one million times more about horses than I do, and if they think Rosy is a prospective racehorse, and worth their time and attention, that’s good enough for me.

And so Rosy became mine.

The fourteenth of July may mean the Storming of the Bastille to some people, for me it will, henceforth, always be the day I got my first French horse.

And now faxes fly between France and New Zealand as my credentials are exported/imported, and a tailor sits with needle poised over a roll of soft-boiled-egg yellow silk, ready to manufacture a fresh set of Ganzl of Gerolstein racing colours in readiness for 28 July when Rosy is scheduled to step out for the first time at the racetrack at Bréhal (Manche) …

No, I don’t know where it is either…

And now there’s time to look at her in action as she struts her stuff around the training track. What do you think? She looks pretty good to me…

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

le 14 Juillet

The fourteenth of July is, of course, the most famous day in the French national calendar but, for us, the Bastille and its stormers were of no consequence, July 14th was simply another day at the races.
This time it was a much larger meeting at a much more metropolitan track, in the city of Amiens, two and a half hours north east of ‘home’. The racecourse at Amiens is an attractive and decidedly well-equipped one, something over a kilometre round but grit this time not grass. What makes it somewhat breath-taking, however, is the view. As the horses race past the winning post, you can see towering skywards in the not-so-distant distance the spires of the celebrated Cathedral of Amiens which, if my historical memory serves me, is where Joan of Arc (her, again!) crowned the Dauphin as King of France in … umm … 1066?

The sun shone, the team didn’t manage to repeat the previous day’s triumph (Porto a stout fifth after being denied the lead he likes, Orlando – back racing after injury and stallion duties – not yet quite right), and a beer was 3 euros/NZ$6 a little glass (but I guess that’s par for the course in a world where a can of Fanta costs a pound), although it was none the less welcome.
To be honest, however, I have to say that – cathedral or no cathedral – I didn’t enjoy the racing at Amiens in the same way that I had enjoyed that at Francheville. At the little track we had everything in the way of entertainment: big runs, runaway leaders, fast finishers, elbow-to-elbow battles, not to forget a few thrills and spills in and around the maiden races!

Here, the races themselves were scarcely worthy of the name. By and large, whoever got to the front in the first fifty metres simply stayed there, leading a parade of not very changing chasers from one end of the race to the other. Those horses who started from the 25 metre handicap line quite simply had no chance at all, and the only one of them who even attempted something today compounded after performing the day’s only loop of the field. I don’t pretend to understand why some tracks are conducive to this kind of racing, nor why Amiens is seemingly one of them with bells on (I mean, even at Kaikoura it is just possible to come from behind), but it is not really very entertaining.

The entertainment was for later. After the long trip home – via the outskirts of Rouen, where one can gather in one’s fill of ancient spires, even from the bypass road – we all foregathered in the evening sun for the sort of French dinner (o! Teresa!!)– from merguez to casserole de poulet to raspberries and fresh cream, and from champagne (the product of Porto's recent win!) via vin rouge to the biggest glass of calavdos I have ever tackled – that has you curled satedly and contentedly up in your comfy bed before the last drop of daylight has even quit the sky.

Did someone say ‘Ca ira’? The Bastille Day motto seems out of place. I reckon things are going pretty well already for this demi-semi-Frenchman.
Vive la France!

A cheval!


From Couptrain I have moved on to Les Baux de Breteuil, and back into the world of harness racing. For Les Baux de Breteuil is the fief of the Hue family and their racing stable, and I’m to be their guest here for a richly horsey and festive ten days.

Jack, freshly arrived from London, drove down to Couptrain on Sunday to pick me up, and we set out for the village of Francheville. Or, rather, for a place in the country somewhere outside the village of Francheville. The place was, of course, a racecourse; the most countryfied racecourse that I’ve yet visited in France and, needless to say, delightful. A bright green 1150-metre oval of flourishing clovered grass, with a little wood in the middle – you see the horses in the back straight flash picturesquely past between the trunks – and a mini-grandstand of cricket pavilion proportions, buzzing with racegoers. No ‘boxes’ here, you gear your horse up tied to the back of your horse ‘van’, parked on the grass alongside the rails. It all had an air of sportive gaiety that has sadly rather fallen out of the kind of ‘metropolitan’ racing where people speak of ‘the industry’ rather than ‘the sport’.

The Hue family was there in numbers, along with a little feller named ‘Prince des Baux’ (owner/trainer: Marion Hue, driver: David Marion Hue) who had run a place two starts back and was reckoned to have a good chance of doing so again, today, in one of the day’s claiming races.

After Didier, another Hue (I haven’t quite got the very extensive family tree, and exactly how who is related to whom, set in aspic yet) had run his mare into a useful third place, it was Prince’s turn. David got him away niftily, straight to the front, but he wasn’t left alone, and at the second and very determined attack he handed up. The new leader streaked lengths clear, but down the back the last time David began to close again. By the final bend, Prince was breathing in the leader’s ear, and in the straight he ran on stoutly, cruising in for a distinctly comfortable victory.

What a way to start my re-entry into French racing! OK, a claiming race at Francheville may not be the Grand Criterium, but a win is a win, and this one was a genuine thrill.
The birdcage swelled with Hues as the winner received his dues. Here are just some (left to right): Laura (generation 3), David (driver, generation 3), Marion (trainer, generation 2), Françoise and Bernard (generation 1) and Teresa (generation 2) with Olivia (the youngest Hue of all). Céline (generation 3) and Clara (generation 4) are just off camera, the man with the champagne is Jacques Plancqueel, president of the club and, as it happens, a Hue stable patron (see blog 2007), and, of course, that’s Prince des Baux in the middle.

A real family occasion, which foreshadows another. For next weekend Little Clara and very little Olivia are to be baptised and the fete promises to be a memorable one!

Mademoiselle d'Arc


As we wandered, the other day, through the village of Javron-la-chapelle, we came upon a statute of Mlle Joan of Arc (by any other name). I’m not quite sure why said lady should be statuated here, but I’m afraid the monument sent me off into a fit of chortles. She looks as if she’s been modelled for by a wistful Gene Tierney, and moulded out of pale green plastic.

I was reminded, irresistibly, of the even more improbably sited – but, thankfully, less green -- statue of the same lady that I photographed thousands of sea miles away, outside the cathedral at Nouméa, on my very first stop on this part of my voyage.

Anyone got any more improbable Joans? Bronze, stone, or green plastic?

The British Musical Theatre ... forty years on


Three members of that flourishing West End institution of the 1960s in front of the camera, and one behind it. Left to right:

Dean Viner Robert and Elizabeth, The Desert Song etc
Kathy Snedden Six of One, Robert and Elizabeth, The Young Visiters etc
Brian Harding No Strings, When You’re Young, The Desert Song, The Boyfriend, Bakerloo to Paradise, Ann Veronica, The Good Old, Bad Old Days etc

Kurt (photographer) was in New Zealand around this time, somewhere between Dido and Aeneas, Amahl and the Night Visitors and Madama Butterfly. With the Black and White Minstrels soon to follow … and The British Musical Theatre (published 1987) still twenty years in the future

The well-known American tenor Bruce Brewer is another Couptrain inhabitant, but he was too busy rehearsing tomorrow’s concert in the church opposite to join in the photo.

Hey! If we could import Barry and Rosie from Sydney, the village could just about stage its own production of Follies. What a thought!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Week in Couptrain

A week full of villages and meadows, of chateaux and towns, of intermittent sunshine and charming people and .. oh, my goodness .. of food with a capital F!
I longed for my tripes, for my andouilettes, for those cheeses that this country makes like no-one else, for food the way the French served it up when I was a lad in Monte Carlo forty years ago and red wine was 85 centimes a bottle, and .. well, there’s no other way to put it, I have had it. Nay, I have stuffed myself with variegated goodies from Alençon to Bagnoles de l’Orne, and from St Aignan de Couptrain to Lassay les châteaux, as well as right here in Brian’s dining room at 15 rue du Moulin, the little pink house in Couptrain …
The highlights?…
The Ganzl memorability medals go to …
Wondrous andouilette for breakfast … through to Médoc with Pont l’Eveque (or was it the other way round?) for late-night supper, at home base
The huge covered platter of tripes, oh so slowly imbibed, whilst sitting overlooking the lake at the atmospheric Café de Paris, alongside the Casino at Bagnoles…
and the grand, real, old-fashioned ‘petit restaurant français’ meal (charcuterie, épaule de rôti d’agneau, plateau de fromages, home-made flan … plus a joli calva to finish!) at the restaurant at St Aignan. Thank you, Madame la patronne, who is pictured here below with fellow customer, Georges, who won my heart by telling me my French was ‘impeccable’.

Of course, it wasn’t all food. Not quite. And just to prove it, here’s a happy snap of me by the village lake, under the walls of the château at the pretty village of Lassay.


Well, I’ve changed departments, and left the city for the country. I am back again – as I was last year -- in the Mayenne … somewhere where Normandy meets the Pays du Loire.

After a merry breakfast, accompanied by broadband video from New Zealand of little ‘Dobby’ running an excellent third at Addington, we set out from St Malo heading for Brian’s village of Couptrain, Mayenne. Thanks to a festival of closed roads, partly due to roadworks and party to the imminence at St Malo of the Tour de France, we found ourselves initially heading in diametrically the wrong direction, but we triumphed in the end and by afternoon we were here.

Brian’s house is ‘the smallest house in the village’. It is also extremely old, as you can see from the picture. It is on three floors... living-dining-kitchen on the ground floor, on the second, the master bedroom with new en suite bathroom (with super-powered shower!) for a house which originally had none, and, under the eaves, in a former attic space, a second bedroom. That’s me. You can stand in the centre, but you sleep literally under the eaves, because the roof slopes too steeply for a bed. I am here to tell you its deliciously comfy and I didn’t get out of it till 9am this morning!.

Today we visited the nearby town of Bagnoles de l’Orne. The name seemed familiar, and, when we got there, I remembered why. Bagnoles was a Victorian spa town and … well! There’s still plenty of the Victorian town there. Magnificent towering old hotels which I suspect are now apartments. And there is still, apparently, also plenty of the spa activity going on. Though now its called Beauty Something instead. The old casino is still there, spankingly bright and white alongside its pretty pleasure lake. Its all hugely picturesque, and decorated with more baskets and bacs of multicoloured flowers than I’ve ever seen in one sitting. For a moment, I wondered if it wasn’t all a bit much, a bit like the threatening thatch of Godshill, but somehow it isn’t. If it makes you want to grin a bit, you grin with warmth. For Bagnoles ia a lively spot. The market was going, and there are two restaurants that serve ‘les tripes’ … including a local variety ‘les tripes fertois’ named after the nearby village of La Ferté-Macé. They will, of course, have to be sampled.

From Bagnoles, we carried on to Carrouges. Carrouges has a rather stunning 14-15th century chateau, inhabited until just before the last war. The chateau has a moat with geese and ducks and carp, it has neat green grounds and gardens, but best of all it has a wonderful gatehouse, and a most spectacular effect of surprise. For you come upon your first view of the whole place on turning what looks like an ordinary village corner and … voila! The road stretched through the length of several city blocks to the towering gatehouse … wow! We didn’t go inside to see the bed where Louis the somethingth probably didn’t sleep, or whatever. No need. The Chateau de Carrouges had already made its effect.

And now we are back in the smallest house, ready to aperitif, and watching on DVD a French ‘spectacle’ allegedly having something to do with Le Roi Soleil. The French, who have gone down in history as the writers and composers of probably the greatest pieces of musical theatre ever created, have, in the decades since Les Misérables, been actively evening things up by putting on some of the blandest, sickliest, most brainless, tuneless, over-decorated, under-imagined, hilariously-‘danced’, badly-mimed, palely-cast excuses for ‘musicals’ ever penned and produced. This is one of them. Pass the Normandy cider. O, Lord! There’s a man up there pretending to be Molière… Pass the whisky! And the mute button. Thank the Lord I’m retired from the musical theatre.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

First Foot in France

A faultless trip. Red Fred duly farewelled in Shanklin, 30 mins wait, the little train to Ryde, 30 mins wait, the Fast Cat to Portsmouth and finally – after 3 ½ hours wait -- on to the ‘Bretagne’, the Britanny Ferry which was to bring me to France.
And what a surprise! I had expected a ship on the lines of the one which brought me from Jersey. Not so! No container-cum-ferry this one, but a regular luxury liner! More restaurants, bars and shops per square foot than QE2 of my seadays. I was almost intimidated. However, I was not there to shop or eat, but to voyage and sleep and, after a soothing Guinness or three, that’s what I did, awakening just in time for a shower, a shave and a bit of a queue, before disembarking comfortably in St Malo.

Brian was at the ferry to meet me, and to lead me to our hotel, the Bristol Union, in the heart of ‘old’ St Malo. We ate a very hearty ‘Continental’ breakfast … inclusive of the cheese and sausage which I’d always connected with Austria rather than France but which I guess are just ‘EEC’ nowadays, and of the croissants which no-one but the French seem to make properly. After which, we set out, under grey skies and spits of rain, for a wander around the ‘old’ St Malo. I say ‘old’, of course, because this famous ancient ‘city of the corsairs’ was 80 percent destroyed in the last war. It’s been gloriously reconstructed (the post office is a gem!), to bring back much of the character of the wrecked city, but only occasionally do you come on a bit with the right ancient ‘feel’. I wonder how many times I was wrong.

A wander, a rest, and then we were ready for the event of the day. Dinner. My first French meal since the glories of ‘La Vague’ in Dunkerque over a year ago. Finding a suitable (for me) restaurant amongst the plethora of Very Obviously Touristy places that crowd round the Grande Porte and the other more obvious streets, and the inescapable elbow-to-elbow selection of Breton crêperies and galetteries, could have been tough, but Brian had been here before…
We stopped off at a corner bar for an aperitif .. and most Frenchly settled on a pint of Guinness .. before continuing on to Le Bistrot du Rocher. Bistrot. Ah. Good. 13 euros the menu. The menu? For starters, a salade d’andouille with er… Que.. what? Never mind, ‘andouille’ and it’s a winner. Followed by ‘Andouilette’ YES! I pounced on the word and culpably didn’t read further. I thought ‘andouillette’ meant a tripe sausage, but obviously it doesn’t. This was an andouilette of salmon. With lentils. And I haven’t eaten salmon for years, since (stomach-wrenching story censored).
I will now. A nice bottle of Médoc ’04, and a Calvados (two, actually) to fill the spaces before, during and after the food and .. it was the most marvellous meal. Utterly delicious. And the bill? Just 69 euros for two. Can’t be bad!

This morning dawned fine, so we headed off for a walk down the promenade of St Malo’s long, brown and yellow beach. Surprisingly empty. Where were all the people? I popped across the sands to visit the very obvious small fort (closed, open only at low tide .. er it was low tide) from where you get a grand view of the ‘old’ town snuggled behind the vast sea walls that protect it from the oceans …
And that’s where all the people were. Eating at the restaurants and bars round La Grande Porte.

But the big question of the day is: do we go back to the Bistrot du Rocher tonight, and have ‘same again’, or do we try somewhere else? I don’t think I’m going to get my ‘tripes’ here, as somewhat naturally the famous fishing town of St Malo features fish restaurants, so …
Well, we walked the not numerous streets of ‘intra muros’ St Malo until thundery showers came to drive us indoors, and … I don’t know. There’s one, opposite our Guinness bar, rejoicing in the name of ‘Borgnefesse’. Not to be taken literally. ‘One-eyed arse’ was apparently a famous Malouin corsair of the umpteenth century. Maybe?
The rain seems to be easing off. Ah well, feet up for a couple of hours, then it will be aperitif time. Guinness, fish, Calavdos … it sounds right doesn’t it. Have to be adventurous. After all, last night, if I’d read on after ‘andouillette’ and seen ‘saumon’ I would have missed a real treat of a dish…. Hmmm.