Monday 27 February 2017

A simple way to French without tears

Jerome Reilly took the car to Brittany and stocked up on wine and memories

Jerome Reilly

Jerome Reilly

Go early to avoid the crowds flocking to this world-famous tourist attraction
Go early to avoid the crowds flocking to this world-famous tourist attraction

The trials of air travel -- from body scanners to baggage charges -- came to mind as we packed the car before taking the Brittany Ferries flagship vessel, the MV Pont-Aven.

In the hallway was an astonishing array of electronic gadgetry that a family of four now consider essential to survival: the laptops and games consoles, the yards of cabling, power chargers and battery packs that left us bewildered. But it all fitted in the boot.

The holiday spat out of the way early -- over where to stop for brunch -- we felt we could relax the moment we got on board. We were lucky enough to have the top-rated Commodore four-berth cabin with flat-screen TV, complimentary food and a private balcony as we sailed out of Cork in fair weather. A small group of what looked like harbour porpoises followed in our wake.

It was a hugely enjoyable start to our week in Brittany. There was a live band, DJ, cabaret and a pianist playing in the cocktail bar. The vessel also boasted a children's entertainment programme, an indoor swimming pool and leisure area as well as a generous promenade deck. The ship was full, but it didn't feel that way. We managed to catch a movie in one of the two cinemas before dinner in the Le Flora restaurant.

After a good night's sleep we sailed into the Breton port of Roscoff. We were headed for Cancale, 90 minutes' drive away. It always takes me a day or so to get used to driving on the right so the €20 spent uploading the satnav maps for northern France proved invaluable, allowing me to concentrate on driving rather than the road signs.

Cancale is the oyster capital of Brittany, a small town and fishing port within easy reach of St Malo and Mont St Michel. The harbourside is a gourmet's paradise with high-class seafood restaurants beside creperies and bars where you can sit and watch the world go by.

We were staying at Les Hauts de la Houle, a newly built development high above Cancale but only a seven- minute walk from centre ville. It boasts wonderful sea views with well tended, landscaped grounds and a heated pool.

Our maisonette had a flat-screen TV, a well-appointed kitchen area with microwave, dishwasher, fridge freezer and cooker, a double sofa bed in the living room and a shower room downstairs. Upstairs there was a full bathroom, double and twin bedrooms and a separate WC.

We breakfasted on the terrace most mornings. While the kids idled in bed we strolled down to stock up on croissants, baguettes and pastries and popped into a local cafe for coffee. Why the French are not the fattest nation on earth remains an unfathomable mystery.

The days passed in a relaxed blur -- though a trip to the wonderful walled port town of St Malo, pedestrianised within the old walls and full of atmosphere and Breton charm, stands out. I suppose it's something of a tourist trap, but food and drink of high quality could be had in abundance and at fair prices. A decent lunch for four with a pichet (small jug) of wine might cost €90 in Dublin. The same in St Malo, including a couple of steaks, was €60. It makes a difference over the course of a holiday.

We took in Mont St Michel, a wondrous place that still takes the breath away even on a third visit. It is the most visited site in provinical France and there now are plans to restore its status as a true island, removing the mixture of sand and silt which connects it to the mainland. However, this really is a tourist trap and a tardy start in the morning meant we arrived at the same time as thousands of others. On a sweltering hot day (remember those?) it was not the best way to sample the magic of the medieval abbey which sits dramatically on top of a rocky outcrop above the sea and coastal flatlands. Get there very early in the morning is the best advice.

Further down the coast lies Dinan, which dates back to the Ninth Century. It has a wonderful market every Thursday in its medieval centre, with stalls selling an array full of artisanal food and drink. The last day of the holiday was planned with some degree of precision as we calculated how much wine, pate and seafood a family saloon can safely carry.

The wine, and there was plenty of it, was supposed to last until Christmas. It didn't, bar one last bottle of decent quality which survived to grace the Christmas table where we remembered sunny days and balmy nights.

Sunday Independent

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