Striking the perfect balance between ‘work’ and play, Back-Roads’ La Belle France tour offers a glimpse into the French l’art de vivre.
“Bonsoir, monsieur. Do you have a table for six?”
“Non,” comes the curt reply from monsieur as he purposefully turns to a table of diners.
We look around the half empty restaurant – it is clear his refusal is not for want of space – and spy our trusty driver and guide Andy Steele. Relieved, I head to his table and ask if he can explain to monsieur that we don’t all need to sit at the one table, we are happy to split up. We have heard good reviews about La Bonne France (4 Place de la Victoire, Chinon) and are eager to soak up the atmosphere of this quaint little restaurant away from the bustle of town.
In perfect French (at least to our ears), Andy (aka Agent Steele) explains the situation. The answer is the same.
It is an attitude we come across often in our travels throughout France and one we come to realise is not born of arrogance, as may well be interpreted, but of an appreciation of the work/life balance, l’art de vivre, we non-Europeans largely miss. With just one person in the kitchen and one on the floor, the small restaurant is at capacity and the lure of six open wallets does nothing to persuade monsieur otherwise.
The following morning we wander down to breakfast at the charming L’Hotel Diderot (4 Rue de Buffon, Chinon) where we have spent the past two nights. Like every morning, the rustic tables are lined with jars and jars of jam. As beautiful as the 15th century hotel may be, it’s breakfast this family run establishment is most noted for.
The Diderot is owned by siblings Françoise, Martine and Laurent Dutheil and the soft-set jams are the exquisite handiwork of Monsieur Laurent. Rhubarb and lemon, rhubarb and rose, bitter orange and bitter cocoa, apple and lavender, quince and cinnamon, the list goes on and on and each is as delicious as the next. There are, of course, freshly baked croissants and baguettes to smother the jam on, along with homemade yoghurt to stir the jam through and homemade goat’s cheese which, under Françoise’s strict instructions, is “only to be eaten with the walnuts and honey”.
“I must have some of your jam, Laurent. Can I please buy a jar?”
“Non,” comes his reply. “I make 1600kg of jam each year. If I also sell it I have to make double, and I have only one life.” He grins cheekily.
L’Art de vivre!
Chinon is days six and seven of Back-Roads Touring’s nine-day La Belle France tour, and, like every destination on the tour, is as different from the previous stops as tuffeau and camembert.
Departing from Paris our first stop was Giverny, the home of Claude Monet and the beautiful gardens that inspired his work for over 20 years. To stand on the little timber bridges and stare out at his famous water lilies truly is like watching art come to life.
Leaving the 19th century and travelling back in time to the 12th, our next brief stop was Richard the Lion Heart’s dramatic Chateau Gaillard, perched high above Les Andelys and constructed in 1196 as protection against an invasion of Normandy.
Heading still further back in history, Rouen is the next port of call, once one of the largest and most prosperous cities of medieval Europe. A veritable museum-city, Rouen leaves no visitor indifferent, with its fine half-timbered houses, its narrow, paved laneways and its Gothic churches. It is also the site where Jeanne d’Arc was burnt at the stake in 1431.
While Rouen itself is darkly magnificent, the site of Jeanne’s execution left me somewhat underwhelmed. The Place du Vieux-Marché (the site of Jeanne’s pyre) is dominated by the ultra-modern Eglise Jeanne d’Arc, a stark contrast to the city’s medieval streets. Completed in 1979, the church takes the form of an upturned Viking boat and fish shape. Part of the building is also a covered market place, leaving the initial purpose of the square intact.
Around the church are several marked places with monuments to Jeanne, including a 65ft cross erected near the site of the pyre, as was stipulated in the nullification trial in 1456.
While not quite what I was expecting, it is hard not to create images in your mind as we stare at her statue, flames licking at her feet, hands shackled and clamped in prayer. I leave Rouen wishing I had more time to explore this historic city and its stories.
If it’s stories I was in search of, however, I was about to get my fill. After an overnight stay in the picturesque, impressionist’s harbour of Honfleur, a memorable nouvelle cuisine dinner at La Lieutenance (12 Place Sainte Catherine) and the beginnings of a love affair with French cider, we headed off through the bocages and apple orchids of the Normandy countryside.
The next two days of our journey were to be a lesson in WWII and, as it turned out, a very personal lesson for one of our fellow travellers.
I confess that D-Day history has never been a consuming passion of mine, but Andy’s in-depth and animated stories miraculously transport us back to the days and events surrounding 6 June, 1944. Standing at Pegasus Bridge, the site of the first Allied troops to land on French turf at 12:16am on 6 June, Andy gives a minute-by-minute account of the taking of Pegasus Bridge and one of the “most outstanding flying achievements of the war”.
Led by Major John Howard (a personal hero of Andy’s), the men of the British 6th Airborne Division landed six Horsa gliders on a narrow strip of land between the Caen Canal Bridge (later renamed Pegasus in honour of those who fought there) and the nearby Ranville Bridge.
The gliders came to a standstill just a few metres from Pegasus Bridge at the exact point where they had planned to land – an area about 270 metres wide and so small the Germans had not bothered to defend it with anti-glider poles. The bridges were taken within 10 minutes of the landings.
The operation has been hailed as “the single most important 10 minutes of the war” and featured prominently in the 1962 Hollywood movie The Longest Day. The bridges were vital to the fate of tens of thousands of Allied soldiers who would be involved in the D-Day landings hours later.
On the other side of the bridge stands Café Gondrée, the first house and family in Normandy to be liberated. The café, which at the time was used as billeting for German soldiers, is now run by Arlette Gondrée, who was just four years old and living in the home when it was liberated. She recalls her father, Georges Gondrée, who gave intelligence to the French Resistance, pulling out a pile of champagne he had hidden from the Germans to celebrate.
We toast to that over ham and cheese baguettes in the café’s courtyard.
From here we head towards the Normandy beaches, driving down one of the ‘draws’ to Omaha Beach. We also discover that Mike, one of two Americans on our tour, is the son of a D-Day soldier. This is where Agent Steele’s talents really come to the fore. Delving into his “confidential files”, he comes back with the exact date and time of Mike’s father’s landing, makes an unscheduled stop at Dog Green on Omaha Beach where he landed and fought on D-Day+1, drives us up the ‘draw’ he would have taken and points out where he would have camped.
Mike tells us how the sea was so rough when his father landed that he lost his gun in the water and came ashore unarmed.
“He found another one on the beach,” says Mike. “There were plenty to choose from.”
Andy’s efforts at digging out these small but significant facts add a very personal touch to our little group of 15. It is something he takes great pleasure in doing for all his passengers with connections to the war in this region.
Stops at other significant WWII sites, including the Musée du débarquement at Arromanches and the battery at Longues-sur-Mer, where the bunkers still contain the original cannons, untouched since 1944, the British cemetery at Ranville, and the famous American War Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, round out the D-Day portion of our tour.
It is then on to the Loire Valley, via Bayeux with its famous tapestry, the ancient walled city of St-Malo and the magnificent Mont-Saint-Michel. Whether through luck or careful planning, it was Sunday when we visited this architectural masterpiece, built atop a rocky island and surrounded by tidal waters. The mount is best known for the medieval Benedictine Abbey that occupies most of the 1km-diameter clump of rocks, and on Sundays the voices of a dozen nuns and monks fill the Abbey with hymns chanted in French. Sitting in the pews, watching this ancient ritual with the smoke from the thurible drifting towards the soaring arches of the Abbey is truly a celestial experience.
Leaving Normandy and Brittany behind, we head to the verdant Loire Valley, with its fairytale castles, historic villages, delicious food and splendid wine.
One of the nice things about Back-Roads Touring is the balance they strike between ‘together’ and ‘alone’ time. While we were chaperoned to a number of châteaus, including Villandry, Château de Brézé and Château Azay-le-Rideau, and treated to some wonderful meals from Andy’s private ‘hidden gems’ list, we were just as often left to our own devices. There was plenty of time to explore the villages of Angers, Chinon, Richelieu and Chartres, to wander the historic streets and immerse ourselves in French culture. Time to ‘work’ and time to play.
L’Art de vivre!
For more information on Back-Roads Touring’s La Belle France tour along with other small group escorted tours throughout the UK and Europe visit www.backroadstouring.co.uk