06 August, 2015

Lire a la Plage!

Back again to our superb B&B in Hendaye and to our wonderful 
hosts - Monsieur and Madame Coppola. Home from home. 
That's our suite with the balcony
Blogging has had to take a back seat for the past month or so. A wonderful two and a half weeks touring France followed by a week spent with our granddaughters and, mixed in with all this, a very nasty bout of back pain associated with my slipped disc and the result of all this means that my lap top has had a bit of a rest of late!

As I say, Pat and I have just returned from a superb two and a half weeks in France. We took the ferry from Portsmouth down to Bilbao in northern Spain and then drove the short distance into south west France. As we did two years ago we stayed for a few nights at a wonderful B&B in Hendaye, right on the border between France and Spain and once again enjoyed the company and hospitality of Monsieur and Madame Coppola – two wonderful hosts – in one of our favourite seaside resorts. We enjoyed a beer in the garden with Monsieur Coppola and each morning listened as he set both France and the rest of the world to rights with typical Gallic humour and wisdom -  a true grumpy old man! After my own heart! We felt completely at home and one of the family!  While at Hendaye we explored the foothills of the Pyrenees, enjoyed tapas in the wonderful Spanish resort of San Sebastian as well as visiting local French resorts such as St- Jean-de-Luz,  a place that we really loved.
Deep in the pine woods at Capbreton - notice the surf board on the left. 
From Hendaye we travelled the short distance to Capbreton, just north of Biarritz, and enjoyed the sun, sand and surf of this stretch of the Atlantic coast. Capbreton and neighbouring Hossagor are sometimes venues for the world surfing championships and our B&B reflected this. Remote and deep in the woodland just outside Capbreton it was a real “one off”. Milko, the owner, was a skilled surfer and keen motor cyclist and was a delight – providing us with wonderful breakfasts, a super swimming pool and a magnificent home decorated with surfing memorabilia. We felt as if we had gone back in time to the 60s music of the Beach Boys. It all felt bizarre to be sitting by a pool in the middle of woodland and surrounded by surfboards, photographs of Hawaiian surfers and retro American merchandise – but it was indeed a place to remember and to enjoy. 
Breakfast at Capbreton - never bettered
Then on to Fouras - a return to a place we both love. Splendid beaches, castle, boat trips to the islands and a really friendly town filled with ordinary French folk getting on with their everyday life. Our B&B there was what can only be described as quirky - a rambling house, filled with twisting staircases, hidden corners, low ceilings, chicken, goats and bells which one rang to attract Madame Chognot by pulling innumerable pieces of string. Madame took care of us like a mother hen – ensuring that our every need was met – breakfast in a sunny garden complete with even fridge to keep drinks and butter cool, shady trees to sit under when the sun became too fierce and freshly laid eggs whenever required!

Breakfast in the garden at Fouras - chickens and goats
wandered around as we ate
And then finally a long journey north to the Channel coast where we enjoyed a couple of days just outside Dieppe revisiting places where  we had first experienced French B&B accommodation with our children thirty or so years ago. Senneville, Fecamp, Varengeville - all places that we knew well from the past and our B&B at Quiberville a magnificent and imposing house overlooking the Channel and the little fishing village. Madame Vergnes cooked us a splendid meal on our arrival and provided a hearty breakfast each day. Our room was in complete contrast to that at Fouras – high ceilinged and high French fashion. It was called the Guy de Maupassant suite after the famous French writer and indeed we felt almost as if we were in some late 19th century Parisian salon into which would walk one of the great names of French literary or artistic society!

Milko - a lovely man: surfer, racing motor
cyclist, vintage Beetle owner, B&B
owner. A man doing what he loves,
living the life he loves -  a real one off
So many experiences, and so much to remember! We joined with other locals on July 14th in Fouras as the town folk, the mayor, other local dignitaries and representatives of local organisations celebrated Bastille Day, one of the great days in the French calendar. As the little band struck up the opening chords of the Marseillaise it was good to see every French man and woman stand tall and join in with pride – surely there cannot be a more stirring national anthem. And we will look back with amusement when we remember going into the local Leclerc supermarket  in Capbreton because we were hopelessly lost and could not find the way to our B&B – even the car’s sat nav was confused. The staff could not have been more helpful – turning on their computers, making phones call on our behalf, nothing was too much trouble.

And we will long remember the mile long trek through the pine woods after Milko – complete with beautifully maintained and ancient VW Beetle (the ultimate surfer’s car!) - the owner came out to “rescue” us and guide us to his remote home, our Capbreton B&B. How I wished for an SUV to negotiate that bumpy road! Or maybe when the cold days of winter set in we’ll remember all the lovely restaurants that we sat outside while eating our evening meal – Les Vivaldi in Fouras, Embata in Hendaye or the Mona Lisa in Capbreton – idyllic summer evenings with a lovely meal and a cold beer – what more could one ask.

Another day another beach - this one on the beautiful, car free
Île-d'Aix off  Fouras
On a more sombre note we’ll certainly remember the motorway accident that we passed as we drove to Dieppe. It occurred only a few hundred yards ahead of us and within minutes emergency services were arriving. Unlike the UK however, the management of the accident was slick and efficient – within a very few minutes traffic was moving again despite two lanes being closed while emergency services did their jobs. I have absolutely no doubt a similar event in he UK would have closed the motorway for several hours. Both of us, I know, will look back and remember our lunch time picnics – wonderful ham or salad or chicken baguettes enjoyed while surrounding us French families enjoyed their picnics on the beach or in the woods. The French, when having a picnic do it properly: table clothes, full range of utensils, starters, main course, sweet, bottles of wine – a French pique-nique is a positive banquet and seems to operate under the same rules of French etiquette! And we’ll remember, too, the beaches – always very hot and with little shade. As the afternoon wore on they gradually filled up – the French seem to like to visit the beach in the late afternoon but never once did we feel “surrounded” – everything was very gentle, no loud behaviour, no screaming children or noisy teenagers. I’m not a sun worshipper or beach lover but Pat was in heaven and even I had to admit it was wonderful – day after day of endless sunshine, temperatures in the upper twenties of mid thirties with rarely a cloud in the sky.
The tallest sand dune in Europe, the Dune of Pilat  at 

La Teste-de-Buch near Bordeaux
 Yes, our holiday was a thoroughly pleasant experience. I could go on and on – the wonders of French markets, the delights of sitting in a French street cafe and watching the locals, other visitors and passers by simply going about their everyday business. And we will certainly remember with a smile the mi French lady at the Bastille Day celebration in Fouras. She was one of the flag carriers and as she stood there erect and proud just before the  actual service began she suddenly realised that her flag was only half the size of all the rest. She had forgotten to bring the bottom half of the flag pole. She scurried around searching in her car to no avail and was then reduced to fits of giggles as her friends and comrades teased her. And as the Marseillaise was struck up she proudly held her short flag aloft while at the same time tears of laughter ran down her face. She was nto alone - uit was a source of merriment to everyone.

Bastille Day in Fouras - flags are lowered in honour of
French soldiers. And the lady bearing her flag realises that everyone else's
flag is twice as big as hers. Much merriment ensued!
Or maybe we’ll remember the sand storm that we experienced on Hendaye beach – a fairly frequent occurrence we understand - caused by the Bay of Biscay winds “hitting” the mountains of northern Spain and consequently turning inland towards France. No one left the beach, the sun still blazed down, parasols turned inside out and everything and everyone got covered in a layer of fine sand.  It was something never to be forgotten. 
The little band strikes up the Marseillaise

So much to look back upon. So much to reminisce about. But there is one this I haven’t mentioned. A small thing perhaps but something which I found a delight at the end of the holiday. It was also something that I suspect one would not find in many other countries – certainly not in the modern UK.

 When we arrived at our final destination – the area around Quiberville on the Normandy coast – we noticed that each little beach that we visited had something common. This area of Normandy is the department of Seine-Maritime and stretches along the coast around the mouth of the River Seine and includes the port of Le Havre to and the city of Rouen. And on each beach that we visited there was a large beach hut with decking in front of it. On the decking were placed about twenty brightly painted deck chairs. The huts were attractive, welcoming, well maintained and beautifully painted in white, red and yellow and each proudly boasted on their roof the legend Lire a la Plage – “Read on the Beach”.

Le Vivaldi in Fouras -  a splendid restaurant with a delightful staff.
Pat choosing the healthy options: with one of her sweets at Le Vivaldi and enjoying "the
best banana milk shake ever" in an ice cream  parlour on the front at Fouras
Each hut was staffed by a couple of young people and inside was a mini library – all the shelves labelled as to their contents: children’s books, romances, non-fiction, local interest, thrillers, magazines, newspapers, foreign language books, guides, and so on. Something for everyone. There were displays of leaflets advertising local events and a handwritten board where the staff recorded particular events to be held at the hut – book readings, book reviews, visiting authors, poetry reading sessions and the like.  And all this, I discovered when I read the board outside the hut on Fécamp beach went on throughout the summer months when the beaches were full of visitors and children were on holiday from school.

And all this is presumably the brain child of and funded by the local authority – the Department of Seine-Maritime.  What a wonderful use of public funds. I don’t know how the initiative is funded – do locals donate books, can you bring a book along and exchange it for another, are the books in one beach hut exchanged every so often for books in another to ensure a recycling of books and interest? But whatever, it is a glorious idea. In an age where in the UK libraries and library services are being severely cut back in the name of austerity this French department is encouraging reading by putting books on the beach!

Lire a la Plage at Fecamp
At a time when in the UK  high culture and is deemed to be the next Pixar animation or the next episode of some TV soap,  where anti-intellectualism stalks our streets and schools and where many book shops selling worthwhile literature are increasingly being forced to close down as supermarkets and Amazon flood the market with the cut price selling of cheap “chick lit” paperbacks to satisfy the dumbed down end of the market it seems that France, thankfully, remains a society in which good literature and reading as a worthwhile and engaging activity is still viewed as important. Indeed a common denominator of each B& B we stayed in were the shelves of books and walk through any French town and it will not be long before you come upon a well stocked book shop, its shelves and displays filled with books of “worth” reflecting France’s literary, cultural and academic heritage as well as current popular reading material. And, as we sat on the beach at  Veules-les-Roses it did not escape my notice that on the promenade  immediately behind the Lire a la Plage hut was a restaurant - Le Victor Hugo – named after that giant of French literature who often visited the resort.

And as we sat on the beaches enjoying the sun or our picnic we watched a steady stream of people using the facility. Mothers taking their children for a quiet few minutes of reading as an escape from paddling in the sea or playing in the sand and pebbles; older people sitting in the sun on one of the deck chairs and leafing through a magazine; two children of about 10 who sat for ages with an atlas and tracing where they were and where they were going; a steady stream of people thumbing through the leaflets on display or discussing books and events with the young people in charge, or a couple of people that I noticed who sat engrossed in the afternoon sunshine in books they had taken from the shelves. This really was “reading for pleasure” whilst at leisure – and what  a positive message to send out to all, but especially the young about the joys and the relevance of the written word.

As we sat and watched this literary pastime on Fécamp beach or on the beach at the tiny seaside village of Veules-les-Roses it occurred to me that the general principle and ideas behind this initiative could be applied in virtually any situation. In Nottingham we have a vast concrete wilderness in the city centre – the Market Square. It used to be a pleasant place with raised sections, plants and the like – now it is just an expanse of concrete. So sterile and uninteresting it is that the city council ensures that throughout the year there are a number of activities – fairgrounds, Christmas markets, a big wheel, a beach (tons of sand are imported) and so on to brighten its appeal and its sterility.

But why not a “Read in the Market Square” hut as in France – not just to promote the centre of Nottingham and this sterile concrete environment but to promote reading and literature? Why not at the railway station, the bus station, the shopping mall or my local country park here in Ruddington? When I walked through one of the vast shopping malls in Nottingham the other day I noticed a couple of “soft play areas” where children could be taken or even left for a period while parents went off to shop. They were full of noisy children throwing themselves on padded mats, play fighting or scrambling over plastic blocks. True, it perhaps got rid of excess energy but my experience of working wit  young children throughout my teaching career suggests that it also made them more excited, sweaty and boisterous when it was time to go. But why not a reading area – surely much more beneficial – calming, useful, educational, a much more positive way of  occupying children? Sadly, unlike our French neighbours, I’m of the view that we in the UK perhaps do not value and expect our children to value such quiet, calm and cerebral pursuits. Nor, increasingly, do we perceive books and reading as pleasurable activities worthwhile for their own sake. In UK schools today books (often bizarrely referred to as “texts” when one reads modern school and educational documentation) are to be studied, analysed, and comprehended not necessarily enjoyed, loved and remembered. Reading is a skill to be mastered not an activity that will inspire, light up the imagination or take us to another place.

Plenty of seats for everyone

This French idea seems to me to score on every front – everyone wins – adult, child, local area, education. Not only is it providing a worthwhile option for leisure time but importantly is passing on a powerful and positive subliminal message: that reading is part of everyday life and not just something to do at school or to find out things. In short, reading and books  are things of pleasure to be enjoyed for their own sake in our leisure time. What better message could one pass on to any child -  or indeed adult - than that?