29 August 2009

The French Nantucket

The church tower in the center of Ars en Re

Our main destination in France was a small island in the Atlantic called the Ile de Re. A scenic train ride took us from Normandy to the Bordeaux region, where we caught a taxi to take us to Ars en Re, the village on the island where we would be staying. You may recall this as being the 'free spa' portion of our honeymoon. Something like that. The timeshare spa didn't quite work out as planned... Long story short, it was actually more of a medical clinic instead of a spa. So we 'exchanged' our travel arrangements and stayed at an amazing courtyard hotel in the village.*

Hotel le Senechal room

On to stories of the French Nantucket, a charming little place. The Ile de Re is a series of small fishing villages that have been filled in with salt flats over time to make one island. A few years ago, a bridge was built to the main land, but before that, bicycle was the main means of transportation around the island. Many places are still only accessible by bicycle. The locals ride around conducting their errands - complete with wicker basket filled with baguettes. We rode to the beach. We rode past salt flats where natives were farming sea salt. We rode past wetland marshes full of waterfowl we had never seen before. Black swans, several types of ducks. We rode to adorable little shops and restaurants. We rode to the harbor and watched the sailboats. We relaxed. We reflected on our good fortune for finding this amazing place.

We ate amazing, incredible food (which totally made up for the terrible stuff in MSM). I've never had so much fresh seafood. It was delicious. Everything was local - fresh mussels, amazing tarts and cakes, wines, beers - we were quite pleased. Every morning the breakfast in our hotel consisted of fresh squeezed orange juice, a buffet of cereals, yogurts, fruit, and most impressively a basket full of fresh baked french breads. Chocolate croissants, rolls with raisins, brioche (Don's favorite), baguette, regular croissants, and the most amazing bread with pinched ends and a crispy exterior with a soft middle. Best of all, the bread was served with butter. One dish of plain, one with crunchy sea salt on top of the butter. And you know how I feel about butter!

The island had the cutest architectural hardware. The shutters were held open during the day by these little brackets shaped like a woman's head. After a great effort trying to figure out what they are called and where we can buy them (so amusing to the locals that we noticed/cared), we tried to find some to bring home with us - the hardware store didn't quite have enough (next time). The shops were full of great housewares and lights. We brought back some beautiful slate grey towels, salted caramels, and sea salt, as well as some cute clothes.

lady's hand door knocker

'Tete a bergere' - the head of the lady shepherd. Holding open the pastel shutters.

Another highlight was the last lunch we had in Ars - a wine shop/bistro that we had been trying to go to the whole time was finally open. We went in and asked if they were serving lunch - the husband and wife owners decided they'd go ahead and cook for us. The husband was the chef, the wife was our waitress. He spoke English, she sort of did. So we had a very animated Franglish conversation trying to order food and wine. She picked a wine for us - the best we had in France. We started with some rustic country pate (amazing). I don't remember what Don ordered for lunch, but I had a pound of stinky melty delicious cheese. That was an actual dish. Baked camembert with new potatoes and green salad. I ate the whole thing. It was fantastic and legendary. Don was disgusted and impressed all at the same time. (And no, I didn't even have a stomach ache after. It was that good.)

Although it started off both rocky and amusing, our stay on the Ile de Re was fantastic. We were so glad we went and stayed to enjoy all the island had to offer. Around every corner was something new and charming. The people were so kind and helpful (as well as relaxed).** We really improved our French and were able to get along in a few situations only in French! We also learned a lot about the region and it's food, as well as the people. It was absolutely lovely.

German WWII bunkers on one of the beaches - now sinking and covered in graffiti.

spices from the almost daily market in Ars

*That's all you're going to get from me on here about that story. Hilarious account of lost in translation situation available in person.

**Contrary to popular belief, the French are not rude. We found them to be incredibly kind. Now, I don't know how they react when you don't try to speak a little French, dress sloppily, don't use proper table manners, and don't say 'bonjour' every time you meet someone, but these small courtesies got us a long way. The French are quite fond of their manners and courtesies, and are usually offended if you don't follow those courtesies. It's actually quite nice to slow down and say hello and goodbye to each person you meet on the street (or bike path) or in a shop.

the hollyhocks grow wild there - most around 10' tall

Mont Saint Michel or French Tourist Trap

When Don and I were in architecture school, our architectural history professor told us about the 8th Wonder of the Western World. Mont St. Michel, a cathedral on a mountain rising out of the ocean on the Normandy coast of France. At certain times of high tide, it is an island, at low tide, you can walk right up to the village. A true geographical and architectural wonder. How cool, we thought, since we'll be in France we could go see it.

So we booked one night at a hotel there. We told several people, including some French ones, that we were planning to go. All gave good remarks. "Is very nice" "Really beautiful" "Stay overnight" No one was honest. Although it is beautiful and a wonder and all that, we quickly discovered the reality upon arriving - it is a tourist trap full of cheesy souvenirs and terrible food. Seriously - simultaneously the worst post-cards and food I've ever experienced.

(Hi! We're disgruntled tourists.)

We decided we'd make the most of our fate, however, and do what we could to enjoy ourselves. We made a goal to find the cheesiest postcard on the island to send to my offices (both of which never arrived). We toured the cathedral & monastery (which is now functioning again). Built into the side and top of the mountain, it is truly a wonder. We ate a mediocre crepe and watched people walk through the strange muck that is supposed to be sand. We retreated to our hotel room, which gave the highest view in the village, to watch the tourists flee to their cars when a rain storm moved in.

This last part, the hotel room with the cool view was one of the only redeeming features. As the rain came down, the tide was also rising, and we were able to experience one of the coolest sights - a peninsula became an island in a matter of minutes.
View from our hotel room. You can see how the whole thing is surrounded by water - a few minutes before, it was just sand out there.

After watching some French tv, we decided to head out for some dinner and had what was hands down the worst seafood in the history of man eating seafood. Don ordered a mixed seafood plate. Since we were basically in the middle of the ocean, we thought, hey, probably a good place to order fruits of the sea. Most of it tasted like it had been floating in a bucket of stale salt water for a week. I had a baked seafood and pasta dish which was better, but still not great.

The next morning, we caught an earlier bus so we could get out of there as soon as possible. On to the next French adventure, please! I'm glad we saw it but I would not go back. Consider yourself warned. If you're stranded in Normandy, I'd recommend seeing anything but Mont St. Michel. Or go for about an hour and then leave.

inside the old monastery mess hall

from the top of the hill/cathedral

view from the bus window as we were leaving...