Cobbles, flowers, and mousse au chocolat

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The Independent Travel

I love the unexpected little fact you stumble across when you're researching - did you know that a major naval battle of the US Civil War was fought in Cherbourg harbour? But nothing beats finding a new town you've somehow missed in the past. A few years ago I blundered into Guerande - a dot on the map near the ugly mega-resort of La Baule - to find a ravishing little medieval village, still completely walled and moated, whose cobbled streets are decked out with flowers and lined with enticing restaurants.


A Canadian tank-commander in Falaise, returning to Normandy for the first time since he'd bulldozed his way through the city in July 1944. Using cruets, condiments, and assorted pieces of cutlery, he mapped out his war-time exploits on the table-top. I asked him what he'd done since then; he said he'd just retired after 40 years of driving a school bus, and then set to work again, plotting his bus route with the pepper pots.


The Relais de Broceliande is a real beauty, a classic village hotel deep in the heart of Brittany's ancient forest of Paimpont. Behind its coating of ivy, and trellises of wild flowers, its dining room is filled with stuffed animals and equally stuffed humans; outside , pigs snuffle through the left-overs.


Finding out that not every restaurant in France is perfect. Stopping at what looked like an utterly exquisite chateau in Bricqubec, Normandy, we couldn't believe we were the only customers - until we had the worst French meal I've ever eaten. The crudites were a spoonful of tinned sweetcorn; the main course was a revolting andouillette, a length of pig's intestine erupting from a sack of greasy skin; and the dessert was Instant Whip sprinkled with Hundreds and Thousands. Meanwhile two tinny speakers blared a one-fingered version of Kraftwerk's "The Model".


The Auberge du Goury is just about the only building in a beautiful, windswept crescent bay a few miles west of Cherbourg. On the huge open fire, they grill all kinds of fresh meat and fish. I started with a gorgeous fish soup, with a luscious red garlicky rouille on the side; then came a perfect rack of lamb with Rosemary; and the cheese board was out of this world, featuring something called a voluptueuse that I've made it my life's work to find again.


I was quietly enjoying a bowl of mussels, alone in a restaurant in Fougeres, when a middle-aged English couple were seated at the adjoining table. They were just off the ferry, thrilled at what seemed to be their first- ever night in France. Thinking I was French, they started a running commentary on my meal. "Just look at the way he's slurping them straight from the shell. The French love their food, they don't care who's watching; you'd never see anyone eating like that in England."


Cycling for a couple of months with two fully laden panniers, and casually lifting my bike by the saddle whenever I need to carry it over an obstacle. Eventually, as I was racing down a busy hill, the saddle shaft snapped, leaving me with just a sharp metal spike to sit on.


After all the fuss of deciphering the fish dishes during the first half of the meal, it's great just to lean back at the end and say: "Je voudrais le mousse au chocolat."

Greg Ward has recently completed the fifth edition of his Rough Guide to Brittany and Normandy. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter Rough News, published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.


Getting There

Ferries are operated by Brittany Ferries (0990-360360), P&O (0990-980980) and Stena Sealink (013304-240028); fares for a car and two adults, start from below pounds 100. Brit Air (01293-502044) fly from Gatwick to the region, with weekend returns starting at pounds 107.

Getting About

The Relais de Broceliande is in Paimpont, 25 miles SW of Rennes (02 99 07 81 07). Rooms start at Ffr220 (pounds 25).

The Auberge de Goury (02 33 52 77 01) is in Goury, just under 20 miles west of Cherbourg on the D901. It is closed on Mondays in the summer and Saturdays in the winter; menus start from around Ffr90.

Guerande is around 40 miles west of Nantes, and a four miles north of La Baule. The nicest hotel within the walls is the Roc-Maria (02 40 24 90 51), though the Hotel de Voyageurs just outside (02 40 24 90 13) has a good restaurant.