A field trip to France
From the Brittany ferry to the boulangeries, Brian Viner finds pure perfection on his family's first camping holiday abroad
Saturday 30 July 2005
It is not often that I am able to impress my three children with my worldliness, but as we bowled along the D785 through rural Brittany, looking in vain for a charming roadside café where we might have breakfast, I spotted a large factory belching black fumes. Manfully pointing the Volvo towards it, I explained that in France, wherever there is a factory, there is certain to be an establishment nearby dispensing decent coffee and excellent pastries. Sure enough, we found one. And better still, there was a bunch of overalled ouvriers at the bar, having just knocked off from their night shift, smoking Gitanes, drinking petits noirs and animatedly talking local politics.
The children were barely an hour into their inaugural trip to France, and already they had stepped into a picture from my 12-year-old daughter Eleanor's basic French textbook. All we needed now was Gérard Vernier to tootle past on his vélomoteur, but what caught the children's eyes instead was a newspaper headline: "Brest: 15kg de shit saisis: trois arrestations!" Never mind the luscious croissants aux amandes and delicious chocolat chaud, a country in which the S-word appears in headlines (even if it is the slang for cannabis) was clearly one they were going to enjoy.
We were on our way from Roscoff to a campsite just outside the small port of Guilvinec, in the region of Brittany that is startlingly like Cornwall and called, not coincidentally, Cornouaille. As well as being the children's first visit to France, it had also been their first trip on a cross-Channel ferry, overnight from Plymouth to boot, an experience that, to the entire family's surprise, had been pleasant verging on pleasurable. In my book, beds on boats and trains tend not to yield high-quality kip, and three overexcited children hardly seemed likely to improve the situation. But due credit to Brittany Ferries, we all slept soundly, comfortably, and even quite enjoyed waking up to the mellow strains of "Greensleeves", that was being mercilessly piped through the loudspeaker system.
The nice surprises continued at the Camping Village de la Plage. We had booked a mobile home, and although it was a top-of-the-range job, glorying in the name Monaco DeLuxe, we wondered whether we might feel as though we had landed in a trailer park. In fact, the Monaco DeLuxe (over the course of our week, we referred to it as a cabin, chalet, caravan, hut, house and, indeed, trailer, without ever feeling that we had found quite the right word) was rather stylish. It had three bedrooms, a shower room, lavatory, dining area, little kitchen with faux-marble worktops, and, outside, a barbecue.
I wouldn't call it a home from home exactly, but then, I've always wondered why anyone on holiday would want to find a home from home. For the children, the campsite offered precisely the pleasures that they can't get at home. In England, we live in a Herefordshire hamlet, with hardly any other houses and no other children on our doorstep. Here, by contrast, there were kids in practically every mobile home and every tent. It reminded my wife of her childhood on a South Yorkshire housing estate, but sunnier and with better bread.
The campsite evoked a housing estate, too, in the way that it fostered petty snobberies (my own included) and behavioural idiosyncrasies. It was people-watching heaven. We felt waves of superiority from the "proper" campers sleeping under canvas, and watched with fascination as a man from Coventry, staying just across the way from us, spent four hours one morning polishing his Subaru. I started Zoë Heller's Notes on a Scandal just as he flexed his chamois, and as I finished it, he was putting the final touches to his hubcaps. Then there was barbecueing one-upmanship, notably demonstrated by the man from Taunton who seemed to have tongs for hands, like a West Country Edward Scissorhands; and the grumpy Dutchman who admonished our children for cycling across what he evidently considered to be his front garden.
We hired five bikes (€176 for the week) and spent one blissful morning cycling en famille along the sandy coastal path to the fishing village of Kérity. It was in Kérity, too, that we found our favourite boulangerie. I have lived in France and often holidayed there, yet the quality of humble village boulangeries never fails to thrill me. The thrill, however, is laced with an aching regret. You could trawl the whole of London, unsuccessfully, for a single bakery like the one in Kérity. We bought wonderful, floury pain de campagne, exquisite mille-feuilles, and crêpes by the kilo from an old woman who smiled indulgently through black teeth as Eleanor practised her French.
I decided that a self-catering family holiday in Brittany, in decent weather, might just be my idea of perfection. We stocked up for the week at the Carrefour just outside Quimper, 30km away, and that, too, was a joy: a bog-standard French supermarket, perhaps the equivalent of Tesco, yet with a fish counter that made the one in Harrods Food Hall look impoverished. When we got home, my wife couldn't bring herself to shop at our local Tesco for a few weeks, so depressing was the comparison.
It was as well that Quimper had a Carrefour on its outskirts, because we couldn't find any decent food retailers in the town proper, just an improbable profusion of expensive shoe shops and places selling Breton pottery. But it's still a town of immense charm, with wonky houses and cobbled streets that reminded the children of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the Disney version).
Somehow or other, the trip to Quimper took an entire day. A kind of holiday version of Parkinson's law applied, with our ambles round shoe shops and pottery shops expanding to fit the limitless time available. On another day, we visited a theme park, Bel Air Land, and it was there that we were usefully reminded that France is not only driven by savoir-faire, so evident in even the humblest boulangerie, but also afflicted by shoulder-shrugging laissez-faire. Bel Air Land, rundown and uncared for, might have been better named The Theme Park That Time Forgot.
That was the extent of our day trips. The rest of the time we stayed on or near the campsite, which was gloriously located, abutting a fine, south-facing beach, developed only in the form of ramshackle gun emplacements every 100 metres or so. When I got home, I meant to read up on the history of Brittany, invasion-wise, but never got round to it. The historical connection between Cornwall and Cornouaille, too, must be worth studying. The physical similarities are manifest in a coastline battered into a raw beauty by the prevailing wind, in the whitewashed houses with slate roofs, and even in the weather-beaten faces of the old-timers. Also, like the more zealous Cornish, the Bretons of Cornouaille cling tenaciously to their own language.
Where Cornouaille and Cornwall diverge is, with the exception of Rick Stein, in the quality of the grub. And when we didn't treat ourselves to dinner in, we treated ourselves to dinner out, becoming regulars at Le Rayon Vert, a crêperie at La Pointe de la Torche, an isolated stretch of beach loved by windsurfers, and powerfully reminiscent of Constantine Bay near Padstow. After dinner and the obligatory family joke - "Are you having a crêpe, daddy?" "No, it's just the way I'm sitting" - we played until twilight on the beach, revelling not only in its reminders of a favourite part of England but also in its quintessential Frenchness: an elderly lady with stiff hair and a Shitzu; a pair of lithe young lovers, both topless.
None of us wanted to leave at the end of the week, and we will definitely go back, although next time I won't go to the Wednesday-night magic show. When magicians look at me, I know they're thinking that they want me to help with their mind-reading act, and I'm never wrong.
Brittany Ferries (08703 665333; www.brittany-ferries.co.uk) operates between Portsmouth and Cherbourg, Portsmouth and St Malo, Plymouth and Roscoff and Poole and Cherbourg.
Condor Ferries (0845 641 0240; www.condorferries.co.uk) plies the route between Portsmouth and St Malo and Poole and Cherbourg.
The Viners travelled with Eurocamp (0870 366 7552; www.eurocamp.co.uk) to the Camping Village de la Plage at Guilvinec. The holiday cost £611, plus a supplement for the Plymouth-Roscoff ferry crossing. A seven-night holiday for a family of five, starting 2 September at Guilvinec, costs £256.
Quimper Tourist Office (00 33 2 98 58 29 29; www.leguilvinec.com)
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