French peace, British sausage

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The Independent Online
THE BASIC madness of summer holidays is that the quest for relaxation and peace involves so much stress. We were whizzing down the Route Atlantique, somewhere between Le Mans and Nantes, when I realised with a stab of panic that I had left the details of our French holiday, plus return ferry tickets, somewhere in the horrible Novotel in Chartres.

The last time I'd seen them was during a ghastly dinner the previous evening, when the baby had screamed throughout the meal. Only later did I discover he had decided to eat only sausages all holiday.

We had made a cultural detour to see the great cathedral before collapsing on an undemanding bucket-and-spade holiday on the Vendee coastline near La Rochelle.

A misguided venture: the children briefly glanced at the great Gothic facade, then returned to patting the dozing carriage horse outside. Even the sun, pitiless during the rest of the journey, refused to come out and ignite the stained glass windows. 'Well, I suppose cathedrals are better than long car journeys,' conceded my 11-year-old.

It was a very bad start. But fortunately we remembered the name of the local agency and were finally installed in a whitewashed, shuttered bungalow in a coastal pine strip. The Vendee is flat, rather like a warmer version of East Anglia. There are masses of campsites and do-it-yourself caravaners. We did not immediately take to it. But after breathing the tangy sea and pine resin air for a couple of days, a strange thing happened. For the first time in years I awoke unable to remember which day of the week it was. I had switched off from everyday life and achieved a rare state of relaxation. The days blurred, rather in the way that the line between the sea and the sky merged in the late evening.

In part this was because the house had no television, radio or phone. And the village had little to jolt one into bothering about contemporary life. The main shopping streets were peopled exclusively by families on holiday, all wearing shorts. They seemed to have no worries other than trying to decide what to eat next and when to go swimming. There were no good restaurants to tempt us into overspending or to test our blood pressure with the baby.

But there was also a very French ingredient to our undemanding existence. Our white bungalow was one of six in an impasse; all the others were occupied by their French owners. We gradually realised that they were living out a Gallic version of John Major's Middle England. Plump matrons mounted their upright bicycles at 10 every morning to buy baguettes for the day. There was no cricket on shadowy village greens but communal games of boules, as families joined together to play and chatter for hours at a time up and down the impasse. To English eyes, it all looked as pointless as a giant game of marbles, but it helped to generate a strong sense of security.

With so many people riding bicycles, children could walk to the beach each morning on their own. No one locked up their homes. There was always someone around. When we drove short distances to the best bathing beaches and parked under the pine trees we noticed some people even left their car windows open. It was quite clear that everyone was intent on having a relaxing, family holiday.

No litter was left on the beaches. No one hassled you for any payment, or for anything at all, day after day. And the great Atlantic tide made sure that everything was scoured clean by the mornings. So despite the mad nine-hour car journeys and the back-seat battles and the dash for the Channel port through prairie-style Common Agricultural Policy fields, it was, on balance, probably worthwhile. And when my 11-year-old arrived home she rang her dearest friend to tell her that she had seen this massive cathedral.

WE HAD been brought up to see La Manche as a defence against rabies, so let's hope it continues to keep out ghastly French dogs. The French have become mad about toy dogs. They used to be an essential fashion accessory for elegant Parisiennes, but now no family is complete without its miniature, over-coiffured poodle, dachshund or terrier, trotting around, nervy and shivering.

Attending a cross-country riding event, we stared in astonishment at a miniature grey poodle in a tartan sun hat and matching collar. Two days later, at La Rochelle, we stopped to listen to a busker. A woman plucked her tiny ginger poodle from a padded bag and set it down on the cobbles so that it could enjoy the music with her. It was wearing white cotton socks.

WE WERE issued with a replacement ferry ticket in a matter of seconds. The threat of competition has done wonders for the service. Ferries now have cinemas, children's play areas, duty- free shopping modelled on airports, and a complete absence of lager louts. And the restaurant even served the baby a British sausage, cooked just as he liked it. And it was just as well they provided a welcome respite. We arrived home screaming for baths, only to find that the hot- water system had broken down.