Silence in Nantes, France

After a long holiday, it’s an amusing pastime to sit down and make a ‘best of’ list. The categories are numerous but might include the best cathedral, the best small church, the best restaurant meal, rental accommodation, hotel, seascape, musical experience, road trip, small village, river, wine and so on. When it comes to churches, there are plenty of candidates. My award for best cathedral goes to¬†Nantes Cathedral, the¬†Cathedral of St. Peter and St Paul, in France.

The building commenced in 1434 and took 457 years to complete. It is built in the French Gothic style, with late additions in Gothic Flamboyant and late Gothic. There are no jarring classical Italianesque elements or afterthoughts. Like many French cathedrals –¬†Chartres comes to mind – the soaring height and long narrow nave overwhelms the visitor: silence descends, with occasional echoes of shuffles and murmurs bruising the ambience. Shafts of celestial light expose incandescent dust mites, while thoughts, not necessarily religious but meditative¬†and spiritual, ascend into space.

The Tomb of Francis 11, Duke of Brittany, is located within the cathedral. Sculpted from Carrara marble in 1507 by Michael Colombe, it is an extraordinary work in the Renaissance style and is considered a masterpiece of French sculpture. The recumbent figures of the deceased couple, Francis and Margaret, lie prostrate with hands raised in prayer, as their heads rest on pillows held up by three angels. Margaret’s feet rest on a greyhound, symbol of fidelity, while Francis’ feet are on a lion, representing strength. At the four corners stand statues each representing the four virtues, Courage, Justice, Temperance, and Prudence. Under these statues, huddled in small shell-shaped medallions, are penitent mourners draped in black.

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While the tomb is elaborate and detailed, the cathedral space is light, spare and uncluttered, making the contrast even more appealing. Time to light a candle.

My award, incidentally, for the best small church can be found here.

 

Travelling out of Season in Brittany, France

With travel now readily available, especially within Europe, many little ports, towns and villages in Brittany have become inundated with visitors and holidaymakers during the Northern Hemisphere summer, from June to August, making travel less appealing. The British fly to Rennes or Dinan in Brittany very cheaply with Ryan Air, Fly Kiss or Easy Jet, take a car on the ferry, or drive through the tunnel via Paris. And so you would expect this area of France to be busy. Those not travelling independently are met by a 16 to 45 seater bus which then tours the area. These buses are out of place in tiny villages, clogging town squares, a reminder of those disgusting towering cruise ships dominating the Venetian canals which the Italian authorities are too cowardly to deal with.

Centre of town, Pont Aven. Late September, evening.

Considering Pont Aven as a microcosm of this phenomena, there’s only one way to avoid these invasions: travel in late September or anytime out of season. The weather won’t be so gloriously sunny, and at times it will be quite moist, but I consider this to be a fair trade-off. You will find a quiet market square and a village getting on with its business in a ‘post seasonal’ way and you will hear French spoken. On some days, a few buses might land in the square-¬†arriving at 11am, most stay for around 30 minutes or so, as the tourists disembark to buy the local buttery biscuits, canned fish products from the conserveries,¬†or stare through the windows of the ateliers, the 40 artist workshops flogging colourful paintings of sea themes. And then the town returns to normal.

Boats along the Aven River. The walk to the sea is around 8 kms.

Pont Aven has always been popular with travellers. Paul Gauguin spent extended periods in this town in the late 1880s and early 1890s, establishing, with others, the Synthetist style, a break from Impressionism. Their work is often characterised by the bold use of colour, the abandonment of faithful representation and perspective, with flat forms separated by dark contours, and geometrical composition free of any unnecessary detail and trimmings. The modern Pont Aven art school tends to follow this style.

Boats on the Aven River, Pont Aven

His legacy has left its mark on the town. Some walks follow in his footsteps, with little plaques dotted here and there, depicting Bretagne scenes of the local people or boating scenes. Art¬†workshops dominate the retail scene here, but most are closed after August or only open during the weekend. The result of their presence, as well as the proximity of an Intermarche supermarket less than 1 km away, means the loss of a second boulangerie and a functional epicerie within the town. The town’s commerce is out of balance with a preponderance of outlets catering to the visiting tourist and not the locals.¬†There are two or three good restaurants in the centre, often with reduced opening times, a creperie, one boulangerie, a bar, and a wine cave. A small market operates weekly in the town square. Many shops have closed and will be replaced, most likely, by yet another art gallery.

Pont Aven waterways through the centre of town

The district of Finisterre, in which Pont Aven is located, is heavily populated along the coastal area, in contrast to my recollections of the coastal areas in Morbihan. Beautiful farming land, away from the sea fringes, is dotted with smaller hamlets and villages, and larger medieval towns, such as Quimper. On cool days, motoring around the countryside is a pleasant way to spend the day. A visit to Locronan, one of ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France‘, is worth the drive, but go early before the buses arrive. Like many a designated belle village, Locronon is on the cusp of becoming too faux. Once the tourist shops move in, the rent goes up and local retail suffers. The up side of this designation means these beautiful medieval buildings are carefully restored.

Locronin, Brittany

But then, this is the story of any lovely spot in France. Travel slowly, go outside of the tourist season, and most of all, attempt to speak French, however poorly, and always use your inside voice, even when outside. Intrusiveness, I’ve found, comes down to the volume of voice used by fellow travellers.

Wet day mist over the Aven.
City scene in Quimper, Brittany. Once the capital of Cornouille.

 

A Walk in the Bois d’Amour

If you go down to the ‘bois’ today, you’re in for a big surprise!

The Bois d’Amour, an hour’s walk through a dense and ancient forest, begins right in the heart of Pont Aven’s village. It is surprising, enchanting, mysterious and gentle. You’ll emerge from these woods transformed.

The walk begins just under the one lane bridge near the centre of town. After passing a wild garden of flowers, raspberries and pumpkins, tended by a nearby Merlin, the woods turn deep, dark and mossy, with old cypress, oak, beech and chestnut trees shading the way. Fallen Autumn leaves drift across the moist muddy path.

Who tends this garden in the no man’s land under the bridge?

Unlike in the centre of town where the Avon river races by with enough speed and force to turn mighty water mills, here it runs like a liquid stream of dark molasses, with an occasional skip rover rocks and fallen logs.

Near the Moulin Neuf, the half way point in the walk, a quaint old building appears out of nowhere, probably the remains of that ninth mill. On our return, a quiet older man in a crumpled beige suit, silver hair streaming over his shoulders, magically emerges, his head bowed over a bowl, replenishing some cat food. Bonsoir, bonsoir.

The woods darken in places and become almost frightening, then all is gentle again as a love seat rises in the bend of the river.

Love Seat, Bois d’Amour

Fallen chestnuts litter the ground, opened and devoid of their nuts, like exotic birds or creatures from another time.

The things you find in the woods- ordinary things, like love, nature, beauty and peace.

Included in pedestrian, this weeks photo challenge on WordPress.

Bois d’Amour, Pont Aven

That Petite Maison in Pont Aven

It’s hard to say adieu to the sweet little houses that become your home for a week or two. Much more than hotels, B&Bs, agriturismi or apartments, little rental houses minister comfort and care to the weary traveller. The little house in Pont Aven, with its ancient and thick stone walls, stayed an even temperature all day and welcomed us home each afternoon after our wanderings through the Cornouille district of Bretagne.

Winding wooden stairs lead to two bedrooms and bathrooms on two floors above.

The following photo collage is a media file for those who enjoy travelling vicariously and who asked to peep inside this little French houses. ‘La Petite Tourte’ was filled with luxurious linens, crisply ironed and sweet-smelling, two modern bathrooms, large leather sofas in the sitting room, a spiral staircase leading to the upper levels, a light filled kitchen, tasteful art and no Ikea. The house is advertised through VRBO, a part of Home Away, which provides holiday rentals by owners, similar in many ways to Air B&B.

Antiques and art. Sideboard filled with games. No time for games.
Light filled spot on top level. View over chimneys in the village.

At the end of my travels, I intend to summarise the differences between renting through Airb&b, and VRBO and also take a look at the rise of bookings.com, traditional hotels and B&Bs. Each one has its place.

 

In My Kitchen, October 2017. Bretagne

After travelling around Central and Eastern Europe for three weeks, I was really looking forward to our first French rental house. Before unpacking or looking at the other rooms, I checked the kitchen and its equipment, running around like a headless chook, opening cupboards and drawers. The kitchen in Pont Aven, Brittany, did not disappoint. The cupboards were well equipped with decent wine glasses, serving platters, quality frying pans, a set of sharp knives, a pasta pot and some oven proof gratin dishes. This was a cook’s kitchen. These things are often missing from rental houses.

The kitchen, on Rue Le Petite Tourte, Pont Aven, Brittany

Outside the kitchen, beyond the tiny enclosed stone wall yard, a rapidly running stream provided a soothing background symphony to my kitchen activities. The rapids form part of the watery world which makes up this ancient mill town. Pont Aven’s water courses, the River Aven and it’s creeks, once operated around 14 water wheel grain mills. Many old stone houses are built directly above or next to a rapid. As the weather was damp and fairly cool, winter comfort food dominated my cooking style in this stylish stone house.

Produce bought at the local market. Backyard, Pont Aven, Brittany.

The food of Brittany is tempting, with plenty of seafood and fish, apples and cider, the famous creamy butter with fleur de sel, buttery biscuits, tarts and cakes such as Far Breton and Kouign-amann, not to mention the crepes made from Blé Noir, or buckwheat. We occasionally dined out, but in the end, the lure of the kitchen and home cooked meals became too great.

Some basics from the local supermarche.

Who can resist cooking with Cr√®me Fra√ģche ( entiere s’il vous pla√ģt ) when a small carton costs around 0.66‚ā¨. My new cheat’s white sauce is a winner. Add one finely chopped garlic to a few tablespoons of cr√®me fra√ģche, let it sit while you cook some pasta. Drain the pasta well, then return to the same pan, stir the sauce through the hot pasta, add some chunky smoked salmon and lots of herbs. Voil√†.

Fasta Pasta

I found these cute pot set yoghurts at the market in the nearby village of Tregunc, straight from the dairy farm. Sold in little glass jars for 0.40‚ā¨ each. I will never eat commercial yoghurt again.

Breakfast Pont Aven. Pot set yoghurt with peaches and raspberries

Sometimes when driving about for the day, lunch is simple: a smelly cheese from the market and a baguette from the boulangerie.

Car snacks.

I’ve developed a taste for this lovely red wine from the Loire, Chinon.

A light red wine, Chinon, from the Loire region

French cooking is superb but there’s plenty of cheating going on too. Freshly cooked beetroot¬†is available in all the markets. They make a great entr√©e with some goat cheese.

On market day, the Roti stall is popular, as sensibly dressed older women come to buy their rotisserie chicken, beef or saussison along with a portion of Boulangerie potatoes.

I succumbed to the roast man’s version of Far Breton, a nice little dessert to take back to my kitchen to reheat. I make Far Breton at home, mostly for my D.I.L, who can’t get enough of the stuff. I love the way the prunes are suspended in this version.

Far Breton- for Leanne.
Trying to stay away from the Patisserie.

The Traou Mad galettes of Pont Aven are irresistible. This tin has been refilled twice!

Also trying to stay away from the real estate office! House for sale in a little village near Pont Aven. Fantasies abound in every village. Dangereux!!!

For Rod.

I’m linking up with Sherry, from Sherry’s Pickings, once again, who hosts In My Kitchen, a monthly series where bloggers share their kitchen inspirations. If you’re new to blogging and love food, this is a great way to join up with other like-minded folk. There are no rules and no obligations. Write about your kitchen and get the post linked by the 10th of each month.