What’s better than an attic full of the things someone once treasured, then grew up or turned in another direction, and now here’s the thing, dusty and worn yet special in some way just waiting to be discovered. Ebay thrives on this market of lost things but it isn’t the same, is it. There isn’t that physical thrill you get when you’ve sorted through the junk to find the very thing, shined it up with the palm of your hand, and imagined it into your life.
Maybe that’s why the brocante still thrives in France, this most sensory of cultures being reluctant to part with the thrill that comes with the hunt. Here are our latest finds, from consignment brocante type shop La Grange de Janna, just relocated from Honfleur to Pont-Audemer and helpfully open every day. Furniture, books, electronics, audio, vintage and modern – it’s all here in a cavernous warehouse.
At Les Iris the walls are fairly bare and we’re always looking for pictures that connect to our lives here in Normandy, while small enough to suit the cottage’s dimensions. The miniature oil of a vase of flowers will be perfect. The fashion plate will remind our daughters not to complain about the clothes they have to wear.
And the mandolin – an impulse purchase, redolent of Picasso, southern summers, Shakespearean serenades. It needs re-stringing and a polish, but is in good shape, and made by Masspacher in Paris. A fine old thing will get new life.
It’s a truism to state that there’s little glamour in flying. All those transatlantic flights, lodged in the back of the plane with a screaming toddler and a broken TV screen. Or the low-cost landlocked journeys east, as far as you can go and still be in Europe, knees in your face, costs a fortune for a coffee. So what a joy to start a flight from Deauville Airport!
It’s a two-gate terminal with a couple of weekly flights to City Airport, London, and charter flights during holiday seasons. There’s a flying school, and many private planes coming in and out. In the parking lot (a mere few metres from the airport terminal) a child of around 7 announces “My Dad has his own private plane.” Most people here do, I think. There’s a smart bar upstairs, and a restaurant with crisp white tablecloths and 3-course meals. No rushing for ferries and trains, or driving hours south from the ports. What better way to pop into your holiday home in Deauville or Honfleur?
The CityJet plane is luxurious: leather seats and good leg room. Drinks are free, staff are courteous. There is fresh coffee and a Leonidas chocolate before landing. The plane stays low on a cloudless day and offers excellent views of Deauville with its sandy beach, marina, casino and racecourse. Later, there’s a birds eye view of London from Battersea Power Station over Parliament and along to the Olympic Park with its gleaming arenas. “A Peter Pan view” comments the briefcase-wielding gentleman in front of me who the staff know by name, perhaps he has something to do with the races or the film festival. Anyway, he’s right: if this were a Disney ride, you’d get back in the queue for another go. How’s that for a great flight.
On Easter Monday we visited one of my favourite close-by places, an undiscovered gem of a museum: the bread oven, a cottage in La-Haye-de-Routot in the middle of the Forêt de Brotonne that maintains a traditional bread oven. Most weekends they bake and sell hundreds of their sweet-smelling loaves all afternoon. On this day, as well as the loaves, there was chocolate-filled brioche, an Easter treat.
I’ve spent the last two days sampling the shopping experiences in Upper Normandy: the well-heeled, global brand-packed district behind Rouen’s cathedral; the adorable rows of independent shops that line the narrow medieval streets of Pont-Audemer; and a weekly market where farmers from all around set out their stalls.
The thing that’s struck me is how beautifully everything is presented. From the windows of Hermes to the humblest confectionary, each shopkeeper has taken time to make his or her little piece of window the most seasonal and eye-catching it can be. Even the opticians had a full-on Easter menagerie on show. And this display of colour and shape and texture makes it fun to shop in France, a sensual pleasure.
I am trying to remember if the shops were ever so lovely on the UK high street or in the American mall. When did it become purely functional? Maybe that’s why we shop online so much: it’s no fun in person any more.
This seems to me the wrong formula. Why shouldn’t shopping, whether online or on the high street, be a pleasure? Why don’t we demand that our shopkeepers, whether digital or not, curate their stalls with care and stimulate a little bit of desire before we get down to the grubby business of parting with our money?
It was in the Isère last year that I found a table solution for our troublesome kitchen-diner space in London. Visiting a friend in her chic chalet in the French alps, I saw a table that was just perfect: long and narrow, made from lustrous French boards, with a modern touch in the smoky iron legs. I asked where she had found it–an antiques shop in Grenoble, perhaps, or an estate sale in the French countryside?
Not at all. It came, in fact, from The French House, which is in York and in Fulham not five minutes from our London home. They go all over France and collect wonderful furniture and decorative objects. They also make furniture using reclaimed wood. They had made my friend’s table, and they would make ours.
The also had these mid-century French card chairs which they polished up and reupholstered for the table ends. It felt wrong to buy French furniture from a London shop when we spend so much time in Normandy. At the shop they weren’t surprised at all. They said many people buy furniture for French homes in London. There isn’t enough time to get around and sift through the brocantes yourself.
I have yet to explore the brocantes in Normandy – something to look forwards to. Here’s a site that lists all the brocantes and flea markets and antiques fairs in Upper Normandy. And if you can’t get there in person, Sharon Santoni, who runs group trips to French flea markets, has a delightful online shop, My French Country Brocante.
Another quite fabulous option, if you can find it, is Home Art & Matiere just down the road from Les Iris in Villequier. Occupying the old pilot’s house, right on the Seine, H.A.M. is a wonderbox of treasures, each room painstakingly curated and filled with carefully chosen artifacts. The kind of place you go to find what you didn’t know you wanted.
Of course there’s a catch: it’s only open on Sundays from 3 – 6 pm. Our recommendation: take lunch in nearby Caudebec-en-Caux, and tour the Victor Hugo Museum. From the museum go left along the river to the old pilot’s house, and then browse to your heart’s content as the sun goes down.