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?
In ancient times, France was called Gaul and the French were the Gauls (Gaulois). The rooster became the symbol of Gaul and the Gauls as a result of a pun. The Romans made fun of the Gauls, because, in Latin, the word Gallus means both rooster and Gaul. They regarded them as so boastful and noisy birds or roosters that were no match for the Roman eagle.
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.
I recently shared results from our guest survey. Shortly after, another report packed with data fell into my hands, this time in the form of the rather grandly named 2012 Annual Report. In reality this is a bunch of interesting stats about visits and visitors to the Les Iris website, compiled by the lovely people, and their data crunching machines, at WordPress.
I check site stats regularly so there were no great surprises. Still, it’s good to step back and reflect on a full year’s worth of trends.
The most popular post of the year? It took a bit of extra data crunching to figure out that this collection of pictures of Les Iris and Normandy by one of our guests took first place. The pictures are re-posted below. They are mysterious and beautiful to look at. A Winter Market in France, Dinner by Michelin and Surviving DisneyLand Paris also proved popular.
As was the case with these pictures, some of the most valued feedback isn’t easily measurable. As a blogger, it’s the content and tone of the comments I pay close attention to. They keep me connected closely to readers throughout the year.
We keep a guest book in the cottage, and ask visitors to write or send reviews of their stay. Here is a letter we received from one of our guests. It’s a favourite: as with the pictures, it gives a real sense of people responding to and enjoying a special place.
My wife and I enjoyed our stay so much at your charming thatched cottage that I wanted to thank you and let you know what we found so attractive about it.
Les Iris is ideally situated in the heart of an idyllic village on the south bank of the River Seine. We found the renovated and modernised cottage very comfortable and well-equipped in the kitchen and throughout. We were only two, so confined ourselves to the ground floor, but next time, perhaps, we would like to bring family or friends as the property is spacious enough to accommodate up to eight adults with ease. It was really a most enchanting and pretty place and suited us down to the ground.
We alternated between eating out at the many good restaurants in the vicinity and self-catering, which was very easy to do. A particular memory was eating our dinner, whilst watching ships of every size, some quite large, making their way up or down the river to Rouen or Le Havre, their navigation lights glowing like fairy lights in the night, little more than 200 metres away. During the day, we were also fascinated by watching the wonderful bird life on and around the river.
Furthermore, we also felt very secure, with the off-road parking in the drive, the safe surroundings of a quiet and old-fashioned village and the elevated position overlooking the river, beyond the fence at the foot of the garden. In addition, when we sat outside, we valued the privacy afforded by the location of the cottage and its secluded situation.
There was so much to see and visit that a week was nowhere near long enough to do it all, but we tried hard. Normandy is such a large and historic region that one could spend months travelling around and finding new delights to explore every day. Particular highlights were visiting Monet’s house and garden at Giverny, the many Abbeys and historic sites dating back to 1066 and beyond, the old town and port at Honfleur and the museums at Le Havre and elsewhere.
This year we did it the Norman way. The local oysters came from the supermarket, of all places–but only after a protracted discussion with the fishmonger about just how fresh the oysters were, and how to store them, and what size is best (2 is larger and better than 3). Oyster knives were secured, space was made in the fridge, and the last evening of the year was celebrated with oysters, champagne, foie gras and prune-stuffed pork loin (based on a Jane Websterrecipe).
I’d wanted to do it this way for a long time–you see the oyster boxes piled high at market in December–but didn’t know how or have the confidence to do it alone. We had keen company: she had holidayed in Brittany as a teen, and remembered the men wearing oven gloves as they swore at the boxes of recalcitrant oysters. He claimed to have shucked oysters “once or twice”–know that an Englishman always understates his skill. The oysters were prepared, kept cool over ice and served with lemon, vinaigrette and scallions. Perfect.
I went a bit Martha Stewart on the New Years Eve table using bits of ivy, mistletoe and rosemary from the garden. The silvery tablecloth is from Zara Home, and extra sparkle was provided by our guests in the form of a hostess gift (as if the shucking weren’t enough), these gorgeous festive napkin rings from The White Company.
The next morning the Seine at the end of the garden was as perfect as it can be. It had gone all Monet, reflecting the trees and clouds so that even the most unpainterly among us couldn’t miss the mirror effect.
In 2013 two of the major events in Upper Normandy will focus on the Seine. The Impressionist Festival from April to September will put on six exhibitions and many activities on the theme of water in Impressionist paintings. The Rouen Armada in June will host tall ships along the Seine from Le Havre to Rouen. No better way, then, to start the year than on the banks of this great, beautiful river.
2012 was the first year guests stayed at Les Iris. We worried a bit as we prepared the cottage last spring. What would go wrong? What had we forgotten?
We had forgotten a few things (more on that later), yet every single group that chose Les Iris for a holiday was a delight to work with. The cottage was treated well – like the home that it is. Guests were generous with their reviews, photos, and suggestions.
We ask everyone who stays at Les Iris to fill out a survey. Today we want to share the topline results from the survey this year. Of those who filled in the online survey:
- 100% rated their stay at Les Iris as “a great holiday” or “one of my best holidays ever“
- 100% said the booking process, the cottage, sightseeing and departure were “good” or “excellent”
- 90% rated the location “excellent”
- 90% said the pricing, directions and guest information were “good” or “excellent”
- 90% said they would recommend Les Iris to a friend, or stay again
We were delighted with these results. But we weren’t just after compliments (although please keep them coming!) We asked guests to tell us the bad stuff, so that we could make improvements. They did, and we’ve listened.
The cottage now has an iron and an ironing board. There is a new barbeque outside. We have added more, larger saucepans and more tablemats The TV has been put on a table with wheels so that it can be moved around for viewing.
A few guests asked for new garden furniture. We will look into this in the spring. Others asked for more TV stations and wifi. There is good French TV reception in the cottage. Wifi is expensive because the village is not cabled and it requires a special satellite dish. We are considering this. In the meantime, there is a mobile signal from across the river, and buying a travel bolt-on in advance from your mobile phone provider makes checking email and surfing the web while abroad more affordable.
Here are some of the lovely things guests said about the cottage.
“Les Iris”, a beautiful name for a beautiful cottage. Thank you very much for allowing us to stay in this lovely, idyllic part of France and Normandy. We particularly enjoyed coming back in the evening and sitting outside to watch the HUGE ships slowly chug past.
We enjoyed the peace and quiet of your home and tiny village. It was an added treat to be here as the trees all bloomed.
We enjoyed the short walks from the cottage around the surrounding area, watching the light change on the river through the day. Honfleur is a great day out – we went twice. Our favourite restaurant was the Risle-Seine in Bourneville. Fantastic traditional Normand cuisine at very reasonable prices considering the quality.
Your wonderful cottage very quickly grew on us and we are sad to leave. The garden is fabulous and such a treat for our younger girls to be able to run about in such space.
Thank you – and come again!
Is there a good way to start the new year? Celebrate midnight in style, and you wake up with a headache and a mess to tidy up, and at least one resolution broken in the first twenty-four hours. This year, with guests to entertain, we decided the headaches had to be ignored. And the mess: we decided to leave it behind.
Nos mères et nos grand mères (et parfois nos pères et nos grand pères) sont souvent la meilleure source de recettes. Les vraies recettes j'entend. Celles qui faisaient que la maison de notre enfance sentait si bon la soupe au chou, les crêpes ou la tarte au pomme au beurre salé...
Malheureusement mes grand mères sont parties vers un monde meilleur et ma maman n'est pas très heureuse dans la cuisine (bien qu'elle soit la reine des sauces Italiennes)...
The Christmas tree sellers are out in force this weekend, and doing a brisk business. Here’s what I wrote about Christmas tree decorating last year. Not much has changed in the intervening months: it wasn’t a year for far-flung travel for our family. The only new tree decoration is a traditional Romanian straw hat bought with spare change on the way out of Cluj. And still, there are no French decorations.
When traveling for pleasure we like to find local decorations for the Christmas tree. It’s a way to remember some of the interesting places we have visited. It’s also a great excuse to buy tourist tat without making seriously expensive mistakes. My parents did the same, and their tree is heavy with adventures. My favourite is the wooden cosmonaut they picked up at Moscow airport in 1971. He hangs on the tree, a reminder of a vanished era of aspiration and confrontation.
Here are some of the decorations on our tree this year.
This glamorous shopping lady is from Colorado. She has always struck me as overly stylish for the Rockies–perhaps she is taking in the après ski scene inAspen. We found the hand-made lace angel next to her in Tallinn, Eastonia. Tallinn’s old town is beautiful and perfectly sized for a weekend visit if you can just manage to avoid the stag party crowds. The tango dancers are from Buenos Aires, where we watched equally craggy dancers dipping and spinning around the streets of La Boca.
I wonder if the Bengal tiger is wearing lipstick, or is that the remains of dinner around his mouth? He roars fiercly at the snowmen and santa decorations. We found the sweet-faced Pinnochio in Orvieto, a hilltown in Umbria, Italy. When I lived in Italy as a child I worried through Christmas that the old witch Befana who visits on the Ephiphany would bring me the coal that naughty children get instead of gifts.
The little ladies are from Guatemala, where we marveled at the Mayan ruins in Tikal. In Iceland we stayed at the isolated Hotel Budir on the Snaefellsnes peninsula. No vikings in sight there, but it was easy to imagine elves emerging from the mysteriously shaped lava rocks all around.
This crown above and the chandelier below are English, from the Victoria & Albert Museum shop which sells unusual and unique Christmas decorations. The cowgirl is from Texas and I love her sparkling belt buckle. I’m not sure she does much cow herding in this outfit: maybe Daddy owns an oil well.
My brother clerked for a time at the Supreme Court, and he arranged for us to take a tour and hear the justices hand down a decision. It was amazing to be there and watch history in motion. The blue Matisse blue bulb is from MOMA, New York and the green bulb is from Hawaii’s National Tropical Botanical Garden.
We think of the tree a work in progress, with many gaps to be filled. There is one gaping hole that I’d like to fill quickly. We spend so much of our time in France and yet have nothing to put on the Christmas tree. So please help me – where is the best place in Paris or Normandy to find Christmas decorations? And what are the most typical French Christmas tree decorations?