Another visit to the wonderful zoological park at Clères, which we have visited before. The collection was established as a private zoo by ornithologist Jean Delacour at his chateau north of Rouen. Later donated to the state, the collection of animals reflects his travels in Vietnam, Madagascar, and Central America. On this visit the gardens were a mass of spring flowers and blossoms, and the animals and birds, who live in semi-freedom, were active and full of song.
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.
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.
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?
One of the joys of spending time in Normandy is visiting the area’s bountiful food markets. Our local market, held on a Friday, never disappoints: but in those weeks when we’re traveling or otherwise occupied on a Friday, a close second best is exploring the other markets of Upper Normandy and Calvados. This month we made our way to Pont-l’Évêque, where the weekly market is held on a Monday. It’s home to the eponymous cheese, and to a lovely church which survived wartime bombing.
The point of local markets is they change every time. You go for the seasonal produce and for the individual sellers. It’s the opposite of supermarkets, where it’s downright inconvenient when the aisles are changed around adding a precious few minutes to your already too-long shopping time.
In the first week of November, there were chestnuts, quinces, and the alien-fabulous chou romanesco. I’ve never cooked any of these, although the guests at our cottage the week before had collected chestnuts in the forest and roasted them over the open hearth. I’ll have to try that, and here’s how.
And the chrysanthemums were flying: you could see them lining the village streets, and all around around the cemeteries where families were marking November 1st, a day of remembrance. We left some by the cottage gateposts: I wonder how far into the winter they’ll last.
Giverny–where Claude Monet lived and painted for 43 years–is certainly the most famous garden in Normandy, perhaps in all of Europe or even the world. It was here that he created the water garden with its iconic Japanese bridge that he painted over and over and which hangs, in reproduction, on a million institutional walls.
A visit to Giverny, however, doesn’t start with the lily pond, but with the rather fabulous–and previously unknown to me–Clos Normand, his magnificent wildflower garden.
The garden, which fronts his house, is laid out in corridors of colour: one purple, one yellow, one pink. Flowers and rose arches rise on either side. Even though it’s crowded – on a midweek afternoon during school season we waited 20 minutes for our tickets – you can lose yourself wandering through the fragrant lanes.
We visited in early June, and the flower garden was bursting with colour, all poppies and peonies and hollyhocks and irises.
All those poppies recall the Monet print that hung in my childhood nursery, the one of a girl and her mother walking through a poppy field, the girl wearing a boater not unlike my school uniform hat, and the mother wearing a scarf and carrying a parasol.
The gardeners were busy at work, tending to all that wildness.
If the flower garden offered more than I expected, then the water garden was slightly underwhelming. The two gardens are intersected by a busy road, and there is noise from the traffic on the road. And to be fair the day was grey, the light flat. The pond is really very small, and not as lovely as it is painted in oil and hanging on the walls of the world’s great museums. It reminded me of visiting the most famous gardens in Japan. Like this one they were perfect on a small scale, and elbow to elbow as crowds of tourists sought just the right picture for their holiday blog.
Monet’s house is worth a look. It has been renovated recently, and rooms on both floors are open for viewing. The bedroom overlooks the gardens. The painter’s bed is curiously small for two people, and the ensuite bathroom is luxurious. What is known as the yellow kitchen is in fact a dining room with a large table, with a smart blue kitchen beyond it. It seems that the Monet family enjoyed their entertaining–and who wouldn’t, in such a spot?
The children brought along The Magical Garden of Claude Monet, which takes a child and a dog on a tour of house and gardens. They enjoyed discovering the places shown in the book – especially Monet’s boat.
There are a number of official and unofficial websites dedicated to Giverny, of which we found the best for visitor information to be the Claude Monet Foundation website.
This is a blog about living and travelling in rural Normandy and I try to stay fairly close to the subject. I’ve gone off-piste from time to time. I was star-struck by an encounter with Blur’s Alex James, and I enthused about a friend’s chalet in Vaujany. Today I’m going to stray again. If this blog is all about rural life, I’m going to write about its opposite.
Last weekend we spent a day wandering around East London – a helter skelter patchwork of old industry and new development, a resolutely urban space crawling with builders and testers and security guards and snapping tourists like me as it enters the last weeks before the London Olympics. (For a neat travel account of things to do in East London, see the New York Times’ 36 Hours in East London).
We walked along the Lee Navigation, a system of canals built out of from the River Lea that once served industry, and are now the heart-center of Olympic development. This provided some excellent views of the main Olympic stadium, where sound checks were underway all afternoon.
Here is one of the entrances to the Olympic park. You can see old industrial buildings next to a secured gate into the Park. I love the graffiti under the canal bridge: IMAGINE WAKING TOMORROW AND ALL MUSIC HAS DISAPPEARED. Our dancing-singing-violin-playing daughters tried to imagine what that would be like.
It’s been decades since the canals have carried working barges, but there are houseboats all along the sides. You might think a houseboat is a romantic, bohemian way to live cost-effectively in London–that’s not always the case. Even if the houseboat is affordable, mooring prices and terms vary widely. Behind the houseboats here, you can see the kind of smart apartments that have appeared all over this once industrial area.
Someone has set up these miniature sculptures ‘watching’ the construction of the Olympic Park from across the Lee Navigation. (Is this a good moment to mention that there is a French connection to the Olympics. It was a Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, who in 1894 proposed in a speech at the Sorbonne the idea of revival of the Games and establishment of the International Olympic Committee.)
For lunch we made our way into Bow, where Roach Road was unexpectedly buzzing with Bugaboos and LandRovers–surely day visitors from Islington and Dulwich trying to snatch a bit of artistic urban cool just like us? Look at the Olympic Stadium looming behind.
With children and dog in tow, we were delighted to discover that the cafe at Stour Space is energetically child and dog friendly. This is certainly not the case in much of London–I have yet to find a dog-friendly cafe in Fulham. The excellent brunch menu included pea soup and bacon sandwiches.
Stour Space is hosting a retrospective of works by local printmaker James Brown. This version of a William Morris quotation, which can be bought at the V&A, particular spoke to us:
Since we’re talking opposites today, I had to take note of the requisite anti-Olympics graffiti just along the street.
There’s much beauty in the contrasts here. Of course there is: it’s the differences in life, after all, that provide richness and texture. The town mouse and the country mouse need each other, and make each other, in their contrast, more beautiful.