Finding things

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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.

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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.

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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.

Mandolin Masspacher

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.

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Irises at Les Iris

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Last month in Amsterdam we admired Van Gogh’s irises.

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This month, it’s the real thing. Irises at every turn. Yellow by the side of the road, indigo along the drive and deep purple and bee-attracting at the end of the garden. The photos don’t quite do them justice.

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Deauville, by air

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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!

Deauville Poster with horse and greyhound

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?

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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.

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Le pain: la fin de la faim!

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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.

Bread storage, Bread Oven Museum, Normandy

Bread Oven, Normandy

Easter Shopping

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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?

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Brocante in London and Normandy

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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.

Table from The French House

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.

French card chair

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.

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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.IMG_3906

A Few More Words (and Pictures) from our Guests

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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.