In Part 3 of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy has Dolly decamp to her country house to save money. It’s an expedient move: the fishmonger, the woodmaker and the shoemonger are chasing for unpaid debts. Her daughter has been very ill. Her husband has been sleeping with the nanny of their six children. She goes away with her children, believing that the country will offer “salvation from all city troubles, that life there, though not elegant…[is] cheap and comfortable.” (I am quoting here from the award-winning translationby crack husband-and-wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.)
Country houses were no joke in those days. Here is Tolstoy’s own country house, the 32-room Yasnaya Polyana. This is a writer who knew the toll of seasons of hard weather on a country estate, and the real burden that supporting two residences can put on its owners.
The country does not live up to Dolly’s expectations. Her husband has been looking after the house. “Stepan Arkadyich, who, like all guilty husbands, was very solicitous of his wife’s comfort, looked the house over himself and gave orders about everything he thought necessary. To his mind, there was a need to re-upholster all the furniture with cretonne, to hang curtains, to clean up the garden, make a little bridge by the pond and plant flowers; but he forgot many other necessary things, the lack of which later tomented Darya Alexandrovna.”
What she finds is leaks, no cook, not enough cows for milk and butter, only roosters, and no one to wash the floors as everyone is working in the potato fields. The wardrobes open and close at the wrong times. There are no ironing boards.
Just when everything is looking bleak, a housekeeper appears and masterfully shapes up the house. “The roof was repaired, a cook was found, chickens were bought, the cows began to produce milk, the garden was fenced with pickets, the carpenter made a washboard, the wardrobes were furnished with hooks and no longer opened at will, an ironing board, wrapped in military flannel, lay between a chair arm and a chest of drawers, and the maids’ quarters began to smell of hot irons.”
With fast food, pressed clothes, and working cupboards, Dolly starts to feel at home in the country. The genius of Tolstoy is in these details. It’s not Anna Karenina who compels you through the book: although she gets top billing, she’s a cool and fairly flat character, what James Meek calls a mysterious absence at the heart of Anna Karenina. No, it’s the human truth in the detail, how the husband behaves when he’s guilty, and how the wife regains some order in her world by making the cupboards open and close at the right times, that drives the novel right through the centuries onto our shelves and screens today.
But back to our subject of country houses. For me, Dolly makes a mistake in thinking that the country should replicate the city. You see it happening all the time in magazines and property sections: glossy pictures of the second or even third home that’s immaculate, designer-perfect. Just the thought of all that work, to keep not just one but two or three homes looking decent, makes me feel exhausted. And I’m sure the husbands aren’t doing the upholstery.
A city house is on display. Windows are bay-shaped, made to be looked into. Curtains need to hang well, the carpets should be clean. Your clothes can’t be disheveled as you make your way blinking into the morning. The country is different: it’s the place where you go to not be on display. That’s the point of it. No corner shop, no delivery service, no wifi. Nothing for the children to do but scrabble around in the mud and make up adventure games. And for the adults it’s long walks in wellies, a bit of Tolstoy, and gallons of excellent cheap wine. Two changes of clothes is more than enough, you hardly get around to hanging them in the wardrobes which may or may not close. As Judith Warner writes in her perfect column about another chaumiere in Normandy: “Everything’s fine the way it is.”
We love feedback at Les Iris. We are always grateful when guests take the time to tell us what they liked, and what we could do better.
Best is when they share their holiday stories and pictures. One guest who stayed at Les Iris with his family recently shared these evocative and mysterious pictures of his time at Les Iris and in Normandy.
We were not looking forwards to it. After two years of asking, begging, nagging and demanding, the children had finally won. We had bought the tickets. We had found someone to look after the dog. We had planned the route. We were all set for a visit to Disneyland Paris. It spread before us like some kind of punishment out of Dante.
We had both visited Disneyworld Florida as pre-teens, and couldn’t see how Disneyland Paris would stack up. It was small! It was in France! Well, at least the food might be good.
As you may have realised by now, our expectations really were rock bottom. And perhaps that’s why, in the end, it didn’t seem quite so bad as all that. Or perhaps some of that Disney magic dust simply rubbed off on us.
In fact, ask us today, and we will probably recommend that you make time for Disneyland Paris. With a couple of caveats and recommendations:
- Bring children at the right age. Disney has focused hard on girls aged 3-8 in the last years, and that shows in the Disneyland Paris product. Fantasyland, with its focus on fairy tales and princesses, dominates the park. Space Mountain and other rides for older kids feel like afterthoughts.
- Don’t promise the kids that they will see the Disney characters close-up. I have this memory of meting Disney characters on the street in Florida. That didn’t happen here. To meet a Disney princess, you either had to queue up at the princess palace for about two hours, or pay Michelin prices to eat a burger with Cinderella. We weren’t willing to do either, and it made me cross. Aren’t the entrance tickets expensive enough already?
- Visit off-peak, or at least when not all European schoolchildren are on holiday. We went during UK school half term in June. It was packed with Brits, and no one else.
- Don’t expect the enthusiasm of the US Disney crews. Service on the rides was functional and professional, but never really fun or enthusiastic. It’s just not that French to get so into things, is it.
- Buy tickets online in advance and you can walk right in when you get there.
- Don’t stay overnight at one of the high-priced park hotels if you can avoid it. We are lucky to be two hours, door to door, from the park. Leave at 8 an and arrive by 10 am as the gates are opening. Leave after the parade, and you’re home before 10 pm. Disneyland Paris is small enough to cover in a day. Limit the pain.
- In order to cover the park in a day, plan your circuit. A quick post to Facebook and Twitter in the morning prompted fast recommendations from friends with children the same ages as ours. We made a beeline for the rides they recommended.
- Use FastTrack. Some of the rides – like Peter Pan and Buzz Lightyear- have the FastTrack system where you can swipe your park entry ticket and get a ticket to return to a ride at a specific time later in the day. So instead of standing in line you can try out other rides while you wait and then cut to the front of the queue at the specified time.
- Bring your own picnic. Disney may have brought its magic to Paris, but hasn’t let Paris bring its food to Disney. In the land of fresh and sensitively prepared food, Disney offered little more than the kind of microwaved fast food you might find at a motorway service station, but more expensive: over-toasted ham sandwiches, wilted salad wrapped in plastic.
- Do stay for the parade. You’re tired, and it’s tempting to leave and avoid the crowds. But at around 7 pm each evening, Disney puts on a real spectacle. The costumes and floats are extravagant, the dance routines carefully choreographed, and the performers could be anywhere in the world. Like it or not, it’s pure on-brand Disney magic.
Normandy is just about my favourite place in the spring. Get there at the right moment, and the countryside is trimmed with white apple blossom, like lace on a Victorian bride. The sky is big and the light changeable and nuanced. No wonder the impressionists discovered light here.
I was lucky enough to spend last week in Upper Normandy. Here are some of my pictures.
Arboretum in bloom, Château d’Harcourt
Evening, Auberge du Vieux Logis, Conteville
Spring garden overlooking the Seine at Les Iris
Easter bells, bunnies, chickens, at the central market in Le Havre
Scarecrows, near Harcourt
Le Havre from the pier
Spring flowers and herb garden, Les Iris
Vieux-Port and the Seine
Yellow field near Sainte-Opportune-la-Mare
A chaumiere is a thatched cottage, built from a skeleton of wood beams, infill of clay or lime and sometimes reinforced with horse or cow hair, and a roof of reeds.
Les Iris is on the Thatched Cottage Road, a 53-km route that runs through the Boucles de la Seine national park connecting Notre-Dame-de-Bliquietuit to Vatteville, Azier and Vieux-Port and winding along the Seine to the Vernier marshlands.
“The thatched roofs of our buildings, from whose tops grow irises with their sabre like leaves, appear to steam as though the humidity of the stable or the barn rises up through the straw”
The Seine flows at the end of the garden, between limestone cliffs and occasional villages. At certain times of day, large boats glide silently past, heavy on their way to Rouen, or, lighter, back out to Le Havre and the sea beyond.
This being Normandy, there is the requisite apple tree in the garden. Ours is large and old and the unripe apples taste sour and floury. The garden is full of herbs, and along the footpaths from the village up into the ancient forest there are plentiful mushrooms. The abundance this season has been a general topic of village conversation, and we ate the wild mushrooms cooked with butter and herbs by a neighbour. You can take the mushrooms you have picked to the pharmacy in the next village, and they will tell you which ones you can eat. We haven’t tried this yet.
The small village church from our window. There are said to be graves in the cemetery from the hundred years’ war. During the day the bell tolls every half hour and with particular vigour at 7 am and 7 pm.
Meals are outside in the sunshine overlooking the Seine, or in the salle a manger at the petrin (dough-making table). The top lifts to reveal a trough, which provided a warm, draft-free place to knead dough and leave it to rise.
No space for bathtubs under the thatched roof, but there are two lovely bathrooms, one on the ground floor, with strong showers. The country kitchen has windows overlooking the garden and a Belfast sink.
The floors downstairs are traditional Pont Audemer tiles, and upstairs, hardwood throughout.