We stayed in a really charming gîte (holiday rental) in Upper Brittany.
These gîtes ruraux are usually in quite remote countryside locations; typically they are former farmhouses that have been renovated and converted for use as comfortable holiday homes. It’s not unusual for the gîte to be located around 4 km from the local village, so a car is really a necessity.
This gîte, however, was particularly remote, set among cornfields at the edge of a vast forest, with the nearest house over 1 km away (straight-line distance) and the nearest shops 8 km away.
You can imagine how peaceful it is, a beautifully-tended acre surrounded by farmland and wilderness, the only sounds the sounds of nature. And the stars at night, far from streetlights and the lights of habitation, were a breathtaking spectacle. Not twinkling dots, but hard steely brightly-coloured points of light in the deep blackness, on either side of the great overhead sweep of the Milky Way.
The address is “Lieu-dit La Feutelle”. Lieu-dit literally means “place called” or “place known as”, but it has become a common noun in French to refer to these remote rural places. Lieux-dit are somewhat equivalent in concept to “townlands” here in Ireland, in the way they are used for rural addresses.So for example you could say (despite the apparent redundancy) un lieu-dit nommé «La Croix Rompue» — A lieu-dit called “La Croix Rompue”.
The hierarchy of places in rural France goes something like this:
- lieu-dit: a rural location that may have one or two houses, or may be completely uninhabited;
- hameau: a hamlet, a cluster of houses with (typically) no shops or services;
- village: a village with a church, and shops such as a café and a bakery;
- bourg: a larger village with a market-place and a weekly market, often the administrative centre of the commune.
- ville: a town big enough to sustain local industry, services and administration and not focused on agriculture.
All of these are faced with a challenging future as young people migrate to cities for educational and employment opportunities, and rural France becomes increasingly empty. Hamlets are deserted, village bakeries close and towns struggle to find a future. Farmhouses become holiday homes for Parisians, permanent homes for retired English people or gîtes ruraux for weekly rental to visitors like us.
After one week in that area, we moved to another gîte in Lower Normandy, in the Val de Saire. One thing that was very striking in that area was the unusual place-names.
Some of the place-names come from the local Norman dialect. For example, the address of our gîte is Rue du Plat Douet, where douet is a local word for a stream. The sign in the picture above indicates the hamlet of Hamel ès Ronches, which looks exotic but is just a local version of hameau des ronces — the hamlet of the brambles. Placename elements are shared between this part of Normandy and the Channel Islands: for example names ending with -hou such as Tatihou and Quettehou in France and Jethou, Burhou and les Écréhous in the Channel Islands.
But many of the placenames in the Val de Saire turn out not to be Norman French at all, but Danish. After all, the Normans were originally Northmen, Danes, Viking raiders, before they settled, adopted the local language and went on to conquer England and Ireland, as well as more far-flung places in sunnier climes. And they left reminders of their original Germanic culture in the local toponomy.
For example, the nearby beach in Cosqueville was called Plage de Vicq (vík meaning harbour); Clitourps is klíf torp (cliff village) and the tôt in the village name Tôt de Haut is also a variation of the word for village (topt). Even the names that appear French in form are often actually Scandinavian in origin. The fleur in Barfleur is not a flower but a river; the many places with tour are not French towers but Scandinavian villages. L’Anse du Brick is not the cove of the brick but of the brekka (coastline). La Mare and La Houe are not native French (“the pond” and “the hoe”) as they appear but Nordic names in disguise (“the salt-marsh” and “the holt”). And finally, one name of Irish origin: Néville is not “new town” but “Nial’s town”; one of our Viking settlers may have come from Ireland.