Sentier Littoral – coastal pathway

There’s a pedestrian route, designated GR223, running litorally all along the coast of the Cotentin peninsula between Isigny and Mont Saint-Michel (a total of 446 km). It’s called the sentier littoral or the chemin des douaniers.

There are similar coastal routes in other parts of France (over 4,600 km in total), thanks to a law which guarantees public access to a strip 3 metres wide along the entire coastline. It’s enforced pretty seriously – on one occasion the army was called in to blow up a private wall that was blocking access.

The result is some fantastically scenic walking routes, not only here in Normandy but in Brittany, the Basque country, the Mediterranean coast and elsewhere. You can dip in and out or walk all day.

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Rugged coastal landscape at the Nez de Jobourg on the north-west corner of the Cotentin peninsula.

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Slightly tamer scenery on the sheltered east coast of the peninsula.

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The pathway is marked by these yellow bornes or milestones indicating the distance to the next destination.

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Here Shiro is inspecting a German pillbox left over from World War II.

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Car Wash

I’ve long contended that being in a foreign country is equivalent to losing 30 to 50 IQ points. I’m not talking about obvious language or cultural differences, or which side of the road you drive on. No, it’s the subtle differences in ordinary day-to-day tasks that trip you up.

 

Yesterday I tried (and failed) to use an automatic car wash in France, an experience that cost me 8 euros. To make matters worse, that’s the second time I have done that; exactly the same thing happened 2 years ago in a different part of France.

You see, in Ireland, when you want to use an automatic car wash, you first enter a code or a token, then drive into the archway until the sign says STOP, and then the car wash cycle begins. That is not how it works in France.

In France, you drive your car into the archway first, then get out of the car, go to the machine and conclude a complicated transaction involving buying and inserting tokens, and then remain outside the car while the wash cycle takes place.

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So what happens if you are in France and try to do it the Irish way? As it happens, I know the answer to this question. You enter the tokens, get into your car and drive into the archway. Meanwhile the machine has attempted to start the wash cycle but becomes confused when it can’t detect the presence of any car. Then, when you drive in, the movement triggers a safety switch, causing it to shut down completely. In the end you have no choice but to reverse your still-dirty but foam-spattered car out and drive away, 8 euros poorer and feeling utterly incompetent.

For things like this, the way you are used to is so obvious that it would not even occur to you that it might be done differently elsewhere. If I told a French person that I had attempted to drive into the car wash while it was already running, with the intention of sitting in the car while it was being washed, they would probably look at me like I was some kind of maniac. Much like I would look at a French person in Ireland who attempted to open the door and get out of his car while it was in the car wash.

It’s a story with a happy ending: yesterday evening I tried again and finally got it right. Happiness is born of such small victories.IMG_0237

crêpes

I’ve often said, only half in jest, that when you go to a foreign country, your IQ immediately drops by 50 points. A task as simple as buying milk in the store has pitfalls for the unwary. And so it was on our recent visit to France, which featured several instances of idiocy, fortunately none of them calamitous.

Locked out

On our first night in the gîte, I was struck by the amazing clarity and multitude of stars in the pitch blackness of the night sky, and I called Yuko outside to share the experience. The glass door was fitted with wooden shutters, so I pushed them closed to reduce the light coming from inside the house. Then I heard a tiny, horrifying, “click” as the shutters latched closed behind us, and all thought of stargazing was instantly dispelled. Anxiety rose as it became clear that we really were locked out of the house, in short sleeves, at night, miles from civilisation. I tried to force the shutters open, applying more and more force, but to no avail.

Then it occurred to me: had I left the car unlocked? I had! Which meant I had access to tools. A minute later I had succeeded in popping the shutters open, with no discernible damage, and we were safely inside once more.

Wine

One of the pleasures of staying in France is that you can buy very good wine at very low prices, and I enjoyed a glass (or two) of red wine with my dinner each evening. The second gîte had a fancy corkscrew that looks like this:

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Obviously, the screw is intended to turn freely when going down into the cork, then to “lock” and pull up without turning to lift out the cork. But whatever skill or technique was required to achieve this simple sequence eluded me. No matter what I tried, the screw remained in “locked” mode, pushing the cork ever further down the neck of the bottle. By the time I admitted defeat and resorted to a simpler, no-moving-parts, idiot-proof corkscrew, it was too late. I only succeeded in pushing the cork the remainder of the way down the neck, forcing the now-pressurised contents to spray all over me. Good wine or not, it stings when you get it in your eyes. My white shirt was ruined.

Lait Ribot

Lait Ribot is a Breton fermented milk product, like buttermilk. I did not know this. When randomly choosing a container of fresh milk from the supermarket shelf, I just assumed that “Ribot” was the brand name.

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Granted, had I read the label more carefully, I would have seen the words “lait fermenté” written right there. In red. But it went into the supermarket trolley without that level of scrutiny. I discovered my mistake when I poured it into my coffee that evening and it curdled unpleasantly.

Well, when life gives you fermented milk, what do you do? You make crêpes! And that’s how we came to have crêpes for breakfast every morning for the last 4 days of our stay. For 10-12 crêpes:

  • 200g of plain flour
  • 300 ml lait ribot (or buttermilk)
  • 300 ml fresh milk
  • 2 eggs
  • a pinch of salt

Put the flour and salt in a bowl, make a well in the centre and add the beaten eggs. Mix a little. Beat in the milk and fermented milk in stages, continuing to beat until the batter is smooth. It doesn’t need to rest but can be used immediately.

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Serve hot with butter, jam, fresh fruit or compote. Delicious!

lieu-dit

We stayed in a really charming gîte (holiday rental) in Upper Brittany.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Menhir

We’ve been in France for the past two weeks; last week in Upper Brittany and this week in the Val de Saire in Normandy.

The countryside of north-western France is full of standing stones known as menhirs, dating back to the Neolithic period more than 4000 years ago. They carry no markings, nor any clues as to the beliefs or intentions of those who went to tremendous effort to transport them and erect them. One suggestion is that they may have served as grave markers for important people or families.

Near our gîte in Brittany we came across such a standing stone, called the Pierre de Richebourg.

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Like many such standing stones, it is on private property, and in fact this one is behind a chain-link fence.

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It’s a somewhat rough-hewn piece of schist about 2.5 metres high.

Menhirs are popularly associated with Brittany, partly because of the huge concentration of stones at Carnac, and in fact the word menhir itself comes from Breton (Celtic) words meaning “long stone”. But in fact they are to be found all over Europe, especially north-western France, Britain and Ireland, and long predate the Celts. Fans of the Asterix comic books (set in Brittany soon after the Roman invasion of Gaul in 50 BC) will remember the character Obelix carrying a menhir around on his back. This is a humorous anachronism, as the people who raised the menhirs were as distant in time from Asterix and Obelix as the Gallic Wars are from us.

Here in Normandy, there is an impressive menhir in a field just a few hundred metres away from our gîte, known as the Longue-pierre (a French calque of the word menhir). It’s a piece of granite about 6 metres high, of which 4.5 metres are above ground.

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I met the lady who owns the field (and, I suppose, owns the menhir, insofar as that means anything). She told me there is a second, similar stone buried in the field. This standing stone is one of three in the commune of Saint-Pierre-Église, known as the 3 princesses. There is an old belief that they each swivel around during the midnight mass each year on Christmas Eve.

In addition to solitary stones, there are dolmens known as allées couvertes, or covered alleys. A very impressive example near where we stayed in Brittany is called La Roche aux Fées (the fairy rock), in the commune of Essé (Ille-et-Vilaine). Like Newgrange in Ireland, it has a south-westerly orientation, its opening aligned with the first rays of sunrise on the winter solstice. The name comes from a legend that the fairies built the monument in a single night.

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This comprises 42 huge blocks of purple schist arranged to form a covered passage 20 meters long. This structure has survived substantially intact for 5000 years. Just inside the entrance (which features a truly massive lintel) you have to bend low as the passage is quite constricted, but once inside it opens into a long chamber in which it is possible to stand up.

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A similar megalithic structure can be found not far from our current holiday home, in the hamlet of la Forge in the commune of Bretteville (Manche). DSCN5291

This is also an allée couverte about 20 meters in length, but features a side entrance with a portal stone at right-angles to the others.

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Unlike the Roche aux Fées, it is oriented northwest-southeast, and the side-entrance is near the southeast end.

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Some of the capstones (roof-slabs) are missing, but the walls of the passage are intact. Near the side entrance there is an L-shaped slab forming a door that you must squeeze past to reach the main passage.

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A row of smaller rocks or kerb-stones alongside the main monument mark the edge of the tumulus of earth and rocks that once covered the whole structure.

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