Thursday, 7 June 2012

FRANCE: OO LA LOIRE!


GLASS ACT: Hotel Domaine le Martinet, Bouin

Breakfast in Hotel Domaine le Martinet in the heart of west central France’s Breton Marshes was a three-course affair — hail with the cereal, rain with the croissants and sunshine with the coffee, all in the space of an hour.
The weather is clearly fickle in the Vendee department of Pays-de-la-Loire in April, and it looked like our cycling expedition would have to be cancelled. I wasn’t too bothered as I’d have happily spent the morning reading in the conservatory, stealing admiring glances at the rustic decor and brushing croissant crumbs from my lap.
But the clouds parted, the rain called it a day and a window of brilliant blue sky signalled it was time to say merci beaucoup and au revoir to our charming hosts Charles and Camille Salaud, saddle up and go exploring.
Domaine Le Martinet, a converted 18th century mansion where pets are welcome, is a favourite base for ramblers and cyclists. Hidden in a quiet backstreet in Bouin, halfway between Pornic and Noirmoutier and just 50 kilometres from Nantes Atlantique airport, it’s a haven where jarring alarm calls are hardly necessary — the well-mannered local church bells which sound as if they’ve been lined with felt do a much gentler job.

WHEELY GOOD FUN: Cycling among Vendee's salt pans
The last time I went cycling, along the Great Western Greenway in County Mayo, I was attacked — well, startled — by two wild mountain goats and ended up in a ditch full of icy water. Fortunately, there are no mountain goats in the Breton Marshes because there are no mountains (the greatest danger posed by wildlife involves riding into telephone poles while watching hares boxing and bounding in the fields). There are, however, 1,000 kilometres of cycle paths that run flat and smooth throughout this 45,000-hectare expanse, so bikes are the ideal way to get around.
Oyster farming on a massive scale is a mainstay of the local economy, and after three hours of pedalling up an appetite I couldn’t wait to try the fruits of the farmers’ labours. It was a treat to sit down for lunch at a beautifully-laid table in Restaurant Relais du Gois in Beauvoir-sur-Mer. Actually, it would’ve been a treat to sit down anywhere as long as it didn’t involve my knees going up and down like a fiddler’s elbow.
The restaurant, which specialises in seafood, overlooks the Passage du Gois, a 4.5-kilometre paved causeway that disappears alarmingly quickly twice a day at high tide, almost as quickly as nine succulent fat oysters disappeared down my throat.

OY-STARS: Lunch time in Relais du Gois and,
below, Tour de France riders on the Passage

The Passage, which links the mainland with the Atlantic coast island of Noirmoutier where the Vikings launched their first raid on continental Europe in 799, has three times featured in the Tour de France, most notably in 1999. That was the year when, during Stage 2 from Challans to Saint-Nazaire, the slippery causeway was the scene of a pile-up involving two dozen riders that proved decisive. The incident put paid to the hopes of several favourites, and Lance Armstrong went on to win the first of his record seven consecutive Tours.
Each June, one of the world’s weirdest — and wettest — athletics events, the Foulees du Gois, takes place here when 30 French and international runners set off across the causeway as soon as the evening tide first laps the paving stones. Seasoned competitors often cross the finishing line with water halfway up their shins, while those less accustomed to the quirky conditions end up lagging behind and having to swim for it. They’re known as bathletes. The current record-holder, pun intended, is French Olympian Dominique Chauvelier who dashed and splashed from one end to the other in 12 minutes and eight seconds in 1990.

READY, WET, GO: Runners in the Foulees du
Gois and, below, tide submerges the Passage

Depending on the time of year, the Passage can end up under four metres of water, but there are several safety platforms where walkers who get caught out can climb up and wait to be rescued by boat or, if none is available, for the waves to recede. Motorists can check the tide tables posted at both ends and drive across for the novelty of it, but the vast majority of traffic uses the road bridge that connects the island with Fromantine, eight kilometres from Beauvoir-sur-Mer.
˜STAY: Hotel Domaine le Martinet, Place de General Charette, Bouin, (telephone 0033 251 492323, www.domaine-lemartinet.com). DINNER: Restaurant Le Martinet, next to the hotel. LUNCH: Restaurant Le Relais du Gois, Route du Gois, Beauvoir-sur-Mer (0033 251 687031, www.relaisdugois.com). BIKE HIRE: Marais Promenade (0033 614 016778, email corlayg@wanadoo.fr).
In Ireland we have the humble spud, but there’s nothing humble about the potatoes grown on Noirmoutier. These uber tubers known as La Bonnotte are cultivated nowhere else and can fetch up to — wait for it — €600 per kilo. That makes them as expensive as matsutake mushrooms, Kobe beef and the world’s dearest coffee, Kopi Luwak, which is brewed from beans collected from the droppings of the Asian palm civet, hence “crapuccinno”.

SUPER SPUDS: For the price of one kilo of La
Bonnotte potatoes you could have a family holiday
La Bonnotte are the caviar of the potato world, so delicate that the annual crop of just 20-odd tonnes which is harvested in the first week of May is hand-picked to avoid the damage that would be done by machinery. The seaweed used to fertilise the fields gives the potatoes their distinctive salty flavour with, connoisseurs say, a hint of nuttiness. All I can say is that anyone who would pay €600 for a kilo of spuds is a bit nutty too.
Ten thousand people live on Noirmoutier year-round, but come the height of summer the island is invaded by 100,000 holidaymakers, more than half of them on bikes, many in camper vans and a good few in top-of-the-range Porsches and Range Rovers (these are the old money multi-millionaires who desert Paris every August for their grand seaside villas overlooking Dames Beach).
Noirmoutier is home to Restaurant La Marine whose owner-chef Alexandre Couillon, who won his first Michelin star in 2007, is described in France’s Elle a Table magazine as “a man who’s in tune with the desires of his clients”. His crockery’s in tune too — ping a fork off your plate and you get a perfect C. This may be a fluke, but it was no accident that everything on our chosen fixed menu (€90 with wine, €56 without) hit a high note.

MICHELIN MAESTRO: Chef Alexandre Couillon
Alexandre’s wife, Celine, proudly described each tantalising dish as it arrived: sea urchin with seaweed and liquorice; grilled cuttlefish with turnip and coconut; oyster and squid in bacon broth; lobster cooked with pine needles and garnished with cauliflower, beetroot and blackberries; burbot (a freshwater relation of the cod) with parsnip, pears and blueberries; eucalyptus sorbet with seaweed and chocolate; and La Bonnotte ice cream in a miniature cone. It was a memorable meal, not least because having mislaid my notebook I nicked the menu, otherwise I couldn’t have recorded what I’d eaten.
Noirmoutier’s 12th century fortress overlooking the Bay of Bourgneuf is impressive, as is the museum and art gallery inside that houses many fascinating exhibits. The velvet-upholstered, tatty old armchair with musketball holes through the backrest has a particular resonance for Irish visitors. This is the chair on which counter-revolutionary General Maurice Joseph Louis Gigost d’Elbee was executed by firing squad on the nearby beach on January 6, 1794, a scene depicted in Paris painter Julien Le Blant’s 1878 work Mort du General d’Elbee that can also be seen in the museum.

WHITE HOUSE TOUR: Noirmoutier fortress and
museum and, below, execution of General d'Elbee

Le Blant, who specialised in military scenes from the Vendee Wars of 1793 to 1797, was by dint of family history a committed royalist whose sympathies lay with the Grand Catholic Army in which d’Elbee had served, and his painting of the General’s death is at once powerful and pathetic.
D’Elbee, who had been severely wounded at the Battle of Cholet in October, 1793, somehow clung to life for three months while his comrades retreated from the advancing republican forces. Despite being in constant agony and drifting in and out of consciousness, he remained defiant when finally cornered in Noirmoutier. As soldiers stormed his room, he stared the arresting officer in the face and cried: “Yes, here I am! Here is d’Elbee, your greatest enemy! If I had been strong enough to fight or stand upon my feet, you would not have taken me in my bed!”
Five days later he was stretchered outside, placed in a chair and shot dead, as was wounded Irish republican leader James Connolly following the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916.
˜STAY: Hotel Le Bois de la Chaize, 23 Avenue de la Victoire, Noirmoutier (0033 251 390462, www.hotel-noirmoutier.com). DINNER: Restaurant La Marine, Port de l’Herbaudiere, 5 Rue Marie Lemonnier, Noirmoutier (0033 251 392309, www.restaurantlamarine.blogspot.com). LUNCH: Restaurant La Potiniere, 27 Avenue Georges Clemenceau, Plage des Dames, Bois de la Chaize, Noirmoutier (0033 251 390961, www.potinierenoirmoutier.com).

BOW DO YOU DO: Solo sailor
Arnaud Boissieres on Akena
Sixty-five kilometres south of Noirmoutier is Les Sables d’Olonne, a popular holiday resort and the home port of professional yachtsman Arnaud Boissieres. He’s not the tallest guy on France’s Atlantic coast, but in the world of round-the-world single-handed sailing he’s a towering figure — and a born comedian. No matter how lonely the 40-year-old funny guy might feel when he’s out in the middle of the great oceans on his own, he’ll be in good company.
Arnaud will sail the 18-metre Akena Verandas in the 39,000-kilometre, three-month-long Vendee Globe race which begins in Les Sables d’Olonne on November 10. The Globe, known as the Everest of sailing, is recognised as the ultimate test in ocean racing as there are no stops and skippers, who get just five hours’ sleep a day, are allowed no external assistance. Since the first Globe in 1989/90 an average of only 40 per cent of competitors have completed the race (now a four-yearly event), which has claimed two lives.
The 16 competing yachts will sail south from Les Sables d’Olonne to the Cape of Good Hope, enter the Indian Ocean then the icy Southern Ocean, go clockwise around Antarctica, enter the Pacific and pass Cape Horn to port then head north past Brazil back up the Atlantic to Les Sables d’Olonne. The first winner was Tituoan Lamazou of France who finished in 109 days. Another Frenchman, Michel Desjoyeaux, won the 2008/09 race in 84 days (Arnaud was seventh in 105 days).

MAKING WAVES: Arnaud puts Akena through
its paces ahead of the gruelling Vendee Globe
I met Arnaud in his favourite hang-out, Le Poisson a Roulettes, a neighbourhood bistro-bar full of colourful characters including fishermen, artists and musicians. In stark contrast to Michelin chef Alexandre’s La Marine, Le Poisson a Roulettes (Fish on a Bike) looks like it’s been furnished from a junk shop, with no two chairs matching and wobbly tables, but the food, which could never be described as fancy, is fabulous. Try the hearty bean and bacon stew and grilled octopus washed down with the house red which is poured into bottles from a barrel behind the bar.
Some local folk singers in the backroom provided a lively musical backdrop, and as the evening progressed and the plonk kept coming the questions being fired at Arnaud by my female colleagues, who’d taken quite a shine to him, grew bolder.
But the boldest was: “Arnaud, when you’re out there all alone in the middle of the water, thousands of miles from nowhere with nobody to see you, do you ... ever run around the deck naked?”
I’d only ever heard the words “Sacre bleu!” uttered by that amorous cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew, but that’s exactly what Arnaud said as his face went as red as the wine. What a question! But what a great guy, and what a great night. Come November 10, I’ll be following his progress in the Vendee Globe online at www.vendeeglobe.org.

CALM BEFORE STORM: Heading out on the
training yacht for a very rough ride in the bay
Intrigued by Arnaud’s hair-raising tales of his high seas adventures, I thought I’d try my hand at this old sailing lark. So, next day after lunch at Restaurant La Maree, I presented myself at the marina for an outing in the bay on board a titchy training yacht. All was going well as I tightened the straps on my lifevest and sat down. Then the skipper handed me a walkie-talkie, which in France is called a talkie-walkie.
“This is on channel 16,” he said.
“Oh, yeah?”
“Oui,” said the skipper. “In case of an emergency. If something happens, you call for help.”
“Aah. OK,” I said. “And, erm ... just out of curiosity ... what sort of something could happen?”
“This you won’t believe,” he chuckled. “Last week I fell overboard!”
“What!” I yelled, and nearly fell overboard myself — before we’d even left the mooring.
Out in the bay, in Force 6 winds (laughably described on the Beaufort Scale as “a strong breeze”) and with two-metre waves crashing over us, it would have been impossible for me and that little yacht to part company even if it had gone under, mainly because my hands were clamped to the rail. Pathologists are well-used to seeing rigor mortis, but one look at my clenched fists and Quincy ME would’ve been phoning around his colleagues to see if anyone had a crowbar he could borrow.

IN A FLAP: A vulture dive-bombs spectators
during Ball of the Phantom Birds at Puy du Fou
As if being subjected to the threat of imminent drowning wasn’t enough (despite being tuned to channel 16), 24 hours later a big ugly vulture with a beak that could open a safe came gliding straight towards me at eye level. I ducked, but its trailing talons still brushed the top of my head.
It was my last day in France, and I was sitting in the stands watching the Ball of the Phantom Birds show in Le Puy du Fou theme park near Les Epesses (www.puydufou.com). I’ve visited some of the biggest and best theme parks in the world and been thrilled — and scared witless — on the roller coasters and other rides, but being dive-bombed by trained vultures, eagles, falcons and hawks was the most exhilarating experience ever.
Le Puy du Fou’s Vikings show, during which a full-sized replica Norse warship emerged from a lake and later disappeared below the surface with the crew on board; the Roman gladiatorial contest, with lions and tigers (but no bears, oh my!) and a chariots race; and the Richelieu Musketeers spectacle made for a fun-packed day out.
As I sat sipping a beer in Nantes airport while waiting for the flight home, I glanced at the till receipt and thought €6.85 for a pint of Heineken was a bit expensive. Nowhere near as expensive as €600 for a bag of spuds, of course. For the same price two adults and two children could enjoy 14 nights in a two-bedroomed apartment at Siblu’s Parc Le Bois Dormant and still have change for four bags of chips. That would be a Vendee-lightful way to spend a fortnight in this fabulous part of France.
˜STAY: Best Western Hotel Les Roches Noires, 12 Promenade Clemenceau, Les Sables d’Olonne (0033 251 320171, www.hotel-lesrochesnoires.com). DINNER: Bistro Le Poisson a Roulettes, 81 Rue Saint Nicolas, Les Sables d’Olonne, (0033 251 324787, www.lepoissonaroulettes.com). Restaurant Le Sloop, in the Atlantic Hotel, 5 Promenade Georges Godet, Les Sables d’Olonne (0033 251 953771, www.atlantichotel.fr). LUNCH: Restaurant La Maree, 19 Quai Emmanuel Garnier, Les Sables d’Olonne (0033 251 320638, www.restaurantlamaree.fr.gd). SAILING: L’Institut Sports Ocean, 1 Promenade Kennedy, Les Sables d’Olonne (0033 251 951566, www.institutsportsocean.com).

NORSE RACES: Viking ship emerges from the
water and, below, chariot race at Puy du Fou

GETTING THERE
FLY: Ryanair flies four times a week from Dublin and twice a week from Shannon to Nantes Atlantique (www.ryanair.com); Flybe has a daily service from Gatwick and flies four times a week from Manchester (www.flybe.com); Easyjet flies every day from Gatwick (www.easyjet.com); Cityjet flies daily from London City (www.cityjet.com); Air France goes once a week from Southampton.
RAIL: Les Sables d’Olonne is three-and-a-half hours by train from Paris via Nantes.
˜For more information on holidays in Vendee, see www.vendee-tourism.co.uk and www.rendezvousenfrance.com (email info.uk@atout-france.fr).