Friday, 22 June 2012

IRELAND: DERRY IS A BIT OF WALL RIGHT


A LA CAT MENU: What starving citizens of
Derry were forced to eat during the siege

During the 105-day Siege of Derry by the forces of ousted Catholic King James II in 1689, the starving defenders loyal to the Protestant William of Orange were reduced to eating anything they could lay their hands on to survive. The menu was limited and far from appetising — dogs destined for the pot had fed on human corpses.
However, it kept enough of the burghers and members of the garrison alive long enough to withstand the Jacobite army until the Royal Navy relieved the city on August 1. If the nine skinny horses that remained on that day had known how close they came to being turned into horse d’oeuvres, they’d have been relieved too.
The siege, which began on April 18 following a defiant cry of “No surrender!”, cost the lives of 7,000 of Derry’s 30,000 civilians and 3,300 soldiers, mostly from hunger or disease.
Despite the best efforts of the Jacobites, Derry’s walls — built between 1613 and 1619 and 1.5 kilometres in circumference — were never breached, and that’s why it’s known as the Maiden City. Confusingly for overseas visitors it’s also known as Londonderry, Doire in Irish, Derry/Londonderry and, in reference to that forward slash, Stroke City. Call it what you like, but I call it a class act.

FOYLESAFE: City's formidable walls were never breached.
Below, cannons dating from the lengthy siege of 1689

Long overshadowed by Belfast, which is enjoying an anno mirabilis thanks to its Titanic centenary events and the opening of the £97 million Titanic Belfast visitor attraction, Derry will soon graduate from habitual bridesmaid to bride when it assumes the mantle of 2013 UK City of Culture. Birmingham, Norwich and Sheffield were in the running for the title and put forward strong cases, but I can exclusively reveal they were on a hiding to nothing. When the selection panel met behind closed doors to evaluate the shortlist of four, it took them 20 minutes to reach a unanimous decision. The process usually takes days.
Derry is intent on rising to the occasion and delivering the goods big time, but the city on the River Foyle’s 12-month stint in the cultural spotlight will be no one-hit, soon-to-be-forgotten wonder. The year-long arty party that kicks off next January 1 is just the latest step in Derry’s march from a dark past to a brighter future.
In the Free Derry Museum in the city’s Bogside, an infamous episode in that dark past is depicted in overwhelming starkness that reduces many visitors to tears. Here you’ll learn of the events of Sunday, January 30, 1972 — Bloody Sunday — when British soldiers opened fire on unarmed civil rights protesters, killing 13 males including seven teenage boys (a man who was wounded died 14 weeks later). Five of the 26 protesters who were hit by bullets were shot in the back.

REMEMBERED: Bloody Sunday
memorial with names of 14 victims
The museum’s 63-year-old education and outreach officer John Kelly greeted our tour group with the jarring words: “I’m the brother of Michael Kelly, who was murdered on Bloody Sunday. He was 17.” An American woman beside me gasped and grabbed her husband’s arm, perhaps expecting a stream of bitterness, but softly-spoken John simply smiled.
“Welcome to the Free Derry Museum,” he said. “I’m here to tell you what happened. I know. I was there. I witnessed it. I was there when Michael was put in the ambulance. I was there in the casualty department and I was there when he was pronounced dead. I was there in the mortuary with my young brother and 10 other bodies.”
The American woman clasped her free hand to her mouth.
“This museum is here to educate people,” said John. “It’s a story that has to be told. Take your time and have a wee look around. If you’ve any questions, feel free to ask.”
No one said a word. No one moved. John smiled again and nodded to the doorway just beyond the reception desk.
“Through there to the left. Oh, and the soundtrack you’ll hear on your way round, that’s from a young woman radio reporter from the BBC who walked with the civil rights marchers on Bloody Sunday. She left her tape recorder running. Everything you hear — the chatting, then the gunshots, the screams and the panic — that’s all real.”

DYING: Teenage victim Michael Kelly and the
bloody baby-grow that was pressed to his wound
Among the most poignant exhibits is the blood-stained baby-grow that was pressed to Michael Kelly’s stomach (the bullet that killed him was lodged in his spine) after he was carried into the house of a young mother. But perhaps most telling of all the items on show is a copy of the discredited Widgery Report that was published 11 weeks after Bloody Sunday and supported the soldiers’ claims that they’d acted in self-defence. Resembling a pamphlet, it runs to a mere 36 pages. Next to it is the 5,000-page Saville Report, published in June 2010 and resembling a pile of telephone directories.
Lord Saville’s inquiry, which was established in 1998, lasted 12 years and cost £195 million, concluded that the soldiers had lost control and fired on fleeing civilians and those who were aiding the wounded. The civil rights marchers, he said, had posed no threat, and the soldiers had lied to cover up their actions.
In the housing estate surrounding the museum, many gable walls sport artistically-rendered murals commemorating the victims of Bloody Sunday while others depict civil rights marchers and hunger strikers. The most photographed, however, is the Free Derry Wall, all that remains of a row of terraced houses that were demolished in the 1970s. The wall, an internationally-recognised symbol of people power, sports the legend “You are now entering Free Derry”, which refers to the three-year period from 1969 to 1972 when community activists declared the Bogside and Creggan neighbourhoods an autonomous nationalist area.

ART OF THE COMMUNITY: Free Derry Wall
and, below, mural on gable of Bogside house

When I was there last month it had been painted black and red for the 10th anniversary of the death of Belfast-born anarchist and civil rights leader John McGuffin. The wall is usually white with black lettering, but in 2006 it was painted black for the Bloody Sunday commemorations and the following year pink to mark Gay Pride Week.
My visit coincided with the annual City of Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival, held every May in various venues including the 3-star Ramada Da Vinci’s Hotel where I stayed and caught gigs by the Jive Aces with Rebecca Grant and, next night, American singer Mirenda Rosenburg. Elsewhere, Van Morrison played two sold-out concerts at the Millennium Forum, but I missed seeing the fabulous King Pleasure and the Biscuit Boys at Da Vinci’s as they were arriving in Derry the day I was leaving.
Which was maybe just as well. The last time I saw this Birmingham-based outfit, years ago at the Cork Jazz Festival when I worked on the Evening Echo, I over-indulged at their post-gig party, went into the office next morning the worse for wear and wrote a glowing review — of Big Cheddar and the Cream Crackers. I’ve never been allowed to live it down.

FESTI-GAL: Jazz singer Mirenda Rosenburg
A 15-minute walk into town along the riverside from Da Vinci’s Hotel takes visitors to the £14.6 million, 312-metre-long pedestrian and cycle Peace Bridge across the Foyle that opened last June.
It’s an impressive S-shaped structure linking the east (mostly Protestant) and west (overwhelmingly Catholic) banks of this religiously and politically-divided city of 100,000 people. The bridge was built with the intention of helping to bring both communities together in mutual understanding, but there are those on either side who refuse to set foot on it. They have their reasons, but the hope is that sooner rather than later they’ll join everyone else in focusing on the future rather than lingering on the past.
In Carlisle Square at the western end of the double-decker Craigavon Bridge stands another symbol of the reconciliation so many people yearn for. Local sculptor Maurice Harron’s work, Hands Across the Divide, which was unveiled in 1992, shows two bronze figures on separate stone plinths reaching out to each other, their fingers tantalisingly close to touching. It would be nice to think that 65-year-old Maurice, whose failing eyesight was saved two years ago by a revolutionary transplant procedure that gave him new synthetic lenses, will one day be asked to make a minor adjustment and have his figures shaking hands.

SYMBOLIC: Peace Bridge and, below, Maurice
Harron's Hands Across the Divide sculpture

I was doing a fair bit of shaking when I paid a visit to the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall in Society Street. Climbing to the open-air roof of the tower for great views of the city is easy-ish, but the descent can prove a nerve-jangling challenge. If you suffer from vertigo, content yourself with a tour of the hall’s ornate meeting rooms and the siege museum, because there’s a wooden flight of stairs in that tower that’s almost vertical. Looking down from the top step often gives visitors the heebie-jeebies, but until they install a fireman’s pole there’s no other way out.
Built in 1873 and extended in 1936, the neo-Gothic hall with a Scottish baronial facade commemorates the 13 apprentice boys who in December 1688 shut the city gates against James II’s troops, an event that’s marked each year with a march and other celebrations on the first Saturday in December. The Apprentice Boys of Derry, a Protestant fraternal organisation founded in 1814 that has 80,000 members worldwide, also celebrate the lifting of the siege with an annual parade on the second Saturday in August. In the new spirit of live-and-let-live the marches, which once sparked riots by nationalist youths, now pass off virtually trouble-free.

TOWERIST ATTRACTION: Apprentice Boys Hall
Another building well worth seeing — once they remove the scaffolding and nets encasing it — is the red sandstone Guildhall which is closed at the moment for renovations. Opened in 1890, it houses the mayor’s office and the meeting chamber of Derry City Council and has some of the finest examples of stained glass windows in Ireland. Many of the windows were destroyed by terrorist bombs in 1972, but artisans working from the original watercolour designs were able to recreate them. When it re-opens it will again be a star attraction on the tourist trail. Meanwhile, kids can get a thrill-filled thorough soaking while running in and out of the dancing fountains in the square outside.
Also not to be missed are the award-winning Tower Museum where visitors can learn of Derry’s history from its earliest habitation 5,000 years ago to the present day, and Saint Columb’s Cathedral where the original keys of the city are on display. Dedicated to the sixth century missionary monk Saint Columba — the Donegal-born patron of poets, bookbinders and, strangely, floods who established a Christian settlement in the area — it was completed in 1633.

SPOUT AND ABOUT: Dancing fountains outside
the Guildhall and, below, St. Columb's Cathedral

As the westernmost port in Europe, Derry was the main base for Allied warships protecting merchant and military convoys crossing the Atlantic during World War Two (at one point 140 Royal Navy, US Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and French and Indian escort vessels were moored along the Foyle). The city’s strategic location made crucial its role in the Allies’ victory in the pivotal Battle of the Atlantic, an outcome helped by the Germans underestimating the Foyle’s importance and failing to launch major bombing raids on it and nearby airfields.
On May 14, 1945, six days after V-E Day, a representative flotilla of eight U-boats (which were to be followed by 52 more) was escorted into the Foyle by three Allied battleships. After mooring their vessels at Lisahally, the U-boat commanders stepped ashore and threw in the towel. In the city where 256 years before the beleaguered citizens had cried “No surrender!”, the defeated Germans saluted Admiral Sir Max Horton and acknowledged that the war which had cost 60 million lives was over.
The Northern Ireland Troubles, which cost more than 3,500 lives including nearly 350 in Derry city and county, are over too. Streets that people once feared to walk along are filled day and night with locals and visitors from all over the world. Restaurants, pubs and hotels are hopping. Behind the scenes, a team of dedicated people are gearing up for December 31 when they’ll count down the seconds to midnight. As soon as the hands on the Guildhall clock hit 12, fireworks will shoot into the night sky and Foyleside’s year-long City of Culture celebrations will begin.
Dogs might be startled by the pyrotechnics, but they can rest assured that, unlike in 1689, the only dish on the Derry menu for 2013 is fun.

HIGH EXPLOSIVES: Fireworks light up night sky

DERRY DIARY HIGHLIGHTS
June 27 to July 1: North Atlantic Fiddle Convention. Hundreds of fiddlers and thousands of visitors will descend on various venues in Derry and Donegal for this huge celebration of music and dance from around the North Atlantic, headlined by The Chieftains (www.nafco2012.com).
June 30 to July 8: Clipper Maritime Festival. Derry is an official host port for the 10-strong fleet, including debutant vessel Derry-Londonderry, at the end of the final transatlantic leg of the 64,000-kilometre Clipper Round the World Yacht Race (www.clipperroundtheworld.com).
August 4 to 11: Maiden City Festival. A celebration of history and heritage, community and diversity, in and around the city walls (www.maidencityfestival.com).
August  5 to 15: Feile 2012. More than 100 music, sports and drama events, various venues (www.derryvisitor.com).
August 31 to September 2: Foyle Gay Pride Festival, various venues (www.foylepride.org).
September 9: Waterside Half-Marathon, Gransha Grounds (www.derrycity.gov.uk/halfmarathon).
September 1 to 14: The Big Tickle Comedy Festival, various venues (www.derryplayhouse.co.uk).
October 27 to 31: Banks of the Foyle Hallowe’en Carnival, various venues. The biggest street carnival in Ireland and one of the world’s top Hallowe’en celebrations (www.derrycity.gov.uk/halloween).
November 21 to 25: Foyle Film Festival, various venues (www.foylefilmfestival.org.uk).

GETTING THERE
FLY: Ryanair flies to City of Derry airport from Glasgow Prestwick, Birmingham, Liverpool and London Stansted (www.ryanair.com).
RAIL: Northern Ireland Railways operates regular daily services between Belfast Europa Centre and Derry (www.translink.co.uk).
BUS: Ulsterbus’s Goldline express service 212 (the Maiden City Flyer) operates throughout the day between Belfast Europa Centre and Derry Foyle Street and takes 1hr 45mins. Don’t take the Goldline 273 service that also links the two cities but goes via Omagh and takes 3hrs (www.translink.co.uk).
FERRY: Stena Line has daily sailings from Liverpool and Cairnryan to Belfast (www.stenaline.ie). P&O Ferries sails daily from Cairnryan and Troon to Larne (www.poferries.com). Derry is 115 kilometres by road from Belfast and 120 from Larne.

ALL ABOARD: The LegenDerry Road Train
GETTING AROUND
While Derry is compact, making it ideal for strolling, the live commentary provided during a hop-on, hop-off open-top sightseeing bus tour is hard to beat, with local guides combining expert knowledge of the city with humour. Ticket sales and boarding at the Tourist Information Centre, 44 Foyle Street (0044 2871 377577, www.derryvisitor.com).
A more recent addition to Derry’s attractions is the award-winning NITB LegenDerry Road Train that offers 30-minute tours of the main sights with live commentary, on-board video presentations and a soundtrack of music from the city’s greatest composers and singers. Fun and fascinating, it’s a shame the tours, which leave from the Tourist Information Centre, aren’t a bit longer (0044 7813 043147, www.legenderryroadtrain.com).
Among the most popular walking tours are those provided by the city’s only Blue Badge Guide Michael Cooper and his team (0044 2871 361311, www.derrybluebadgeguide.com) and award-winning guide Martin McCrossan (0044 2871 271996, www.derrycitytours.com).
For a view of Derry from the river, board the Wee Blue Boat at the Foyle Pontoon for a cruise beneath the city’s three bridges (0044 7882 233911, www.blueboattours.com).

STAY
Ramada Da Vinci’s Hotel, 15 Culmore Road (telephone 0044 2871 279111, www.davincishotel.com); Hastings Everglades Hotel, Prehen Road (0044 2871 321066, www.hastingshotels.com); for golfers, the Roe Park Resort, Limavady, 25 kilometres east of Derry on the A2 road (0044 2877 722222, www.roeparkresort.com).

EAT
Encore Brasserie, Millennium Forum, Newmarket Street (0044 2871 372492); Fitzroy’s Bistro, 2-4 Bridge Street (0044 2871 266211); The Grillroom Restaurant, Ramada Da Vinci’s Hotel; Brown’s Restaurant, 1 Bonds Hill, Waterside (0044 2871 345180); The Exchange Restaurant and Wine Bar, Queen’s Quay (0044 2871 273990); Timber Quay Restaurant and Wine Bar, 100 Strand Road (0044 2871 370020); Greens Restaurant and The Coach House Brasserie, Roe Park Spa and Golf Resort; The Grill Restaurant, Everglades Hotel.

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).