Les Vacances de Monsieur Coggin
A very British Holiday
A few years ago the current Mrs Coggin and I took our car to Ireland with family and on our return booked on to a fast ferry from Dublin to Holyhead. You know the kind of thing, an aluminium speedboat with two hulls, but big enough to swallow 200 cars and 800 passengers. Powered by 4 high speed diesel engines that provide so much power that it would indeed prove difficult to keep upright should you feel the need to water ski behind it.
We set out on this super ferry safe in the knowledge that our crossing time would be a full two hours quicker than the conventional ferry thus negating the possibility of throwing up the evening meal on the way home. We set off into a blustery wind that made it hard to settle, but were safe in the thought that this wouldn’t take too long and we would be safe on dry land in a short space of time. If you have ever experienced leaping off the top of a wave in a small boat to land with a jolt on the next wave just in time to repeat the process you’re getting the idea. Soon we were within the safety of the breakwater outside Holyhead harbour and slowed to a near stop while the vessel billowed and bobbed about, a not too pleasant sensation. After a while the captain announced that we were to turn into the wind for comfort so the breaking waves would crash over the bow instead of our broadside.
This wasn’t a great piece of news to the current Mrs C who had spent most of our exhilarating journey lying on the floor in a vain effort to retain the steak and chips of earlier. I tried, dutifully to reassure her with comforting phrases like, “you’d better get up were getting off in a minute”.
Then the P.A announced. “At the moment we’re unable to berth owing to the dangerous conditions, so we will give it a little while to see if it settles down a bit, sorry for the delay”.
Mrs C. looked up at me from her preferred position, prostrate, almost Nelson at Trafalgar like. Her pretty blue eyes streaming tears and leaving rather alarming trails of black mascara running down her now revengeful face.
“If we ever get off this bloody thing alive Coggin, you’re a dead man”!
A little extreme I thought. “Am I responsible for the weather”?
“You put us on this blo……raaaaaalph…..”.
Then another announcement
“Owing to the dangerous conditions and the continuing poor weather forecast telling us it’s not going to abate soon, we are unable to dock at our berth. We have taken the decision to return to Dublin to try later. Sorry for the inconvenience”.
What followed was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. Truly, it was right up there with Arsenal losing at Wembley to Swindon, Ipswich and West Ham.
It was with not a little trepidation therefore some ten years later that I tentatively attempted to re-introduce the idea. Ten years of “never again”, “you can go on your own then” and “I’ll meet you at the airport on the other side”. After some subtle coaxing and saying things like, ”it’s different now, this is a big ship and it’s July it will be fine, look at that sunshine out there”.
The weather on the Sunday as it turned out wasn’t too great. Rain and a bit windy for the time of year, to be honest. I looked at the forecast and quickly switched it off! Winds in the channel expected to gust up to 50 mph. No way must she hear of this, so various diverting tactics were deployed like talking to her for instance. An early night was needed for the early start next morning.
I had looked at some British destinations that we could just drive to and maybe stay in an inexpensive hotel if we could get a deal somewhere, but of course this was the high season, the first week of the school holidays. All over Britain local landlords and ladies were sharpening their sheering scissors waiting to fleece us of our hard earned cash, so I was fervently doing my best to hang on to some of it in anticipation of having a great time. Then a light switched on it seemed. Living only a few minutes from a cross channel port we could be on board one of those ferries that we often watch whilst tucking in to fish and chips in the car by the shore in Southsea and land in our own car in France.
I then had a scan to see where we could go or what we could do. People that know me, know that one of my all time favourite movies is the 1953 French movie “Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot”, or as released in Britain and the USA, “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday”. I had looked at the locations used many years ago and discovered that the hotel depicted in the movie was in fact the Hotel de la Plage, the name used in the film and existed just as it was all of those sixty odd years ago.
We arrived at Portsmouth bright and early on a lovely sunny Monday morning. “That’s a touch”, I thought to myself. “A nice day and not much wind. It was close, but I’d got away with that one”.
Which queue? We wondered. “None of them mate”, came the reply after enquiring from a port worker.
“Cancelled yesterday, you should have got an email”.
Well we didn’t!
The lovely Liz (she reads this) marched into the terminal to sort things out, returning about 10 minutes later.
“Sorted we’re going to Caen on a ferry that leaves in 20 minutes, get moving! They had no way to contact us. Our one is still in France”.
No email because we had booked online through Ferries Direct and they hadn’t forwarded our contact details to Brittany Ferries who then had no way to let us know. Of course Ferries Direct weren’t open on Sunday so a lesson learned, book direct, instead of Direct! If you get my drift?
Following our last minute diversion we finally arrived in the country of our destination, France. Not the right port but a port nevertheless. We had got up early in eager anticipation of our not meticulously planned week in France and now we were here.
I remember a few years ago reading a review of the hotel and the disappointed traveller revealed that the hotel staff at that time knew nothing of its history and connection with the great Jacques Tati. Tati was a comedy icon in France for more than three decades and thanks to British television periodically airing the very amusing and charming film here, even my children grew up aware of it.
I searched on Booking.com for Saint Marc-sur-Mer and there it leapt out at me, Hotel de la Plage, now a Best Western group hotel, who claim to have over 4000 hotels in 100 countries. The tiny village of Saint Marc-sur-Mer, a suburb of Saint Nazaire in Brittany, has now totally embraced the heritage of the movie and the lovely beach has been renamed Plage de M. Hulot. A room was available at a modest £380 for five nights with a non-sea view or quite a bit more to look at the sea. Well I know what the sea looks like and thanks to Street View I had a good idea about the non-sea view so went for the cheaper option.
The diversion left us with a longer sea crossing and a little further to drive the other side, but undeterred we battled on. Hotel de la Plage is situated in a very pleasant little hamlet in the area of Saint Marc-sur-Mer, which is completely unspoilt by commercial development. It faces the clean and pretty beach looking out over the estuary of the River Loire as it exits out to the Atlantic.
The staff were friendly and helpful and our room on the second floor had the added bonus of a bathroom with a sea view! Completely renovated in 2008 it benefits from modern, if modest fitments and fittings throughout. Claiming three star status, the hotel is unpretentious, but never the less charming in its superb situation. We opted to eat there the first night and were not disappointed. The restaurant proved to be extremely popular with both the guests and locals and was very busy for a Monday night. We had got off to a good start.
The weather for the area was unusually poor for the time of the year, but promised to improve through the week, which it did. Tuesday though was miserable and wet so we made the decision to explore in the car as we hadn’t planned anything else. What transpired was that we went to places that we agreed would have been great to visit on a nice day!
Wednesday was much improved weather wise so this was the day to explore the World of Monsieur Hulot, Imagine our surprise when he joined us on the beach!
A young French comedian Cyril Guillot has taken on the role of the great Tati and is employed to entertain not only hotel guests but also anyone attending the beach. Tati was famous for his visual comedy and the young M. Guillot has recaptured Hulot’s characteristics very well. You can view the real man here in the whole movie https://vimeo.com/19873779 .
We took up residence on the sun beds at the front of the hotel and M.Hulot later joined us with his tennis racquets and bucket and spade as he made his way to the pier, sadly lacking the small lighthouse it had in the movie. However Hulot managed to catch “two fishes” as he was keen to tell me later.
Thursday we chose to visit the port town of Saint Nazaire. We had read a review of the town that described it as drab and boring with its only points of interest being the former German U-boat pens, so strong that any thought of demolition was abandoned a long time ago. They survive as a bleak reminder as to their former use. Built to house a flotilla of twenty WW2 U boats they are freely accessible to the public who can roam through them as they want.
One interesting use of the concrete bunkers has been the installation of an exhibition of the great Trans-Atlantic Liners built in Saint Nazaire, Esca l‘Atlantic. You are transported into the interiors of the liners “Isle de France” of 1927 and the “Normandie” of 1935 then the “France” of the 1960’s. A proud reminder of the ships that once competed for traffic to the New World, that were built here in Saint Nazaire. A tradition that continues today with the current construction by STX of the “Harmony of the Seas”, which will be the world’s largest ever cruise liner built so far, at an incredible 227,700 Gross Tonnage. She is due to be completed in 2016. Compare that to the Titanic and its measly sounding 46,328 GRT.
Also in the dock were the two Russian amphibious assault vessels the Mistral Class Vladivostok and Sevastopol. Launched by STX in 2013 and 2014 respectively, they should have been delivered to the Russian Navy following successful sea trials, but owing to the military situation in Ukraine final delivery was held up for political reasons, after intervention from French President François Hollande. Delivery has been postponed indefinitely due to the continuing situation.
Following Esca l’Atlantic it was a long walk around to the Espadon (Swordfish) a large French submarine now housed in the covered and fortified old lock entrance to the dock.
In service from her commission in 1960 until she became a museum in 1987, Espadon was a non-nuclear, diesel powered sub that saw no action during her lifetime. Here though you can get a feeling of the cramped conditions endured by her crew of 63 that could stay submerged for up to 45 days. One would imagine that farting might be a capital offence. Her two diesel engines gave her a total output of 4.400 hp. Despite seeing no action she was not without incidents. During an exercise in 1963 she was hit by two unarmed torpedoes that damaged her propeller, forcing her to surface. On another occasion she was in an underwater collision with another submarine that caused extensive damage to her bow.
After Espadon we walked the short distance to the museum of economic development of St Nazaire. Showing the history of the area over the last 10000 years or so, with some interesting archaeological finds as well as a few exquisite ship models.
I have to disagree with the review I had read about the town as there are some very pleasant areas and it reminded be as being not unlike Southend-on-Sea in certain parts. Ok, maybe the reviewer had been to Southend, and my view of it does go back to the 1950’s.
Friday saw a trip over one of the great modern road bridges to be found in France. Completed in 1974 and opened in 1975 the Saint Nazaire bridge spans the River Loire from Saint Brevins les-Pins. When built it was the longest bridge in France and at the time the longest cable strung bridge in the world. Toll free since 1994 it negates the need for the long drive through Nantes to cross the river.
Saturday was the end of our stay in the Brittany region and due to a cock up on my part over the return sailing I had to find another hotel to stay for the spare night that I had accidentally built in to our holiday. This of course was no problem to an experienced and intrepid traveller such as I. I returned to the internet and simply booked a little b&b near our departure port of Cherbourg. This would give us a brief chance to explore a region of the Basse-Normandie not yet discovered by us. So a place named Pont-de-Rilly was plucked from obscurity for our next stay.
After sacking the guy who had been giving me directions from my iPhone throughout our French adventure, mainly because of his terrible pronunciation of French place names and roads. I had opted for the most volatile method of navigation aids, almost guaranteeing some disruption to the harmony enjoyed so far. My wife Liz was going to read the map and give directions.
After studious scrutiny of the Michelin road map, Liz had worked out a route across country using little using byways and departmental roads. I, now more mature and balanced in my attitude had concluded that whatever the outcome we couldn’t get really lost. There was a coast not far from us in almost every direction that we could simply follow to Cherbourg. What could possibly go wrong?
And so we settled into a relaxing cross country drive with concise and clear directions delivered in Liz’s new French accent, a great improvement on the fool sacked earlier. So after many instructions such as “at the next roundabout take the third exit onto Rue de la Resistance”, often followed shortly by “well we can go this way anyway”, we arrived in the tiny village of Negreville and found our b&b. The tiny signpost led to an equally modest gate and the driveway into our temporary home.
Somewhere in the distance was a large 18th century chateau in its beautiful surroundings. Our gobs were well and truly smacked!
On arrival at the main house we were met by Madame Annick Roucheray, the owner with her husband Jean Jacques. No doubt she had been alerted by the man painting a window frame that we were coming down the drive. In truth the drive is so long, he could have written to her to tell her of our approach.
It turned out eventually that the painter was Madame Roucheray’s husband Jean-Jacques and no ordinary painter! What was to follow was truly remarkable. So remarkable that I have decided to dedicate it to a separate post altogether. Look for the Chateau de Pont-Rilly post coming next week.
After leaving the grandest house I’ve ever slept in by a country mile, we ambled off with hours to spare to reach Cherbourg our ferry port. “Pick a place on the map”, said Liz. “Errr……. There! Barfleur”.
So again relying solely on the map and read splendidly once more by Liz, we took off quite slowly, but surely along the lovely quiet lanes occasionally crossing a busier national road or two. Now and again we would arrive at a rural crossroads. With Liz strangely silent I would ask, “Which way now”?
“Well, we could try left”?
“Hmmm, we could be here so I think left”.
OK we proceed again.
“We’re on this number road but it’s not on the map “!
We pressed on, eventually coming to a sign for Barfleur.
We had arrived in historic Barfleur on the day of a festival and it was very busy with revellers. Barfleur, once with a population of over 1200 now has only about 650 residents. It was once the main departure point from France to England. This is where the Normans under William le Bastard embarked for their successful invasion of England in 1066. In 1120 William’s grandson Prince William son of Henry 1st of England was drowned when his vessel the White Ship was dashed against the rocks, not far from Barfleur.
Then in 1194 Richard the 1st of England or Richard the Lionheart, embarked from here after being released by The Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI.
The harbour side restaurants were very busy but we were ready for lunch. At the centre of the festival area, a large queue had manifested leading to a stall selling moules et frites. The chefs engulfed in thick smoke and constantly wiping their watery smoke filled eyes whilst choking in the smoke seemed to battle against the odds to serve their fayre. Through this scene the music of a jolly looking, rotund French accordionist permeated the smoky air and amusingly the seated diners and the standing queuers all began to join in by singing along. Somehow I found it difficult to imagine this scene being emulated anywhere at home.
Following a lovely lunch we decided to make our way on to Cherbourg via the coast road and enjoy the last of the sights on offer. What was on offer was more countryside, similar to the south of England. Not unlike that of the south Kent coastline or Sussex. We passed one of the tallest lighthouses in Europe at Phare de Gatteville, When built in 1835 it was the tallest in the world standing 75 metres (247ft) and like many other tall buildings claims 365 steps to get to the top.
At Cherbourg it was ice cream on the beach and an attempt to listen to Arsenal beating Chelsea in the Community Shield, but constant signal interruptions made it painful so I gave up.
We boarded the fast ferry Normandie Express which steadily zoomed its way across the Channel at 42 knots and bringing our brief adventure to a close.
It wasn’t long before we were reminded where we live though. Arriving on time we thought. “home in twenty minutes”. Wrong!
The whole of the motorway including the junctions for London and Chichester and along the coast was entirely closed for roadworks. No diversions in place, no information. Was it entirely necessary to close it completely? I doubt it somehow. Luckily, Liz was driving and knows the locality better than me, so she threaded her way around the back lanes until finally getting back on the road two junctions along. Is there any need for this? After a week of hassle free driving, as soon as we get off the boat, bang! Welcome home.
Ray Coggin is both a Taxi Tour Guide and a City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights and themed) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here or sign up to be kept informed of upcoming events, tours and special offers here.