Monthly Archives: October 2010
Monsieur and I had enjoyed our time in the Funchal fish market, watching the workers carving, stripping and gutting fish of all sizes. We were now curious to see what Madeiran fruit and vegetables were like.
This image may look familiar:
My current header was taken from the above image. Look at the produce – the bright green avocadoes, the perfect artichokes, the rosy apples, fat grapes, stumpy bananas, happy orange mandarins.
Some of these things I’m not sure I can identify - like the squashy-looking green balls next to the courgettes at the bottom of the stall or that prickly green vegetable?/fruit? between the cabbages and the beans. Can you help me, anyone?
On the right hand side, the long green fruit are Banana-Ananaz, or Banana Pineapple. Also known as the Monstera Deliciosa, it has the tropical flavour of banana, pineapple and mango, and grows happily in Madeira’s sub-tropical climate.
This shot’s a bit blurry but the baskets. Oh, the baskets. I do so love wicker baskets. If I lived in Funchal I’d buy one of these and fill it up frequently with fat, red tomatoes, snow-white onions and some of those banana ananaz things. (Apparently they’re good in smoothies.)
The florist stands were dazzling – loaded up with anthuriums, birds of paradise and orchids. I swear I’d never before seen such massive anthuriums, not even in Hawaii - some flowers were the size of dinner plates!
I could have wandered about the market for a long, long time, but it was lunch time and the vendors looked hungry. The stall shutters started coming down, so Monsieur and I took this as a sign to leave in search of our own lunch. That’s the downside of being addicted to markets: they make you hungry.
I admit it: I have an OCD. Wherever in the world I am, I MUST visit a market, or at worst, food hall. I even like foreign supermarkets. And UK supermarkets. I can wax lyrical about my fascination with the way supermarkets adapt their merchandise to the ethnic mix of the local community. But I digress. Here is yet another Epicurienne take on a market. For this episode of ‘Market OCD’ we’ll travel to Funchal on the Atlantic island of Madeira.
Monsieur and I were fresh off the plane from Lisbon when we found Funchal Market. It was lunchtime so activity, which had started at daybreak, was starting to wind down, but the fish market was still quite busy. Most of the marble preparation areas were loaded up with long, black, headless fish that looked a bit like eels. I later found out their name: scabbard fish.
Known as Peixe Espada Preta, this is a popular fish in Portugal, known for a mild flavour which allows it to be prepared in hundreds of different ways. Their heads are the stuff of horror films, though:
On a different counter sat limpets. I’ve never eaten them before but they’re supposed to be delicious. Limpets make me nostalgic for childhood visits to the beach, sticking our fingers into anemones in rock pools, teasing hermit crabs and trying to pull limpets off the rocks. Now I just want to eat one!
The tuna counter was a reminder of how big tuna can grow. This is just a small part of one:
The tuna man’s biceps must get their work out from hulking huge hunks of tuna about and carving them with a knife that looks disturbingly like a machete.
Elsewhere, the scabbard fish are stripped down.
The sardine man removes tiny sardine entrails as he waits for a customer.
A buyer gets tips on how to prepare salt cod.
perhaps with some of the cod man’s homemade herb-alicious marinade?
Nothing this vendor says or does can make his buyers crack a smile. Poor chap. They look like hard work.
Before we leave, I’m tempted to weigh myself on the fish scales (not the shiny-on-the-skin fishy variety):
but Monsieur says “No.”
So we go next door to the fresh produce market, instead, and my market OCD is cured, for today.
Last November, when London was cold and grey, Monsieur and I sunned ourselves at lunch in Funchal, Madeira. It was warm enough to take an outdoor table at O Visconde Restaurante, a complete find of an eatery, tucked away down a little alley near the centre of town but far from the cruise ship crowds.
There are but a handful of tables in the dark wooden interior, giving O Visconde the feel of a tapas bar or Venetian bacari, replete with a bunch of regulars glued to the chairs.
Our waitress was friendly and efficient, speaking excellent English through bucked tombstone teeth. She brought us a big bottle of water and a couple of bottles of the local brew, Super Bock as we deliberated over the menu choices.
Monsieur started with a salad which arrived as a beautiful array of fresh produce: a tumble of frisée leaves topped with cucumber and beets, tomatoes and apple, two halves of a boiled egg, melon and kiwi. The grated carrot which had appeared in all Portuguese salads that we’d eaten thus far had not been forgotten. A dollop of prawns drizzled with lime juice sat at the centre and an orange carved like a starburst showed off the knife skills of the kitchen staff. It was certainly the most colourful salad we’d seen in a while. Monsieur demolished it all, exclaiming at the freshness, the crispness, the full flavours.
My starter was a simple plate of melon and ham – one of those dishes which can either be tasteless and ordinary or bursting with flavour Thankfully, this was a case of the latter. The melon was the palest chartreuse with a slight taste of pineapple. The ham tasted strong and smoky, yet retained a delicacy that allowed it to fold softly onto the fork. It was the best cured ham of the trip so far. I was in olfactory heaven.
My main course was a plate of salt cod croquettes – a staple of Portuguese cuisine – served with a touch of Thousand Island dressing and salad. These were far superior to the croquettes I’d tried in Lisbon, which were quite dry, stuck to the palate and cried out for a squeeze of lemon or some sort of sauce to soften them. The O Visconde version were marshmallowy and had kept some necessary moisture, and the Thousand Island dressing was a welcome addition, complementing the strong cod flavour. Even the tomatoes wowed me. They’d been unpretentiously tossed into the salad and were deep red in both colour and flavour, oozing juice in the best possible way. And yes, the salad included (drum roll) grated carrot.
Across the table Monsieur’s steak also impressed. “Cooked to perfection.” he declared, something you don’t necessarily expect to find by accident down a non-descript side street. Given the quality of everything we’d eaten and the cheerful service from our waitress, we might have expected a much larger bill. As it was, the price of this simple yet delicious lunch was almost embarrassingly modest.
Looking back, this, our first Madeiran meal, may well have been our favourite. What we didn’t realise at the time was how steep menu prices could be on this Atlantic Island, so achieving the balance between quality and price isn’t easy. That’s why, if you find yourself on Madeira, I cannot recommend O Visconde enough. It exemplifies top value for money and oh, that pineapple tang in the melon – it really is something else.Restaurante O Visconde, Rua dos Murças 80, Funchal, Madeira 9000-058, Portugal
Tel: + 351 9 6532 5981
For my friend, Pat Coakley, of Singleforareason
For those of you who haven’t yet come across Pat or her photography and philosophy blog, Singleforareason, you should visit it right NOW. If I ever finish writing my foodie memoir, I’d love Pat to illustrate it – her photos of plants and fruit and vegetables and other fridge contents really get me going. She also takes the most eerie photos whilst driving, and this inspired me to attempt the same while Monsieur and I were in Maui earlier this year. The only difference was that Monsieur was driving whilst I was photographing. Pat manages to do both at the same time.
Some of my novice drive-by-shooting results are here:
Those clouds above the mountains stay above the mountains. Down on the West coast, where most of the main resorts are, it hardly ever rains.
All the palm trees in Maui are bent in the direction of the dominant wind. The first bent palms we saw were just outside the airport. This one was a bit lonely, stood by the side of the road in the middle of sugar cane country.
Sugar cane and ominous clouds that threaten but never quite reach us.
The Maui skies are huge and the landscape dramatically craggy from its volcanic heritage.
The sun sets early here. It’s already hiding behind the mountains but hasn’t quite gone.
Just south of Lahaina the hills are terracotta and ancient-looking. The sky begins to blush as the sun drops closer to the horizon.
Its glow bounces off our shiny red Mustang as we head back up to Ka’anapali Beach and our hotel. It will be another postcard perfect evening for us as we watch the colours change around the neighbouring islands.
Monsieur thinks I’m nuts to sit in the car taking photos as we whizz around the island – nothing new there. I think it’s fun and will definitely do this again. It gives a whole new perspective on our surroundings. Thank you, Pat, for the inspiration.
The Blind-in-one-eye Bum is an interesting name for a food establishment, and that’s the rough English translation for a Saint Malo restaurant named Borgnefesse. Borgne means blind in one eye (how efficient of the French to have one word for this affliction instead of four in English) and fesse means bum, buttock or bottom, whichever you prefer.
The original Borgnefesse was a certain buccaneer named Louis le Golif, who reputedly had had one buttock shot off by a cannon ball, hence the sobriquet which may also translate as ‘half-arse’ or ‘but one buttock’. No one can be sure whether or not the memoirs for which le Golif gained renown are fact or fiction, but apparently it’s quite an entertaining read if you’re a pirate nut who celebrates International Talk Like a Pirate Day each September. Thankfully, when Monsieur and I found Borgnefesse, the ‘half-arsed’ restaurant, there were no pirates (nor parrots) in sight.
We’d just arrived in Saint Malo after a long day which had involved much driving, battling of crowds at Mont Saint Michel, and a couple of fluffed-up €28.00 omelettes which were more like air bags than proper food and therefore barely sustained us through the afternoon. So tonight, we were hungry and boy, did we ever want to eat a fairly priced meal. Saint Malo boasted loads of eateries, but would we find one to suit our rather demanding palates?
A sunset walk about the ramparts of the old walled city had contributed to our appetites, so we set about finding somewhere to eat. One recommendation had closed and was now boarded up. The next on the list had changed in both name and cuisine. Some were closed because it was Tuesday. Some were closed for the summer holidays. We weren’t having much luck so we tried the strip of bustling restaurants along the wall between two of the town’s Portes but most of them served the same fare in similar prix-fixe formulae. Yawn. So we wandered away from the summer crowds and copycat menus in search of something a bit different.
The next restaurant we tried had taken its last orders at 9.30pm, even though its dining room was only half full. A handful of others we found to be too pricey and we’d had enough of feeling ripped off for one day, so we returned to a place we’d spotted earlier. The menu was compact but interesting and a pirate sign hung outside – now that’s different. Thus Monsieur and I entered Borgnefesse.
It was already close to 10pm but the waitress was smiling as she gave us a table. She single-handedly managed the entire room without even the hint of a grimace and all the patrons seemed happy. The decor had a subtle nautical theme, but all the table dressing was up-to-the-minute, with mushroom-coloured napkins and cloths. A stack of old books on a shelf between tables added a homely touch. In summary, the atmosphere was understated and warm.
There were no printed menus because this was a market restaurant, that is, they cook and serve whatever they find fresh at market each day. On a blackboard, across the room, were listed three different ‘formule’ or set menu options with different price points depending on the ingredients. Monsieur and I chose the middle-of-the-road €19.80 formule, which included a seafood starter, choice of main and cheese or dessert.
We both enjoyed our plates of fresh seafood, including succulent bulots (sea snails) which we twiddled out of their shells with a bulot pin, prawns and half a crab, complete with four long and spindly legs each. All the requisite shell cracking and crab-extracting tools were supplied so Monsieur and I could get our hands messy with produce so lipsmacking that it must have been that afternoon’s catch.
Monsieur was in need of a red-meat fix, so ordered the entrecote as a main. When it arrived it was smothered in a rich, peppery sauce and when my own main was set before me, I could see that the chef here must also be an excellent saucier because my stuffed squid was swimming in a little pond of aromatic sauce tinted a rich butter-cream colour with just a touch of saffron. Mon Dieu, how that squid was delicious – filled with a blend of minced calamari and tomatoes, and softened by the delicately spiced-up sauce. Served with a modest helping of wild rice and diced veg, the overall effect tickled all of the senses. The opposing textures jumped about on my tongue yet didn’t fight; rather they complemented one another. The squid was delightfully soft, having been cooked to perfection. The flavours blended into an overall impression of somewhere exotic and hot with a breeze from the sea. Oh yes, I did enjoy this dish very much indeed, and across the table from me, my husband had inhaled his entrecote so quickly that he’d been bored for a while now – a sure sign that everything on his plate had met with his hard-won approval.
For dessert, Monsieur polished off refreshing mango and strawberries with ‘their’ sorbets, as they say in France, while I had the most sensible cheese course ever: a simple slice of creamy camembert served with a couple of leaves of lettuce and some bread. It was tout simple but couldn’t have been more appreciated. Yes, I crave a taste of cheese at the end of a meal in France, but no, I didn’t always have the capacity for an entire cheeseboard. Long have I mourned the fact that I wasn’t born with more stomachs, like a cow, but it’s a fact I’ve learned to live with and the people at Borgnefesse make this hardship a little easier to bear by getting their portions right.
So, the food was superb, but at €26.00 our Pouilly Fumé tasted young and, strangely for a Pouilly, lacked in both character and bite, but in this instance even a duff bottle of wine remained perfectly quaffable. As we paid the bill and wandered back down towards the Grande Porte, Monsieur and I were comfortably (as opposed to belt-poppingly) sated.
“Do you want to know how much the bill was?” Monsieur asked,
“Sure,” I replied,
“Well, it was significantly less than those stupid omelettes at La Mère Poulard.” he announced,
“Hmmm. Doesn’t surprise me.” I said, “those were some seriously overpriced eggs.”
It wouldn’t take a mindreader to work out which of the two establishments, Borgnefesse or La Mère Poulard, is assured of our future custom, especially if the menu du jour shows the chef’s famous fish of the day stuffed with fresh Breton lobster or the Lotte (monkfish), which one former patron has described as ‘inoubliable’ (unforgettable). For now, Monsieur and I were simply relieved to have enjoyed a fine meal at a fair price. Even with a name like The One-Eyed Buttock, we will be back.
Went to see Gordon Gecko’s latest incarnation in Wall Street 2 recently and just about spat out my water in giggles at this ad in the cinema. Don’t worry – Monsieur didn’t get too wet, he’d brought his brolly. In particular I really dig the pole dancers. It’s even funnier because it’s total fiction – Monsieur and I couldn’t begin to describe how frustrating our Virgin flight back from honeymoon was – crashed online check-in so Monsieur could get a seat but not me (computer said I didn’t exist)… had to forego bag drop because of that. Stood in line FOREVER thanks to understaffing only to be told that we couldn’t sit together (on our way back from honeymoon???) thanks to a cruise liner that had deposited its UK passengers on this flight, which was now overbooked. Try to swap your seats at the gate? Not blooming likely. The flight’s full to bursting with cruise ship lovers. That means that most of them are COUPLES. Even the nicest person in the world wouldn’t want to swap away from their partner so I could be with My New Hubby on a 10 hour flight. We tried regardless. All the couples around us said sorry but no. Big Fat FAIL.
Monsieur and I weren’t the only ones with seat allocation troubles. People behind me (Monsieur was on the other side of the plane in a completely different cabin) bickered all ten hours of the way home. They hadn’t been seated next to their bridge partners from the cruise, one woman had issue with the man in front of her reclining his seat, and because we were in the back of the plane and one of the meal options had run out by the time the dinner trolley reaches us, there was a near revolt. Little wonder why the crew were grumpy and not the perfectly coiffed divas and gods of this ad.
NB Don’t you think that if Virgin Atlantic crews really looked like they do in this ad, they wouldn’t be trolley dollies? Like, maybe Calvin Klein models or XXX movie stars? Hmm. Moi aussi.
Last point: having a vague idea of how much per-second TV or cinema ads cost to make and show, this one replete with special effects must have cost a blinding amount, possibly even the GDP of a tiny third world country. And whatever my recent issues with Virgin Atlantic, I’ve also enjoyed fantastic flights with them, love their in-flight ice-cream and red-hot (or should I say ‘hot red’?) sleeping socks and this ad certainly makes me giggle.
I can’t say I really knew much about Normandy until recently. Admittedly, the closest I’d come to getting to know the place would be waving at it from moving vehicles or watching Band of Brothers. So how much Norman knowledge did my grey matter actually hold? Astonishingly little: Normandy is a place in France with English weather and lots and lots of apples. Has a coastline, ports and the Normandy Landing beaches. Can visit popular resort towns like Deauville and Trouville and Benerville-sur-Mer, only they’re not really on the sea at all; they’re on the English Channel. The Normans of the Norman Invasion came from Normandy. 1066. That’s why we have French words in the English language. Normans were originally ‘norsemen’ (as in vikings) who settled in the area of Normandy. I work with a guy called Norman, and Normans make good butter. So, you see? I knew a bit about Normandy but you could hardly call that knowledge encyclopaedic.
This, dear people, has thankfully changed. Thanks to Monsieur and his family I have been put on a crash course about Normandy. Result? There is so much more to Normandy than war stories and Calvados. Take, for instance, the little town of Honfleur. A picturesque port with pretty rows of slate-fronted houses, this is the sort of place that makes you wonder if the Pied Piper of Hamlin is piping his merry song just around the corner. So pretty that it inspired works by impressionist greats like Monet, and, going by appearances, little about the town has changed since.
(Rue de la Bavolle, Honfleur, by Claude Monet)
Monsieur and I visited Honfleur one Saturday in August, and as happens all over France on Saturdays, the market was in town. We crossed a little bridge made from ancient wooden planks and in doing so passed a strange pair – mother and son presumably, both with matted hair and wild eyes, she in big skirts an he in rumpled, falling-down jeans that looked in need of a good, long soak. They were walking in vague circles, staring at the pedestrian traffic across the bridge with dark eyes that seemed to say ‘interlopers! Leave our town.’
The market stalls soon appeared, some selling nougat and toffee-encrusted nuts, others fresh fish and seafood. Half-timbered and slate-fronted houses lined up before us, their straight lines now crooked with age. Down a small street we found more stalls purveying every conceivable market ware – nautical clothes in navy, red and yellow next to baby clothes in ice blue and the palest pink, striped tees and souvenir aprons, home accessories, food-stuffs, wallets and shoes. Elsewhere we found leather belts and gingham-lined baguette bags, hammers and hardware items. Is there anything you can’t find at a good French market?
Many of the shops had windows filled with bottles of cider and Calvados, pommeau (a cider-Calvados hybrid) and poiré (a pear liqueur). Souvenirs abounded, including little pottery bowls painted with popular French Christian names, tins of Norman biscuits and model lighthouse lamps. We pushed on, through Place Sainte Cathérine with the oldest wooden church in France, now barely visible thanks to the myriad market stalls and crush of Saturday shoppers, back to the inner port, where a flotilla of fine yachts rested in the Vieux Bassin. It will come as no surprise to some of you that Monsieur and I were now ready for lunch.
We took a table at a restaurant terrace overlooking the Bassin. Named Le Pêle Mêle, it had a number of different prix fixe options at different price points. We decided on the Menu Étape where for a mere €13.90 a head, Monsieur and I could enjoy two fabulous courses of true Norman food. Monsieur enjoyed his starter of avocado filled with creamy little prawns. Simple, yet fresh and attractive in presentation but gone in a flash of famished Frenchman with fork. I had chosen moules (mussels) with cream, and not just any cream – NORMAN cream, of course. “Normandy’s known for its cream,” mumbled Monsieur between mouthfuls of crevettes. I could see why. The mussels had been simmered with onion and something vaguely apple-ish (cider, perhaps?) before arriving with a generous dollop of cream atop their black shells. The cream melted into the mussel juice, making a delicious soup to slurp at the end of mussel-munching. When I was done, empty shells were all that remained.
Next round? Entrecôte (steak) and frites for Monsieur. Dos de Colin (Hake fillet) with a cider sauce for moi. The steak was served with a peppercorn and (you guessed it!) cream sauce. The cider sauce also contained a fair udder or two of rich Norman cream, so this lunch was fast becoming a delicious yet high-cholesterol affair.
Disappointingly, my hake looked quite anaemic on the plate, coated, as it was, with the pale cider sauce, yet on first bite I pronounced it one of the tastiest fish dishes I’d had the pleasure to eat in a long while. A lot of that was to do with the sauce - apple orchard and dairy farm blended on the palate. If only they’d do something to make the hake look a little less like hospital food, it’ll be flying out of Le Pêle Mêle faster than you can say BLOWFISH.
Monsieur and I circumnavigated the Vieux Bassin on our way back to the Frogmobile, pausing to photograph the fairy-tale town and to stock up on Norman treats for family (we may or may not have also stopped for a naughty gelato at Amorino…). Back by the bridge the disturbing pair were still turning circles like a couple of bored dogs chasing their tails, the stocky man now hunching his shoulders like cousin Quasimodo. On we walked, back across the ancient planks, away from the crazies and the boats and the slate-fronted houses to the car. We had a long journey ahead of us, but fuelled up on Norman dairy and apple products, we were recharged and raring to go. Next stop: Brittany.
We hadn’t even slept a night in France but Monsieur and I were already having adventures on our French Road Trip. We’d been caught in traffic, were nearly run off the road by a nasty red-faced man in an evil orange car, missed our ferry by a mile, had to wait forever for another berth and once in France had a long, dark drive to Honfleur in the wee hours of the morning. Needless to say, we really didn’t give a monkey’s where we were sleeping that night, as long as we had a bed. (At one point I was tempted to just pull over and sleep in the car – that’s how tired we were, but Monsieur could not be persuaded.)
Given the above experiences, just imagine how happy we were to find that our motel was way-hey better than we’d anticipated.
Finding the motel was a doddle, but finding the motel parking entrance at 3am was not so easy. We could see the motel and its parking area but the gate was padlocked. When your brain isn’t shrivelled with fatigue, it would probably be quite simple to drive around a couple of back streets and find the correct, unpadlocked entrance, but Monsieur and I had the combined brainpower of a walnut at that point, so it took us a little while to work it out. Thankfully,we got there in the end, and (drum roll) there was a vacant parking place directly outside our room! It’s only a small detail but it brought us SUCH happiness. In fact, each and every room had its own parking spot directly outside the door. How very organised, our walnut brains thought. There would be no dragging suitcases across gravel making unwelcome, un-neighbourly noise in the dark. No searching for parking space in already-full car park before depositing car on the street miles away then fretting all night in case it’s not there in the morning. None of that for the Walnut Heads. No. We had a mere three paces from car to room door and in our state of near-brain-death and physical failure were very, very happy about that indeed. We didn’t even have to worry about waking up the landlady to get our key – she’d thoughtfully e-mailed us to say we were in room 4 and would leave the door unlocked with the key inside, just in case we arrived late in the evening. Motel owners around the world – you could learn a lot from these people. This is how to run a motel 101.
Inside our room, the space was small but sensibly arranged, with a very current colour scheme (turquoise and chocolate) on the walls. In a little alcove sat a pair of cane chairs and table, perfect for enjoying breakfast come morning, and the bedside tables and desk were limed oak – with a reproduction antique feel.
The bathroom was white white white with fittings that looked brand new and, even though it was a bit bland compared to the bedroom, it was so clean that I would happily have eaten an omelette off the floor. Well, to tell the truth I’m not mad on omelettes unless made by my brother, The Omelette King, and I honestly don’t make a habit out of eating off hard building surfaces, but I think you get what I mean. This place was Clean with a capital C.
As for the bed it could have been stuck full of nails for the local swami for all we cared but once more we were happy to find our expectations were not only met, but exceeded. Comfy, clean, fresh white cotton bedding. We sank into the pillows and slumber came immediately.
When the alarm went off in time for us to catch breakfast at the motel, it won’t surprise you to hear that Monsieur and I didn’t exactly bustle about like Mexican jumping beans. Our movements were more like molasses in a snow storm: sluggish to non-existent. The result? We missed breakfast.
Tant pis! Fine French coffee and a buttery croissant would not have gone astray, but it wasn’t going to happen. Monsieur and I were far from concerned about the situation. You see, in France you’re never far from food opportunities. We’d make up for the lack of breakfast with a proper lunch in Honfleur instead.
As we loaded up the Frogmobile, preparing for another day on the road, rooms that had just been vacated were already being cleaned. I peeped into a couple to see if the decor was the same as our room. It wasn’t. Each room had been individually decorated – some nautical, others with splashy primary colours, another decked out smartly in beige. The cleaner’s trolley was another revelation – Martha Stewart would have been impressed by the organisational abilities of these folk.
We dropped the key into the office, spying the breakfast room at the same time.
And a funny little bar in one corner. More space wasn’t really necessary because each room has a table and chairs outside their doorway – for evening apéritifs, no doubt.
“We were lucky to have found this place,” said Monsieur on leaving, “I’d come again.”
That’s quite a compliment coming from my rather exacting husband. What’s more? Breakfast is included in the room rate, and there’s FREE WI-FI. So if you’re planning on visiting Honfleur, and you think you may get stuck in traffic/ miss your ferry/flight/ train or for some other reason may arrive in the wee hours of the morning, reserve a room at Motel les Bleuets. Its owners are organised, considerate clean freaks, the just-out-of-town location is lovely and quiet and parking’s a complete doddle. What more can you ask? Ah, yes. The beds will make you snore in the best possible way, the already-reasonable rates include breakfast and if you plan to be there Monday to Thursday you can get the even more reasonable Businessman Rate. Highly recommended.
Motel les Bleuets website (note: don’t be put off by the look of some of the rooms on the site – the ones we saw were subtle, well-decorated, with excellent finishes. If you have something against sunflower yellow or fuchsia bedcoverings, reserve room 4. )
Boring is definitely not a word in my vocabulary and, for better or worse, it certainly doesn’t apply to my travels with Monsieur. Invariably, be it on the first day of our time away or the last, something will go wrong. For instance, on honeymoon I got food poisoning, on our way to Venice we got diverted to Rome thanks to a transport strike. I swear I’m the only person I know who has been stuck on a train going nowhere, in the middle of nowhere in Germany, which is usually über-efficient (except for during my visits), and at one point in time, Monsieur’s suitcase was so frequently delayed or misplaced that the lost luggage people at Heathrow knew his name.
So when Monsieur and I set off for France recently, we were prepared for our usual dose of misadventure, but not necessarily with immediate effect.
Traffic in London was diabolical. It took hours plural to get out of town, which meant, naturally, that we missed our ferry, but not before a maniac in a metallic orange car tried to run us off the road by overtaking us on the hard shoulder. Moral: never trust a man who drives a metallic orange car. Orange cars should be reserved for advertising purposes only.
So we finally reached Dover and checking the time I worked out that our ferry was about to dock in France. Darnit, we could have been there by now! We changed our tickets to a berth on the next available ferry, but it didn’t leave for hours plural and we had to pay £26.00 for the privilege of twiddling our thumbs. Moral: pay the extra for a flexible ticket OR take P&O, who allow passengers a three-hour window around their booking time so they can change to earlier or later ferries if required. But did we take our own advice? Hell, no. We showed allegiance to the tricolore and booked Seafrance. And Seafrance made us pay.
The fun part was yet to come. By the time we drove off the ferry in France, it was well past midnight local time and we were tired. But we had to drive. A long way. A very long way to the little Norman town of Honfleur.
2.5 hours isn’t that long when you say it out loud, unless you’re dog tired behind the wheel of a car, like Monsieur was. As designated navigator, I couldn’t doze off because (a) I had to read the map. In the dark. And (b) I felt obligated to make sure that Monsieur didn’t doze off and crash us both into oncoming traffic. Not that there was any oncoming traffic. It was too late for oncoming traffic. Oncoming traffic had sensibly gone home to bed.
After an hour of driving on blessedly empty roads we passed the turn off for the Baie de Somme. I sighed. If only the sweet little hotel I’d found there hadn’t been fully booked, we could be veering towards a warm bed right now. But it had been fully booked, so we still had a ninety-minute drive ahead of us. And at two in the morning, ninety minutes is a very, very long time. By now I was all but convinced that Monsieur and I would end up in a ditch before the drive was through. I hoped the air bags would work. Oh, me of little faith.
As we approached Le Havre, my attention switched from air bags to the sky; it was lit in the strangest of ways. In my dopey state I started to wonder why the Northern Lights were here. Shouldn’t they be in Scotland or somewhere further north? Above and around us the sky glowed a strange, flickering terracotta. It was far too early for dawn. Had a bomb gone off somewhere, perhaps? (Things always seem more apocalyptic to me at night and on checking my watch I could see that it was definitely still night.) Would we pass over yonder rise to find a big round spaceship like the one in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? No. There would be no entente cordiale between the Frenchman, the Pacific Chick and a bunch of inter-galactic joy-riding extra-terrestrials. Not tonight, anyway. We passed over yonder rise to find Le Havre. And for anyone who hasn’t seen Le Havre in the wee morning hours, I’ll try to describe it.
Le Havre is a massive port, the second largest in France, and among other things, a large proportion of the country’s oil deliveries arrive here in gigantic tankers. It glows thanks to all the lights from the port and warehouses and giant flames from multiple refineries. Driving through Le Havre was like driving through a Lego town lit with bright white fairy lights and fire. What’s more, there was no one on the road and we didn’t see a single human as we passed through, so where was everyone? Were they dozing off on the late shift? Keeping an eye on their safety meters? Or were they at home asleep while secret armies of Oompa Loompas fanned the flames? All I could see around us was industry, concrete, lights, fire and wire fencing. It was so bright, it could have been day. But, no. It was just before 3am.
Leaving Le Havre behind us we had the stunning stretch of the Pont de Normandie to ourselves as we crossed the dark River Seine to reach Honfleur and our motel. Most importantly, a comfy bed with our names on it was now close. In spite of all the delays in getting here, we’d done it and in spite of my fears would not be spending the night in a ditch by the side of the A29. A well-deserved rest was imminent, and there was the motel, but where on earth was the entrance? Would Epic and Monsieur ever get some rest? Would their travel adventures ever disappear? Hmmm. You’ll just have to tune in soon to find out.