A holiday in France inspires a love for the French way of life in the beautiful Vendée. “I don’t remember what my hair felt like in Mauritius, what I ate in Nepal or what I did in Barbados. But I still love the smell of the sea, buckets full of seafood, croissants for breakfast and oysters for tea that we had on holiday on little more than a French shoestring, many years ago in France” says Lucy Pitts, a finalist in our 2014 writing competition…
The beginning of something special.
Some 20 years or more ago, as a fresh faced barrister off on my first annual leave, I threw an old suitcase into the back of my then boyfriend’s BMW and we headed for the Newhaven Dieppe ferry. Little did we know then that it was a week long start to a life time’s adventure and love affair with France that has, all these years later, finally come full circle.
What drew us to a small white washed house, sitting just meters back from the coast in a fishing village in the Vendée, I can’t remember. We’d had no clear plan about where we were going and had made no reservations. Oh those were the days.
What I do know now is that we’d inadvertently stumbled on what was to become an exquisite six day assault on our senses and a quintessentially French experience, in the shape of a converted garage, annexed to the home of an elderly fisherman, with little more than a small table, a one ring cooker and a dubious shower.
I’ve had many holidays since, which have taken me from 5 star in Mauritius to snorkelling in Sri Lanka and back again and I’ve covered many miles of France but that week, costing a very modest handful of Francs still stands out as one of the best and without doubt was instrumental in shaping me into who I am today.
Sleep not being the precious commodity that it is now, for that week, at the first sound of birdsong, we’d stumble from our creaky bed across the cool stone floor and head to the nearest tabac and café to enjoy an early morning cigarette and strong black coffee with the locals. We didn’t speak much French but it didn’t seem to matter and we’d gather fragments of local news and gossip, before soft, fragrant croissants, served with a velvety bowl of steaming hot chocolate eased us gently into the rest of the day.
Then as the sun’s first rays danced across the sea, melting away any remaining mists, we’d head down to the rocks just south of the bay as they slowly emerged from their watery slumber and follow the local women as they foraged in the silty rock pools for mussels, oysters and conga eels. Faces flushed with excitement, they shouted at one another with the strange twang of their local dialect.
By midmorning, with hair ruffled and buckets full of their seafood bounty, the fishing women of the Vendée would give way to a straggly selection of surfers, holiday makers and swimmers who edged their way tentatively down the beach towards the cold compelling fingers of the sea. While in a quiet corner of the bay, the extraordinary sight of that giant of breeds, the Newfoundland dog, being trained as life guards for sea rescue kept us entranced and enthralled.
Soft warm baguettes stuffed with bitter dark chocolate and washed down with cheap local wine in the face of bracing Atlantic breezes and the warm, gritty sand of an endless coastline became the food of our long, dreamy afternoons. Here it was I first discovered the delights of catching crabs and netting shrimps which later, I’d watch as they turned a succulent pink in a spicy hot butter in readiness to be served with the (to me at least) hedonistic and exotic feast of artichokes, local meats and cheeses.
And here it was that I also first dipped my toe into the rich heritage of the Vendée coastline and the heady architecture of the Belle Epoque era, as we scrabbled along coastal paths that once danced sweetly to the tune of the early 20th century and foraged among the remains of medieval castles which whispered ghostly and ancient stories to us as we rested in their shadows.
Later, in the heart of the shouted banter of the busy little quayside of St.Gilles Croix de Vie we discovered ship size quantities of “fruits de mer” fresh from the days catch, just begging us to crack and crush our way into the salty delights within. And we watched the fisherman wrestle with their nets, resplendent as we were against the Formica and Polyester of the little restaurant La Fauvette.
And deep into the evening, no we didn’t go night clubbing or in search of bright lights. Instead we sat outside our little room with our fisherman host and his elderly wife in her blue house dress and crisp white apron, cracking open yet more oysters, speaking broken French heavy with wine, hair sticky with salt and skin pleasantly wind blasted!
Little did I know then how giant water dogs and walking the stony paths of the Vendée would become woven into the fabric of my life as they are now. The boyfriend is now a husband of two decades, the sporty BMW morphed into a sensible family car but the adventure lives on in our own little corner of France.
I don’t remember what my hair felt like in Mauritius, what I ate in Nepal or what I did in Barbados. But I still love the smell of the sea, buckets full of seafood, croissants for breakfast and oysters for tea. Not bad for an impromptu holiday on little more than a French shoestring, many years ago.
Read more fabulous stories from the winners in our 2014 Writing Competition