Running into trouble on life’s cobbled highway

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Yet anyone who does stumble into, say, mediaeval Dinan can’t help falling in love with the place.

Even in France, though, it’s not all that well known outside the region, and is often confused with Dinard, Brittany’s Torquay, for goodness sake. But the Office de Tourisme’s advertising budget is only 55,000 euros, so they can do with all the free publicity they can get.

Publicity like the AA Guide to Camping and Caravanning in France, which featured the stone bridge over the Rance at the old port on its cover this year – a shot that goes global this month as one of the home screens in the new version of Microsoft’s Windows, no less.

Then TF1, France’s leading independent TV station, has been in town filming Rue du Jerzual, the winding 500 metre, cobbled lane that rises – nay, soars – from the port to the old quarter, for a series on the nation’s most beautiful streets.

Actually, the cobbles are something of an historical anachronism, only dating back to the 1930s, because there’s no way a horse and cart could have got up or down them without going into their full Bambi-on-ice number.

But that was the least of our worries – Mme Masstairmann and me and 998 other fools – as we huffed and puffed and jostled our way up through the thousands of cheering spectators lining the gut-wrenching, lung-busting climb for the annual Defi du Jerzual, a fun run in name only.

Now we’ve both done marathons, and when we’re in Jersey we like nothing better than a casual jog through the lanes from a friend’s house in southern Trinity down to Bonne Nuit or Bouley Bay for a dip and then back up the hill for breakfast, so 11 kilometres wouldn’t normally be a sweat.

But the Defi is two 5.5 km laps from the castle ramparts down to the Rance in Léhon, which itself once featured in a Reader’s Digest guide to France’s most beautiful villages, then along the river towpath and back up into the old quarter again, so you have to get your nose to the grinding cobblestones twice.

Like banging your head against a wall, though, the real pleasure comes when it ends, and there is great camaraderie among the fellow sufferers waiting to collect their souvenir T-shirts. Yes, it’s relieved hugs and kisses and handshakes all round.

Or it was until this year, anyway, because la grippe A – swine flu – has made people a bit more cautious about indiscriminate bodily contact, particularly the mwa-mwa, cheek-to-cheek bit.

So a national habit dating back to the Renaissance when mouth-to-mouth kissing first became something only lovers did and was reinforced in the 1968 troubles as sign of equality and solidarity may be on its way out, though I’ll believe that when I see it.

Actually, for many people it’s now become a gesture of defiance, a sort of bras d’honneur – an arm of honour, or a Harvey Smith, to the pandemic and to the flapping, nanny state, as if to say, ‘Get a life!’

Anyway, Mme M didn’t feel like cooking after the run that evening and dismissed my own culinary suggestions as inedible at best and a health hazard at worst, so we hobbled stiffly back down into Léhon for a meal at our good value local resto, La Marmite de l’Abbaye, just by the bridge.

Mind you, prices generally haven’t dropped much despite Monsieur Sarkozy trumpeting with his customary modesty: ‘Chirac promised it, but I delivered it. Yes, I cut the VAT in restaurants and cafés from 19.6% to 5.55%. Am I cute enough to kiss, or what?’

The catering trade managed to keep a straight face as they promised to pass the tax break straight on to their poorly paid staff and the customer – cross my heart and hope to die. But so far wages haven’t moved and prices are down 1.3% in restaurants and 0.75% in bars and bistros.

We’re regulars down in Léhon, but elsewhere I let Mme M order because with my accent, they take me for a tourist.

And it seems that women are a better judge of wines, too, according to a recent survey. Unlike us men, they don’t care about fancy labels and aren’t impressed or intimidated by prestigious names, either. No, they just trust their senses. Mind you, they do tend to prefer sweet, syrupy wines, or the fruity, lighter ones from Burgundy or the Loire Valley, whereas men go for drier stuff with a bit more bite to them, like a Bordeaux, say.

Not that that was why I was pensive as I sniffed the house red and swirled it round the glass. No, I was trying to think what the French was for ’empty nesters’, because that is what la Patronne and I have just become. Yes, pass me un kleenex, would you? Merci.

The French are hopeless at snappy names and when, f’rinstance, they build the world’s fastest regular passenger train, a magnificent piece of engineering, what do they call it? The Silver Bullet? The Flying Frenchman? Non, mon vi! You’re not even warm. They call it un train à grande vitesse – a high-speed train, aka TGV.

Sometimes they don’t even try at all, so the latest English import is le binge drinking, and the best my Robert & Collins bilingual can do for ’empty nesters’ is more an explanation: une personne dont les enfants ont quitté la maison. Really zips and zings, n’est-ce pas?

Mind you, our two girls had already had one foot out of the door for a few years now, having both gone to a state weekday boarding school down in Rennes, the only place in western France that could offer the range of foreign languages they wanted to study. But now Morgane is in Costa Rica for a year-long work experience whatsit as part of her Master’s degree in translation, and Fleur is reading political sciences in Paris.

Actually, the capital has survived the tourist recession virtually unscathed. Ten million visitors have swarmed all over the Sacré Coeur in the last year, eight million trudged on aching feet round the kilometres of corridors in the Louvre, and seven million climbed the Eiffel Tower. But the cherry on the gâteau is still Notre Dame, with nearly 14 million trippers taking their this-is-me-in-front-of snaps.

WE were at ND in August, too, while flat-hunting with Fleur, but I soon set off on a different pilgrimage, side-stepping the crowds with their Esmeralda T-shirts and ooh-la-la souvenir stalls, then slipping across the Seine like Quasimodo and turning right before disappearing 100 metres further on into a gloomy yet cosy club-like English-language new and second-hand book shop.

Now I lived in Paris for three years when France and I first set foot on each other back in 1980 after I had fled from England and Mme Tatchair, but it would have been like playing truant to cede to the siren calls of Shakespeare and Co, a historical monument in its own right, when I spoke less French than you can glean from a Condor ticket. So that’s another of life’s little boxes ticked then, eh!


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