They are a world apart, complete opposites, like chalk and cheese and yet they go together so well, existing side by side in perfect harmony. Where one might add a little glamour, put on her sparkling jewels, high heels and strike a pose, the other will stick to her tweeds, her sensible shoes, twinsets and pearls. Yet they are still the best of friends and neighbours, living contentedly side by side as the days turn into nights, the weeks into months and the years into millenia.
For I am not talking about people at all, I’m thinking of two particular places, the coast and the country. Both attract their fair share of tourists and both have their own unique charms. They watch the ebb and flow of tourists in the summer, and enchant each and every one in their own special way. But which do you choose? The sand and the sea,
or greenery, horses, sheep and cows?
It’s a hard choice, but that’s the beauty of the Charente Maritime; you don’t have to make a decision, you can have both – you really can have your cake, and eat it too. We live in the country in a small French village and yet we are just fifteen minutes from the coast. Our particular area has a coastline that’s lined with sand dunes and pine forests, there is ample parking amongst the trees and then it is a simple stroll or cycle to the beach. We are lucky, we really do have the best of both worlds.
Of course each has two sides. The coast has the rugged wild areas where the surf pounds the rocks
and the country has it’s wonderful market towns where elegant houses, many with ornate carvings and beautiful wrought iron balconies, dominate the streets.
So, if you feel the call of the ocean, you can walk for miles along open stretches of beach on the Atlantic coast, or you can enjoy one of the many seaside towns; breakfast, lunch and dinner can be taken on a terrace overlooking the water. Along the way you can browse in a few shops and generally feel rather chic.
One of the things I find most appealing about this area is that although many of the properties along the shore boast price tags well in excess of a million euros, there is still a feeling of normality. It feels safe. One can walk without a care in the world.
At the suggestion of some French friends, we enjoyed brunch on Sunday with them in one of my favourite places, Pontaillac. This is a small area on the west side of the Royan, away from the bulk of the summer tourists but still officially a part of it.
France as a nation seems have taken le brunch (they’ve kept the English word) to heart and adopted it as very much a part of the Sunday routine. It’s a time to be social and meet with friends, and in our case the chosen restaurant was brimming with like-minded locals.
Our friends have been raving about the brunch served there for ages and it’s taken a while to find a Sunday morning when no one had anything planned. Being French and aware of our varied experiences, they were very keen for us to join them and experience a meal so out of French character. Whilst the view out to the sea is an obvious draw,
so too is the menu; a typical full English breakfast is offered, along with a basket of croissants and pain au chocolat, fresh seasonal fruit and tea or coffee. For those not quite so keen on the full English there was a choice of pancakes, patisseries and fruit, or a four-egg omelette with croissants. After three hours of fitness on the beach, it was just what the doctor ordered!
By the time the afternoon arrived, we had chatted for hours over our very leisurely meal and we headed back for a completely different sort of entertainment, a visit to a local brocante in a village close to home.
Within seconds of leaving the coast one is back in the country and amidst bucolic pastoral landscapes.
Leaving the boulevards and shop-lined pavements of Royan behind, the road-side verges are soon full of wild poppies and wild oats, self-seeded beside fields of wheat, barley, young maize and sunflowers.
These small country brocantes are usually held on the edge of a village, with the venue of choice often the school play-ground or sports field. At this time of year there are signs advertising the day and location of brocantes at many road junctions; you just have to keep your eyes open and you’re often spoilt for choice.
Your average small village brocante is normally a simple matter, but sometimes I might be lucky and find something that I just have to snap up for a bargain price – but locally where we are it’s a fairly rare occurrence. Most are far more like a typical car-boot sale, or general yard-sale, something covered by that wonderful vernacular French expression, the vide grenier; in French this literally means ’empty your attic’, and that is exactly what a vide grenier is; a day when old toys, clothes, tools and records can all be sold, amongst an odd assortment of just about anything else that the person selling has no use for anymore, and no wish to keep either.
Whether they are advertised as a brocante or vide grenier, here they tend to both be the same! I tend to visit for the atmosphere, because I love wandering amongst the make-shift stands, bumping into friends or people I might not have seen for ages, exchanging kisses and having a chat; it’s very amicable and very social. You know it is a French occasion when lunch comes calling, and the hubbub of noise dwindles as tables are set out under umbrellas and each stallholder and their family moves their focus of attention from selling to eating, to tables that groan under plates of charcuterie, cheese, fresh baguettes and the omnipresent bottle or jug of wine.
On Sunday there was one man selling a vast collection of wines and spirits. I imagined they were bottles he had obviously collected over the years, and they were quite an intriguing lot.
What amused me most though was the home-made looking bottle labelled Premier Secours – ‘First Aid’. I laughed and asked him what was in the bottle. A secret brew, he told me; something he made at home that could cure all ailments. Hmmmm, I think most likely after drinking the contents first-aid in another form will almost certainly be needed!
We also found a stand selling fresh apricots and cherries.
As is always the way here we were offered a taste and of course we said, “Yes please!”. He selected an apricot and cut it in half, some for me, and some for Gigi – everyone is always most generous. It was delicious and we bought three kilos to take home for just a few euros!
We didn’t stay too long, and after an hour of wandering around we made our way home. Stopping to take a few photos, we looked back in the direction of the village where we had just come from. All that was visible amongst the trees was the distant view of the church tower. I couldn’t help but think that aside from the cars and the actual things on sale, the occasion was something that probably hadn’t changed much for decades, a summer’s day in the simple country way of life. It had been a far cry from the morning’s brunch and yet the two complimented each other perfectly, definitely a match made in French heaven.