Saturday, 21 March 2009

Memories of Sables-d'Or

Having had a comment about my Memories of Warwick Avenue posting, I was prompted to do another posting outlining another set of memories from my youth of a particular location. This is the town that I knew as Sables-d'Or (literally 'Sands of Gold') though I have found its full title is Sables-d'Or-les-Pins, on the Côtes d'Armor, as there are others around the coast of France, notably near Biarritz. It lies on the North coast of eastern Brittany in France, due South of the Channel Islands. Travelling from the UK we used to go through the port of Cherbourg, but you could also go via St. Malo these days, which lies some kilometres to the East of the resort. It is a broad sandy bay lying between what are almost two peninsulas to the East and the West, it is served by the D34a road. It seems renowned now for the kiting and surfing that is possible, presumably because it is near the mouth of the English Channel and faces North. Like many French towns along the Channel coast it is also renowned for its golf club. The only other town I remember visiting in the region is Erquy which is to the West of Sables-d'Or and faces West protected by a headland, it has its own sandy bay, but I remember it as a picturesque harbour with old fashioned fishing boats in it.

My memories of Sables-d'Or are now about 36-7 years old, so I imagine that the place has changed beyond recognition since I went there. I can view street plans and aerial shots of the place but cannot get a feel for what it is like on the beach these days. Perhaps it is best that I do not find out too much and spoil the memories I have of the place in the early 1970s. There still only seem to be two hotels in Sables-d'Or and as the Hotel la Voile d'Or is a modern and only two story hotel, I know it must have been the Hôtel de Diane that I stayed in in my youth and looking at the photos the lounge and the dining room look the same, though they now seem to have a conservatory dining area too. The hotel also prides itself on the fact it has been run by three generations of the same family. It is a three-storey place with 47 bedrooms which with its steeply pitched roof looks like it would be more at home in the Bavarian Alps than on the coast of France. The hotel was very much like the kind of place you would imagine Monsieur Hulot going to in the movies of the 1950s. The decor seemed to be of the early 1960s style, sparse but smart and it still seems to have that elegance which reference the past and the modern at the same time. I remember meeting the hotel manager who would receive all guests in his office, which lay beyond the lounge, before they left. He might have been a member of the family that still owns the hotel. He was probably in his fifties when we saw him, but the thing that stuck in my mind was all his teeth were capped with gold. He was a tall, slender man in the standard French office uniform of slim, dark single-breasted suit, white shirt and narrow dark tie. He had a broad circular face and skin covered with large freckles, he smiled a great deal which exposed all these gold teeth which to a small child was quite alarming despite him clearly being very charming.

I have an assortment of memories. I remember coming down the very wide stairs of the hotel in the morning and being stopped by the maids who would be on their knees sweeping the stairs and I would have to count to ten in French before I was allowed to proceed. I had probably only started school (we did not start until 5 years old in those days in the UK) the previous September. My mother has always been keen on languages and I certainly remember the classic BBC French course 'Suivez La Piste' (1965) books and records (the text seems to be available online in a number of locations now) being around the house. I remember there was single swing surrounded by pine trees on a sandy part close to the hotel manager's office. However, there were few other children at the hotel to compete with to use it. In those days no-one had a television in their bedrooms in a hotel so you had to entertain yourself.

The key events were around the meals. In my memory the dining room was huge, but I imagine that is because I was small. In contrast to Britain the French were more than happy to have children at the meals, though they did have a special 'children's tea' at 4pm as well. I disliked the fact that they always boiled the milk for the children to drink. I liked milk but it had to be ice cold. The menu for the children was no different than that for the adults so I remember having to have my father fillet the grilled trout I was served one teatime. The hotel's restaurant still is renowned for its fish and seafood. I cannot remember the general meals we ate, though I do remember my brother, who was a toddler at the time, living on soft boiled eggs and 'soldiers' (bread cut into narrow strips dunked into the egg).

I also remember two incidents in the dining room which I have been reminded of by my parents in the intervening years. One was the Dutch family with two small children who used to sit at the table next to us. I remember the woman bending over one of the children. In the matter of seconds she turned from speaking to my parents in English, to speaking to her child in Dutch to responding to the waiter in French. This is unsurprising coming from a Dutch person, they all seem to be linguists from birth, but was a real example to British people struggling to speak French poorly. The other incident regards a business party at lunch one day. I can call the sight to memory very easily Given the town is small and the hotel's restaurant renowned, it was probably no surprise that the twenty businessmen (and I remember no women being present in the party) had chosen to dine there. They all wore dark suits and white shirts with slim ties which (unsurprisingly) made them look like they had stepped out of 'The Day of the Jackal' (1973) or even 'Ascenseur Pour Le Chafaud' (1958). I remember the boss sitting at the head of the table with a slanting forehead bald up the centre and a prominent nose, plus a paunch. Anyway, dispute broke out at the end of the meal about what flavours of ice cream the different businessmen were going to have and the boss intervened with a De Gaullesque voice and said that everyone would have vanilla. To some degree it indicated why he was boss.

There were foods that were different to the UK. I remember having breakfast in the lounge and having croissants probably for the first time, a food I still love to this day. (In fact it sparks off another memory of staying in a house in France, probably a couple of years later and walking each morning to the bakery and seeing the flames licking up in the old black metal oven as the baker took things out to sell; in the midst of all its modernity history lingers all over France and of course in the 1970s we were as close to the 1930s-40s as we are now to the 1970s). I also remember having coffee-flavoured ice cream in that lounge, which has a bar in the corner. I used to like coffee until I was 10 years old and then drank tea until I started being exhausted every morning in my mid-30s and needed the caffeine to wake me up. In the 1970s there was no decaffeinated coffee or any concern that children would be hyper-active from coffee. Of course the ice cream in France (with its high dairy content) still tastes very different from British ice cream (generally made from vegetable fats).

I cannot remember much about the rooms or even the town of Sables-d'Or. I do remember the beach or the part we went to which was a kind of inlet within the bay. Despite being North facing I remember it being warm. We played a lot there. I had a captain's hat with a blue plastic visor and my brother had more of a bucket hat. We ran around in canvas shorts and striped teeshirts. I remember my brother was bought a large red plastic tractor as long as his chest with a trailer which we filled with sand and drove around. I also remember that 'streams' of water ran through the sand even at low tide and one day I crossed one of these to a wetter area of sand, a tiny island between the streams and constructed my 'adventure path' with various things you had to do, including avoiding the curved pit I had dug and walking in the 'footprints' I had made in the wet sand. It is funny because the seven-year old who lives in my house does just such things with paper-based treasure hunts around our house even today with all the high tech games available. The beach was never very busy, I remember, it is probably different now, certainly with the new sports for beaches like power-kiting and ferries going from the UK to St. Malo which have opened up Brittany much more to British tourists. However, despite that one woman we met on the beach, I remember her being a dark reddish brown and having a black angled hat, came from the town in the UK which lay the other side of the canal from ours, we could have equally have run into her around the shops back home.

The remaining memories are about trips out from Sables-d'Or. One time we walked away from the hotel into a wooded area and in the midst of it was the remains of what we took to be a Roman amphitheatre, though looking back it was probably a Victorian folly version. Oddly it was raised up rather that dipping into the ground, so you could clamber up the steps and do recitations from the top. The curve of the trees gave good acoustics. My parents encouraged me to sing some song I had learnt but I was reluctant to do so. Sometime later on the walk I got the courage to go back and do it but was told it was now too late. I tended to do that a lot when I was a child, I remember being offered a chance to go on a trampoline at a village fete when we first entered and not wanting to until we had circled the whole field and came back to it, by which time it was too busy. Remembering that it sometimes takes a child a while to make such decisions and they can feel terrible when they have missed an opportunity, I remember that with the seven-year old in our house and always make sure he has a second chance. People may argue this encourages prevarication, but I argue it promotes reflection on what we truly want rather than insisting people make snap decisions.

The other trip was to see the castle of Fort La Latte (not 'Alatte' as Christopher Coonce-Ewing has it in his Medieval History Through Film essay on the movie 'The Vikings' ), near Plévenon. This was used for the climax of the movie, 'The Vikings' (1958) starring Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas in which the Vikings attack an English castle. For more on the castle see: Its motto is in Breton 'Me zo ganet e kreiz er mor' or 'I was born in the middle of the sea' as it is constructed on an island at the end of a headland and is reached only by a bridge, once a drawbridge. The first castle was constructed in 931 CE but the stone one dates from the 14th century built by the lords of Goyon and Mantignon and in 1715 was converted to be used as a coastal defence fort when it gained its current name. When we went there even 14 years after the movie had been made, the battering ram used in the closing scenes was still there, abandoned by the path and I remember with a small lizard on it. The view as you walk along the path to the headland is memorable with the castle against the background of the sea, you can see why they chose it over a British location.

Anyway, those are my memories of a couple of holidays in Sables-d'Or that owed something to the 1970s but also to the heritage of French hotels and holiday resorts dating back to earlier in the 20th century. Given how many of my holidays have gone wrong, it is nice to remember ones in which I can remember minimal problem and a lot of pleasant experiences.

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