Monday 8 October 2018

A Change of Plan

Following a radical (and, frankly, inspired) change of plan, we never made it to Cognac, but instead turned West for Brittany – for Dinard specifically, where a hotel apparently had three single rooms available at a startlingly low price. Pausing only for oysters and Muscadet at a roadside huitrerie and a stroll around a headland known for its views, we made our way to Dinard, that old-fashioned, unspoilt, rather genteel resort that still has something of the flavour of its century-ago Anglo-French heyday. As did the hotel, which had more charm and character than any I've stayed at in years. That's the sitting room above, like something out of a Vuillard painting, and the breakfast verandah below, which commands a spectacular view across the bay to St Malo.
  There was nothing that could really be called walking, but we had a good look around St Malo – spectacular, if tourist-heavy – and the medieval walled town of Dinan, of which much the same could be said. Our peregrinations ended with a night at another hotel (equally good but quite different) near Fontevraud, where we dutifully inspected the Abbey, a building of great historical and antiquarian importance, but sadly lacking in atmosphere, let alone anything remotely numinous. Over the centuries, French restorers have done it over with typical Gallic thoroughness, leaving it stripped and scraped and depatinated, little more now than a prodigious barn. The 'interpretation' too is notably bad, telling you little you need or want to know and much you don't, and at one point featuring a creepy hologram of an actor pretending to be a medieval monk. The Abbey does, however, contain effigies of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard Coeur de Lion and Isabella of Angouleme, all of whom were buried there. Standing in the middle of the bare nave, they might as well be in a museum...
  The more I see of France, the more grateful I am for England's extraordinary wealth of parish churches. Leaving aside the abysmal architectural quality of so many small-town churches in France (and the habit, all too common in Catholic countries, of filling them with even worse furnishings and art), there is also the problem of what has been done over the centuries to even the more historic churches, many of which, like Fontevraux, survive as little more than impressive empty spaces, 'restored' to within an inch of their lives. This is partly the result of France's unfortunate history of religious upheavals, iconoclasm, political revolution and secularisation.  A church that has suffered the full French Revolutionary treatment is never going to be the same again. Nor, alas, is a church that has suffered the full French 'restoration' treatment, which so often amounts to a ruthless stripping down and/or an almost total reconstruction in a style deemed 'appropriate'. Even at their harshest and most programmatic, our English church restorers have seldom had such a destructive, deadening effect.
 But the French still have better hotels than us...


  1. In the words (almost) of W.C. Fields: I once spent a year in St Malo. I think it was a weekend in early March.

  2. Harsh, Waldo. Mind you – early March...