Fabulous France.

Village life in the Vendée agreed with us.

The Vendée charmed us so much that we’re already planning a return at the end of our sabbatical.  It wasn’t just the fantastic food, the spectacular sights, or the warm welcome. The French have a way of doing everything properly, and while in Paris this can sometimes translate into an aggressive attitude towards tourists who lack savoir vivre this was entirely absent in the Vendée. We were utterly enamoured and have left with ideas about gracious living that we’ll try to sustain during the rest of our travels. French fashion, food, and grooming have some elements of conspicuous display, but beneath that is an attitude that the best way to do anything is to do it properly, something we can embrace even while living out of one suitcase each. We didn’t leave toting Louis Vuitton bags stocked with Louboutin shoes and Chanel clothes, though I did pick up my favourite Guerlain cream and a head of shiny, healthy hair thanks to the village’s coiffeuse, Samuel is now the proud owner of a proper Breton stripe top from Petit Bateau, and Patrick has the same t-shirt worn by French handballers.  What we took away from France is so much more than these few useful souvenirs of a wonderful month.

The bakeries.

Boding rather ill for the 15 or so countries we’ve yet to discover on this trip, Sam has determined that French food is the best in the world, and our destinations will be measured largely by how far they fall short of this ideal. He has especially strong opinions on the ideal baguette, noting that our first post-France baguette was “a little disappointing.” I don’t think we’ll bother trying to come close to the deliciousness of any of the pastries that we got into the habit of picking up each morning to fuel our pre-lunch adventures. We’ll just have to keep missing them until can see our favourite boulangère again, the one who got to know Sam’s tastes so well that she could tell me which kind of baguette he prefers and what quantity of each kind of pastry I’d need. She gave him the fondest farewell when we stopped in for a final order, and I know that when we go back she and Sam will greet each other as old friends.

The restaurants.

French fine cuisine is rightly famous, but even the more family-friendly restaurants offer carefully prepared, reasonably priced meals. We discovered our absolute favourite in Les Sables d’Olonne, a beach town about an hour from our gîte in Mortagne. We liked Fleurs de Thym so much that we made the journey even when the weather wasn’t especially conducive to day out at the town’s perfect beach.  The small table d’hôte menu is an excellent way to sample this kind of delicious, unpretentious French cooking, but our favourite meal of all was the amazing seafood platter prepared by Pauline, who became Sam’s French crush. Coached by Pauline, Sam learned to wield the numerous special implements provided with the platter, cracking the shells of the langoustines, coaxing the escargots out of their shells, and prying open the clams with a deft twist. Much as he enjoyed playing with the seafood, for eating he was more partial to the steak hâché with steamed vegetables,  “impeccable,” as he charmingly reported to our server.

The fun.

The beach at Les Sables d’Olonne was fantastic, and well equipped with parasols, lounge chairs, and the possibility of a cold beer between dips in the gentle waves of the Atlantic. It was a welcome change of pace in an itinerary that mainly featured castles and theme parks. Our French fling began with a surprise for Sam, who was completed thrilled when our short drive from Charles de Gaulle airport ended at a place that he didn’t even know existed: Disneyland Paris. Forget what you’ve heard about this Disney being inferior to others, with worse service than Orlando and worse food than anywhere else in Paris. Both criticisms are true, but we had an amazing time anyway – and if the overexuberant Disneyness of Orlando gets on your nerves you might actually prefer this one. Because we’d rented a car for the month we were able to stay at Disney’s Davy Crockett ranch, a collection of faux-rustic cabins a short drive away from the park (with free parking there). It was considerably less expensive than the onsite hotels, with none of their overexcited-overtired-children-in-the-hallway-screeching, and gave us the advantage of two bedrooms and a kitchen, which we stocked with breakfast items and post-park snacks. We loved the ranch and hope to return when we’re back in France. Although Disneyland Paris is small in comparison to Orlando, it had enough to keep us interested for three days and seemed at least equal to Disneyworld in California.

The edutainment.

Disneyland ranks as France’s number one theme park, but number two, which combines entertainment and education, held our attention for the entire month. Puy du Fou tells the story of les Vendéens in a series of spectacular performances, pitting them against opponents ranging from the Vikings to the Germans and even the Roman empire’s full gladiatorial arsenal of foreigners, felines, and flames.  This was the main reason for our decision to settle in the Vendée for the month, and it did not disappoint. Armed with season passes allowing us to visit as often as we wanted, we managed to see every show at least once and our favourites multiple times. We were surprised that the dinner show we took in featured performers speaking in an antique accent so close to Quebecois that we could understand every word without straining our ears. Tiffauges, the medieval castle of the Vendée’s infamous Bluebeard (Gilles de Rais), was another version of this edutainment, more intimate and less spectacular but well worth half a day’s visit. We also enjoyed Cheverny, a castle in the Loire Valley, but it was a long drive from Mortagne and we’d recommend a stay in Tours or the region for those interested in seeing Cheverny, Chaumont, Chenonceau, and the many other spectacular Loire Valley castles. A favourite non-castle attraction was the Machines de l’île in Nantes, a fantastic example of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) in action. I’ve been involved in STEAM activities in Ottawa and have seen some incredible projects, but les Machines are definitely the most charming. When the shipbuilding industry collapsed in Nantes and the old shipyards were left derelict, the city entertained offers for a worthy replacement. Inspired by the area’s technological past (after all, shipbuilding was at one time the height of technological innovation) and its cultural connections (notably its associations with the writer Jules Verne) the machinists proposed an interactive museum inhabited by larger-than-life mechanical versions of Verne’s creatures. The most famous of these is the triple-sized mechanical elephant that takes tourists around the old shipyards, but inside the museum there are a few other creatures that constitute the first wave of a project that will eventually be an enormous metal tree covered in growing plants and mechanical insects that people can ride. Because Sam was pretty much the only kid around that day, he was invited to demonstrate the mechanical caterpillar, ant, and spider, all of which tickled and delighted him. Aboard the elephant, he was so fascinated by its inner workings that the attendant allowed him the unusual privilege of using the steam power to make the elephant squirt water and trumpet through its enormous trunk.

The accommodations.

We were really happy with the gîte we rented for the month. The Moulin de Pilet is an ancient water mill on the banks of the Sèvre, with two bedrooms, a mezzanine set up to serve as a third bedroom, a fantastic greatroom with tv, a fireplace, and a wood stove, a large, well-equipped kitchen, and great outdoor space including a barbecue and, just outside the garden gate, access to a perfect fishing spot and a walking loop through the forest that we enjoyed for our evening constitutional if the day’s activities hadn’t yielded enough exercise.  The Moulin was very conducive to work and I managed to write two articles, a grant proposal, and a substantial section of my book during our at-home days and half days. Sam progressed with his home schooling, and Patrick found that he had the right setup to play D&D with his friends during the small hours, joining them via the internet for their game nights. We were also shocked to find that even for under 100 Euros, the hotel we booked for our final night in France purely based on its proximity to the airport, the Hyatt Regency Charles de Gaulle, was utterly excellent.  We barely had a chance to enjoy its amenities before our early flight to Rome the next morning, but the friendly welcome (especially from Brian, the concierge) and clean, comfortable room almost made us decide to cancel our onward plans.  We’ll definitely stay there again when our travel plans take us to Charles de Gaulle airport.

The health care system.

The Vendée’s parting gift to us was Patrick’s overnight stay in the Hôpital de Cholet, about ten minutes away from our gîte in Mortagne. He’d been awake the night before in a cold sweat with heart palpitations that continued through the day. Although he’d had palpitations years ago and had been told they were benign, he was having additional symptoms that made us think it would be a good idea to have them checked out while we were in a country that could understand us. The experience was completely positive, especially since in the end he was given a clean bill of health and sent on his merry way with a prescription for beta blockers in case the symptoms recurred. He was well fed and coddled by friendly nurses in a pleasant-smelling room, on a ward that was quiet and calm. He was given two ECGs and an ultrasound, two sets of blood tests, and monitoring overnight, and was seen by the cardiologist as well as the regular ER doctors. If there had been something seriously wrong I would have been glad for it to happen in France, where the health care is excellent, but luckily there wasn’t and so we continued on our merry way with hardly a blip in our plans.

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