Thursday 31st October 2013, Dinan, Cote d’Armor
Today we did nothing we expected to and lots of things we were not expecting to do. That’s the delight of travelling.
Leaving Modestine beneath a beech tree on the campsite we walked down the lane to a footpath winding for a kilometre or so through woodland down to the sea. Several trees were down, evidence of the recent gales, but the path was free of anything more than leaf litter. A tiny stream accompanied us, flowing out onto the beach and becoming lost amongst the grey pebbles before it ever reached the sea. A man with a dog and a bucket was wading around amongst the rocks. We asked what he was looking for and he waxed lyrical about the quality of the oysters to be found amongst the rocks. They were indeed huge and if you like oysters you could have a free banquet! After he’d disappeared round the rocks we rummaged amongst the many empty shells littering the beach and chanced on a damaged one that we managed to prise open. It didn’t look in the least bit inviting and there seemed quite a lot of slimey goo involved. We left it for a passing gull to enjoy. Ian took a photo of the beach, mainly because it made him think of an appropriate caption. It wasn’t the loveliest beach we’ve seen in Brittany but we had it to ourselves apart from hundreds of huge oysters tucked into crevices amongst the rocks and a few seagulls – and a man with a dog and bucket of course.
We returned through the woods to collect Modestine and fell into conversation with the campsite owner who was still clearing up after the storm. He was soon telling us exactly what the French think of M. Holland and it was not good. After about a year in office he has the support of less than 25% of the electorate. No wonder Sarkozi is winding everyone up in the press about a come-back at the next election! We naively said we didn’t understand how the French economy worked as so few people ever seemed to be in employment. He told us he couldn’t see how it worked either and that it was completely unsustainable. In a couple of years from now France would be in the same situation as Greece is. He explained about the taxation system with particular reference to campsite management. He said taxes had risen rapidly under Holland and were the highest they’d ever been and yet the national debt was also rising faster than ever. Immigration was a major problem he felt. France has open borders as a member of the Shengen agreement (Britain is not a member) so those from Eastern Europe can arrive in France and even without papers they have the right to free health care, education and access to financial assistance. He said exactly the same things as our friend in Munich said with regard to the Turkish guest workers in Germany - that first generation immigrants arrive and are so grateful for the help they receive that they work hard, gain respect and status, buy a home and bring up their children. He says it is the second generation who are frequently the ones that assume they have the right to be supported by the French/German government without the necessity to work.
He feels that it is wrong that anyone losing their job has benefits equal to 80% of their previous income for three years, even if they were a highly paid football star or chairman of a major company. Once three years are up a person can get a job for a few months and they have the right to another three years of benefits. He told us it is wrong and completely unsustainable for the economy of the country. He says France wants to help people to find their feet and begin a new life, but not by supporting them so they don’t need to work or give anything back to French society. Aid should be seen as a temporary support, not as a right. He was not your average Frenchman in a rage and letting off steam about the taxes he paid to support immigrants, be they from North Africa or Eastern Europe. As he shovelled leaves into his wheelbarrow and prepared to drain the swimming pool for the season he explained that although he ran a campsite and dealt with drains, fallen trees, blocked loos and takeaway meals for campers, he was also a teacher. We asked what he taught and he explained he was a lecturer in finance!! He said he ran classes for adults and most of his students were professionals. He had several qualified engineers who were studying finance in connection with their professional qualifications. Well if he doesn’t understand how the French fiscal system operates there is small chance we will ever work it out!
We left feeling elated that we’d had such an interesting and informative conversation and coped happily with the French, but we were concerned at the dire situation of Europe’s economy. For the first time I begin to wonder whether not having monetary union with the rest of Europe is really such a bad thing. Squabbling in the British parliament about the increase in fuel prices seems trivial compared with the problems of unemployment and immigration faced here in mainland Europe.
Driving to Dinan we turned off the dual carriageway, continuing along the rural departmental roads. Passing through Plancoët, a town we’d never heard of, we discovered the supermarket had a restaurant attached. Experience has taught us these can be excellent and we were not disappointed. People who find it too far to return home for lunch and who don’t have a staff canteen head for the nearest supermarket and today we followed their example. For around £7 each we had an hors d’oeuvre and a main meal. You sort out whatever you fancy and pay a flat price at the checkout. For an extra euro each you can add coffee and/or a carafe of house wine. Our assorted salads were followed by fresh fish for me and a lamb tagine for Ian accompanied by mixed vegetables and French fries. If you are happy to dine with a cheery crowd of gabbling French citizens putting the national economy to rights over lunch and who prize value for money above pretentious ambience, supermarkets offer fantastic value. We have nothing like them back home where you make do with a Tesco’s pizza or a Morrison’s greasy all-day breakfast. French supermarkets will serve restaurant quality meals.
Feeling full and cheerful we went for a quick visit to the actual supermarket to top up on vegetables. As usual I got fascinated by the fish department. In this instance I was intrigued by a display of scallops and got a bit too near. Touching one with its shell open it snapped shut on me! This started an avalanche and they all began snapping shut! The entire display visibly quivered! Their hinges must be really strong as I definitely felt it on my finger!
Eventually we did reach Dinan were we checked out the municipal campsite. It was open so we could return to the centre knowing we had somewhere to sleep tonight. We parked Modestine along beside the river Rance, chaotic with roadworks where it passed below the town, and walked in towards the centre. We passed this way many years ago and had a glowing memory of cobbled streets leading down to the river between half-timbered houses dating from the 16th century. At the foot of one of the streets a narrow mediaeval bridge crosses the river. Today it was as our memories recalled but once up in the town we were astonished at how large Dinan has grown. There are still the old houses and picturesque streets but everywhere has expanded outwards and it is now quite a major town. It has though retained its charm and we wandered happily amongst the network of pretty buildings evocative of a bygone era. The reality though is that the streets are crowded with shoppers and visitors and they are almost gridlocked with cars. We were glad we’d left Modestine well out from the centre. It was quicker to walk into town than sit in a jam all afternoon.
The old town stands on a plateau above the river and is protected by a castle. We explored the ramparts with their rounded towers – one ignominiously providing a place for a carrousel or roundabout, very popular with children on half-term holiday. We visited the two main churches, of St. Malo and St. Sauveur. This latter has the heart of Bertrand du Guesclin, a 15th century knight who fought against the English and who is still praised for his valour in Dinan. Behind the church there is a garden in the English style and a panorama from the ramparts down onto the lower town and along the river Rance.
Dusk falls noticeably earlier now and we did not want to find our way back to the campsite in the dark. In any case tonight is Halloween and there were quite a few groups of tiny witches wandering the town. They wore tall black hats, had green painted faces and carried pumpkins. They looked so terrifying we decided we’d best return immediately down to the Rance and escape in Modestine. We walked across the narrow bridge, weaving between the stationary cars that blocked it and wondering at the fast forming tailback of vehicles unable to cross the bridge because of an obstruction. On the far side a similar queue was waiting to cross in the opposite direction. Blocking the way for around fifty cars was a woman talking on her mobile phone and refusing to move back to allow the bridge to clear. She insisted she had priority and was not going to move for anyone! That’s the French attitude for you! People were getting out of their cars and shouting at her while she relayed it all to someone at the other end of her phone. We stopped to enjoy the show which lasted a good five minutes before people started pushing her vehicle back by force. Eventually she was squeezed back just enough to let those on the bridge get off but she then forced herself onto the bridge again rather than giving way to those on her right – in direct contravention of the weird French law that gives priority from the right regardless as to whether or not it is a minor side road. As she reached the far side of the bridge her way was blocked by people who thought they should have the priority to cross before her! We left them still blocking three roads, with traffic building up all along the riverside. Modestine was parked a kilometre or so further along the river and we’d already reached her before the first cars passed us, the tailback having finally been unblocked.
Tonight we were still too full to cook so dined on French bread and taramasalata with a glass of wine.
Thursday 31st October 2013, Dinan, Cote d’Armor