Two things I wish there were more of in France: pubs and cream teas. Not necessarily in that order.
So, when we found out that there is a British tea room in a nearby town, we both raised our pinkies and said, “Yes, please!” A couple of weeks earlier, Cherie was at the market talking with a local farmer who suggested that we check out a little café in the town near his farm where they offer cakes and tea. He probably assumed we were English. Most people here do. I guess, to them, our accents are indistinguishable from the British. So, naturally, he thought we would be eager to try this place out. Even though he was slightly off the mark about our origins, our farmer friend was spot-on about our love of a good tea room. Plus, he raises excellent pigs resulting in very tasty porc and sausage. Clever man.
A bit of detective work revealed that the café was named Le Patis. We’re still not quite sure what it means in French. On reference suggests it means a type of fish sauce. But that seems … doubtful in this context. Another indicates that it can refer to pastries. More likely, I think. And yet another source I found indicated that it defines a region in eastern Bretagne/western Mayenne and Loire, known as Le Patis Haut – essentially the area which once roughly formed the marches between oft-independent Bretagne and the kingdom of France. The café is located within this area. Maybe the name is meant to be a double-entendre of these two latter meanings. That, too, would be clever.
With dreams of jammy scones and hot brown water* dancing through our heads, Cherie and I drove northeast about 25 minutes to the small town of Landivy. That day, we had to weave in and out of one of the many bicycle races that stretch along the country lanes. In France, you never know when you’re going to encounter one, no matter far out in the country you find yourself. Bicycle races seem to happen spontaneously here. Like rain, or caterpillar parades. This was on a Tuesday. Unfortunately for us (and our dreams of overdosing on clotted cream), we found the café closed. We read the sign in the window with long faces: Le Patis is only open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons. Of course it is. Occasionally, we revert to our old expectations that businesses are open all day, all of the week, forgetting that we’re in France. Silly us.
Sullen, we drove back home, made our own tea, and regrouped. We had deliveries to receive and work to do on our newest addition to the empire for the remainder of the week. So, on the following week, we scheduled out a Thursday and off we drove to Landivy again. There were no bicycles to dodge this time. A good sign. And, sure enough, we arrived to find Le Patis open and welcoming, full of customers jonesing for a proper tea.
A quick word about tea in France. The French drink it, though they, like Americans, generally prefer coffee. Although one can find black tea without too much trouble, they tend to drink tisane (herbal infusion) teas. Because of this, they seem to find the concept of putting milk in tea to be a bit odd. When we order it in restaurants, we have to repeatedly ask for milk with our tea. Even when they eventually bring the milk, it is in a thimble. Hardly enough for even one cup. So, it can be a little frustrating to order a cup of black tea in France. It’s always an interesting experience though.
Le Patis is a pleasant tea shop run by two partners originally from the U.K. Both were very nice and they both took time out to have a good chat with all of their customers. Customers who, as far as we could tell, were all British except for a pair who sounded as though they were either Canadian or American. Interesting. It must be a magnet for all English-speaking expats in the area. We had some fine tea and enjoyed some excellent scones and cake. In fact, they had several different scones (sweet and savory) and cakes to choose from. Not wanting to limit ourselves to just one type of cake, we selected a couple of slices of other cakes to take home with us. As you do. To top it off, Le Patis was selling a variety of commemorative items for the upcoming coronation of King Charles III. So, yeah, we scooped up a pair of mugs and matching coasters too. Long may he reign!
Our visit to the tea shop in Landivy was a pleasant afternoon’s diversion. No doubt, it will become a regular break for us. I suppose we’re pretty lucky in that respect. We get to enjoy the wonders of a life in France while having a bit of the U.K on our doorstep as well. Now, if I could just find a cozy pub …
*That’s for all of you smug, coffee-drinking Ted Lasso fans out there. A funny joke, but hardly fair. I mean, isn’t coffee also just hot brown water? [Please keep your angry responses to less than fifty words. Thank you.]
“Finally!”, you say. “We’re tired of talk about your house and your neighborhood. Surely there’s more to France than you’ve shown us so far.” It’s a fair critique. Frankly, we’re a bit tired of it too. It feels like we’ve been shut in for months. Oh, that’s right. We HAVE been shut in. The general purpose excuse is, of course, Covid-19. The knock-on effect of this is that I haven’t had much in the way of sightseeing material for blog posts. So, admittedly, my posts have been a bit thin on the ground. Apologies if this has been a disappointment. Or, you’re welcome, if you were enjoying a reprieve from my writing. Whatever the case may be, I’m not sure how long I can keep blaming my shortcomings on global pandemics (damn miraculous vaccines!) so I’m going to have to step up my game – one way or the other.
Today, we made a relatively short drive westward to Château Ballue. This was all Cherie’s idea. She’s been wanting to visit some local gardens for some time now. And today was perfect for such an outing. The weather has been miserable for the past couple of weeks, but the forecast was good and we decided to chance it.
Thirty minutes of wheeling through pleasant countryside dotted with old farms and the occasional small village brought us to our destination: a large, lovely stone house set high on a south-facing slope overlooking the valley through which the Couesnon River flows on its way to the bay of Mont Saint-Michel. The current Château Ballue was finished in the 1620 after the owner (a tax collector) tore down the original medieval fortress in order to build his swanky new house. It has attracted the best and the brightest over the centuries. Balzac and Chateaubriand were visitors there. Victor Hugo, too, stayed at Ballue and he wrote the first lines of his novel Ninety-Three (Quatre-Vingt-Treize – yeah, don’t even get me started on French numbers) while there. And who can blame them. It’s a beautiful house in a setting. Particularly the gardens.
And the gardens are what we came for. The house itself is privately owned but run as a hotel and spa. The gardens, however, are open to the public. For a fee. The ticket price is actually a bit steep – €9.50. At least we had the consolation that the money goes toward maintaining an historic, beautiful house and grounds. Worth it.
The gardens are beautiful and varied. Set over 2 hectares (5 acres), the garden is partitioned into several “rooms”. Some feature particular species. Others, themes. While yet others are more about the function of the space. So, for example, there is a lovely fern grove, a grove of scented plants, a green theater, a labyrinth, a music grove, a temple of Diana. They are all nicely done, creative and well-kept. We enjoyed a long afternoon of strolling amongst pleasant plantings and a soundscape of trickling fountains and energetic songbirds.
The largest single space at Château Ballue is the classical garden, à la française, occupying a south-facing terrace possessing a serene panorama of the fields and woodlands of the Couesnon Valley below. The classical garden is by far the most formal, structured design. And logically so, as it forms the rear space of the château, mirroring the regular, linear orders of the 17th century architecture. Quite beautiful. To be sure, this is a country manor garden. Elegant but understated. It doesn’t attempt grandeur or intricate design such as might be found at a more grand and less provincial château or palace. To my mind, that’s as it should be. The notes are hit firmly, pleasingly, but without flourish or pretense. Just as one would expect in a moderate stately home in the provinces of France.
Below the house are a couple of ponds with several breeds of ducks, geese and chickens. Nothing exceptional, but we enjoyed it nonetheless. The garden walk brings you back up to the other side of the château and back to where we started. Full circle.
At this point, two things became urgent. Firstly, I had to pee. But a very close second was the need for tea and cake. Both of which were on offer at the tea room on the grounds – tea and cake, that is. Cherie selected a table under a large awning while I raced away to take care of that other urgent matter. Ballue offers a very nice tea room and we took full advantage. Cherie chose Ceylon and almond cake, while I went with trusty old Assam and pear cake. Excellent choices all around. The sun was out but the temperature was moderate as we whiled away a good hour over a laden table looking out to the front of the château and the garden set out before it. The bees were buzzing in the roses and potted herbs, and the birds were chittering away at each other as they went about their birdy business. And we two companions-for-life talked about everything and nothing while sipping tea and sharing each other’s cakes. Heaven.
A day out in the gardens at Château Ballue with tea and scrumptious cakes at the end. What’s not to love?
This week was a perfect example of why we moved to Europe.
A few days ago, Cherie’s sister, Kasi, let it be known that she and her family would be travelling to Cork, Ireland and “would we like to visit with her there?” Kasi, her husband Wayne and their daughter live in South Africa so it’s a rare opportunity when we get to see them. Of course we said yes. Plus, it was Ireland. So how could we say no?
Now that we live in France, it’s so much easier to drop everything and heave off to somewhere else amazing in Europe. Being retired doesn’t hurt either. So when we got the call, we were able to book a flight and a hotel. Our generous neighbors in Malestroit agreed to watch Saxon (thank you Jean and Adrian!). Simple. We could never have done this from Seattle.
The only stressful thing was flying. Cherie is terrified of flying. But despite her fear, she never hesitates to go. I think it’s very brave of her. I’m not convinced I would be so willing to face my fear if I was faced with the same situation. Take-off’s and landings are always the worst for her. She clamps on to my hand with an iron grip until we’re either safely in the air or on the ground. For my part, I just count myself lucky that I’m the one whose hand she chooses to crush.
We landed in Cork on a drizzly day but we received a warm and sunny welcome from Kasi, her husband Wayne, and their daughter Finn. After settling in at the Metropole Hotel downtown, we took an afternoon walkabout. Cork is a lovely city, centered on an island created by two channels of the river Lee and crawling up the slopes of the river valley to either side. The original name for Cork was corcaigh, a derivation of the gaelic word for a marsh. Quite an old city, it began as the site of a monastery in the 6th century. This academic aspect of Cork has run throughout its history and today it’s the home of several universities, colleges and technical schools. Students are everywhere and make for a vibrant atmosphere. Definitely our kind of town.
Along with the many public houses, cafes and restaurants, the shopping is great too. We were on the hunt for a present for Finn and found just the thing: a princess dress with unicorns and matching tights. Finn is in a princess phase right now so this was a perfect gift for Her Highness.
The English Market (an irony which is definitely not lost on Corkonians, given their long and turbulent history with England) is a fabulous covered market hall. There we found a great variety of goods for sale, from fish, to poultry, spices, cheeses, produce and so much more. It is brilliant. I have to say, here, that I found it to be a better market overall than our beloved Pike Place market in Seattle. Sorry, Pike Place, but this place has a little bit of an edge, despite the lack of fish-tossing. But, who knows? The English Market had at least a one hundred year head-start. Give Pike Place another century and see how they compare then. Just like Seattle’s, this market is well-loved by locals; it was buzzing on a Tuesday afternoon and we had a great time exploring its warrens.
Did you know that Beamish beer was first brewed in Cork in the latter 18th century? You’re a well-educated beer lover, so of course you did. I happen to love Irish beers. Always have. So it was with relish that I finally had the opportunity to quaff a couple (okay, several) pints of their brewing genius. First off was a lovely pull of Beamish at the Roundy, a lovely little pub housed in, well, a round-fronted building. The Irish certainly have a gift for descriptive prose. It was bliss and I enjoyed every last drop. Later, at our hotel, Wayne treated me to some beautiful Guinness. As far as I was concerned, my trip was complete!
A brisk walk up the valley side to the north took us to the Cork City Gaol, now an interesting museum documenting the history of this institution. It was built in the early 19th century and ceased operation as a jail in 1923. For a long time it housed both men and women. It was not until 1878 when it became the exclusive domain of female offenders. When it was built, the Gaol was considered to be a much more humane environment, offering better sanitation, light, and comfort. This new design emphasized correction and reform, the intent to reintroduce the inmates into society as improved characters. In the 19th century view, this was accomplished by whipping, isolation, hours of forced exercise, work and religious instruction. You will not be surprised to learn that many of their guests were repeat customers. We all found it to be a really well-done museum, although their choice of a mannequin representing a 10-year old girl inhabiting a cell proved to be pretty creepy; her haunting eyes staring out from behind the bars completely freaked out Cherie and Kasi. Hilarious.
In the evening we all gathered for dinner at Blackrock Castle, a 16th century fort built to protect the harbor and port from pirates. As you can see, it’s beautiful. We had a lovely dinner and chatted away for hours. Wayne’s mother, Noreen, proved to be a bad influence on me as she kept filling my glass with the bottles of Malbec which Kasi had chosen for us. A gorgeous vintage. Noreen and I certainly drank our share before the evening came to a close and we took our separate taxis home.
The next day we were joined by Kasi and Finn as we took the hop-on/hop-off bus around the town. Cherie and I are not generally ones for tours, but this time it turned out to be a good way for the four of us to cover a lot of ground without exhausting ourselves. One highlight was the Shandon Bells. In the Shandon neighborhood of Cork is the Church of St. Anne which has a lovely bell tower topped by an enormous weather vane in the shape of a salmon. It also contains a huge clock mechanism which, apparently, was the largest in Europe until the construction of Big Ben in London. Locals call it the Four-Faced Liar because each of the clock faces display a slightly different time because of the wind which affects the movement of the hands.
All of us – even Finn – climbed up the very steep and difficult stairway to the parapet above the clock. At various points we had to climb, bend, twist and contort our way through in order to reach the top. The view from the parapet was fantastic, I’m told. I, having a formidable fear of heights, kept well back from the parapet wall. How I managed to take this photograph I’ll never know. Another unique aspect about visiting the tower is that they allow you to ring the bells at any time of the day. There are several numbered pull cords, their numbers corresponding to a songbook nearby so one can play a variety of different tunes. Or try to. It’s not easy, but plenty of fun to try. Somehow I doubt that the church’s neighbors maintain such a sense of amusement about it.
One of the few things we are missing in France is a proper afternoon tea. So we jumped at the opportunity to have tea at our hotel after the bus tour. Chicken curry, cucumber and smoked salmon sandwiches, scones with strawberry jam and cream, little chocolate and strawberry cream cakes with macarons; it was brilliant. Throw in several cups of tea and we were very happy indeed. Aaaaahhhh!
Finn is approaching her sixth birthday. For all of her patience throughout the day, she was in need of some fun on her own terms. The solution? Chuckie’s of course. A huge warehouse-sized kids play place, this children’s nirvana was the perfect consolation for a young girl who had been stuck with three adults all day.
On our last evening in Cork we congregated at Noreen’s house in Bishopstown for dinner. With provisions we purchased at the English Market, Kasi masterminded an excellent supper of steamed sea bass, mushroom risotto, and salad with spinach, arugula (rocket), pepitas and fresh lemon juice dressing. Lubricated with generous measures of Guinness and wine, we were a happy household of diners. Many thanks to Noreen for so warmly inviting us into her lovely home and to Kasi and Wayne for treating us to a really nice meal.
Sadly, we had to leave Cork the morning of the next day. But before we did, we indulged in yet another pleasure which I, in particular, have missed since moving to France: breakfast. Yes, the French have a morning meal. But it tends to be quite small and sparse. Just some bread, butter and a cup of coffee, s’il vous plaît. If one is feeling extravagant, perhaps the addition of some fruit or a pain au chocolat. Which is all well and good. But I love a good breakfast. And one of my favorites is a full English or, in this case, Irish breakfast. Eggs, mushrooms, a rasher of bacon, sausage, tomato, baked beens, hash brown potatoes, and black and white puddings. So good! It was the most food I’ve eaten in one sitting in quite some time. By the way, Cherie couldn’t care less about breakfast so she didn’t share the same rapture about the opportunity. She had the eggs florentine.
Our trip to Cork was wonderful. We were so glad to be able to spend quality time with Kasi and her family. As expected, the people of Cork were welcoming, friendly and energetic, and filled with good humor. The weather was a bit drippy and gloomy. But, so what? We’re used to that and it doesn’t bother us a bit. It was only three short days. If given half a chance, we would jump at the opportunity to go again. We’re ready to return. Anytime!