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Postcard from La Baule – Dogs, Darjeeling and DSK

August 29, 2011

The middle-aged man steps into the restaurant with his family in tow. He has a small dog on a lead. Suddenly, with an elegant flick of the wrist he whips the dog airborne in its harness like a yoyo on the end of a string. With a slightly surprised expression, the dog lands in the man’s arms. The family are seated at their table. The dog takes his place next to the man. Without being asked, the waiter brings an elegant dish of water for the dog.

We are in La Baule. It’s a seaside resort at the mouth of the Loire valley in southern Brittany. Every year thousands of Brits head for France in their Volvos and Thule luggage capsules on the roof rack. They don’t come to La Baule. Most are headed for the Dordogne or Provence. Brittany is too like Cornwall for most of my compatriots, who seek warmer climes and the sunflowers and lavender fields of the south.

We are on our way south as well, but we decided to stop off at La Baule for a few days on our way. We had spent a weekend there many moons ago, and wanted to introduce our younger daughter to its charms.

La Baule is French posh. Unlike Le Touquet and Deauville, its rivals on the north-east coast of France, the British influence is light. As far as I’m aware, King Edward VII never took the waters here. By French posh, I mean that it’s ridiculously expensive, and seemingly full of well-heeled Parisian exiles.

Clones of Dominique Strauss-Kahn – the satyr of French politics – silver-haired and serpentine, stroll down the promenade in immaculately ironed white shorts, with navy sweaters casually wrapped across their shoulders. There are very few baldies in La Baule. All the men – apart from me – appear to have a full head of hair – among those of a certain age, dyed, or otherwise magnificent DSK silver.

Accompanying the men are middle-aged ladies who look as if they have spent a couple of hours preparing for the beach – not to swim, but to show themselves off. Designer clothes from their painted toenails to their immaculately coiffed and highlighted hair. Even the elderly shuffle around in panama hats, aping, it would seem, the patriarchs staring sternly from the photos of a century ago to be found in some of the more genteel restaurants. And hunchbacked old ladies gingerly stepping their way to the market, looking like matriarchs from Jean de Floret.

Then there are the dogs. No elderly or middle-aged couple would be seen without one. Usually a small animal – a Yorkshire Terrier or Jack Russell, and often in the arms of the owner. When walking to the restaurant area I marvelled at how clean the streets appeared. Where do the doggies poo? Only in daylight does the answer reveal itself. Everywhere. The concept of a poop scoop does not appear to have crossed the channel. But the municipality seems to be very efficient in removing the canine detritus on a regular basis, and at least the owners have the courtesy to make sure their dogs do their thing up against the apartment walls rather than the middle of the pavement.

Bigger dogs lurk in the gardens of the sturdy Victorian villas behind the beachfront. Dobermans, Alsatians and English setters, prowling around their domains and barking furiously at anyone rash enough to walk past their front gates.

Further down the food chain are the young men and women – again designer-clad. The guys in stylish long shorts and “real” polo shirts. The girls anorexic thin with skin-tight tops and jeans.

And of course there are les enfants. To aaahs and oohs from my wife and daughter, the little ones traipse past dressed in their cute outfits that must have cost a bus-driver’s monthly salary to buy from one of the up-market Parisian children’s boutiques.

The architecture of La Baule seems locked not in one but two time warps. Across the seafront are block after block of apartments that could have been built at any time over the past sixty years. The sole criterion provided to their architects seems to have been balconies and big windows. The same as you will find in every French resort. All have seen better days, except possibly the grand Edwardian hotel that offers its guests the joys of thalassotherapy – various things done to you with  sea water, kelp and mud – as well as the usual battery of new age pampering that appeals so much to the pill-popping hypochondria of the monied French. Colons irrigated, mudpacks and cucumbers, hot stones on naked spines – that sort of thing.

Behind the fading apartments on the seafront lies another time warp. Streets of sturdily-constructed villas that seem to have been designed under the influence of absinthe, the hallucinogenic liqueur beloved of fin de siècle artists like Toulouse Lautrec. Mini-chateaux with grey-slated conical spires and rough stone battlements. Gothic follies with exotic names and brightly painted inscriptions. Small gardens patrolled by  – you guessed it – fierce guard dogs.

Our hotel was slightly set back from the beach, but still offered views of the sea, as well as views of a block whose cheerful blue façade was somewhat degraded by smudgy mould brought on by decades of exposure to the moist sea breezes. The hotel décor was stuck in the 1970s. It reeked of respectability – rather like Fawlty Towers, though happily without the malign influence of Basil, Sybil and gang. In fact the owners were delightful – a mother and son who did their best to meet our strange English needs. “You need a kettle? Er, of course.” Long pause. “But you will not be boiling milk in it, will you?”

So what’s to do in La Baule? Well if you were us, you could sit in cafes people-watching. Or you could go for bracing walks down the promenade, and think about going for a swim in the sea. We never got beyond the thinking on that one. Our excuse was the rotten weather – chilling breezes and regular downpours – that has plagued the resort throughout the peak season. Then you could experience the French take on English seaside gentility – the Salon de Thé. The one around the corner from us was a replica of an English teashop from the 1930s. Floral wallpaper, delicate chairs, wooden dressers and a captivating array of cakes beckoning from a central table. Oh, and at least twenty types of tea. All overseen by a fragile lady who would not look out of place in an Agatha Christie murder mystery.

Or if you were one of the well-heeled French visitors, you could spend an agreeable three-hour lunch at one of the wickedly expensive restaurants, then place the dog temporary care while you visit the spa to ease which ever ailments you spent lunch discussing. A couple of aperitifs on your balcony, followed by an equally long dinner – dog in tow of course – and finally a session at the casino where you drop a few hundred euros and are reminded of those ailments that require urgent attention at the spa the following morning. Unless, of course, you happen to be one of those silver-haired roués in town for a discreet weekend with the mistress and a packet of Viagra, in which case I’ll leave the rest of the evening to your imagination.

Whatever your nationality or social status, a visit to the market is obligatory. It’s easy to find. You just follow the stream of old ladies with empty bags, or those returning with fresh baguettes. Many French towns have open-air markets once or twice a week. In La Baule it was open every day. Stalls selling clothes, shoes, second-hand books, oriental carpets and roasted chickens on spits. Bars, cafes, patisseries and charcuteries. And in the centre, the permanent food market that reminds you that there are alternatives to antiseptic supermarkets. Counters full of gleaming fruit and vegetables. Others packed with examples of the exotic ways in which the French use every piece of an animal that can possibly be eaten. Pigs trotters, foie gras, tongues, intestines and brains. Finally, since this is a seaside town, seafood counters with bright-eyed fish, oysters, crabs, tanks of mussels and piles of live lobsters squirming in indignation at the string binding their massive claws tightly together.

As you emerge loaded with produce, you will even find – weather permitting – an earnest young man at an upright piano playing Debussy and Satie for the lines leading to the patisserie or the cashpoint machine. Busking La Baule-style.

This was affluent France at play. No whiff of the inner city banlieux here. Barely a black face, let alone a hijab, in sight. I have no idea of the town’s political inclinations, but it struck me as the kind of fantasy France that Jean-Marie Le Pen and his far-right supporters might view as their natural stamping ground.

The good bits? A beach to die for, a magnificent market and the endless amusement of watching the self-conscious urban bourgeoise strutting their stuff. The bad bits? Ridiculous prices in the restaurants, the odd surly waiter for whom you were merely passing trade, never to return, and a sense that although you were in a very French resort, this was not a France known to most of the country’s diverse population.

Three days in La Baule were quite enough. We packed up our car and set off for the south – to medieval villages, rolling fields and real chateaux. No less France than La Baule, but the France that my Norman-English ancestors fought to retain, now colonised by thousands of Brits who own or rent refurbished barns and cowsheds beside the rivers and across the fertile plains of Charante, Dordogne and Gascony.

Much as I love Brittany as whole for its wild coastline and its rich Celtic heritage, I don’t think we’ll be passing by La Baule again anytime soon. Too genteel for my taste, though it didn’t seem so last time we visited. Maybe we’ve changed more than it has.

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