Two flying visits to Nice

Tim stopped in Nice for a night on his way to Corsica – see below. Oddly enough, Katy was there a week or two later (visiting the same friend) at the end of her trip along the Côte d’Azur.

We were very lucky to benefit from inside knowledge here! Our friend took us to an authentic local family-run restaurant right in the centre, which I would have passed by on the basis of its name – the Restaurant d’Angleterre (on account of its location at 25 Rue d’Angleterre). The food is decidedly traditionally French and there is a small outside terrace (though it’s wise to book ahead for that option: +33 4 93 88 64 49). It offers very reasonably priced two-course (16 euros) and three-course (21 euros) set menus as well as à la carte options.

Our friend also took us to a great traditional café in the Old Town, Les Distilleries Idéales at 24 Rue de la Préfecture. Great atmosphere and plenty of outside seating to watch the crowds.

Apart from these two ‘finds’, and Tim’s endorsement of Nice, the guide books will suffice. To state the obvious – Nice is, well – rather nice.

Tim’s take on Nice

In general I don’t much like the Côte d’Azur, that very congested and expensive strip of coast in southeastern France, populated by people with rather blingy tastes and leathery brown skin, but I will make an exception for Nice. Although it seems bizarre that it’s now France’s fifth largest city, given that nothing is actually made there, it is nevertheless a real city rather than a holiday resort, and there is enough to see and do all year round.

The modern city was built by aristocrats (and there are still lots of right-wingers living off unearned income here) – the British arrived soon after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, with the first Anglican church opening in 1821, and the Russians followed later in the century, Tsar Alexander II visited by train in 1864, as soon as the railway was opened. The Tsarevich Nicholas died here of cerebro-spinal meningitis in 1865 (aged just 21) and a chapel was built in 1867-8, on the exact spot where he died. By the 1890s this was Europe’s premier winter resort, with everyone from Queen Victoria to Nietzsche killing time in the very grand hotels then opening. A typically Russian orthodox cathedral, dedicated to St Nicholas (in memory of the Tsarevich, and funded by Tsar Nicholas II), was opened in 1912, to serve the large number of Russians now resident in Nice. Just five years later, the Russian Revolution meant that many of them were now penniless, counts and dukes driving taxis, for instance, to put food on the table; around the same time the post-Impressionist painters were discovering the light of the south, and Matisse moved to Nice in 1917.

At the airport, Easyjet put all the baggage from several arriving flights onto the same carousel, which is yet another cost-cutting idea from a no-frills airline that I would not have thought of. These flights arrive at Terminal 2, from where you can take a free shuttle to Terminal 1 and then walk a couple of hundred metres north to the main road to catch a city bus for €1.50 (including connections to anywhere in the city) – rather than paying €6 for the airport bus to the railway station. From the end of 2018 (although nobody believes this will happen on time) the second line of the city’s tramway will serve the airport, making the cheaper route to the city rather more visible. The first line used a novel battery system to cross the central Place Masséna without unsightly overhead power lines; the new line is actually going to be underground through the centre, which will make it massively more expensive and complicated. It’s great that the city is trying to move from a traffic-clogged nightmare (like Menton, where I’ll be later this summer) to somewhere with decent public transport (and trams = prestige for most French cities) – though most bus lines still seem to stop running around 9pm.

At the Libération stop on the first tram line, it’s worth mentioning the Gare du Sud, the former terminal of the the Chemin de Fer de Provence – a grand Neoclassical pile opened in 1892, with a train shed by the Eiffel company, this was replaced in 1991 by the drab little Nice CP station immediately to its west. It was intended for demolition, but protests eventually led to its being listed as a historic monument in 2002, and eventually refurbished and re-opened as a public library in 2014. Now an underground car park has been added and the train shed will open in mid-2018 as a shopping centre with cinemas and sports facilities.

The Musée des Beaux Arts is well worth a visit – the displays upstairs are far better than the dull ground floor – there’s a Rodin Kiss at the top of the stairs, a few Renaissance paintings by the likes of Paolo Veneziano, Martín de Soria and Cosimo Rosselli, as well as the 16th-century Anonyme Niçois, a rare sketch by Victor Hugo and Rodin’s bust of Hugo, some manga books by Hokusai and a 16m-long Chinese scroll of boats on the Yellow River (c.1756). The museum’s pride and joy, however, is its Post-Impressionist collection, notably Dufy and van Dongen, as well as Camoin, Kisling, Bonnard, Laurencin, Signac, Jongkind, Marquet and Guillaumin – there’s also the rather weird local symbolist Gustave-Adolphe Mossa (1883-1971), a bit like Ensor and Beardsley (and at times Klimt), but not as good.

The ticket, costing €10, actually gives 24 hours access to all 14 of the Musées de Nice, so I also swiftly visited the Musée Masséna (beautifully restored stately rooms with art and good exhibits on local history) and the Musée Matisse (in a 17th-century villa with a modern basement extension, and just enough art to give a perspective on his long career, though not much that’s really amazing). Up in Cimiez, this sits right between the Roman amphitheatre and the Roman baths, dating from the 3rd century AD when this was Cemenelum, capital of the province of Alpes Maritimae. There’s an archeological museum at the ruins, but I didn’t have time to visit. But if you can manage it you really should see the Tropaeum Alpium, a huge Roman monument that dwarfs the village of La Turbie, about 15km east of Nice; this was built c.6 BC to commemorate the emperor Augustus’s victory over the tribes of the Maritime Alps.

Food and drink

Apart from the Restaurant de l’Angleterre, recommended by Katy (above), it’s worth mentioning that the most traditional niçoise restaurants often have limited opening hours (often Monday-Friday only, some Monday-Friday lunchtimes only!) and don’t take bookings unless you call in when they’re open. Perhaps the best-known (positively boasting of its limitations) is La Merenda at 4 rue Raoul Bosio (Mon-Fri only, no phone, no credit cards) – but the food is superb, based on local dishes such as stockfish (dried cod simmered in tomatoes, onion & garlic), pasta with pistou (what Italians call pesto), ravioli stuffed with chard, tarte à la tomate, or beignets of courgette flowers.

Emilie et ses Cool Kids is a small chain of cafés with two branches in Nice, at 9 rue Alberti (city centre) and 1 rue de la Prefecture (old town) specialising in American-style muffins and bagels – they’re more or less the only places around where you’re welcome to linger for an hour over your laptop and one cup of coffee.

We also tracked down La Brasserie Artisanale de Nice at 14 Ave Villermont, where a very pleasant self-taught brewer from Alsace produces a range of just three standard beers (blonde, blanche, and ambrée) as well as seasonal specials – they’re all bright and clean-tasting, with some unusual notes. You can call in to taste and buy Tues-Fri 17.00-19.00, Sat 10.00-noon & 16.00-19.00. But beware of fake LBAN beer, especially up in Sospel, it seems.

Highlights of a six-day road trip along the Côte d’Azur.

If it’s Sunday it must be Marseille!
Getting there.

Not a lot of people know that one can take a Eurostar all the way from London to the South of France without changing trains!! The 07.15 from St Pancras arrives at Marseille St. Charles at 14.47 local time. I booked this train six months ahead and paid only £57 one way.

Marseille

The third largest town in France has lots to offer and it’s worth exploring on foot to take in not only the obvious tourist sites but also to see the seedier side which reflects the reality of a port city which is said to have the highest unemployment rate in France and whose youth demonstrates its frustrations virtually everywhere in the form of graffiti as political comment and protest. Street art is tolerated by the locals and some of the artists are well-known and use the wall spaces in rotation, thereby creating a running commentary of the tensions in the city.

Museums

We were lucky to arrive on the first Sunday of the month, the very day that all museums in the city are free of charge. So having dropped off our bags, we headed straight out and visited the well-signposted Le Panier (the old quarter) just north from the Old Port and up a steep hill criss-crossed by cobbled streets. Much of it is closed to road traffic from 11.30am onwards, with the exception of the Petit Train which can deliver you there from the Old Port and back for a couple of Euros. It stops at the Vieille Charitée, which was originally a poorhouse built between 1671 and 1749 and is made up of of a three-floored gallery looking over an inner courtyard with the centrepiece of an imposing domed chapel.

It now functions as a museum and cultural centre and I was particularly taken by a mummified cat on display along with its sarcophagus in the Musée d’Archéologie Méditerranéenne!

There’s a café inside the complex but many more on the square just opposite.

We also visited Notre Dame de la Garde.  Built in the 19th century, this Romanesque-Byzantine style basilica is one of Marseille’s top tourist attractions, and it is worth the effort. On the day of our visit we were greeted by hundreds of motorcyclists who attended an outdoor service while we were able to go inside the building undisturbed. The views over the old port and city and beyond are simply wonderful.

Aix-en-Provence

After collecting our hire car at the station we drove the twenty miles or so to ‘Aix’, although it would have been entirely possible to travel easily by bus or train.

We stayed at the Hôtel des Augustins, a converted 12th-century convent, which is centrally placed and just off the famous Cours Mirabeau. It was worth paying a bit extra for the convenience, although we did take the cheapest option – a small room at the top of the building. We left our car in an all-night car-park five minutes walk away. Having managed to get there in time to enjoy the market which takes over the town every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday we bought some Provençal soaps smelling of Rosemary and Verveine, for just a euro each, though there was ‘un embarrass de choix’ of other aromas. Rather pleased as I saw the same soaps later on in the trip selling for two euros in Nice and four euros in Cassis. I dread to think what they would have cost in over-priced St Tropez.

With time at a premium, we visited the Musée Granet and the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, now housing the Jean Planque collection under the name ‘Granet XXe’, available under one ticket. Highlights include works by Cézanne, van Gogh, Giacometti, Rembrandt, Picasso and Bonnard, to name just a few.

We also saw the exceptionally beautiful Burning Bush Triptych of Nicolas Froment at the Saint Sauveur Cathedral. (I’m not showing my photo as it is so worth seeing fresh.)

Aix is great to stroll around – famed for its fountains and gastronomic delights including a huge range of nougat that can be purchased by the slab.

 

 

 

Cassis

Next stop was 30 miles back to the coast. We left the car overnight in Des Gorguettes Park & Ride free of charge but had to pay 2.60 euros each for the bus (which runs between 9am and 8pm) into town. Cassis is charming and easily walkable.

It was a windy day so we were able to visit only three of the Calanques by boat due to the rough conditions at sea. These are fjord-like inlets carved into the white limestone which can be found along the ten-mile stretch of coast from Marseilles to Cassis. In 2012, most of them were declared a National Park. Many can be reached only by boat or by hiking in. Some have attractive beaches and are great sheltered swim-spots. (Note to self – a tempting future trip!).

I indulged myself in a genuine (and now quite rare) Bouillabaise at Chez Gilbert, which is a member of the ‘Charter of the Bouillabaisse Marseillaise’. On Quai des Baux, Chez Gilbert (+33 4 4201 7136) is one of only 11 restaurants in France that make their bouillabaisse according to the puritan Marseille charter. What you get in some places is fish added to fish soup which is still delicious but not authentic. The real thing includes rascasse, a bony rockfish which lives in the reefs close to shore. The broth is served first in a soup bowl with slices of bread and rouille (olive oil with garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper), then the fish is served separately on a large platter.

We were lucky that the road from Cassis to La Ciotat, known as the Routes des Crêtes et Cap Canaille, was open the next day as the wind had died down. Cap Canaille is the highest sea cliff in France and the route is a mere 9 circuitous miles with often 360-degree views. If it is is closed you can still drive up a mile or so to the telecommunications tower along a rough road which offers similarly stunning vistas. It’s well signposted from the town.

St Tropez

St Tropez was a swizz. None of the real glamour remains, just over-inflated prices. Worth an amble through the pretty village and port but I regretted paying roughly 10 Euros for an Orangina for the dubious privilege of watching other tourists watching me!

Nice

Our trip ended in Nice – see the next post.

Corsica – ancient and modern

For a long time I’ve wanted to visit Corsica (and Sardinia), above all to hike in the rugged and remote mountains – and that desire remains. When I did finally get there recently, family constraints meant that we managed one half-hour hike and barely stepped upon the legendary GR20, the trail that runs the length of Corsica’s mountains. We were based half an hour inland from Ajaccio, on the west coast, so there’s a lot of the north (apart from Bastia), east and south I haven’t yet seen.

Bastia (in the north) and Corte (in the centre) are small but reasonably interesting towns, but Ajaccio (in the southwest) has less going for it – the tiny old town is surrounded by a wide belt of big-box shops that generate ridiculous amounts of traffic. A Californian lifestyle is all very well when it refers to climate and outdoor activities, less so when it means a car-dominated sprawl. The smog over the Ajaccio area is very obvious from the hills.

Apart from urban services in Bastia and Ajaccio, there seem to be virtually no buses in Corsica – trains (operated by the Chemin de Fer de la Corse) link Bastia, Calvi, Corte and Ajaccio with reasonable efficiency, but they’re pretty slow (100km/h maximum in theory, and 50 or less on the tight curves of the central mountains) and a bit bouncy too. In fact many visitors come by ferry with motorbikes – there are far fewer cyclists, perhaps because they have a choice of the busy coast road or the hilly interior road, neither with any cycle facilities. In addition to the various ferry routes from France and Italy, there are four airports – the Ajaccio and Bastia airports are about a mile and a half’s easy walk from the railway stations at Ricanto and Lucciana-Olivella respectively (these are request stops – don’t forget to press the button in good time) – there are also buses to both. The other airports are less well served – Calvi, 7km from the town, is only reached by taxi, and Figari, in the far south, has a roughly hourly bus (not Sundays) to Porto-Vecchio and nothing at all to Bonifacio, the port for Sardinia. There are two buses a day (not Sundays) from Ajaccio to Porto-Vecchio, with connections to Bonifacio.

Megalithism and more modern history

The most worthwhile sight, for us, was Filitosa, a couple of hours south of Ajaccio, one of Europe’s major megalithic sites – not as huge as Carnac, not as imposing as Stonehenge, not as haunting as some of the stone circles such as Castlerigg or those in Orkney and Shetland, but almost unique because of its sculpted megaliths, standing stones with weapons and human features carved on them. These 2 to 3-metre-tall statue-menhirs were erected around 1500 BC, but then largely overthrown by a mysterious people now known as the Torréens, after the Torre or towers that they built – these are better known as nuraghi in Sardinia (and talayots in the Balearic islands). These people may be the same as the Shardanes or ‘people of the sea’ who are recorded as attacking Pharaonic Egypt in the same period, and who may have given their name to Sardinia.

Whereas at Carnac archeologists were scrupulous in recording which stones have been re-erected, at Filitosa it’s not at all obvious, though it seems clear that the site has been considerably tidied up since it was identified by the landowner in 1946.

After the megalithic period, the Greeks established coastal trading settlements, surviving for five centuries, despite Etruscan and Carthaginian incursions, until the Romans arrived in 238 BC, when the defeat of the Carthaginians in the First Punic War led to Corsica and Sardinia becoming a Roman province. This also marked the start of Roman domination of the Western Mediterranean (although Corsica was not wholly subjugated until 162 BC). From AD 450 regular Vandal raids became an invasion, although the Byzantine Empire ejected the Vandals in 534; Christianity, which first appeared here in the third century, was established in the seventh, and from 758 Corsica was under the control of the Pope, who first entrusted it to the Bishop of Pisa to administer, and then shared its six dioceses between Pisa and Genoa. In 1297 the Pope gave the island to the King of Aragon, then from 1358 it put itself under Genoese protection; from 1530 the Genoese erected 90 towers, many of which still remain, along the coast as a defence against Barbary pirates.

1729 marked the start of 25 years of sporadic uprisings against Genoese rule, and a fascinating series of experiments in democracy, including electing the German adventurer Theodor Neuhoff King in 1736 (he lasted 7 months), an Anglo-Sardinian intervention in 1745-48 followed by French intervention (on behalf of Genoa) from 1748 to 1753, and from 1755 independence under Pasquale Paoli (1725-1807), who created Europe’s most democratic constitution, with a National Assembly, a ban on blood vendettas. In 1768 Genoa finally ceded the island to France, which had taken total control, closing down the Assembly and university and banning the Corsican language, by 1769 (also the year in which a certain Napoléon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio, although he left Corsica when he was nine, and his last visit to Corsica was in 1799). They were briefly evicted in 1794 with the help of the British (mainly Nelson and his naval gunners – it was at Calvi that he lost his eye), and a peculiar Anglo-Corsican kingdom was established with Sir Gilbert Elliot, later (as Lord Minto) governor-general of India, as viceroy. An early Brexit in 1796 let the French take full control, and they’ve been in charge ever since, apart from the Italian/German occupation of 1942-43.

After the French surrender of 1940, Corsica was initially left under the control of Pétain’s Vichy regime, but after the Allied landings in North Africa in November 1942 it was occupied by the Italian army, which failed to control the centre of the island, although there were soon almost 85,000 troops here, against a population of just 220,000. After the Italian surrender of September 1943, 12,000 German troops arrived, but many of the Italian forces sided with the local resistance, and Free French troops began to arrive to join the uprising. The situation was complicated by German and Italian forces retreating from Sardinia to Corsica, but the last German units left from Bastia on 4 October 1943, making Corsica the first part of France to be freed from Axis occupation.

Since the 1970s the generation that protested against the Vietnam war has also demanded independence for Corsica, and there were bombings and shootings for several decades. By the 1990s there was infighting between the various separatist factions, while  the security forces had ever more efficient electronic surveillance, much as in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the assassination of the préfet, effectively the French governor, in 1998 was a major shock, and the central government soon offered limited autonomy in return for a cease-fire. This was blocked by the courts as breaching the principle of national unity, although it was permitted to teach the Corsican language (closer to the Genoese dialect of Italian than to French) in schools. A referendum in 2003 rejected proposals for further autonomy, as Corsicans refused to support the separatist Front de Libération Nationale de la Corse (FLNC), increasingly entangled with organised crime – finally in June 2014 the FLNC called a ceasefire. Times have changed – on the one hand a tourism boom has shown the economic benefits of sticking with France, but the threat of violence has prevented over-development along the coast,pleasing the Corsicans who are very proud of their island and keen to preserve its beauty. Even if the younger generation is less interested in separatism, there’s still a lot of anti-French graffiti and road sides are pitted with shotgun pellets.

 Bastia, Corte and Ajaccio

Bastia was founded as a strongpoint in about 1378 – its name comes from bastiglia (Genoese for fortress) and has the same derivation as the Bastille in Paris – and the citadel was rebuilt in 1519-21, with ramparts added around the Terra Nova or upper town in 1576-1626 – the lower town or Terra Alta clusters around the little port and is the most picturesque part of the city. The citadel is now home to one of Corsica’s better museums, which explains much of the city’s history, notably its development from the 1830s, fuelled by vast fortunes made in Venezuela and by the production of the quinine-based Cap Corse apéritif from 1894. However there’s nothing on the British siege and capture of Bastia in 1794. There’s also a room of second-rate Italian art donated by Napoléon’s uncle, Cardinal Fesch – the bulk of his collection, with some far more interesting works, is in Ajaccio (see below). Bastia is the best base for visiting Cap Corse, the island’s northern promontory, and the Désert des Agriates, but there’s little else of interest here – other than the conning tower of the submarine Casabianca, next to the tourist office – she carried out seven missions from Algeria, bringing agents and weapons in the run-up to the island’s liberation in October 1943 (see above).

The ferry port is immediately north of the centre, with Avis, Hertz and Europcar offices nearby as well as a fairly notional bus station outside the Hotel Riviera, a decent ‘budget’ place to stay (there is nowhere cheap to stay on the island – I’ve no idea why no-one has opened hostels in the major towns).

Corte, the main town in the interior of the island, was capital of Corsica from 1755 to 69. It’s dominated by a dramatic citadel, with the Anthropology Museum of Corsica (opened in 1997) alongside it in a former military hospital. My ancient 1999 Rough Guide does mention the new Museu di a Corsica, but laments that ‘the exhibits – largely run-of-the-mill geological and ethnographic material such as farming implements, traditional costumes and craft tools – fail to measure up to the state-of-the-art design and decor’. You’ll be glad to hear that all traditional costumes and the like have been swept away, and the museum now claims to be aware that laying anything down as a definitive account of ethnography and folklore is impossible, so it offers a more tangential approach. To be honest I’m not sure what’s really gained by this. The focus is on the collecting activities of Père Louis Doazan, from the 1950s on.

One display did catch my attention – Père Doazan visited Corsica’s last transhumant goatherds in the Niolo valley southwest of Corte in 1974, when there were still ten flocks making the two-day (60km) trek over some high passes to spend the summer in the high pastures. The transhumant herders were apparently key to the rural culture of Corsica in the same way as they still are in Romania, which I’m far more familiar with. And in fact I did find that the Col de Vizzavuna, between Corte and Ajaccio, reminded me of Romania, with its extensive beech forests and the rather scrappy parking and snack stalls at the pass. Anyway, I was pleased to see signs at the Col de Vergio (Corsica’s highest road pass at 1478m) for the Sentier de la Transhumance, a hiking trail created in 2007.

From the Col de Vergio we continued west down to the dramatic Gorges de Spelunca, which my geologist brother-in-law said were as good as anything he’s seen in the US, apart from the Grand Canyon (the name does come from the same root as spelunking, the American word for pot-holing – the Latin (from Greek) spelunca, meaning cave or cavern).

We did discover an excellent little restaurant in Corte – A Casa di l’Orsu, at 4 rue Monseigneur Sauveur Casanova (halfway down the steps between the two touristy squares), serves remarkably good authentic Corsican food, and is not expensive at all, with good service.

In Ajaccio the only new feature of interest is the remains of Napoleon’s port (1814), discovered under a car park (in the manner of Richard III) opposite the tourist office. Otherwise, the old town is small and unexciting, the cathedral is Baroque (like every church we saw in Corsica) and unexciting, and the citadel is still occupied by the army, and is small and unexciting. The town does have a proper art museum, however, with the bulk of Cardinal Fesch’s collection (see above) in the Musée Fesch. The highlights are on the top floor, mainly Italian Renaissance art, above all a Giovanni Bellini and a Botticelli, as well as paintings by Nicolo Pisano and Lorenzo di Credi. There’s a fairly standard painting by Cosimo Rosselli, but the portrait of a woman discovered on its rear is stunning for the sense that this is a REAL person. There are also some interesting portraits by Carlo Portelli. From a slightly later period there are two Titians, one by Veronese and his studio, a Lodovico Carracci, two Luca Giordanos, and a big hall of dull altarpieces. Corsican art is hidden in the basement, but the main names are Jean-Baptiste Bassoul (1875-1934) and Lucien Peri (1880-1948), both pretty good (although Peri had a much more modern style). On the ground floor there’s some Napoleoniana on show, including a Canova bust of Fesch. Also in Ajaccio there’s the Maison Bonaparte, a museum in Napoléon Bonaparte’s birthplace – we didn’t visit, partly because we were uncomfortable with the Napoleonic cult. Actually Corsicans aren’t that bothered about him, seeing he left the island as a child – Ajaccio’s Campo dell’Oro airport has now been named after him, but that was controversial.

We did drive out along the coast road to the Parata peninsula, where one of the Genoese watchtowers sits on a lump of gabbro opposite the Îles Sanguinaires, also studded with towers – we saw Corsican finches here, as well as huge piles of a rather odd seaweed (we think) washed up onto the beaches.

Help – can anyone identify this?

We ate in Ajaccio at A Casa Leca, a good little organic restaurant on Rue de l’Assomption, actually a flight of steps off the pedestrianised Rue Cardinal Fesch. They wish you bio appetitu! which is a nice little pun – enjoy your organic meal.

Normandy and Brittany

Just a few notes from my recent trip to western Normandy and eastern Brittany – a well-worn trail for me, with its highlights at Mont St Michel and Carnac. In particular, we were immensely privileged to be taken up through one of the flying buttresses to the roof level of the Abbey of Mont St Michel – something that’s only possible with a private guide that you’ve been working with for some years! So I’m afraid I can’t tell you who to contact.

The Mémorial de Caen now includes galleries on the weapons of the Cold War and Berlin in the Cold War – you might expect it just to deal with D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, but it now covers everything from the causes of Word War II in the Versailles Treaties of 1918-19 up to its consequences in the 1950s and 1960s. Also new in 2017 is a Résistance & Collaboration gallery and a new film on the Battle of Normandy (in French and English versions). There are lots of small private museums in the villages near in D-Day beaches, which have their own quirky individual charm, with lots of recovered artefacts, but none offers anything like the detail and context of the Mémorial de Caen. It’s not cheap though, at almost €20 (€51 for a family pass). Over to the west, the Utah Beach Museum reopened in 2011; originally in a German bunker, it now has a state-of-the-art building for its displays, including a B-26 Marauder bomber in a custom-built hangar. But the landings on Utah Beach (and Gold, Sword and Juno) were relatively straightforward – Omaha will always be the main focus of attention.

It’s worth mentioning that the city of Caen is planning to change from its unique and unreliable guided trolleybus system to a standard LRT tramway – the single central rail will be replaced by two running rails, so there will be construction chaos for quite a while once they get started.

It opened in 2006, but I hadn’t come across the Mémorial des Reporters in Bayeux before – in a lovely park-like setting near the British Cemetery (rue de Verdun, off Bd Fabien Ware), it remembers the more than 2000 journalists killed in the line of duty since 1944 with a gravestone for each year. It’s getting more dangerous to be a war reporter – in 2015 110 were killed, at least 67 of them deliberately targeted because of their work, according to Reporters sans Frontieres. Across the road from the British Cemetery is the Bayeux Memorial, a classical portico bearing the names of 1,808 men of the Commonwealth and Empire who died in the Battle of Normandy and who have no known grave. Above is a Latin inscription that translates as ‘We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror’s native land’.

Also in Bayeux, the new Villa Lara is a great hotel, with large stylish roosm and great service – although the first wi-fi log-in is unnecessarily complicated (and it’s not very fast); and every time you leave your bedroom it seems someone comes in and puts a sticker on the loose end of the loo roll – a bizarre obsession! But it’s great that they were able to get permission for a new building right in the centre of town (hidden away just off the main Rue St-Jean), and that they did such a good job. It’s not at all cheap, though. L’Angle St Laurent at 4 rue des Bouchers seems to still be the best restaurant in town – always fabulous. Down towards the Baie du Mont St Michel, the Auberge de Carolles is also much improved under its new management (though well out of the way for most tourists). I also have a new favourite crêperie in Dinan, Art-Bilig at 8 rue Ste-Claire – small, friendly and efficient, serving up excellent savoury brown galettes and white dessert crêpes, with local cider, of course.

Speaking of restaurants – I don’t know whether this was coincidence, but in many places where I’d asked for a set menu for our group I was given a choice of cabillaud ou canard (cod or duck) – last year (2016) every menu in Britain seemed to offer arancini as starters (or they appeared as amuses-bouches while we were studying the menus), this year wild mushroom is everywhere – but that’s the UK, and I don’t expect that kind of faddiness in France, where chefs have the confidence to just do what they feel they do best, and the public expect that. But I can’t help wondering just what ‘wild’ mushrooms really are – I’m sure they’re not all authentically foraged from the fields.

Brittany

In Brittany, Léhon, 2km south of Dinan, reminded me a bit of Todmorden, with Incredible Edible-style plantings (which I also saw in Liège) – but rather than being a community-based free food scheme, these are educational (and very decorative) displays of the sorts of medicinal and edible plants that would have been grown by medieval monks. There’s always been a beautiful display in the cloister of the simple largely twelfth-century abbey, but now it’s expanded out onto the streets; the abbey garden is also open now, with newly planted apple trees (rare local varieties, I imagine) and bug hotels. It leads down to the river and the simple bridge, blown up by the Germans in 1944 (the blast also shattered the abbey’s stained glass) and rebuilt. Léhon is an older crossing point of the Rance, superseded by Dinan, just downstream, from the eleventh century, and now it’s just a quiet little village, overlooked by the remains of its castle – the towpath between Léhon and Dinan, closed by rockfall for at least half a dozen years, has now reopened and makes for a lovely walk or cycle ride.

This interest in recreating monastic herb gardens is not new in France, and in fact I saw similar gardens at Fort La Latte and Poul-Fétan (where the whole village has been restored to its pre-industrial form). A little further west near Planguenoual, Herbarius is a garden of medicinal and edible plants that runs educational activities and grows plants to sell, aiming to preserve the biodiversity of the medieval ecosystem.

Rennes and the railways

Rennes is a large, unattractive and basically un-Breton sort of city now – although there are some lovely half-timbered buildings, and the modern Musée de Bretagne is excellent. When the new high-speed line from La Mans to Rennes opens in July 2017, with 20 trains a day bringing passengers from Paris in as little as 1hr 25min, they will be greeted by a building site. Work began in 2015 to build a second metro line and to create the shiney new EuroRennes interchange – both the main Place de la Gare, to the north, and the Parvis Sud, the convenient and less well-known southern entry, will be a mess until 2020, and the redevelopment of the area won’t be fully completed until 2027. But more importantly (it seems) the new shops in the station will open in 2018.

In the west of Brittany, Brest and Quimper will each have 9 TGVs a day reaching Paris in 3hr 15min; Lorient has an entirely new station, which opened in May 2017 (also part of a local regeneration scheme). It’s all being promoted as Bretagne Grande-Vitesse, aiming to provide faster, more frequent and better integrated rail transport across the region. It’s worth mentioning that the Sud-Europe-Atlantique high-speed line from Tours to Bordeaux will also open on July 2, bringing Paris-Bordeaux journeys down by 75 minutes to just over two hours (London to Bordeaux will take under six hours, with a change of train in Lille or Paris). And France’s TGV services will all then be branded as inOui (a pun on inouï, meaning unheard of or amazing).

Meanwhile, in 2020 Normandy will introduce its fleet of new double-deck trains (les Trains Normands) – paid for by the central government as part of the process of transferring unprofitable long-distance services from the SNCF to the regions (which already run local train and bus services under the TER (Transport Express Régional) brand. Normandy will now take responsibility for services from Paris to Caen/Cherbourg, Rouen/Le Havre, Trouville-Deauville, Granville and Serquigny, and from Caen to Le Mans and Tours, with the usual objective of boosting frequencies, speeds and connections.

If that all sounds like good news, I found I was unable to collect my ticket (booked online) as usual from the ticket machines at Rennes station – I was told the system had changed and now I was expected to print it myself, or have it on a phone. Luckily I was able to find wifi (the usual SNCF station wifi was down, perhaps because of the construction works) and download the ticket. Still, this seems unnecessarily obstructive.

I took the Brittany Ferries ship from Portsmouth to Ouistreham (15km north of Caen) and back – an excellent service,  and there’s usually a direct bus connection from the port to Caen station. However on Sundays the service is poor – arriving late in the evening there’s no connection (and the one taxi loaded up and left, so I hitched into town just as it got dark), and returning on a public holiday (ie the Sunday timetable) the last bus to Ouistreham (not to the ferry terminal, but near enough) is at 1814 – the ferry leaves at 2300, so there’s plenty of time for dinner, and plenty of decent places to eat just south of the ferry terminal.