A ferry and a drive delivered Noel Baker to a relaxing family holiday in France
The local man who’d seen the episode unfold did have a few words of sympathy for us. Pointing back over his shoulder to the market stall, he quipped: “She, heh, she is not funny!”
Moments before, my wife, our three children and I had been strolling around the market in the beautiful town of Saintes, set on the banks of the Charente River in south-western France. My five-year-old son had committed the cardinal sin of picking up a piece of fruit we might want to buy. The lady selling the goods was not best pleased. In addition to demanding the peach be placed back in its spot immediately, she and my wife had a quick back-and-forth in French in which the message was clear: I’ll sell you the goods when we’ve decided what you want.
In retrospect, it was a little funny, despite what our fellow customer thought. And it also highlighted that some of the clichés we hear about other places turn out to be true (in this instance, the grumpy French person) - and that this isn’t always a bad thing. When we recall our weeklong stay in this lovely part of France, it will be just another happy memory.
But first, let’s rewind. This was a trip of ‘firsts’ for a number of reasons. Number one, it was our first time taking a holiday on board a ferry, in this case the Cork to Roscoff crossing. Secondly, it was the first time driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road for both me and my wife; and it was also our first visit to this particular part of France. It’s fair to say we did well on all fronts.
Speaking as someone who had only ever taken the short four-hour hop from Rosslare to Pembroke, the ferry crossing was a novelty in itself. We had a lovely cabin with a view of the waves, the bunks were surprisingly comfortable and most importantly, my kids had a ball. This was helped by the realisation my son’s best friend was on the same crossing, along with his family, and the fact that our journey was flat calm the whole way from Cork to Roscoff. True, chasing around after three children as they barrel from one attraction to the next, or watching them race around the helideck, was a little more hectic than you might want, but then again, compared to the stressor that is the airport, it was quite serene. We all dossed down having watched the summer sun setting over the ocean, and by the time we awoke we were pulling into Roscoff.
Next up, the driving. Since my wife thinks I’m a bad driver and I know she’s a terrible backseat driver, we decided she would take the wheel and I’d act as navigator. It worked out fine, with Google Maps helpfully not sending us to Norway or Luxembourg or any other unwanted destination. We ploughed down the country via Rennes and Nantes and by the early afternoon we were pulling into our digs for the week - Bel Air Gites, a beautiful setting based around old farmhouses that tick every box when it comes to rustic French living.
Bel Air Gites is run by Irish couple Paul Carroll and Patricia McCartney, who previously lived and worked in Brussels before moving to this part of France more than seven years ago. They told us that they ultimately had a choice of two gites when they were deciding where to live, but it’s hard to imagine anywhere else topping here. For a self-contained, relaxing family holiday, it’s near-perfect.
We have yet to embark on a holiday camp-style break, but while I’m sure my children would enjoy it, the idea gives me ulcers. Water slides, weird rides, loads of other children racing around - it sounds like fun, except for congenital worriers like me, who would then have to factor in what other kids are doing as well as my own. But at Bel Air Gites, there was none of that. It has five different accommodation options but even if it was at capacity it would have more of a village vibe. We stayed in Chataigniers (the Chestnut), a former farmhouse and dairy complete with stylish wooden beams, white walls, airy rooms and brown rafters. With all mod cons, it also has a lovely brick barbecue in the backyard, which itself offers a fantastic view of the sun going down over nearby fields. Paul and Patricia live a stone’s throw away, and there is plenty room for children to run around and play, with a playground, a brilliantly-stocked games room, a trampoline and a heated swimming pool.
So far, so great. So what else did we do? We visited the aforementioned Saintes, which is a stylish spot for some shopping and also boasts a well-maintained Roman amphitheatre, which I duly sullied by running around quoting lines from Gladiator.
We ate well and often in the local town of Gemozac, I mastered the morning drive to the local bakery, which had a great selection of breads and confectionery, and we stocked up on essential provisions and many tasty bottles of plonk in the local mega market (Super U). We visited the nearby coastal town of Mortagne-sur-Gironde, which is great for a stroll and an ice cream and for the beach we aimed for Meschers-sur-Gironde further up the coast.
We also took a day trip to Zoo La Palmyre, a huge Fota Island-style affair with everything from iguanas to polar bears and well worth a visit. The fist-sized pygmy marmoset monkeys were a particular hit with my little tribe. The zoo is not far from the town of Royan, which in a weird way reminded me of a deluxe French version of Kilkee. And then there’s the stuff we didn’t get around to doing, such as paying a visit to the town of Cognac to sample its globally-renowned wares.
But really, the point of all this was to get away from everything and to slip into a lazy, hazy way of living for a few days. As Paul and Patricia explained, life in this part of the country is unhurried as a rule. It takes some getting used to - you mean I can’t get any food in restaurants outside of mealtimes? - but you quickly get used to it and then begin to feel the benefits. France is, after all, considering rules that would actively dissuade people from accessing emails outside of work hours, combatting the ‘always on’ culture that has crept into our own lives.
So we lounged, splashed around in the pool, and rattled up a few barbecues. Drama was in short supply, unless you count that time a bat flew in the window one night when my wife and I were watching House of Cards. Even he just settled into a slot near the rafters, stayed there all night, and the following morning I borrowed a net and managed to pop him back out the window.
We drove home via Brittany, viewing countryside more like our own back in Ireland, and mucked up just the one roundabout on the way.
Back on board the Pont-Aven, the only tricky bit was trying to get the children to bed.
Easy peasy - isn’t that what we all want?
We took Brittany Ferries from Cork to Roscoff on board the Pont-Aven, departing Cork on Saturdays and departing Roscoff on Friday nights.
Prices quoted from €102 per person each way with your car or from €66 per person each way for parties of four or more people, including a four-berth cabin.
Alternatively, Ryanair fly twice-weekly from Cork to Bordeaux and Aer Lingus has daily flights from Dublin.
Self-catering packages with Stena Line to France (Rosslare to Cherbourg) including ferry seven night breaks cost from €555 per couple here
Short breaks to France with Stena line cost from €155 return car and driver here.
Where to stay?
We spent five nights at Bel Air Gites. Child and toddler-friendly and close to amenities, while still in splendid rural isolation. Check for rates and availability at belairgites.com.
Where to eat?
We had an excellent lunch at Le Lion D’Or in Gemozac which was also airconditioned - a godsend on hot days. There are plenty of options in Saintes and elsewhere while 1407 in Mortagnesur-Gironde is recommended for fine dining.
What to do?
Nothing. Or you could venture out to Zoo la Palmyre, take a day trip to Saintes, Cognac or Bordeaux, the vineyards of Médoc or St Emilion, or the aquarium and other attractions in La Rochelle.