Wednesday, August 29, 2018

If I had the opportunity, I would return to the picture-perfect village of Saint-Suliac on a sunny day and photograph every nook and cranny.

Unfortunately, our recent trip to the Brittany coast of France coincided with typical British weather. We experienced overcast, grey skies and several rain downpours, but that didn’t prevent us from exploring several of the French seaside villages.

Had it not been for our French friend, we would have missed visiting Saint-Suliac, which is rated as a Le Plus Beaux Villages de France (a top honor for the most beautiful villages in the country of which there are 150 or so. Remember that we saw some of these villages during our Provence trip too?). Saint-Suliac is a charming fishing village filled with stunning stone houses dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. It’s the perfect village simply to wander aimlessly about with your good friends and dream about which house you want to buy. What do you think?

How this village survived World War II without being severely demolished is surprising! I guess it didn’t serve as a major port like nearby Saint-Malo, which is why approximately 80 percent of that city was destroyed. (When the American troops landed in Brittany in 1944, St. Malo was heavily defended and guarded by 12,000 German troops.) Although Saint-Malo has been restored to its previous medieval glory, that city is much too touristy for my liking.

Situated on the Rance River estuary, Saint Suliac served as an ideal outpost for the Vikings in the 10th century as they ventured off on fishing expeditions and raids; and remains of old Viking-era ships and a fortress were discovered here. Local men continued to fish off the coast of Newfoundland for many years, and a statue of the Virgin of Grainfollet was placed on a hill to watch over these fishermen. Today, you’ll still find many small fishing boats in the harbour as well as fishing nets covering the walls throughout the village. How cute are these houses?
The statue of Virgin of Grainfollet is located on the hillside in the distance.
As we wandered down the network of narrow lanes - the ruettes – which veer off the main street heading down to the harbour, I found myself stopping to take photographs of everything. I love old doors, windows and brightly-colored wooden shutters. However, the rain was against me; and I had a darling eight-year-old that wanted to play photographer with my nearly 2 kilo camera as well.
In the middle of the village, we discovered one of the oldest churches of Brittany. The Church of Saint-Suliac was built in the 13th century and has some pretty stained-glass windows inside. The village itself has religious beginnings because in 560, a Welsh monk named Tysilio (or Suliau) – later called Suliac – founded a monastery and chapel here, which was the first church in the village.
If you get hungry, Saint-Suliac has a couple of restaurants, a creperie or two and a patisserie. But beware of Sundays because most places were closed, and others required reservations. 

Luckily, we found a free outdoor table under the large terrace at la ferme du boucanier so we could escape the rain. I didn’t even realize that this restaurant had a 2018 Michelin guide plate recognition until after we had already ordered our lunch. The food was good (maybe not so pretty to look at), and the desserts were even better especially the Breton flaky pastry known as kouign amann that was served with salted caramel and Chantilly cream. To. Die. For. Plus, the service was lovely…always a plus when you sometimes encounter surly Frenchies in the country.
If you find yourself near Saint-Malo, do yourself a favor and take a detour to Saint-Suliac  where you will find a preserved village of weathered houses with colourful shutters – a photographer’s dream.


Monday, August 20, 2018

“We must have oysters in Cancale” our French friend exclaimed even though he doesn’t like these sea critters himself.

But mention Cancale to a Frenchman and the instant response will be ‘oysters,’ which have been cultivated in this quaint fishing village along the Northern Brittany coast in France for hundreds of years. I knew nothing about Cancale, but trusted our friend so that’s how we ended up having a lovely lunch here this summer.
Ever since I had a bad oyster eating experience when we lived in Warsaw, I’ve been skeptical of these molluscs. However, I figured we were going to be at the direct source of oysters so they had to taste good. 

In the middle of summer, Cancale is fairly packed with tourists so we had to walk along the harbour a bit until we finally found a restaurant that could serve our party of six. For lunch at La Houle, we ordered some local oysters, two orders of moules frites and our friends had one of the set menu specials plus some Brittany cider. The oysters tasted fresh and salty – just like the sea! Yum! Our total bill was 114 euros which seemed reasonable considering the coastal location.
I wish British cider tasted like this stuff in Brittany - kinda like a champagne-tasting cider.

Oyster Farming in Cancale
Cancale is known as Brittany’s oyster capital, a title we learned that is earned thanks to the high-quality plankton that grows in the bay, feeding the oysters and aiding in their reproduction. Apparently, oysters have been farmed here since Roman times; and even King Louis XIV had supplies of Cancale oysters regularly sent to his place in Versailles.

I was not prepared to see hundreds of oyster beds in the Baie de St Michel as our visit coincided with low tide. We saw tractors hauling long flat beds in areas normally covered with the sea so that the farmers could harvest the oysters. This whole new-to-me phenomena was absolutely amazing to watch. I wish I had my British wellies so I could have walked on the squishy seabed between the oyster beds. That didn’t stop our friends’ two young children from wanting to play along the exposed sand.
Apparently, Cancale’s oyster beds produce more than 15,000 tons each year! Wow!

For some of the freshest oysters, head to the nearby marché aux huîtres which is located right by the harbour. Here, the oysters are served on a plastic plate with half a lemon and cost around 5 euros for an entire dozen. In London, we’ve paid £3 (or 3 euros) per oyster (Fact: Oysters used to be served free with a pint of beer at pubs back in Victorian times)! Grab a seat along the harbour and watch the oyster farmers at work.
Across the bay, we also saw the faint outline of Mont Saint-Michel – one of France’s most recognizable landmarks, visited by more than 3 million people each year. This historic abbey is listed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, but we decided we must visit another time NOT during peak tourist season.
Walking back to our rental car, we stopped at one of the many glace shops and ordered a scoop of salted caramel ice cream. Perfection!

Visiting the Brittany coast for the first time made me want to explore it more. I’ve always heard about Brittany and its foodie options from our French friends, but this trip was the first time – and certainly not the last – to explore all the tasty goodness firsthand.
When in Cancale, buy anything with sea salt added or just a scoopful of sea salt.
Love these old stone, French houses!

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Day Trip to Whitstable

Sometimes when I have a weekday off to myself, I like to hop on a train and head outside of London.

Very slowly, either solo or with my husband, I am trying to explore more of this country that we’ve called home for the last two years and will do so for the foreseeable future as well. On one such occasion, I took a train from London Victoria to the seaside town of Whitstable, about 90 minutes away. This coastal town is the perfect summer day trip from London and a foodie destination too.

Whitstable ticks all the boxes for me already.
Coffee Break
Taking a morning train means I need some caffeine as soon as I arrive into Whitstable. Located near the beach on the corner of Nelson Road and Island Wall, Windy Corner Stores & Café offers a good selection of homemade baked goods, lunches and a good flat white. Since the outdoor seats are already taken, I sit in the window seat and enjoy some people watching.

Local Art and Street Art
Being a seaside town, Whitstable seemed to have an artsy, relaxed vibe. I found some interesting local art at the Fish Slab Gallery as well as some fantastic street art as I wandered around the narrow laneways. I discovered that several of the stencil art/paste up pieces were designed by Unify, a street artist known for his work around London as well.

All About Those Oysters
Being at the seaside means eating seafood in this coastal town in Kent, of course. And Whitstable is known for its oysters and even hosts an oyster festival in July. One of the popular places to sample some local oysters is at The Forge, which is located right along the beach. I don’t even like oysters, but I tried a couple of them and fed my leftover chips to the yapping seagulls. You’ll also find oysters at the popular Whitstable Oyster Company and the pink-hued Wheelers Oyster Bar.

Walking Along the Harbour
After lunch, I decided to take a stroll along the harbor and look for the colorful bathing boxes which I had read about online. However, I quickly learned, that the seashore was filled with rocks – quite uncomfortable for sunbathing – and so typical of U.K.’s beaches. But that doesn't stop kids from playing along the beach or wading into the sea.
Along the harbour, you’ll also find the Harbour Market Whitstable which features about 35 traders selling everything from coffee and ice cream to handmade jewelry and artwork.

Whitstable Castle
Perched on the hillside, you’ll discover the Whitstable Castle, or the Tankerton Towers, as it was first called by the Pearson family who called the manor house home in the 1790s. The castle is open to the public and features a lovely, small flower garden and an afternoon tea at the café. In case you’d like to know, the castle has experienced an interesting history filled with mistresses, poverty, Rembrandt paintings and more.
Bathing boxes at Tankerton Beach
A bit along the coast, I find a plethora of the bathing boxes – each one different with its brightly colored stripes and décor. Surprisingly, these tiny beach huts sell for several thousand pounds, and there are constantly waiting lists to buy them too. Expensive real estate, but cheaper than our London flat!
At Tankerton Beach, I stumble upon a patch of hogs fennel, also known as sulphur weed, which I learn is one of Britain’s rarest plants and grows in few places, but seems to like the Whitstable coastline quite well. Who knew?

The hot sun made me thirsty so I ventured up the steep hillside and cooled off with a pint of British cider at the Royal Pub.

After an afternoon in the sun, I headed back to the Whitstable train station, about 1.5 miles away, but first treated myself to a seafood risotto dinner at Samphire in the town center. As you can see from my photos, Whitstable is a darling, pastel-hued town that is perfect for a summer break.

What is your favorite summer get away in the U.K.?