I have just returned from a week in Normandy that has opened my mind and hardened my arteries.
After a fruitless search on the internet for a gîte, my four-year-old son managed to find one for us (his social networking skills are already far superior to mine) via a friend at nursery school. It was both cheap and, more importantly, in an idyllic setting.
This was the view from our bedroom window:
Admittedly, you have to like the sounds of church bells, cows mooing and the scuttling of harvest mice in the rafters at night to fully appreciate this gîte. There were also rather a lot of insects. However, in between the bells and the moos, it was incredibly quiet.
I'll refrain from a dull travelogue. I visited the usual tourist sites: Mont St Michel, Bayeux and the D-Day beaches, including the remains of the artificial harbour at Arromanches:
I also discovered some beautiful churches, many of which were eerily quiet. In spite of its town centre location, the Eglise Saint-Pierre in Coutances was completely deserted:
As for Mont St Michel, it was depressingly commercialised, with a mixture of countless gift shops selling hideous souvenirs and overpriced cafes staffed by surly waiters. At 9.00 in the morning it was tolerable, but by 11.00 the narrow alleys were packed with people, all pushing in different directions. On my way out, I saw a forlorn-looking woman sitting in a wheelchair, abandoned by her companions.
But in spite of everything, it was a magical place that, like Venice, made me feel as if I had stumbled into a fairy tale. The view from the top was particularly awe-inspiring:
But what impressed me most of all was Normandy itself. It wasn't just the beautiful landscape, empty roads, lack of police cars, rich history or absence of fat people (how do the French maintain their figures on red meat and cheese?) that appealed. It wasn't even the fact that in today's so-called globalized age, hardly anyone spoke English. I think what I particularly valued was the different attitude to living.
President Sarkozy has repeatedly urged the French to become more like the Americans and British, but it we who should be more like them. We should close our shops on Saturday afternoons, take long lunches, drink red wine, have affairs, discuss philosophy in cafes, go on strike, wear Printemps instead of Primark, take our children out to lunch, subsidise unpopular art and start smoking again.
I have been back for less than a day, but I've already booked next year's trip.