Mont St Michel by night

I recently visited Mont St Michel for the third time, this time staying two nights on the island. It’s always difficult to know whether to say “I stayed on the Mont”, “I stayed on the island” or something else, because the former sounds like I’ve been exposed to the elements in the style of a Spartan baby, and the second isn’t really accurate as it’s (still) not really an island, although it’s obvious that the new walkway is having some positive effect on reducing the silting of the bay.

Anyway, at night, and early in the morning, Mont St Michel is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been, because there are no roads and therefore no cars. It’s ironic, therefore, that I had the worst two nights’ of sleep I’ve ever had in a hotel room – entirely as a result of the traffic.

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Yes, this really was the colour of the sunset.

The problem with hotel rooms on MSM is that you never know quite where you’re going to be sleeping, because the bedrooms are scattered around the village in what are referred to as “Annexes”. Mine was, at first glance, a beautiful large room in an ancient building, with, of course, a stunning backdrop – which is actually even more impressive after dark.

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My bedroom windows.

As you can tell by the angle of this picture, it was pretty close to the village wall. It was also situated over La Grande Rue, which meant that it was fairly noisy during the daytime. But I had thought it’d be quiet at night after the (other) tourists had mainly gone home.

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La Grande Rue, about 10.30 pm.

However, it turned out that despite the hideous price of hotel rooms in/on/at Mont St Michel, the owners haven’t invested in either internal or external noise insulation. This meant that I could hear every word exchanged between the couple in the next room – although they weren’t talking loudly – until midnight, followed by his snoring. As I’d planned to get up early the next day to go out with my camera this was slightly annoying, but I went to sleep anyway. Meanwhile, Mont St Michel carried on being magnificent in the darkness.

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I can’t imagine why the French call it “La Merveille”…

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My first inkling of the real problem with having a room over La Grande Rue came at 5.45 the next morning. And it’s an obvious one, if you think about it. The site gets not far short of 3 million visitors a year, and many of them want to eat or stay there. This means that vast quantities of food and laundry have to be brought in and out – up a street far too narrow for delivery trucks. This means that deliveries have to be done using trolley type things. Trolley type things that make a terrible noise, whether full or empty, when running at high speed over ancient cobbles.

I got up, looked out to see what was going on, swore a lot, both at the racket and the rain, and went back to bed. After about another hour I fell asleep again, and thus my early morning was abandoned.

The next night, however, the trolleys began at 4.20 am… This led to more swearing, but this time I also got up and watched what was going on.

First came the laundry sorters. There were at least two of them, and they spent most of their time having a very loud conversation, presumably in case the noise of the trolleys hadn’t quite woken everyone in the village.

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Then there was a forklift truck with a motor that made an extremely menacing howling sound, taking food supplies further into the village for the restaurants.

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It also got up to quite a respectable speed on the way back down the street, when it was empty.

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Eventually the laundry men were finished, departing with a train of trolleys each. They must have pretty strong muscles to go with their voices, because as I know from my time as a femme de ménage in a French hotel, full laundry bags are far from light.

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There was a brief period of quiet, and I wondered whether to make myself a cup of tea or to try to get back to sleep. But the night’s entertainment hadn’t finished. The dulcet tones of “cardboard box being kicked along medieval ramparts” came next, culminating in it being booted down the steps opposite and along the street by a man who for some reason made me think of Enrico Caruso.

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By now, it was about 6ish and I was beginning to think that was it, but of course the reason why Caruso was out indulging in a spot of pre-dawn box-booting was that the binmen were coming.

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These guys also had a loud conversation, probably about the Health and Safety rules they were infringing, as they had a vast amount of rubbish in the trailer thing they were pulling behind the forklift, and indeed when they finally moved off one guy had to steady it from behind. Although quite what he’d have done if it really had tried to escape, I’m not sure.

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As I watched their lights disappear under the archway to the right, I breathed a sigh of relief and headed back to bed.

Then the next set of trolleys full of food arrived…

The moral of this story is always, but always, travel with a set of really good earplugs.


 

Oh, and just in case you’re thinking “But how much noise can a trolley really make?”, here’s one of them in action. Yes, it really did sound like this.

 

 

Crême brulée! Or how to get the best dessert in a French restaurant

It’s occurred to me in recent weeks that there’s more going on than you think when you’re offered dessert in a French restaurant.

Now, I’m talking here about the kind of restaurant where they don’t print a menu – but of course you already know to avoid those, don’t you? The most this sort of place has is a chalk board with the menu du jour scribbled on it. But the menu du jour usually only lists the first two courses. So the available desserts always come as something of a surprise, and you really have to get your tactics right when it comes to choosing one.

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If you’re very specific about what constitutes a dessert, then you may already be limited to a couple of choices. If you want something chocolatey, you’re not likely to be offered more than mousse or fondant au chocolat. So that’s easy. If you’re a pie-eater, then you probably don’t even that much choice in large swathes of France – here in Normandy and in many other areas it’s always apple. Although where I used to live in the Limousin my other half got so blasé about the prune tart he now so desperately craves that he would only eat it if all the other variants (pear, apricot, peach etc. etc.) had run out. But even there he did once play an extremely good trump card in the dessert menu game and was rewarded with a piece of mirabelle tart, which he still reminisces about to this day.

Anyway, the way the dessert game goes is this. The waiter/waitress will sidle up and begin the manoeuvres with the traditional “Vous prenez un dessert ?” To which, of course, the only response is “Yes”, even if you already feel like your stomach is bursting, because once again this is a particular type of restaurant and the chances are that the price you’re paying includes dessert – and quite possibly coffee too.

The starting position thus established, the waiter/waitress is once again forced to make the first move. They rattle off the list of desserts. If your French isn’t good, or if they’ve got an impenetrable accent or a bad cold, you may have to put yourself in a disadvantageous position by asking them to repeat the list. Or you may – as I often do – simply panic at the plethora of choices and end up going for the first thing you’ll definitely like, only to hear something much nicer being offered to the next table five minutes later.

However, there’s an interesting thing about dessert menus, which I’ve only recently managed to formulate. If you wait right until the very end…. and then beyond it, you may just be offered the secret dessert.

Of course it’s not a secret to the restaurant staff, because it’s often the one they’ve squirrelled away for their own delectation later in the afternoon when you’ve all been turfed out full of boring old fromage blanc and îles flottantes. But they will offer it to you, if you can keep your nerve.

It has to be said at this point that the hidden dessert may actually be something that’s no nicer than the other things on offer. But you’ve got, in my estimation, a 30% chance of it being something absolutely stunning.

This happened to me recently (and the discerning reader will note that this was clearly not in Normandy). The exchange went something like this:

Waiter: “J’ai mousse au chocolat, tarte au pomme, crême caramel, îles flottantes, tarte à la pêche, baba au rhum, de la glâce, des sorbets…”

Me: (maintaining an expectant silence) …

Waiter: (faltering) “Et (sighs)… j’ai également une tarte bon accueil.”

Me: (brightening) “Et c’est quoi ?”

And the Tarte bon accueil (created by and named after the restaurant) turned out to be an indescribably good concoction of egg and mystery that tasted rather like the smell of an old French farmhouse, with added sugar. Smoky, acrid, sweet and fabulous. One to go on the list of Top desserts I have unearthed along with the Tarte délice au rhubarbe that I ate precisely once, about 12 years ago, and can still taste.

Today, however, I was outplayed by the waitress and patronne of the restaurant, who cleverly played the Age card just at the perfect moment:

“Il y a mousse au chocolat, crême brulée, tarte au pomme, fondant au chocolat avec crême anglaise, buche glacé…” Here she looked a little nervous and I really thought I had her – until she continued, with a slight quaver in her voice, “mais je ne me souviens pas de quelle saveur…” Then she came to a stop.

Only the Cruelty card would have trumped this, and I really didn’t have the heart to play it. A simple “C’est tout?” or even a suitably timed sigh might have worked, but she really is extremely elderly and I worry every time I visit the establishment that she’ll have retired, the place will have closed down, and that I’ll then have one less venue where I can hone my dessert hunting skills. So I caved and had the fondant au chocolat. And very nice it was too.

Just… probably not as nice as the dessert she had tucked away in the fridge to eat later.