Sadly the only skies under which we have ever arrived at St Malo have been resolutely grey and usually raining or with a thick fog. This year was no different. I had planned to make the journey down south more interesting by incorporating a little detour through Brittany - one of the few parts of France that I don't really know - but the weather dictated otherwise. We did a quick meander off the motorway to take in some D roads which I had a fancy for, but everything seemed against us. Gone are the days, it seems, when you can potter endlessly through emptiness and quaint sleepy villages - even these now seem victim of the new 'progressive' French thinking on road sytems and town planning: you find yourselves either negotiating myriad chi-chi little roundabouts 'decorated' with scenes which are supposed to evoke the essence of where you are driving through (thus you find yourself suddenly distracted as you watch for any fools still believing in priorite a droit by cunning little montages of rocks and shipwrecks or, down here in the Landes, sand, deckchairs and surfboards). And if not that, then you have to watch your wheels on the enormously high curbs, sleeping policemen and indented trottoir of 'traffic calming' schemes on which it is all too easy to burst tyres or scrape your alloys if you happen to be trying to navigate at the same time (believe me, we've done it - at 1 o'clock in the morning, moreover, with three exhausted small children in the car, let alone the parents).
Your eye will also be caught by the extraordinary banks of street lights, often painted in bright colours in the mistaken belief that this makes them attractive. Au contraire, it merely draws attention to a functional item which should be encouraged to recede into the landscape rather than dominate it. And if you are spared all this, then you are probably being directed on the by-pass road (which even small towns seem to have these days) which are pleased to take you through the ubiquitous zone industriel or zone artisanal which basically means they have ruined the approaches to any nice rural town or village with the most hideous collection of enormous industrial sheds crammed with sofas or lamps or DIY or cars or agricultural equipment or food or any of the endless stuff which modern-day society seems to demand (even if no-one can actually afford to pay for any of it).
And so our little excursions off the tedious autoroute engendered anger and frustration more than pleasure, to such an extent that we nearly turned round on our way to La Rochelle which we thought would be a nice detour for lunch. By the time we finally got there I was pretty much ready to slit my wrists having been forced through the arse end of nowhere on endless ring-roads cutting ugly swathes through what might, once, have been reasonably attractive arable land. An equally frustrating time was had trying to reach the old port and a vista of sea and boats as the town planners had seen fit to create such a set of absurd one-way systems that if you took just one wrong turn you'd be trailing through endless suburbia before being spewed out onto the ring road again. Thus, by the time we finally found the wretched port (let alone a parking space), we were fairly ready for a drink.
Tables and chairs spilled from hotels and hosteleries along the quayside, presenting a tempting array of options. We chose one on the simple basis that they had a table free on the front row in a momentary burst of sunshine. We ordered drinks and food and sat back, finally, to relax and enjoy the passing scene.
And a very busy passing scene it was. Within moments of our arrival, one of those people who think it's a good idea to spray themselves in silver and stand motionless for hours decided to set up shop in front of us. This of course attracted a crowd which then blocked our view of the boats. He was swiftly joined by his rival 'The Clown' who was, indeed, most foolish, yet attracted another enormous crowd who clearly had nothing better to do on a Sunday in La Rochelle.
As people wearied of Mr Statue, we regained a slight vista of boat masts until it was just as swiftly blocked by a large black people-carrier vehicle which decided to come and park on the road (where you weren't meant to park), right in front of our table. There's nothing like a waft of diesel with your moules marinieres. Beats seasalt and seaweed any time. Much more evocative.
Meanwhile a group of three English blokes in their thirties and clearly rather pleased with themselves (and I suspect slightly hung-over) came and sat down on the table next to us and provided me with a good half hour of amusing eavesdropping.
Slightly smug one with tan and short dark hair and sunglasses to slightly twitchy shaggy haired blond one with sunglasses:
'So do you like cooking?'
[Much awkward shifting in chair as Shaggy had to admit to not really having a clue with a short run-down of some uninspiring dishes which he sometimes forced on his long-suffering girlfriend - which basically amounted to steak, chips and salad on the basis that it was easy and quick to do when you come home late from work. Fair point. Oh, and he liked dauphinoise potatoes - M&S ready-prepared, I imagine]
Clearly feeling un-threatened, Smug then enlightened us with a full run-down of his foolproof dinner party turn of, funnily enough, moules marinieres (with a twist, I think it's fair to say). It went like this:
Finely chop an onion and some garlic and fry them in a pan with some olive oil and butter. Add cream and a glass of white wine. Then some curry powder, some sliced red peppers, chopped parsley blah blah blah and - of course - the mussels. Apparently it's a stunner, incredibly quick to do and everyone oohs and aahs and thinks you're marvellous and presumably you get laid. Oh, and as a brief aside, he happened to mention that all his girlfriends of late had very nice names but none of them could bloody cook. Too posh, presumably.
Smug then turns his attention to The Quiet One and asks what he's like on the cooking front to which he gets the reply 'Well, since I haven't got a girlfriend I can't really be bothered to cook'. Short and to the point.
Smug then sat back smugly in his chair as his moules marinieres a la La Rochelle arrived - only to be truly disappointed. There followed a detailed critique, much questioning of the long-suffering waitress as to the exact ingredients of the moules marinieres, to which she was unable to come up with anything more illuminating than: mussels, onion, garlic. She forgot to mention the white wine (possibly because Chef had forgotten to add it) and the dish was then subjected to intense scrutiny from Smug and Shaggy (Quiet clearly couldn't give a shit) as to whether or not they could find any onion in it. They found one piece, sneered, and Smug then followed with a diatribe on how appalling it was to be in the land of moules frites and have such a poor example of the signature dish. I should have suggested he gave Chef his recipe....
Replete with slightly sub-standard food, we wandered back through the stone porticoes and narrow cobbled streets of old La Rochelle, being reminded, somewhat unexpectedly, of many a northern Italian town. It was very pleasant, really, and we came away satisfied enough with our little detour but happy in the knowledge that we might not be troubling its road systems again any time soon.