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23 Mar 2009

Easter holiday in France?

Easter is an interesting time in France, at least for your run of the mill English atheist like me. More than at Christmas, the fact of being in a Catholic country is very obvious. As Easter is a series of timed events – even if the key event wanders around the calendar – there are many opportunities for the church to make its presence felt. With thirteen different days having some significance in la culte catholique, there are things for priests and congregations to do almost six months. If you want to find what happens in any area, ask at the tourist office, any open church, or get the local paper which has the dates and times of masses and other church events.
However, the good old fashioned non-christian parts of Easter are also represented, with  Easter eggs and rabbits, lambs, flowers, and general commerce and fun activities more and more common. See here for a summary of Easter dates and other stuff. Many shops decorate their windows and displays with hand painted scenes, as in the photo above. 
Perhaps of most significance to many people is the this is the first chance in the year for a longer break. Five days off are long enough for a quick trip from the UK to France, and for those of us in France a visit to another region.
I think the best way to have a short holiday anywhere, but France and Normandy in particular, is not to book a stay in one place, but to wander where inclination and curiosity takes you. I have done this many times, and the two important aspects are that I have always found interesting places about which I knew nothing, and had experiences or met people that were quite unexpected.
Here are a couple of valuable and proven tips. Firstly, many hotels will be busy, and may tell you they are full if you just ask of a room for one night; but if you say you want dinner, and a room, they often miraculously expand to accommodate you. This is because dinner and room is what most French people will want, so they often prefer to take their chances of selling two things. Because of this, you should.choose your hotels by their menus! Look for somewhere you would want to eat in if you weren't looking for a room.
The second tip is to avoid expensive modern chain hotels, and seek out smaller, independent places in smaller towns. They are usually cheaper, friendlier, and much more interesting – sometimes even weird. Every small town in France has its hotel, partly because France is a physically large country, and in the days of horse powered travel it was not possible to go from city to city in one day, and partly because every French town needs a big restaurant for big family celebrations.
Many independent hotels are part of the Logis de France network: all are unique, and mostly two or three stars, with prices around 50-70 euros per room (not per person). The link above is in English, and includes an online hotel search and booking facility that is very good. (This is an honest opinion, not a paid for puff). 
Most people will know about the Michelin Green Guides, which have details of history, places of interest, hotels and most other things. There is one for each region of France. They can be a bit idiosyncratic (or to put it another way, French) in terms of what they see as important, but they can point you to fascinating places you might otherwise drive past.
One thing to remember is the catholic connection again: there are many, many pilgrimages over Easter, and some places can become very busy. If you Google 'pelerinages paques' you will find a lot of them going on, short distances and long. One place I had a huge problem in finding accommodation in a few years ago was Lisieux. which was the home of the famous Sainte Therese, who had some visions there around 1900. Frankly, the whole saint stuff is more than a bit odd to me.
The year I was there coincided with a special anniversary, and the hotels were full. Eventually, I went to the tourist office (called Syndicat d'Initiative in some places), who told me there were a couple of rooms left in a five star place – well outside my budget – or cheaper rooms 75 kilometres away. However, because so many pilgrims were arriving, the nuns at a local convent had gone on a different pilgrimage somewhere else, and were letting out the cells of the convent to visitors. We grabbed them. They were indeed cells: single iron bed, wash basin, crucifix, but clean and not designed for abject suffering like with some sects. My girlfriend and I had different rooms, naturally; the cells were even smaller than cross channel ferry cabins. There was a simple dinner in the refectory, and it all cost about the price of a cheap bottle of wine in England. 
The normal residents all being female, the showers were open to everybody, with no private areas. This proved an excellent example of the fact that French people do not have the horrors of nakedness and the in built shame about their own bodies that we English seem to suffer from. Everybody just showered together - women, men, children, young, middle aged and elderly, and no one though it even worth a comment.
Another Easter, in a fairly unpopulated region, we could not find a hotel with a room anywhere. Having gone past several with Complet signs, we saw a battered signboard pointing to a hotel 3km up a lane. Nothing to lose, and it was getting dark, so we went in search of the place. Turned out to be a small chateau, on the edge of a small village.
The patronne said they had a big wedding party in, but there were some basic rooms in the old stables for a few pennies, and we could eat in the family dining room. We took the offer, and had a really nice country four course dinner. The room was large, and the bed enormous, with at least four mattresses. It looked as if over the last couple of centuries, as the mattresses sagged they just put another new one on top. Getting out of bed actually risked a bit of a tumble, because it was so high. The toilet was at the end of the block, and one of those two footprints and squat that have now virtually disappeared. It was quite amusing, and the chateau itself was an intriguing building.
A couple of years later, we were in the same region, and decided to go the the hotel to see if we could stay in the big house. We could, but the dining room was again closed to us because it was the chef's night off and the hotel was empty, so we ate alone in a small dining room. The owner, who was a woman in her thirties, had seemed a bit afraid of us at first, but as we chatted over a dinner that she had cooked, she began to relax. With our main course, she very shyly offered us some samphire, saying that she had collected and pickled it herself (the place was not far from the coast). Delicious.
The bedroom was one of the state rooms of the chateau: a huge cube with enormous windows and curtains that were almost too heavy to close. The en suite component was a washbasin and toilet behind a two metre screen in the corner. All through the night, a large flock of white geese walked around the large garden, in a very precise route, squawking loudly: Wah-wah-wah, wah-wah-wah. As the route took them behind the house, the squawking would get fainter, then silent and then start again, building to maximum volume before the cycle started again. In the morning we could see that they was a clear bare earth path all the way round the perimeter of the grounds, with a few corners  cut for no apparent reason. As I mentioned above, some weird experiences to be had.

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