Unless you are a fan of the Breton Riviera – yes, yes, I know – you are probably unaware of the appeal, or even existence, of Auray. But it is quite a town, located halfway between Lorient and Vannes, a twenty-minute drive from Carnac and the presqu’ile de Quiberon.
What my wife and I like about it is that, though it has a population of no more than 15,000, it somehow manages to exude a metropolitan feel. It’s not Paris, or the next thing to it (Lyon or Bordeaux, arguably Tours), but, even off-season, it has a sense of itself that lifts it out of the ordinary such that, if it wasn’t raining all the time, you could almost imagine Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, showing up for the weekend.
The town’s central square, the Place de la République, is dominated at one end by its flag-adorned hotel de ville, dating from 1775, and the art nouveau Petit Theatre at the other, with the gap between filled by the contemporary covered market known as Les Halles. On either side of the cobbled street on which the town hall sits are various shops, restaurants and bars, as well (rare these days) as a maison de la presse that actually stocks the Paris papers. For an ageing journalist, this is as good as it gets.
On our last visit, we met Sylvan, who instantly reminded me of someone I once knew in New York but whose name now escapes me – who introduced me to a bar that later in the day would show the Ireland-England game that decided this year’s Six Nations championship. The bar, known as Le Wilson, after the First World War US President, gradually emptied as the game wore on, until at the finish, with only me remaining, the barman was able to bring down the shutters. I went to Le Wilson again yesterday and was still able to order bottled Guinness, made not in Dublin but in Sierra Leone. Why the Ireland game was on and why Guinness was on sale, I have no idea, but I have to say I warmed to the place.
But it is down the hill (and a very steep hill it is) that Auray comes to life after dark. Whereas just about everyone in the Place de la Republique during the dayight hours is 60 and above, those who frequent the bars of Saint-Goustan are typically in their mid-twenties. Where those in their forties and fifties go, I am unable to say. Perhaps they are at home with their families in the suburbs.
In the Armoric, which bills itself as a “cosy bar and bistro,” but is obviously making a fortune for somebody, the noise above the shouted orders was of cocktail shakers and banter. The staff here aren’t bartenders, but baristas, catering to a new generation of French drinkers for whom wine, other than champagne, is something they increasingly associate with their parents and grandparents.
Louisa and I found it extremely difficult to get served. Two of the bar staff were busily showing off, juggling with ice cubes and pouring spirits into glasses from bottles held somewhere above their heads. Finally, one young man took pity on us and brought us our grown-up drinks, a Pernod and an Armagnac. I thanked him a little too effusively and left a generous tip. “De rien,” he said to us, smiling. “Mon plaisir.” We will look out for him again.
Saint-Goustan is the port of Auray, down by the river where it broadens out into the estuary that forms part of the greater Baie de Morbihan. Ancient and cobbled, it is where Benjamin Franklin landed in France in 1776, on his way to ask for help in the upcoming War of Independence. A bar with his name on it marks the point where he allegedly came ashore. At the end closest to Auray proper is the Pont de Saint-Goustan, which opened in its present form in 1464. In the distance can be seen a somewhat more modern bridge carrying the Avenue President John F Kennedy over the river as part of the motorway link from Nantes to Brest.
They seem to like Americans in Auray, which works for us, as Louisa is from Massachusetts. It feels wrong that no streets or bridges are named after British heroes, the closest being the Rue Winston Churchill in Vannes, half an hour to the east. But then again, Place de Wellington or Boulevard d’Henry V would probably not go down well with the natives.
Southern Brittany is a region that springs to life, almost violently, as May turns to June and the rain gives way at last to bright sunshine and balmy summer nights. The coast from La Baule in the east to Concarneau in the West witnesses Tourism on an industrial scale. But, Saint-Goustan aside, Auray avoids the worst of it, so that it is still possible, most of the time, to get a table in a restaurant or a glass of honest-to-God beer or wine wthout having to engage in an impromtpu scrum or maul. The town is France in miniature and all the better for it, and we will be back.
I said last week that I would let you know how I got on at pétanque, the posher variant of boules, imported from the Deep South. The truth is, I surprised myself. I had no idea what was going on, but my new German neighbour, Bertie, kept me, literally, on the straight and narrow, so that I did not have to scuttle off at close of play to drown my sorrows. I couldn’t join the fun this week because we were in Auray, but I have checked my social calendar and it looks as if I will be back on duty come next Thursday. Is this likely to become a habit? I am honestly not sure. But I fear I may have to give it a try.
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