A few weeks ago I went away for the weekend to Argentré-du-Plessis in Brittany on a trip that I wouldn’t even have considered a few years ago. Fly off with a bunch of strangers and stay with a French family I’d never met for the weekend?? Not me. I’m way too cool for that sort of thing. Have to be nice to people all weekend, no car, no escape? Ah no, not me.
And yet there I was on the Saturday, sitting with a glass of wine in front of the Marquise de Sevigny’s castle, happily taking pictures of the helicopter in front so that I could post it on Facebook and boast that I’d arrived in style in my weekend pad in France. As you do. With my new best friends from Newbridge and Argentré as we talked in French and in English and enjoyed the September sunshine.
A few months before I’d organised a literary evening as part of the June Fest in Newbridge, and afterwards repaired with a friend to our local, Johnsons, to recover from the stress of it all. It was one of those special nights which start with a quiet drink in an almost empty pub but develop into an impromptu session where almost everyone has a song to sing. A Frenchman Gael told me about the festival and urged me to go. Hard to tell whether it was a tribute to Gael’s charm or Noel Heavey’s persuasiveness or my history of taking risks, (which don’t always turn out as well as this one.. remind me sometime to tell you about the time when in my early twenties I agreed to take a lift across Romania to the Turkish border from a stranger I met in a library in Sofia. That did not turn out so well, but that’s a story for another day..) that I ended up going. A week or two later Noel announced at my writing group that the return flights were only 6o euro, that there would be no other costs and there would even be a lift to the airport. Well that was the clincher, considering my precarious financial circumstances and love of the French language. When I got home I went online and booked it. Carpe Diem because I knew that if I didn’t do it right away I would probably never think of it again.
True to form over the next three months I barely thought of it at all other than to tell people I was off to France for a weekend in September, as if I do that sort of thing most months. At the end of August I went online and looked up Argentré-du-Plessis. When details of a horse festival popped up for that weekend I thought it was the wrong place. I have only been on a horse about twice in my life and it is not an experience I want to repeat, even if I live within an ass’s roar of the Curragh. Apologies to all you Kildare horse lovers. But after scrabbling around the internet hoping that it was something else I had signed up for I was resigned to my fate. I even vaguely thought shur it’s only 60 euro (Sigh!) and I could feign sickness or some other well-worn excuse.
When I headed off to the airport in a strangers car (ok I had briefly met him before) I decided to relax and enjoy being out of my ‘Comfort zone’. At least there was the potential for lots of new material for stories.
And what a great weekend it was- at every turn our French hosts went out of their way to make us feel welcome- from the cars at the airport to meet us and drive us two hours to Argentré to the reception at one of the two local pubs in the small town where they had specially organised toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and chips so that we would feel at home…. I had no desire whatsoever to feel at home but they weren’t to know that.
What impressed me most was the gentleness and friendliness of the French people involved, and the strong sense of family. I was surprised by the way teenage children interacted with their parents and with us adults- chatting to us openly, laughing and singing and chatting about their schools and their lives. In my experience most Irish teenagers are polite but fairly taciturn around adults and escape to their own friends rather than talk to random strangers, particularly older ones, but there was no sense of that in Argentré.
And yes we did spend a lot of time in a field where there were a lot of horses- but what magnificent beasts they were! I admired them from a safe distance, watched some of the parading and time trials pulling carriages and special performances, in the field below the chateau. We visited the exhibition centre in Argentré, watched their outdoor fashion show and the bike race and the parade on Sunday morning, listened to the pipers and other bands, ate duck breast and ratatouille and wonderful French bread washed down by Breton cider and of course wine, lots of wine, and danced at the disco in the field late at night. We strolled around the nearby town Vitré and visited the Chateau of the Marquise de Sévigné. We walked around the gardens, drank wine in the sun at the restaurant opposite the chateau, and felt right at home.
About thirty years before I bought an antique Marquise de Sévigné chocolate box at a flea market (marché des puces) somewhere in Brittany and I still use it as an occasional jewellery box so I was interested in the story of her life and letters.
We had a barbecue on the last night on a farm on the outskirts of Argentré and our hosts treated the guests to a tour of their farm. Unfortunately I missed the tour, but was intrigued by the description of a yoke that milks and feeds the cows by itself. An Automatic or Robotic Milking system I believe is the correct term- the cows could roam in the field and go in to the shed whenever they wanted to be milked and fed. There were sensors that identified each cow, located the teats to place the whatevers for milking them, fed them at the same time and if they had already been fed and were just being greedy they would be put out again.
Lord almighty, I never knew farming had got so sophisticated! Do we have that in Ireland? Ok so I know I’m totally ignorant on such matters and before anyone says aren’t you from the country, I was born and reared in a house on a village street and the only experience I had of farming was being chased by our pig around the backyard when I was about two. I’ve stayed as far away as possible from all animals since other than the small four legged pet type.
The links between Newbridge and Argentré have yet to be formalised but the town has been twinned with Bad Lippspringe and I also speak German so you’d never know, I might be looking for another opportunity to collect stories and have experiences that are not accessible on a normal holiday…. And the added bonus of making new friends both far away and near to home.
And guess what- its official- travel is good – for the brain and the body- read these articles from Positive Health Wellness to see why. Where to next?