Reading Between the Coastlines
by Sarah Shuckburgh
Sarah Shuckburgh is surprised
to come upon a literally littoral bookshop on the shores
of the Côte Sauvage in Brittany.
Brittany’s Côte Sauvage is wild and empty, with craggy
cliffs and crashing waves. West of the village of Locquirec,
the undercliff forms a dramatic grey cascade strewn with
russet-coloured bracken and bright yellow gorse. Sheltered
from the brisk wind by the wizened, wind-bent trees which
overhang the path, we tramp past secluded coves of large
pebbles which scrunch noisily with each encroaching wave. My
daughter Amy and I have not seen a soul for three hours.
The last thing we expect to come upon is a crowded
Perched above a shingle beach, seemingly in the middle of
nowhere, Caplan & Co comes as a total surprise. The
bookshop-cum-café is buzzing with bohemian and
intellectual-looking customers. The walls are lined with
highbrow volumes –
Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva,
Roland Barthes, the complete works of Samuel Beckett. Above
the bookcases are ancient wireless sets and other dusty
curiosities, and the glass-topped tables display messages
inscribed on eccentric objects, which have been posted to
the café from afar. Challenging classical music plays as Amy
and I sip hot chocolate from huge cups.
We still have a two-hour walk to our hotel, so we tear
ourselves away from this incongruously esoteric scene and
plod on, our shadows lengthening before us. Grey waves pound
over scattered rocks as we follow the mossy path through
tangled undergrowth. This beautiful stretch of coastline is
a protected nature reserve, and we pass information placards
written in both French and Breton. It is getting dark as we
reach the first of Locquirec’s pale sandy beaches. The sea
and sky become a blur of mauve and grey, and night falls as
we round the Pointe du Château and reach the floodlit limes
that line the beachfront gardens of Le Grand Hôtel des Bains.
The hotel was built in the late 19th-century but has been
stylishly decorated by Dominique van Lier, its current
owner, making it one of the few comfortable and elegant
seaside hotels on France’s north coast. We are ravenous
after our hike, and tuck eagerly into a dinner of delicious
local fish. We survey our fellow diners, trying to spot
distinguished members of the Académie Française, who,
Monsieur van Lier confides, are regular visitors, treating
hotel as their seaside cupola.
That evening after dinner Amy and I borrow the DVD of
L’Hôtel de la Plage, a hilariously dated film in which Le
Grand Hôtel des Bains features as the eponymous location.
According to the cover, the film’s themes are les loisirs,
l’oiseveté et les rencontres amoureuses – leisure, idleness
and amorous encounters. The hotel itself is barely
recognisable, with tatty 1970s décor, red plastic furniture
and queues in the corridor for communal bathrooms. But the
avenue of pollarded limes and the hotel’s tower-shaped folly
are instantly recognisable, the cliffs and beaches are
unchanged, and the village church has the same impressive calvary and the same deafening bells.
As befits its name, Le Grand Hôtel des Bains has a marine
spa offering some intriguing baignoires hydromassantes and
enveloppements d’algues, and the next day Amy and I try them
out. My treatment starts with a deep, bubbling bath
sprinkled with essential oils to tone and (this sounds
unlikely) slim. Fauré’s Requiem plays pianissimo from a CD player, and scented candles flicker. Next comes the seaweed
body-wrap - slimy green gunge, hot from the microwave, is
smeared over my body, and I am then mummified in cling-film.
From within this claustrophobic bondage, I listen to several
movements of Fauré, while the scalding seaweed detoxifies
and remineralises. But worse is to come: la douche à jets. Standing naked in a white-tiled torture chamber, I am
instructed to adopt awkward postures while the hitherto
charming therapist blasts off the algae with icy water from
a fireman’s hose. Finally, back between warm towels, I
submit to a blissful back, face and scalp massage.
Feeling cleansed and exhausted by our programmes
bien-être, Amy and I have lunch at the Brasserie à la Plage,
on Locquirec’s sheltered quay - an informal restaurant with
scrubbed tables and bare floorboards, and full of locals.
The hotel chef cooks here too. I choose red onion soup – a
speciality of Roscoff, just down the coast – followed by
tender scallops. Amy eats Roscoff crab, and we wash it all
down with local cider.
The tiny penisula of Locquirec lies between the rough
Côte Sauvage and the gentler Côte de Granit Rose, and our
hotel bedroom looks east, towards whitewashed villages
nestling between low headlands of pink granite. We want to
walk along that coastline. We also want to visit the cider
orchards at Guimaëc or Plouégat-Guerrand, and the historic
market town of Morlaix. But we have sunk into a happy
stupor, induced by fresh air, seaweed and cider. We haven’t
had any amorous encounters, but Locquirec is certainly a
perfect place for les loisirs et l’oiseveté.
First published by the Telegraph