Some notes from France
05.02.2010 - 07.02.2010
So 2010 has well and truly begun. I had decided that this year was going to be one where I would go in pursuit of some personal satisfactions. A friend had explained to me quite recently that "you are never satisfied". This may be true, but of course it means that I search all the harder for it. After quite a long and tough 2009, I wished to make the next year a more free-flowing and romantic year - a year governed by my inconsistencies, wherever they may lead. Some friends and I decided we'd book a trip early on, in order to start the year as we mean to go on. It would be an easily accessible trip in terms of money and time as we were all short of both. So welcome us Dieppe.
The four of us live close to Newhaven so the train journey was a short one, but long enough for us to enjoy a toast to begin our trip. Disembarking at Newhaven at 12am was a cold affair, but the station was close to the ferry. Luckily my partner had overheard somebody saying that you need to catch a train to Newhaven town - not the harbour - and despite concerns from our friends, this proved to be the case. We wouldn't be arriving in Dieppe until 6am French time, and as we were not in the mood for sleeping the only thing to do was drink and play cards. The ferry itself was comfortable, that was until about the last half an hour before arrival where we decided to try and get some sleep - apparently it might be a bad idea to arrive at 6 in the morning drunk and tired...
...And so it was. It was pitch black and pouring with rain. We followed what we thought was the only road out of the harbour for about ten minutes, we climbed up a muddy bank, walked through a ghost town and to cut a very long story short - spent about an hour following our blunt intuition helplessly towards Dieppe! We finally arrived at our destination, and with proud beaming smiles spun around on our wet feet to take in the sight of... the ferry, sat there in all it's glory a good ten minute walk from our current position. To me it didn't matter. It was a beautiful walk at personal time of the morning, and it gave us a common focus to laugh at.
As we couldn't check-in to the hotel until 12, we spent a morning in a half drunken delirium, in a bar called les Tribanaux, playing hangman with limited linguistic ability. Considering that my partner is a linguist there were plenty of over-tired giggles had by all. It was perfect. We struggled on until check-in and gained a couple of hours sleep, ready to discover Dieppe...
The name Dieppe may be most familiarly associated with the costly Dieppe Raid in 1942, when Canadian and British soldiers attempted an ill-fated occupation of the town. The town was eventually liberated in 1944.
Today however, that all seems so far away. The sacrifice is not forgotten however, and Canadian flags adorn various parts of the town and the country's presence is, visually at least, strong here.
What struck me first about Dieppe, apart from its cold sea air, was the accomodating nature of the people. They often seemed more than happy to encourage my bad French - although I must admit we all relied heavily on my partner's much better use of the language. Some places of note include the Sarajevo and Calvados, the latter having a particularly bright owner which pleased us greatly, and also seemingly himself.
As we drifted into darkness we sought the promise of good French food to begin our preamble into Dieppe's livlier side. Unfortunately we were disappointed by the Galion, facing invitingly onto the quayside. Despite the Aviva-like interior of Green and Yellow we were actually greeted with good friendly service. The food, however, was poor. My andouillette was nothing like one I remembered from a previous trip to Lyon - but then what did I expect? Unfortunately our friends had been drawn in to my andouillette sermon. I felt as embarrassed as my naked course-cut sausage looked. The dissapointment of our culinary encounter was soon forgotten, however, after we headed to the Cactus Bar. After rattling the door in frustration - only to realise we had to be buzzered in - we entered into yet another green and yellow themed room. This time however, it was decked out with sombreros and accompanied with reggae music - "Je suis African a Paris" will ever remain in my memory. At 7 or 8 pounds a cocktail this place saw to it that I went over my bank limit, but it was certainly cheerful and we enjoyed the sounds, the darkness and the vibe greatly. It was enough for us to stumble home happily high on self indulgence. I just about remember closing my eyes and feeling light-headed, the kind of feeling that only emerges when you can finally go to bed with a smile that lacks irony. The shores of the UK may as well have been a million miles away. For the first night in a long time I dreamed a good dream, and was not disappointed to be awoken in Dieppe.
The architecture in Dieppe is largely what you'd expect in northern France. It carries similarities to towns in the South but it is of a particularly northern style. The view of the seafront however, did remind me of a southern British town. Portsmouth came to my mind. I like Portsmouth but I didn't want to be there now so I wished to spend little time by the beach. Heading back into town the Church of St. Jacques seems to have suffered over the years since it's 15th Century reconstruction. A victim of a life on the coast and a veteran of war, the Church stands boldly against the empty Dieppe skyline but on closer inspection one bears witness to an aged fragility. Many of the impressive gargoyles have been weathered into faceless overarching forms, adding a dark depth to a gothic structure. The interior is beautifully sombre with a power to silence. It is only the chance of falling mortar, however, that will put the fear of God into you here, and a safety net is doing it's best to prevent that...
Keeping a watchful eye over the town - whilst also seemingly wanting to dive in the sea - is the Chateau de Dieppe. A 15th Century castle that appears to be built for aesthetics rather than defence. It is rather stunning - although more so in the evening when the brick work is less severe. I can't help but feel a little disappointed with my visit. After the initial walk up the hill and the pleasure of seeing the minarets come in to view, I soon see why the Castle is so desperate to struggle away from the town. Sick of it's own stagnation, this place is now more widely known as the Chateau-Musee. All the sign posts point to such a place and there is no indication of its worth as one of Dieppe's most impressive pieces of architecture. It has no connection to the town and seems of no use to the local community but a house of dusty, badly interpreted objects and average art pieces. However, the view of Dieppe from the grounds is worth pausing for.
Much more rewarding on a Saturday is a walk through the market. As 'Olivier', the cheese shop, was closed I made sure to stock up on some cheeses for later. The array of local cheeses and local ciders was impressive and we were all sucked in to the moment. It was interesting to stand aside and take account of the way Dieppe springs to life around this market. The town felt to me quite private and insular, maybe due to the time of year, but the market really explodes into a bustling life. Lives interweaving in and out of stall after stall. Every few moments somebody would march past with a baton or two in hand like they were on some culinary relay. We were more than happy to pass time in the market until it was pretty much over. Then Dieppe was left empty again for us to wander guiltily through it's vacant streets.
Luckily for us the day was beautiful - Dieppe was beautiful. It was a real surprise just how rewarding a trip to Dieppe was. After a long day, a good meal at Tout Va Bien and many more drinks in the Cactus Bar we made a late return to our hotel to continue drinking and eating. The equivalent of two bottles of wine for two quid was just the job. Sitting back and dipping out of the conversation for awhile I was able monitor with some pleasure the laughter we'd brought to the incredibly static, but clean and absolutely cheap, Etap hotel.
After a long pondering Sunday we headed back. After the sun had fallen by the wayside I took a moment by myself to stand on the rear deck and look into the darkness. The scene before me was one of absolute black. I felt as if I was in the belly of some fantastical whale and the sheer expanse of unknown enveloping me was sublime. In the distance I could see a dim green light of some fellow traveller lost in this black sea. There was no way to reach them now though so forever we must find our own paths. There was a glimmer of satisfaction out there beyond the past, but I couldn't help feel that had I left it in a town called Dieppe...