Taking the wheel
Hitting the Normandy countryside in a tiny, rented Citroën, Tara O'Brady discovers local treasures - and the joys of driving abroad
By TARA O'BRADY
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, December 15, 2018 Print Edition, Page P15
I am an ardent fan of road trips.
The drive to Montreal from Toronto is in my bones, but that's just one example. I've followed the east coast of the continent to Florida for spring break, arched across the map to Georgia, Tennessee and Kansas, and explored every corner of New York.
Overseas, childhood vacations included jaunts to hill stations in southern India - the hairpin turns of the mountain passes as nausea inducing as they were exhilarating as we zigzagged our way to Ootacamund - and others through mist-hung, verdant fields of England to visit family.
But that was the extent of my road adventures abroad, encased in memories from decades ago.
Until this summer, when a single day behind the rented wheel of a pocket-sized Citroën made clear what I'd been missing on trips in the intervening years. Travel by car makes the journey a gift as much as the destination.
I was in France, tracing the Seine from Paris up north to the shores of Normandy, on a work trip. The route was planned by others, and for the most part my colleague and I were shuttled from place to place by helpful guides with such attentive care we might have been wrapped in bubble wrap and gauze. Then, due to a planning oversight, what was to have been a meandering day through the countryside became instead a gauntlet of appointments, with more than 340 kilometres to travel on our own.
Thus, my colleague and I set out from Vernon. First stop: Giverny, Claude Monet's home for 43 years. His storied gardens remain as they were in his day, with the Japanese bridge and iconic water lilies in their rightful place across from the long, pink-shuttered house. We parked, and then descended into the stream of humanity pushing toward the garden gates. The crush was astounding, with jostling elbows and the poke of selfie sticks a real danger as people jockeyed for their perfect shot.
Still, Monet's rooms were a delight. Walls of unexpected vibrancy - daffodil yellow, a sprightly emerald, glowing turquoise - paired with harlequin floors infused the place with cheer, even with the bustling tours.
We slipped through the gift shop and back to the car, winding our way through the countryside, through field and flower, down roadways between ramrod-straight "plane trees" (usually sycamores, often dating back to Napoleon). We stopped at Les Andelys - the paired towns of Petit- and Grand-Andely dominated by the fortified medieval Château-Gaillard - for quick tour before joining the highway that would take us to Caudebec-enCaux, a village of 4,000 to the northwest. We had a lunch date at Restaurant G.A. in the Manoir de Retival.
The manoir sits on a hillside overlooking the Seine. It is a grand block of a building, surrounded by a garden that feels as though it should be closer to the Mediterranean than the English Channel. The antithesis of the hordes at Giverny, it was an oasis of seclusion. There are only a handful of tables at the restaurant; at that time of year, most were outside, scattered into intimate clusters across the trellised rectangular terrace. As tempting as those were, we chose to sit instead in a coolly shadowed corner of the kitchen, with a full view of the chefs as they worked.
Chef David Goerne's dishes were superlative. A bracing beetroot borscht to begin, almost spicy with its intense earthiness, atop which floated a quenelle of basil sorbet of startlingly effective clarity. A gratinéed oyster to follow; the flesh barely warmed and still briny beneath the velvety emulsion above. Then, wittily presented on a tiny spoon, a Sichuan button. The yellow flower of the peppercorn plant set the mouth tingling, eliciting laughter in response. The cavalcade continued; torched salmon, a presentation of foie gras three ways, a salad inspired by the garden and felt like an ode to summer, expertly cooked pigeon paired with peas, both raw and cooked. And that is without mentioning the desserts, a whole opus unto themselves. We ignored the prudent time to leave for our next appointment. Instead, we savoured the bubble of sublime hospitality in which we sat for 30 minutes longer, before reluctantly forcing ourselves back to the highway. We needed to get to Fécamp.
We travelled rapidly - the average speed limit is 130 kilometres an hour - but the flow was such that it didn't feel hectic.
It was an efficient clip, with drivers by in large polite and accommodating. This is a moment when being left to our own devices felt a particular boon; with sovereignty over our itinerary and route, my colleague and I were able to reconfigure both to compensate for our extended dalliance at the restaurant.
Fécamp is where monks still brew Bénédictine; the storied and secretive liquor traced back to monk Don Bernardo Vincelli's 1510 recipe. To this day, they decline to disclose the specific 27 spices and herbs infused into the drink, or even the days on which it is made. The distillery looks like a cross between a fairy-tale gingerbread house and a monastery; unapologetically ornamented and grand in every way. After a tour of the facility, and the cellars where the liqueur is aged for up to 17 months, we found ourselves in the light-bathed café and courtyard, all glass and modernity juxtaposed against the embellished architecture before.
We sampled varieties of Bénédictine, including one only available at the distillery. I took the barest sip of each, and even that tiny dose lit me up from within with its layered, herbal richness.
Our next destination, Étretat, is further on the coast west of Fécamp. The plan had been to simply drive through; we were due at our next appointment soon enough. However, a glimpse of the commune's soaring chalk cliffs gleaming in the clear sunlight were too striking to ignore. We parked, and, despite being dressed for meetings and not for any sort of athleticism, ambled up the steeply inclined path to reach the full height of Aval's Door, the landmark flint arch that stretches high and bold from the seashore, with the thickly pebbled beach at its foot. From its summit, the full panorama was astounding.
The impossible-to-miss Needle, audaciously sharp, rose to our left, and then, in the distance, the Manneporte, a hulking rock arch immortalized by Monet and so many others.
Back in the car, my colleague and I turned south, towards the château of La Roche-Guyon - a remarkable castle built into the mountain - to attend a classical concert by a local ensemble.
Over the next two hours, she and I talked; unlike the many train trips we'd taken to this point together, the privacy of a car and fullness of the day kept us chatty.
In a train or airplane it's easy enough to retreat to our individual worlds, but a road trip is innately more convivial. This was no longer simply work, it was a shared adventure.
As dusk settled across the narrow streets approaching the château, we slid into a parking spot behind a chapel. The bell tower's clock rang out clear and loud, as if heralding our arrival. I tucked the car keys into my bag and my creeping smile was not just in anticipation of the evening's entertainment, but also in appreciation of travel under our own navigation. It is a heady freedom to determine a route informed as much by whim as by logic, with a schedule as malleable as desires dictate. Such is the wild independence of the open road.
Tara O'Brady is the culinary host on the 2019 Globe Seine River Cruise. To learn more, visit GlobeNormandyCruise.com.
There are plenty of reasons to stop during a road trip in Normandy, among them sights such as Claude Monet's garden, top, and the Manneport, above.
PHOTOS BY TARA O'BRADY/ THE GLOBE AND MAIL