Our bags dampening our backs, still close to St Malo’s station, Iain and I spotted three bright awnings, a red, a green and a blue, all advertising “Hotel”. We split up to find the cheaper of the closest two, and agreed to meet back at the third.
The blue and the red establishments out of our price range, we entered the last of the three, Hotel l’Europe. “Bonjour. Combien ça coute pour… une chambre pour… deux personnes?” I attempted, eyebrows raised meekly. “€30 pour une chambre sans douche” he smiled, inspecting us from under his eyelids. I agreed, as he ticked the room off as occupied in his diary, repeating the type of room, “Sans douche”. Iain looked at me as if to ask, “What does sans douche mean?” to which I chirpily replied that that the room simply would not have an ensuite shower.
We tackled the five storey climb to our douche-less room, perspiring heavily by the time we reached the top. We were met by an unpleasantly familiar smell, seemingly embedded in the coarse carpeted walls. Iain sat down to finish off an article while I braved the supermarche, to buy us some lunch.
The simple act of going to the supermarket in a foreign country cannot possibly leave one bored. The absolute mystery of the signs, the foreign brands on often foreign looking foods, and the speech that hums around you, faster and faster, can leave one quite giddy. New stimuli are everywhere. Even the ordinary becomes intriguing.
I had gone to the supermarket with a basic lunchtime sandwich in mind. Instead, I was met with an eight metre long aisle, dedicated solely to cheese. At first, this seemed like heaven itself, but it soon became quite overwhelming. Indecisively scanning the rows, left to right, right to left, I was eventually rescued by the ever present force of The Budget. I picked up the cheapest disc of camembert, made a quick choice from the thankfully small selection of baguettes and proudly paid, in French.
I arrived back at the hotel, where Iain was still writing. We used the melanine table in the corner of the room to make our baguettes, and left the hotel as soon as we had eaten them. Descending down the stairs, we noticed the door to the douche with a notice stuck to its door: “€4″. The additional charge for the shower must have been the cause of the lingering smell in our douche-less room, the stale sweaty odour revealing that €4 was more than some guests were willing to pay.
Venturing out, we passed non-descript, greying buildings, searching for the significance or splendour that had sent us there. The sea appeared within sight and suddenly that salty smell and the cooling breeze on our sunned backs was all too familiar. Iain was right back in Cape Town, blissful.
We crossed the bridge which connects the modern mainland of St Malo to the ancient fortified island. Destroyed during World War Two, the city’s historic architecture has been completely restored. We entered the walls beneath an archway, and followed a cobbled path.
Once inside the walls, St Malo is a labyrinth of narrow, uneven streets, bursting with holiday-makers’ frivolity. The main square was lined with restaurants, packed out with tourists enjoying the local seafood and sipping chilled blonde beers. Portrait artists and caricature sketchers clustered on the edges of the square, beside postcard stands and curio sellers. French melodies weaved through the atmosphere, an accordion player pumping rhythmically in the corner.
We wandered through the narrow streets, past row upon row of creperies, admiring the precision of the mock medieval architecture, until we came to the perimeter of the walls and the sea stretched out ahead of us. Yellow gold sand bordered royal blue sea. It was gorgeous, but quite commonplace to the spoilt eye of a Capetonian.
The beach was crammed with French kids on their school holidays, their parents soaking up the heat, flat on their backs, closing their eyes to the routine screeching of their offspring. St Malo is a popular summer holiday destination for the French (the majority don’t stray from their own country in summer) and foreigners seemed few and far between, the odd lobster coloured body an anomaly.
That evening, we sought a cheap, greasy eat to save money and line our stomachs for a night of bar hopping. Across the road from the hotel, we spotted a take away house, a queue of Frenchmen sprawling out the door. It sold a wide variety of food, from pizzas to tapas, to burgers and kebabs. A solitary, sweating man served and cooked, running between the pizza oven, deep fryer and till, darting off again to slice from a scrawny piece of kebab meat rotating on a spit, a grey film coating its fatty yellow remains. Yet the queue for this squalid grease house grew by the minute. Baffled, we opted for a seemingly safe hamburger, went back to our hotel, and washed it down with an acidic bottle of €1 Cote du Rhone.
Winding through the streets that night, we chanced upon a pub, claiming to be Irish. Guinness adverts, old and new, were stuck up on the bar’s walls, and an impressive array of Irish single malts lined a specially designated shelf. Above this was a signpost bearing a toucan and a left pointing arrow, “Dublin 800km”, written below.
St Malo is in Brittany, a province said to have a distinct Celtic streak. Having arrived from Ireland so recently, we hoped to discover similarities that would both ease and illustrate the transition from the British Isles to Continental Europe. We sat at the bar counter and ordered the local cider, named Mac Low after the Welsh monk who landed here in the 6th century. The barman could speak English, so we quizzed him about Brittany and its Celtic origins, pointing out the Irish paraphernalia littered through the bar. “Tourists like Guinness”, was his simple, somewhat disappointing explanation.
We left, and wandered through the midnight maze of streets, in search of somewhere a bit more inspiring. A tall, sepia toned building lay before us on the sharp corner of a street. We immediately recognised it from earlier that day, when we had found it shut up in slumber, its rounded black sign hanging discreetly from the wall. L’Absinthe Café, it proclaimed. The absolute romance of the name, and our good fortune in rediscovering it led us straight through the doors.
The entrance led into a long, narrow room with a wooden bar counter snaking along both sides. One served as a drinks bar, and the other a tabletop, a row of stools on either side. I walked up to the bar and ordered two half pints of sparkling blonde beer, now agile at this request in French, and hastily added two shots of Absinthe to the order.
The next morning we slept in, our heads leaden weights on our pillows. We both agreed on doing as little as possible, and headed to the beach to laze the day away. Immersed in new books, we whiled away the time reading in the sun, pleasantly muted by a fresh breeze, and were amazed when four o’clock had arrived.
We made our way through the centre of town, in search of some well priced Moules Frites for supper, in true Bretagne style. A quaint little café beckoned, offering a three course special, of which mussels were the main dish.
About halfway through our starters, I began to notice how hot my skin was feeling, despite the cooling sea breeze around us. Dismissing the sensation, we waded through our heaped dishes of minuscule mussels, a process that took the best part of an hour. By the time we had finished dessert and were making our way back to the hotel, I began to feel like pig forgotten on a spit.
Iain’s back had also been badly burnt and the two of us spent the night yelping upon contact with one another, tossing and turning under Hotel Europe’s coarse pink blanket.
We left for Paris the following day, slathered in SPF 50 sunscreen. Our backpacks stuck to blistered skin. Each bounce of our bags on railway steps fostered a new respect for the European sun, which we South Africans had foolishly underestimated.
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