Bon Voyage February 2016

Bonjour et Bonne Année Francophiles

As we drag ourselves out of holiday mode, we are grateful that we promised you some more articles from the past, so that we can send this out on time!  Venice has long been one of Barbara’s favourites and in November 2006 she extolled the pleasures of boating on the lagoon.  In 2008 she was impressed by Graham Robb’s book, The Discovery of France, and reviewed it in the November issue. The following year we discovered the magic of St Jean de Luz and in 2010 tasted  the delicious Mara des Bois strawberries for the first time.

But first, 2016

Garden, Bois des Moutiers

The last newsletter produced a flurry of work with lots of interest in the Normandy/Brittany tour, which was tweaked, extended and fully booked by 6 December. This was one of quickest responses to a tour proposal, so we may return to Normandy in 2017  …….

We have also been busy with boating enquiries and bookings, which the most popular holidays so far this year. We already have the best inflatable paddle board thanks to Water Sports Mag, but we need a little more supplies and so we are enquiring about boating and various aspects of it.

It is our specialist area and we now have over 30 years’ experience of cruising the French water-ways. We’ll reinforce that knowledge in September by returning to Brittany for a week on the Canal de Nantes à Brest.

While most of the early booking discounts have finished, there are still special price offers on certain boats on certain routes.  The demand for rental boats appears to be as strong as ever and some companies are already accepting bookings for 2017!

Brittany and Normandy have also been popular in our cycling enquiries, especially the new 8-night route between Bayeux and St Malo. Dordogne was our best selling cycling region last year and we’ve just received a booking for our new route linking Bordeaux to Sarlat.

The beautiful south-west of France is home to James and Diana, who offer excellent fully escorted walking weeks.  Their new walk for 2016 is the St James’s Way walk from Rodez – 2/9 July and 3/10 September. They’ll have the donkeys to carry essential supplies, plus a back-up vehicle.  James recently wrote: “It is an historic route and we concentrate on the picturesque, taking people away from tarmac and pylon intrusions. The accommodation is comfortable yet keeping in the line of pilgrimage. All bedrooms have bathrooms en suite and the hotels have a charming simplicity.” James and Diana get rave reviews and accept individual bookings as well as groups, so if you want to visit France and walk, theirs is the perfect holiday. They recently had a write-up in A-magazine .

On the barge front – The Luciole is celebrating 50 years of hotel barging.

The Mirabelle in Bordeaux has individual cabins available for 19/25 June and 14/20 August.

The St Louis in Aquitaine is also taking individual cabin bookings for some cruises this year; 21-27 May, 2-8 July,10-16 September.

The Bella Vita in Venice is repeating its Opera Cruise in August, and will accept single bookings without a supplement for their 15/21 May cruise. y

This no single supplement offer also applies to the Panache in Holland in April (3rd & 24th departures) and L’Impressionniste in Burgundy in April (17th) and May (8th & 29th departures).

Contact us for more information about these holidays.



From the archives, November 2006 



Yes, we are called Bespoke France, but we’re really excited about boating in Venice, or the Venice lagoon, more precisely. In October, we met up with six friends and rented a 12.8m Classique S from Crown Blue Line (now Le Boat).  We cruised from Casier down the gentle Sile River, then out into the lagoon on our way to the islands of Torcello, Mazorbo, Burano and St Erasmo.  After a couple of days of island-hopping we headed for town, cruising past the Arsenale, and round to the Piazza San Marco before turning into the broad Giudecca Canal and what passes for heavy traffic around Venice. Robert was in his element, dodging freight barges, vaporetti, water taxis, and assorted pleasure craft.   We tied up at a quiet mooring on the lagoon side of the Giudecca, then sat on deck with a glass or two of prosecco and watched the sun set. Dinner that night was at a pizza restaurant beside the canal, with views of San Marco and Dorsoduro.

Next morning, leaving some of our party to spend the day in Venice, we cruised off to the old town of Malmocco, through a scattering of the small islands that punctuate the lagoon. A couple of them are pricey resorts, one is a cemetery, some are privately owned, some are scrubby and deserted and one was apparently a home for stray dogs. Malamocco is a short bus ride from the famous Venice Lido, home of the Venice film festival and the city’s beaches, though was a bit chilly for a dip in mid-October.  After an excellent lunch in the garden of the Malamocco pub, we headed back to our Giudecca mooring to meet our friends, who were badly in need of a prosecco reviver after a hard day’s sightseeing.

The following day we cruised past the glitzy Hotel Cipriani, turned for a last look at the massive white facade of San Giorgio Maggiore, and started back to base. “Can we stop at Murano?” someone asked and we did, mooring a few metres from the glass museum in the centre of town, while tourists arriving on the vaporetto looked at us with envy.   After some light shopping followed by lunch on deck, we tootled off again towards Torcello.

I’ve been crazy about Venice since I first went there 30-odd years ago, and I was in love with the idea of it well before that. But a land-based, if that’s the word, visit gives only a limited view – yes, of course there are the palaces, the paintings, a church for every Sunday of the year, and history at every turn, but a week on a boat in the lagoon reveals the scale of the place. It’s so much more than the fish-shaped bit in the middle and so much of its life happens on the water – it’s the highway, the farm, the sportsfield, it’s what protected the republic from invasion for a thousand years. Then there’s the sense of freedom that comes from being independent, and able to go where you want, when you want. (Not down the Grand Canal though – no rental boats allowed.) Boating lanes are marked with tripods of sturdy logs, called bricole and are easy enough to follow from the boat’s chart. Traffic is generally quite sedate, apart from the odd boy racer, and nothing like Italian roads.

We followed our cruise with three nights in a hotel, went to a lovely production of La Traviata in an old palazzo, visited a few churches and museums, nipped quickly through the Piazza San Marco, dodging pigeons and tour parties, drank a lot of campari, ate a lot of icecream and spent a long time standing on bridges observing the mesmerising variety of boat traffic that we had been part of for a little while.

PS – Those who like the sound of lagoon cruising, but who don’t actually want to take the wheel themselves, should consider the hotel barge La Dolce Vita.         (La Dolce Vita has retired and La Bella Vita is now taking cruises between Venice & Mantua, through the Po Valley.) See our page Barging-Holland & Venice

2008 – A GOOD READ 

The Discovery of France by Graham Robb, published by Picador

A wonderfully idiosyncratic book, a million miles from Peter Mayle and his ilk, The Discovery of France is about the complex patchwork of tribes and languages that now make up the country we know today as France. To write it, the author rode 14000 miles and spent four years in the library. The result is a discursive ramble through the backwaters of the country, describing the lives of the people from the 17th to the early 20th century, with, as he says, “occasional detours through pre-Roman Gaul and present day France.”

Part One is about the many different populations and language groups that lived for centuries with little or no knowledge of each other, until the arrival of the steam train and the bicycle. Part Two is about the process of exploration, mapping and colonisation that transformed them into a nation based around Paris and the French language.

In between the two halves is an essay called “The Sixty Million Others” a fascinating and often moving account of the animal populations who shared the lives of the people who became the French – teams of smuggling dogs, for instance, and sheep who were guarded by shepherds on stilts.   It’s a marvellous book, full of bizarre anecdotes, odd facts and thought-provoking opinions. Highly recommended.


St Jean Port-CiboureWe’ve been travelling around the Pyrenees for years, admiring the magnificent mountains that divide France from Spain, and enjoying the towns and villages in the foothills, but we hadn’t been to the Atlantic Coast end till this year.

We thought St Jean might be a bit glitzy and glam – all tight jeans, high heels & too much gold jewellery. But no, it’s a relaxed, smallish seaside town, quietly chic, a nice mixture of fine old Basque buildings, the odd posh villa (Louis 14th stayed here briefly), a fishing port and a fine beach, with plenty of swimmers still enjoying the ocean in early October. We bought ice creams (he pistachio, she violet) and sat on a seaside bench, feeling quite at home. Tomorrow evening we’ll come back for a swim, we said. Now we say, next year we’ll definitely go for a swim…


In any French town, a stroll around the market gives you a good idea of the food the restaurants and cafes are cooking. Here in St Jean there are piles of beef heart tomatoes, little black figs, green and yellow melons, red peppers, (hot and pointy, and mild and round.)   The Pyrenees region is home to a number of pale and interesting sheep cheeses; the best known are the Ossau-Iraty cheeses, with a fine texture and delicate flavour.   Most of the Pyrenean cow cheeses are pale yellow, semi-hard and full of small holes. They have a springy, supple texture and range in strength from mild to old sports sock.  The goat cheeses cover a similar range, mostly depending on age, from the delicate soft young cheeses to the stronger, hard mature ones.

There’s lots of rosy ham, local & Spanish, and foie gras, both popular items on local menus.  I was persuaded by a smooth-talking baker to buy a local pie with layers of mince, tomato, potato and cheese – very hearty, but not a dish I’d actively seek out again.

Gateau Basque is the definitive pastry hereabouts, definitely worth looking for, not that you have to look far – it’s in the market and in all the bakeries.  There are two main kinds; almond cream or black cherry filling encased in a rich shortcake. One of the posh bakeries (& St Jean has plenty of those) makes a chocolate version – they’re all delicious. I think I like the almond one best, but we’ll be doing some more serious research when we return.

Macaroons, macarons in French, have been popular here since they were made for the marriage of the young Louis 14th to Marie Therese of Spain in 1660.   Several specialist makers are still turning out the dainty almond meringue rounds, which come in many flavours (including wasabi, which may be a step too far). Usually they’re sandwiched together with a ganache, but plain singles are available too.

This is also tapas country, and a mixed platter for two is a good choice for a light meal. We ordered one at Chez Kako and worked our way through the little bites. What looked like olives were tiny sausages with a pepper coating. We cooled off with a courgette & prawn tart and a larger tomato tart. Beside the actual olives, cubes of sheep cheese and translucent slices of ham, we were surprised to find some little toasted cheese and ham club sandwiches. Surprised, but very happy with our supper of tasty nibbles and a glass of chilled Navarre rosé, sitting at a table on the pavement on a warm autumn evening in this very likeable town.  Like Arnie – we’ll be back.   (Today the all-inclusive menu is 44 euros with sangria, wine & coffee.)      

CHEZ KAKO bar & restaurant, Place du Marché, St Jean de Luz.



South-west France is strawberry country – the markets were full of them and we bought a punnet called Mara des Bois. They were gorgeous – a medium-sized strawberry, but with the perfume and flavour of the tiny alpine ones, fraises des bois.  I assumed they were a heritage variety, but no, they were developed in 1991 by a French hybridiser, Marionnet. As far as I know, they are not available in New Zealand, but are well worth seeking out in France.

BESPOKE FRANCE’s holiday roundup


Hotel barge cruising – the ultimate unwinding holiday on fully crewed barges sleeping 4-21 in air-conditioned, en suite cabins, featuring gourmet food & wine and half-day excursions ashore.

Private escorted tours – small group tours to your favourite places. Tours are custom-designed for people who enjoy good food and wine and the intimacy of a small, flexible tour, travelling by minibus, and/or boat, with Robert driving and Barbara guiding.

The Walking Party – fully escorted walking holidays in south-west France with James & Diana, and donkeys to carry refreshments, plus a back-up vehicle.

Canal Boats – self drive, self catering holidays on the extensive French waterways, plus Italy, Germany, Belgium, Ireland, UK and Holland.

Freewheeling France – unique self-drive motoring itineraries for independent travellers offering the freedom of independent travel with the security of an escorted tour.

Backroad Discovery – a choice of independent cycling & walking holidays in the Loire, Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne, Dordogne, Midi, Provence and Brittany.

Residential language and cooking courses – Study French at a charming manor house outside Roanne, or hone your cooking skills at a lovely old farmhouse near Laval.

Bonus services – Our 35 years of French experience, plus included with our holidays are all sorts of useful information and tips (train connections, airport transfers, restaurants).

Plus we are happy to book additional accommodation from our long list of tried and tested character hotels, and car rentals, lease vehicles, train tickets …………..

Robert & Barbara