Last week I had quite the worst ever Schiphol passport experience of the last few years, the best part of an hour waiting in the EU Passports queue. It is pretty clear to me that no one gives a damn about which queue you are in at this airport. Having been traveling to Amsterdam for the last twenty or so years in the years since we’ve had dedicated EU entry queues I have never once seen a non-EU citizen getting to the border control officer in the wrong queue and being redirected to the correct one. In fact quite the opposite, on many occasions I have experienced the inevitable delay while they process the offending passport and delay everyone else. You end up playing a sort of ethnic-origin game and try to judge which queue looks like it has the least number of non-EU passport holders in it. It is yet another stress factor connected to travel. It made me think about this whole Schengen treaty thing and how it has effectively relegated non-Schengen country citizens to a kind of second class travel status.
I don’t know if anyone else has noticed but it seems that the only country that observes the rules in Europe, such as the blue EU customs channel where I understand they have to have a very good reason to stop you, is the UK. Pick anywhere else, France or Germany for example, and the channel does not exist. Pick another country, Italy or Poland, and it is always closed. There’s no logic to any of this. If you query this then there will inevitably be an observation that if the UK was a member of the Schengen treaty then this would not be an issue. But the point is that we are not a Schengen country, so why should we be treated with some kind of pariah nation status? The facts are that the UK stood by its principles and elected to stay out of Schengen in order to try and control a porous border problem that was (and many believe still is) rapidly getting out of control. In fact other countries in Europe are now regretting their decision to abolish this basic precaution that enables a state to maintain its sovereignty, namely the control over whoever enters the country. Unfortunately the price that the UK has to pay is delays getting in to just about anywhere in Europe.
As ever, anything to do with the EU and the unceasing push to standardise and harmonise is really all about bringing everybody down to the lowest common denominator. Plus it gives everyone else the vicarious pleasure of making life hard for the British.
If you haven’t visited Somerset House then you should do so one day. There’s always something to see alongside the permanent exhibitions such as the Courtauld Gallery’s famous Impressionist collection. But most importantly there’s a great bar/cafe called Fernandez and Wells in the north east corner. After work drinks or as we did today, a visit after an exhibition in the West End. It’s a great place for a glass of wine and a plate of Iberico ham and cheese. Large bright and airy rooms with modern design and views over the fountains in the courtyard. The place has a great atmosphere and the staff are very friendly. Highly recommended for a visit. They are open all day until ten and I understand do breakfast too. It’s the sort of place you might want to linger for a while. I think I’ve seen a couple of branches in Soho.
Finding a really first class place to eat in Brittany, I mean the type of place with a mention in the Michelin guide, was proving a bit challenging around where we were staying. No shortage of places to eat moules and St Jacques, but we were after something a bit different. The Tortuga found this place, well off the beaten track near to Erquy. I think she must have a secret guide somewhere because she never fails to come up with good places to eat when we are away together. Le Relais de St Aubin is set in beautiful gardens in an old seventeenth century priory. The first thing you notice is the riot of colours walking from the car park through the stone entrance archway. Hanging baskets, pots and borders are all overflowing with colourful plants and flowers and into the restaurant it gets no less interesting. In fact idiosyncratic is probably how it is best summed up. The entrance hall reminds you of one of those out of the way country museums with lots of ‘things’ dotted around and display cases containing interesting items – a set of bagpipes for instance. Apparently they have them in Brittany too.
The restaurant itself is like walking into an Edwardian parlour, cluttered is the best description, with the walls covered in antique-looking bric-a-brac and paintings. Blue table cloths and busy place settings that give the impression of too much chaos and not enough space to eat. In fact the whole dining room is a bit as your grandmother’s house might have been. Over on one side there is a massive fireplace. This is a bit off-putting on a warm day, but is an essential part of the place. Much of the food is prepared à la cheminée, which means cooked in the kitchen but finished off on the fire. It really does make a difference.
But that is where the homey-ness ends. The food is excellent, as you would expect from the wall full of eating guide recommendations on the way in. We had a fairly extensive trawl around the menu, starters, meat, fish and the children’s menu. It was all excellent quality and well presented. You also get to see your food finished on the fire. All very entertaining. The service was not exactly effusive, but then it often isn’t when you are eating as a guest in someone’s restaurant! They certainly know their market as the place was full of locals and not a tourist in sight. Another great benefit.
The restaurant has its own tame peacock who will join you for coffee on the terrace afterwards if you are lucky.
The medieval city of Dinan is straight out of a Grimm’s fairy tale. There are a few cities like this in Europe, but you can never quite believe them until you see one. Winding streets of old houses, shops and restaurants complete with a beautiful river and a castle. The houses in the meandering medieval streets are of timber and plaster and hang over the streets at all sorts of alarming angles. If you painted a picture of them you’d be accused of making it all up. But the jewel of it all has to be the church of Saint-Malo. Built in the XIVth century the interior is a wonderfully quiet and cool sanctuary away from the bustle of the town centre. As you enter you are immersed in beautiful warm and dusty light suffused with the many colours that just glow from the stunning stained glass windows that surround the church. There is stained glass everywhere and although they are not all old they are spectacular just from the sheer amount and the colour. It is a truly spiritual place. You don’t have to have a faith, but I defy anyone not to be moved by this place. But the very best part is just sitting in the nave listening to the organist play. There is nothing on earth like the sound of a really good church organ; the way the sound fills the enormous space and the notes resonating inside you. There’s just nothing like it. Sitting here in Saint-Malo you can’t but reflect on the hundreds of years of history that have passed through this place and the surrounding town. The wars of the last four hundred years and the thousands of lives that have been through here and gone. A true feeling of your own mortality.