West Virginia University in Vendée, France


Fish Shopping

8 juin 2010

As you remember from yesterday, Kevin felt terribly sorry for arriving 30 seconds late in class, so today, he is making up for it by being 15 minutes early.  This is all the more commendable that the meeting time was ... 6:45am!  He is in good company, though, as Melaney (who was not late yesterday) has decided that she, too, would be early.


This morning our visits are devoted to the town of Les Sables.  As you may imagine, fishing and tourism are the two main economic activities of the town.  We start our exploration by a visit of the port, which remains extremely active, ranking 5th in the nation.  Although at present, the main activity is in the port de plaisance (for sailboats), the fishing port pictured here is still among the most active in France.



Although it has been hard for us to be timely at 6:45am, we find out that we are arriving as the fish dealers have almost completed all of their transactions for the day.  The fish sale usually starts around 4:30am, to conclude before 7:00am.  This group of buyers is looking at the fish, while the auctioneer, sitting behind his computerized station, looks on.


Since1999, the Criée (the fish auction) has "gone techie."  The name criée, from the verb crier, to shout, was a most appropriate name before the invention of the microphone.  Today, no shouting of any kind takes place (except when one of our Vendéen unexpectedly kisses a fish, more on that later).

You may wonder why all the buyers have their hands in their pockets.  Even though it is extremely cold in the warehouse, the reason has to do with technology: buyers want to keep their poker face and discretely send a message to the computer in the picture above by clicking the remote in their pocket.


As in years past, our guide today is Christine, and we could not ask for a more enthusiastic advocate for the fish!  Here she presents us with one of the "noble" fish (by French standards), the lotte (aka, monk fish--poor man's lobster).  A lotte is particularly ugly, but make no mistake, it is a delicacy that your palate will never forget.


Melaney will never forget her lotte, but for another reason altogether...


As usual, the Vendéens and Vendéennes are taking assiduous notes, writing down the name of every fish (here a plie).  We want to believe that the fact that there will be a quiz tomorrow on our friends from the sea has nothing to do with their intense attention.


Sardines were once the most important fish for the port de pêche.  For every job at sea gathering the sardines, several jobs were created on land for the local women who worked in the canneries.  Women even came from Brittany, a little further north on the coast, to work in the canneries.  The Breton women had a street named for them, la rue Bécassine, after a very popular cartoon character from the beginning of the XXth century.  If you need more information about Bécassine, feel free to ask David, our expert in residence...


Some of the boys in the group are very intent at revolutionizing men's fashion in France.  Here Ben sports his new style of pants, inspired by the visit of the Criée, where the constant washing of the floors soon prompt him to roll up his jeans.  Maybe this new style will be called a fish rollup! (Scroll over the picture to see another interesting pose!)


After a long, intense (and smelly) visit we are ready to repair our bodies at a café across the street.  Juice, coffee, hot chocolate and croissants put a smile on Allison, Jordan, Tory and Peggy's faces.


Not deterred by the cool weather, David, Kevin, Liz, Alicen and Ben decide to eat en terrasse, like the locals they have become in just a few days.


On the other side of the terrrasse, Emily, Rachael, Melaney and Kaitlynn are all fascinated not by Dr. Orlikoff taking their picture, but by Emily's new friend Dougy (not in the picture), a fluffy little dog.


Next, we meet our guide Priscilla who takes us through the streets of Les Sables and explains to us the historical events that have taken place in the city, from the Middle Ages through the Reformation and the Revolution.

Here we see a main artery of the fisherman's district.  Although you may find this street narrow, its design has a purpose: to prevent wind tunnels.  By the way, for us Morgantonians, the name of this street does sound familiar: la rue Haute (a.k.a. High Street).


A banal fisherman's house at first sight, this house is culturally of interest to our group.  At the beginning of the XIXth century,  a shift in medical thought encouraged rich patients to seek salt water treatments.  But, as these patients flocked to Les Sables and other coastal towns, there were no facilities to receive them.  Resourceful fishermen would move to the cellar of their houses, a space originally intended for the storage of fishing equipment (see house in the back) and would rent out their own living spaces.  As time passed, the same fisherman built new houses specifically to accommodate their summer visitors.  Those modern houses had a higher ceilinged cellar, and that room was rented to the baigneurs (front house).  Today, the tradition remains, and if you look closely on the door of the front house, you can see a placard advertising a room for rent.

Today, seasonal tourism remains a major activity for the town, although the benefits from the beach have more to do with aesthetics than health.


This shift in medical thought and the benefits of new technologies resulted also in the creation of a new market, built with two principles in mind: materials that were fully washable, and plenty of light.  Built at the end of the XIXth century, this market will remind you of the style of contemporary buildings: the Eiffel Tower, the Gare d'Orsay and such.

Recently renovated, les Halles is a very busy shopping center, where it is hard to resist the temptation to buy every fresh fruit, vegetable or fish that comes in sight. 


The large church Notre-Dame de Bon Port was erected during the time of Richelieu (XVIIth century) to reinforce the influence of the Catholic Church in the region.  The architecture though shows some Protestant influence:  the sober appearance, with no statues or ornaments was a heed to Protestants' criticism that Catholicism were too involved with worldly glory.


In time, rich tourists were no longer  satisfied living in fishermen's cellars and built some beautiful homes on the beach side of the bay.  The terrace on top was very important for watching the horse races that took place on the beach.



Eventually, a retention wall was built to protect the beautiful homes from the sea, and soon, the boardwalk was expanded as a beautiful promenade.  People watching was then as it is now, one of the major past-time of the baigneurs.  The tidal wave Xynthia in February destroyed major parts of the Remblai, but a quick (though solid) patchwork has been done for the up coming tourist season.


We finish our visit of Les Sables by a tour in the Île Penotte, a small district that turned its bad reputation around through art.  One of the residents, Mme Danièle Arnaud-Aubin,  decided to revive an ancient form of art that was common in coastal cities during preceding centuries, that of decorating houses with seashells.


As we walk through this very famous district, we are all in awe of the creativity of the artist.  Although a few small compositions are executed with sea-shells from exotic lands, most are done with shells gathered on the beach by the artists or residents of the town.


Dr Orlikoff particularly loves the little mouse you see here.  The mouse is hiding from a big black cat (its tail is visible to the left).


Next, we gather at the Restaurant La Coquille in Jard-sur-Mer, for a delicious meal.  French is de rigeur during the meal, except during dessert, when those desiring to may speak English.  You might think that our table was quiet until dessert, but au contraire!  Laughter and constant chatting made our meal extremely relaxing.


The last part of the day takes us to Saint-Vincent sur Jard, a few kilometers down the road.  Here our group poses in front of the sea.  The gray skies do  not darken our spirit in the  least.


We are in St Vincent to visit the retirement home of one of the most famous Vendéens, Georges Clemenceau, the statesman whose career culminated during the First World War.  Obsessed with the recapture of Alsace and Lorraine that Germany had seized after the war of 1870, Clemenceau, a war hero who had to sustain the morale of the troops in the trenches, was unable to temper his thirst for annihilating the Germans during in the Treaty of Versailles.  Thus, it was said that Clemenceau had won the war but lost the peace because, ultimately, the harshness of the treaty was seen as one of the causes of WWII.  An unfortunate play on words with one of Clemenceau's nicknames, Père la Victoire (Father of Victory) was "Perd la victoire" (loses the victory). 


As we wait for the guided tour, group Clemenceau, a little emotional as you may notice, poses in front of the statue of their patron.


Albert, one of WVV-V's most respected guides, gives us a very enthusiastic and dramatic tour of the Tiger's home (another of Clemenceau's nicknames).  Here, as he concludes the visit in Clemenceau's kitchen, in a burst of patriotism the picture can hardly express, Albert cries out, Vive Georges Clemenceau, Vive la République, Vive la France!  


Before we re-board the Vendee-mobile, Albert requests a group picture in front of the statue, as he talks effusively of Dr. Mike's dedication to the preparation of past groups.  WVU students are always well informed on Clemenceau and his political role, particularly regarding the Dreyfus Affair.  Sadly, Albert confides that French students often do not credit Clemenceau for attracting attention to this gross miscarriage of justice.  Although Émile Zola wrote the famous letter that eventually resulted in a new trial for Dreyfus, it is Clemenceau who chose its striking title,  J'Accuse!  No student of Dr. Mike ( a Zola expert) would ever forget that!



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