The Independent Traveler's Newsletter                           PAGE THREE

La Normandie Réunie                                                                           by Rob Silverstone  

Once again, we have the pleasure of a visit to Normandy through the eyes of British chef and writer, Rob Silverstone,
whose books take us on unique visits to a region of France he knows intimately and where he is always quite at home .
I identify with La Haute Normandie, the Eastern half of the old Viking fiefdom.  Stunning white cliffs mark out the coast and rise along the Seine as it loops its way from Honfleur to Giverny ~ verdant countryside undulating between river and sea.  I once traveled to the western border post at Beaumont-en-Auge and looked out onto Basse Normandie, stretching towards Caen, Bayeux and Mont St-Michel.  I was not drawn to explore this unknown territory and returned to my hilltop nest in the familiar Gothic architecture of Rouen.

Well, the division between Upper and Lower exists no more.  Normandy is now one united entity.  The intention is to streamline activity, dispense with cluttered tiers of government comprising two regions and three départements, and create a dynamic Northern powerhouse.  I am rather skeptical of success, knowing the French capacity to devise new labyrinthine bureaucracy more arcane than anything dreamt up by Franz Kafka. For every Pont de Normandie soaring over the Seine estuary there will be 100 worthy projects mired in form filling.

So, I remain an aficionado of the former order of things, and I offer some glimpses of life from this cradle of Impressionist art and scallop capital of the world.

Scallop Boat.  Copyright Rob Silverstone.  All rights reserved.The little River Cuckmere winds its way through a gateway to The Downs and embraces a tranquil sea.  A procession of waves march in, flourish their petticoats and peel away, like troupers at the 'Folies Bergère'. 'The Seven Sisters' shares its name with the ferry that carries us to Dieppe. The four hours pass easily, time lost between slumber and a cheeky bottle of Macon Blanc Villages. The cliffs of the Côte d'Ivoire draw into focus, the harbor walls are breached and a man in gauntlets that last did service at Agincourt, lassoes the ship to the quay.  Bikes mercifully disembark before the army of container lorries can summon up the toxic fog that propels them up the ramp, over the cliff and away. The sister ship, La Côte d'Alabatre, lies redundant on a desolate dock where conveyor belts disgorge scallops amid a mountain of stinking shells.  This unpromising spot is home to La Chaloupe, an outstanding 'Routier' restaurant.   Join the jovial barney around the hors d'oeuvres table, then tuck into a main course that might be lapin au moutarde or local skate.  Savor a choice of Normandy cheeses, find room for a pudding, and help yourself to as much Longueville cider as the onward journey permits.  All for just 12 euros.  The clientele are solid working men, wearing their blue overalls like a badge of pride.  One humongously muscled brute sways in, barbells bouncing off his biceps, accompanied by a divinely pretty boy with sensuous mouth and strawberry blond hair.  Madame leads them to an exclusive little room out the back; Notre-Dame-des-Pêcheurs.
Booked into l'Hôtel de la Plage in Dieppe with a room looking out onto La Rue du Haut Pas.  Twenty years ago a couple of houses simply collapsed in heaps of rubble into the street, but they have been faithfully restored, each brick glowing with terracotta paint, chimney pots pointed, patrolled by an imperious breed of seagull.  Every visit to 'La Plage' reveals some new improvement, and the completion of a quarter designed for guests no longer fleet of foot has bestowed a worthy third star.  The hotel celebrated with still more lavish furnishings, a regal cummerbund across the bed, only lacking the two lions insignia of old Normandy for full opulent effect.  A clarion call from minstrels as you enter and leave the water closet.  Red is the theme of my room, poppies scattered across the bathroom tiling, a deep crimson shower curtain redolent of that Hitchcock movie, and a chunky red poof by the bed.

At breakfast a new coffee machine has replaced the fleet of women in house coats who used to ferry pots of coffee to each table.  Beans ground with a pneumatic pounding, then an interlude of mechanical consternation before a wholesome cup of coffee is finally dispensed.   Took lunch at Le Newhaven restaurant which serves consistently attractive food.  Even when serious building work was being conducted in the main body of the restaurant, the cloud of brick dust partitioned by a flimsy sheet, the remaining tables were filled to capacity, the solid Norman clientele undeterred by the notion of food flirting with asbestosis.  A little animation as each couple gets installed, the adjustment of bib and cutlery, spectacles donned to peruse the menu and apéritifs ordered with crisp efficiency.  Then a quaint habit takes hold, in the absence of any conversation, hands wringing gently together in a vague gesture of contentment.  Eyes glance outside, taking in the spectacle of the two elements of the blue bridge, rising like a giant clothes peg, saluting the fishing vessels making for harbor, a centipede of traffic on either side, powerless and exhausted.  Attention returns to the familiar features sat opposite, light drains away, hand wringing subsides, eyes drift askance; a desperate chasm of time before the first course arrives.

La Grande Guerre sign.  Copyright Rob Silverstone.  All rights reserved.

year Le Musée d’Education in Rouen held an open air exhibition on La Rue Eau du Robec, depicting scenes from a century ago.  This photo depicts La Grande Guerre in an idyllic pastoral setting.  Nothing could be further removed from the carnage that actually took place with 162,000 French killed at Verdun alone.  The scale of the horror probably explains why there was no appetite for a fight the second time around; in 1940 only one tank on a single bridge faced the invading army at Rouen.

A Mule Across the Water cover.  Rob Silverstone.  All rights reserved.

summer, Le Musée des Beaux Arts hosts an exhibition on the theme Scènes de la Vie Impressioniste.  If it is as good as Eblouissants Reflets, held to coincide with the ‘Armada’ in 2013, it would definitely merit a trip to Rouen.  Just behind l’Église St Maclou, Galerie Bertran shows wonderful canvases from lesser known Impressionists such as Fréchon, Pinchon, Delattre and Couchaux.  The collection changes regularly, and if an Impressionist masterpiece is beyond your means, there are lovely posters and cards to be had.  The gallery can be found in an old sloping, timber-framed building, at 108 Rue Molière.

All aspects of Le Patrimoine Rouennais can be discovered on the site, updated daily by local chronicler Jacques Tanguy.   Jacques can also provides tailor made tours.

You can find out more about Rob’s books on
A Mule Across the Water - Real Food in Sussex & Normandy, 2014.
A Mule in Rouen - a Discovery of Upper Normandy, Second edition 2014.
Copies can be obtained directly from the publisher Pegasus of Cambridge -
to Claire-Rose at
Order Rob's books by clicking on the Amazon banner.  BOOKS ABOUT FRANCEand MORE AT AMAZON !  Click here

WHERE TO STAY:         Bed & Breakfast:    Château de Saint-Maclou     
                                                     Châteaux to Rent:  Château de Gauville and  Château de Sommesnil

                                                                  Click on the links above to visit them.       - Editor    




EBEN: En Blanc et Noir - Lagrasse Piano Festival . . .                     
by Robert Turnbull
introduction by Anita Rieu-Sicart

In July 2013, Robert Turnbull, professional journalist, graduate of the San Francisco Music Conservatory, and keen amateur pianist,

fulfilled a long-cherished dream: to create a piano festival in the village of Lagrasse, some 30 kilometres south-east of Carcassonne,
France, giving precious opportunities to several young Americans and Europeans launching careers as concert pianists.

Described in the London Times as ‘the most beautiful village in France’, Lagrasse attracts an unusual diversity of people during the summer.
The original idea behind the festival was to provide a major opportunity and a beautifull venue for young artists to perform in public.
  This has been made possible thanks to the hard work and dedication of a small organizing team and good support from the Lagrasse council
and several generous donors, attracted to the festival because of its unusual combination of emerging international talent, setting and location.

Robert Turnbull wrote the following about the 2015 Festival.  

When a few friends and I created the Piano Festival En Blanc et Noir in the Aude village of Lagrasse, in 2013 our principle aim was to provide opportunities for young pianists at the onset of their careers.  The festival began as a humble affair.  With a stage just big enough for two grand pianos, minimal lighting and no amplification, it was really a salon en plein air, en pleine lune, a stone’s throw from the Abbaye de Lagrasse, one of France’s most romantic monuments. 

Musically, we were all surprised by the results.  One or two pianists, you could tell, were still finding their form, but the standing ovation inspired by James Kreiling and Janneke Brits’ piano duo version of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps gave us all the sense that we are onto something.  The talent of over a dozen gifted musicians radiated long after the sounding of the final notes.  The experience, we began to realize, must be repeated!

James and Janneke, both Guildhall graduates, returned last summer on July 15 for a four-hand arrangement of Debussy’s tone poem La Mer, and - perhaps the most exciting item of the entire festival – the French premiere of Gustav Holst’s recently-discovered arrangement of The Planets Suite. Of course, Holst adored France and spent many days walking in the Auvergne, dreaming up cosmic melodies.

2015 marked the centenary of possibly the 20th century’s most mystifying composer.  Alexander Scriabin is perhaps most famous for his eccentric and unexecuted plan to mount musical extravaganzas in a temple in the Himalayas.  But for pianists, the technical challenges demanded to conjure his unique sound world are very real.  Having written a dissertation on the composer while recording a CD of his music, James Kreiling shared his insights at EBEN this past summer before performing the composer’s 6th and 10th sonatas.   The Guillaume Sigier. EBEN 2015.  Courtesy EBEN web site.  All rights reserved.Serbian-American pianist, Ivan Ilic, won multiple plaudits for his recordings of Godowsky’s fiendishly difficult left-hand ‘studies’ on Chopin’s Etudes.  He opened 2015’s EBEN with a selection of Scriabin Preludes, sharing the stage with his pupil Paul Salinier, who played Debussy’s Estampes. Together they ended the concert as a duo – for Schubert’s Overture in F minor and Debussy’s rarely heard Divertissement.

Responding to the suggestion that the 2014 festival was too Anglophone, I scouted more French talent.  François Moschetta, a pupil of Michel Beroff, played Schubert’s great A major Sonata and some Ravel.  Guillaume Sigier ([photo), a former RCM student, has also chosen Ravel along with Brahms’ Opus 118 Intermezzi and something by the contemporary British composer Thomas Ades.  Louisa Counarie has decided on a program embracing 200 years of the classics: Schubert, Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn’s sweetly affecting Songs Without Words. Lagrasse has its own resident concert pianist: Charley Felter’s debut for EBEN assembled Preludes by the Catalan composer Mompou, a handful of Chopin Mazurkas and two of his own waltzes.

The festival aims to showcase other pianistic skills, which included accompanying.   Nestor Bayon returned to accompanying his compatriot, baritone Alex Vicens, in a program of Catalan folk songs, Tosti, and a group of operatic arias ending with Puccini’s bloodcurdling Nessum Dorma.   Maybe one of the most attractive aspects is that the concerts are free  ~ no conflated prices  ~  people just doing it for the love of it,  but raising enough money to pay the young musicians.   Everyone contributes.   

This year the Festival is July  2 to 7, 2016, and below are some highlights.


Lagrasse (Aude)
  • Anniversary tributes to Granados (100), Dutilleux (100), Feldman (90)…
  • Schubert’s last two piano sonatas in one festival…
  • Bartók’s Sonata for 2 Pianos & Percussion in the round – our most ambitious program ever!
  • Candle-lit concert of Morton Feldman in the Église Saint-Michel…
  • The work that gives the festival its name: Débussy’s En Blanc et Noir has its Aude début in the opening 2-piano concert.
  • New event: Piano à Volonté – not all great pianists are professionals!  Everyone is invited.   Wrong notes allowed – up to a point!
  • International flavors: this year we have more French pianists, two Catalans and our first Hungarian…
  • For the first time – a Cabaret evening!
  • For the first time – Piano workshops
  • Return of favorites Bobby Mitchell, François Moschetta, Guillaume Sigier, James Kreiling & Janneke Brit
          . . . and so much more!

The Catalan composer Enrique Granados drowned tragically on his return from the première of his opera Goyescas in New York a hundred years ago.  EBEN commemorates this great composer by inviting the Barcelona-based pianist Luis Grané López to play his original solo piano version of Goyescas.  The work takes inspiration from images by Goya.
Lagrasse courtesy Wikipedia/Survivefrance.comWe also mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of French composer Henri Dutilleux.  The Belgian pianist Stephanie Proot makes her EBEN debut by playing part of his demanding solo piano sonata, balanced by the bewitching charm of the A major Schubert sonata, D.664.
The piano is bigger than the classics, all the same, and this year EBEN is thrilled to launch a Cabaret Evening featuring singers Kate Symonds-Joy and Alexey Gusev and violinist Lev Atlas.  Accompanied by Yshani Perinpanayagam and Stephen Adam, they will “welcome-willkommen-bienvenue” us through a selection of French chansons, as well as German and British cabaret songs by Weill, Poulenc, Brel and Britten. 

But the whole point is young musicians,   Americans, French, European, are getting a chance to get lift off, exposure, in the very competitive professional world of concert performers. The black and white backdrop to this incredibly, country style, under the market canopy is by a British artist Jonathon Brown, a friend of Robert Turnbull.  If you go to the web site there are details on how to contribute: and Facebook at

The En Blanc et Noir piano festival has been gently expanding at a time when many French festivals are closing down.   Run by local villagers, the yearly host to a dozen or so international musicians on the cusp of exciting careers, EBEN boasts perhaps the most ravishing venue in the South of France in the 14th century Place de la Halle, smack in the middle of what the London Times described as “France’s most beautiful village’’.  

Lagrasse is famous for its warmth and conviviality (and the Abbey of St Mary of Lagrasse dating from the 7th century), and our festival has rightly acquired a reputation for its family feel between the artists themselves as well as with the loyal audience. Guest artists and audience members mingle freely, while village volunteers put on lavish banquets in what has become a celebration of local pride and endeavor unparalleled in this region of France.

  Anita Rieu-Sicart, a frequent contributor to FRANCE On Your Own, is the editor of
The Var Village Voice in Provence, the local English-language publication that covers
 everything of interest and importance in the Var département .
Visit her web site to subscribe!



La Borde banner.  Photo copyright La Borde Maison d' Hotes.  All rights reserved.

 See video of  autumn at La Borde

A stay at La Borde Maison d'Hôtes in Burgundy will become one
of your favorite memories of France.  Luxurious rooms, excellent
breakfasts and dinners, award-winning gardens, a fine pool, spa and a
 host and hostess who are just
delightful!  Visit them today
with a click on the photo, and
be sure to watch the video!

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