‘Trains, Planes and Automobiles …’

A few miles east of La Baule on the south coast of Brittany, with a beach of firm sand set between two outcrops of rock that stretch out into the Atlantic, lies Saint-Marc sur Mer. Not a town in its own right but a province of Saint Nazaire, the delightful coastal resort is best known and most fondly remembered as being the location for French film-maker Jacques Tati’s ‘Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot.’

The journey to the west of France is something akin to the Steve Martin / John Candy 80’s classic ‘Trains, Planes and Automobiles’ – bus to Clapham Junction, train to Gatwick Airport, shuttle train to the north terminal, aircraft to Nantes, shuttle bus to Saint Nazaire, cab to Saint-Marc sur Mer.

Having left London in balmy, warm spring sunshine the sodden, soggy grey skies that greeted the aircraft didn’t look promising for a few days of continental warmth and much needed recouperation from brattish south London schoolchildren. However, under our most excellent canopy the taste of the Atlantic air was enough to raise the spirits and quickly as it was necessary to raise the umbrella.

L’Hotel de la Plage is precisely that … a hotel on the beach. Although the entrance is on the main road (and not the side on one depicted in the film – an added prop constructed as the actual entrance was still in use while filming took place), as soon as you head towards the restaurant you get that magical first glimpse of the instantly recognisable rocks, sand and jetty that are as much the stars of the movie as Tati and co.

Indeed the tempation to take a stroll is only puntured by the need for sustenance – a fish course, naturally (we are on the Atlantic coast) and some fine red wine from the friendliest of friendly staff.

It is early in the season and it allows almost a private excursion to the entire beach – the sand is as welcoming and as crumbly as the film suggests, the air warm and succulent, the landscape unspoilt by lines, signs and other warnings. The steps taken onto the old stone jetty are steep, jagged, broken and not at all safe but a welcome relief from ‘Health and Safety’ and people saying ‘No’ all the time. Waves splash your boots as you yourself splash through puddles lying otherwise dormant on the greeny/brown, undulating slabs underfoot. One side of the jetty has a rickety hand-rail but the other is open to the elements – again there is a sense of freedom – if you were to slip and fall then so be it – there’s no metaphorical hand-holding here, no ‘nanny-state’ cotton wool wrapped experience – just the rocks below and the lapping waves, slurping around the jetty like an eager puppy quenching his thirst after an hour spent chasing a stick in the park.

As you look back towards the hotel a ghostly figure is backlit from the streets, peering, straight-backed but leaning forward from the ankles, elbows splayed with too-short trousers, comical peaked hat and what appears to be a Clint Eastwood-style half-chewed charoot protruding from his lips.

Ah. Hulot. H-U-L-O-T. Hulot …

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