Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Small towns by the sea....

Navtej Sarna

THE universal Sunday morning feeling of having woken up too early was swimming around in our heads. Anything is too early on a Sunday, more so on a Sunday in Paris. The comatose city wasn’t even making the pretence of an attempt to wake up as we wound through its streets. A friend and a friend’s friend and I. They were doing it to their Sunday in a magnanimous gesture to show me the northwest coastline of France. It seemed like my only chance and I wasn’t complaining. Sleep would make its insistent claims later.

We twisted along the sleeping streets. Eliot came helplessly to mind… certain half deserted streets… streets that still smelt of yesterday’s beer and of a Saturday night which blissfully hadn’t known where to end. Past the shuttered shop windows and into a tunnel under the road. Over the bridge out of the city and the fresh air hit us in the face.

The tough old car made determined progress and the highway swept by fast and clean. Leaning out of the window as the car swept by in a large arc, I could smell the sea and I knew that if we travelled long enough in that direction the sea would come. Between Paris and the sea lay fields and meadows, chateux and battlefields. The neat little villages began to dot the countryside. Green and yellow in a rush by the window. The perfect little house with the neat garden and dainty gate. And over the garden the fairytale window behind which I would love to wake up at least one morning.

The road was so good that every few kilometers we were stopped at automatically operated gates to pay for the pleasure of traveling on it. Soon the heavyheaded feeling began to grow so that we started looking for coffee. We whizzed pat two cyclists out for the day with packs on their backs. A sudden turn of the road and there was a shop where we could have our coffee. The man behind the counter handed over a key to the cloakroom which lay hidden under the shop where we could wash away the dust and the sleep. As I handed back the key I felt that I had become part of some great mystery shrouding the hidden cloakroom.The coffee was strong, bitter black on a little table outside the shop. The table shook as three pairs of elbows leaned on it and watched the cyclists pass by and they waved. They would stop at one of the little streams and toss in their baits for the fish. Then they would lean back and gossip and laugh and sip the wine which those bags no doubt contained. And with the wine they would take out the bread and the meat and the fruits.

But we had to go on cutting through the country to its edge and the blue sea.

We crossed the Seine, wide and blue just before it pours into the sea. It was a large picturesque bridge and the guidebooks all later informed me that the place was called Tancerville. Going by the map we should have gone to the sea at Le Havre but my friend’s friend had other ideas. A series of twists and turns put us onto the road to Fecamp. It’s a small pretty town that makes these adjectives sound hollow and insipid.

Fecamp is marked by the chalky cliffs and the Gothic Trinity Abbey which watches them go down to the greenish blue sea. They say it almost equals the Notre Dame cathedral in size. We look for bread and discover a long line disappearing into a shop. No ordinary bread this, and people rightly start munching it in the shop itself. Outside across the small road lie the pebbly beach and then the red, blue, green sails.

A few miles down the road lies another picture-the town of a thousand tourism posters-Etratrat. Again the beach and the yachts and as we climb the grassy hills a white sail bends in the distance. The surf with the craggy pinnacles. Those decentered landscapes come alive as the wind blows the water against rock and a seagull squawks. Another comes calmly and begins to peck at the meat. And another circled overhead forming silhouettes against the sun and moved gracefully into my camera lens.

We didn’t have time to stop in Le Havre. After the really small towns it somehow did seem a bit too organized. Coasting through we caught glimpses of the views sketched and painted by Eugene Boudin. One could not help thinking that once during the Second World War this was perhaps the most heavily damaged port in Europe.

I could not keep away the sleep much longer. They told me later that it was a beautiful drive back and in the night the lights of Paris had cast a deep glow on the sky.