It was nearly a decade ago, during a high school French trip in May 2001, since my feet touched the soil of St. Pierre. I reflect on fond memories with my former classmates to enjoy the unique characteristics of this place – the cuisine, language, architecture and the Franc as the mainstay currency.
Heritage Run, the route on the Burin Peninsula of Newfoundland & Labrador leads to the St. Pierre Ferry which leaves port from Fortune. As you drive this route you will be captivated by the landscape with your imagination leading you to believe dinosaurs, dragons or some other creature will appear. On August 16, 2010 myself and a friend of a friend from Vienna, Austria had visited beautiful Burin. We had stopped by historic homes in Grand Bank and attempted to stay at Grannie’s Motor Inn, but it was filled. Although, the owner was quite helpful in securing a place at one of his other accommodations in Fortune. We stayed at Fortune Inn B&B for a short rest as we caught the 7:30 AM ferry.
The Ferry Arethusa only takes passengers and is $107.00 return for the 1 hour 30 minute run. You have the option of sitting on deck or below. We started on deck, but after a mist of salt spray, I decided I was better off heading down under. Upon arrival I moved my watch 30 minutes ahead to match the timezone. We dropped by the tourist office to get information and decided to walk the streets to familiarize ourselves with the local boutiques, restaurants, bakeries and bars. After several photos of the architecture and a sweet patisserie, we were greeted by our host Gilles.
After lunch we opted to take a van tour, which lasted for 1 hour and 15 minutes for 12.50 Euro (~$16.50). Our guide, Jean-Claude provided us with his take on the island’s economy, history, geography and culture. He started with the post office, which is still in operation, the salt sheds (no longer used for salt due to the moratorium on cod), the old fish plant, views of Ile aux Marins, the news station. Saint-Pierre Cathedral, the cemetery (17th century holding more than 1,000 graves, monuments and vaults), the Fronton (many traditional Basque games are played on site), Point aux Canons and its lighthouse, horses, former fishing rooms, a seabird on the rocks, freshwater swimming holes and saltwater sandy beaches and more. It was certainly worth the price paid.
At 4:15 we boarded the ferryboat that would take us to Ile aux Marins, which is just 10 minutes from St. Pierre by boat (1 KM). There is a low and narrow strip of land laying across the harbour to the East, which once was populated by some 700 fisherfolk and family. Now, the former fishing village is a museum island with no year round residents. Despite the few inhabitants, the island does not lack charm and appeal. There are many homes that are well maintained, others more rustic. Many of the buildings have been restored to their original state including the Archipelitude museum (former school), Mason Jezequel, Notre Dame des Marins (church), city hall, other buildings, cemetery and shipwreck are all for viewing. One can definitely understand the hardship of living on such an island without electricity, running water, indoor plumbing and exposed to the environmental elements more than a century ago.
We arrived just prior to 7:00 PM and decided it was time to get some French cuisine. I certainly recommend a reservation, since the good places fill up, even on a Tuesday evening. We were turned away from Ile de France. La Feu de Braise was the second choice and I was delighted to have a half-liter of Bordeaux with lamb, rice and vegetables and for dessert, my always favourite, Creme Brulé. After dinner, it was off to the bar for a couple of beers before returning to our host. I chatted with him for several hours over wine while he played a traditional instrument before I retired for the night.
Certainly my first day on the island was off to a great start! The following day, I took a zodiac, saw seals and explored Langlade and Miquelon. Check out Part II as it should be posted tomorrow. If you are interested in viewing more photos of these French Islands join the Facebook Group “Live Rural NL”.
Live Rural NL (from a distance) –
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others” (French Shore Historical Society)
This statement is very powerful as it notes the relationships we establish and contributions we make towards the lives of other people and society. Our history, memories and character is not forgotten once we pass on and simply noted by a name on a tombstone. No, we all touch the lives of others and leave behind elements that carries on long into the future.
On July 27, 2010, The French Shore Historical Society cordially invited me to attend their official grand opening of the French Shore Tapestry, at the French Shore Interpretation Centre, Conche, NL. Other commitments prevented me for being there on this day. However, the newspaper noted that more than 200 people showed up for the festivities, which more than doubled the Town’s population.
I did visit the facility back on June 29, 2010 with a friend who lives in Montreal, Quebec. Enroute, to Conche I saw a black bear cub. My first bear sighting ever on the island of Newfoundland! The road is a number of unpaved kilometers, but certainly worth the trip. As you loop into the Town of Conche, there are look-outs and well placed signage directing you to attractions of the French Shore. At the centre (formerly a nursing station established by the International Grenfell Association) there are informative panels and artifacts, as well as pleasant staff to answer any question you may have.
The crown jewel of the exhibit is a 222 foot Tapestry that depicts the history of the French Shore of Newfoundland and Labrador from the very beginning. The stories were designed and sketched by renowned artist J.C. Roy. Then the images were stitched by a group of women from Conche onto Jacobean linen and embroidered with crewel wool. The process had taken three years to complete, many long tiring hours, the trial of more vibrant colours and increased levels of difficulty to produce this extraordinary hand-stitched piece of art, that is simply one of a kind and forever a part of our rural Newfoundland & Labrador history. The tapestry includes animals, native Aboriginal groups, the Norse, Basque, English, Irish, French and transitions to the current settlers. It is a remarkable timeline from the beginning to present.
A walking trail pass the French Bread Oven, led us to a magnificent view of a quaint little down that is rich in history and big on charm. This Town has an Artist’s Retreat. It is no wonder! The perfect place to truly get-a-way from it all and find your inspiration. Another noteworthy stop was a visited to the remains of a World War II plane crash. The occupant survived, but remnants of the wreckage are preserved on site to this day.
Finally, not trip to Conche could be complete without a visit to Bits-n-Pieces Cafe (which is also Stagehead B&B). This old salt-box home has been completely restored after receiving a lot of tender loving care. It now shines with a splashy blue coat of paint and bright sunshine trim. I enjoyed a nice cup of coffee served with homemade French fries from potatoes grown in the garden and delicious fish cakes. If this place is not recommended by Where to Eat Canada, it damn well should be! It certainly was a treat to meet the youthful owner. It is refreshing to see people follow a dream and choose entrepreneurship as a viable career option.
Before leaving I purchased an original piece of art, entitled “The Lonely Harbour”. It was painted locally with a transparent fisherman alone, mending his net. There were others, but this one stood out as my father was a fisherman. It certainly can be a struggle. I admire the passion of those who continue to choose fishing as a profession. There are many challenges, long tiring hours, typically modest income and significant dangers. I am waiting to frame this print, most likely it will hang in my office. Each glance will bring me closer to my father.
My advice to you dear readers, when the opportunity arises whether you are local or from afar take time to put Conche, NL on your 1,000 Places to Go Before You Die.
Savouring the French Shore –
On June 28, 2010 as I continued my vacation and could not resist a visit to the rotunda of Charles S. Curtis Memorial Hospital. I have frequented the hospital on many occasions, typically to see a sick friend/relative or a new birth. Usually, I am in such a rush and take the attitude of disliking hospitals that I tend to rush past one of the most unique aspects of the hospital and even on the whole peninsula. The rotunda houses the Jordi Bonet Murals which depict life in Northern Newfoundland and Labrador.
Jordi Bonet was born in Barcelona, Spain (his work reminds me of the remarkable abstract and contemporaries of Gaudi’s work, which is greatly influenced by forms of nature and this is reflective of Gaudi’s Barcelona architecture. When in Barcelona, check out his marvels.)
Bonet at the youthful age of 9, lost his right arm. He had will and determination that he would not give up and learned to paint with his left arm. He came to Quebec, Canada and learned the technique of tiles, mosiacs and ceramics. In 1967, Bonet designed and fabricated the murals for the friends of the Grenfell Mission. In taking the time to look at each image, you will note that some are quite realistic, with native peoples, fisherman, water and the forest. While, others are more abstract and certainly open to individual interpretation. His use of color in the project creates a soothing, harmonious feel as we circle the room and realize that these images tell a story about us, our people and that it continues to circle.
I’ve learned two lessons from this visit. One, is to take time out in our everyday lives to really appreciate true beauty. You will find that it is all around you. Two, Jordi was strong willed and determined and so are the people of this peninsula, those who have passed on, those who remain and those who have adventured to other parts of the world. We can all make strong contributions and are a part of the living history, culture and heritage of the people of Rural Newfoundland and Labrador.
Grenfell Historic Properties coins The Jordi Bonet Murals as one of the Peninsula’s best kept secrets…..well I say lets not keep something so wonderful to ourselves. It is up to you to take the time to visit a meaniful piece of our history and heritage that in my mind compares with any piece of art or structure found in any gallery or museum, but I am probably a little biased.
We are talented people, those who have roots in Rural Newfoundland.