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A union of European cultures

Three isles off Normandy are rich in British and French history. And at a festival on Jersey, the floral competition gets unusually aggressive.

August 01, 2004|Peter Wortsman | Special to The Times

St. Brelade, Channel Islands — Elevated on a lush plateau 300 feet above the deep, a mere 22 miles off the Normandy coast of France and 100 miles south of England, the tiny isle of Sark is far from the madding crowd. Cars are banned. Sturdy legs and a rented bicycle are all you need to cover its 5 1/4 square miles.

Still ruled by a seigneur, or lord, Sark is the smallest independent entity in the Commonwealth, Europe's last feudal fiefdom and -- as my family and I discovered last summer -- one of tranquillity's finest keeps. It was here on a bicycle path that we slowed down and fully fathomed the charm of Sark and its sister Channel Islands, floating splinters of a bygone civility.

Unable to engage rooms at La Sablonnerie, a renowned rustic inn on Sark's southern flank, we consoled ourselves with traditional Sark cream tea in its cozy garden hidden behind a hedgerow. Serenaded by a distant cowbell, my wife, Claudie, and I sipped the full-bodied house blend in perfect serenity. Our 13-year-old daughter, Aurelie, and 8-year-old son, Jacques, chose sodas and passed on the cucumber sandwiches.

But everybody dug with voracious delight into the meal's main attraction, a stack of warm scones that we cleaved in two, dabbed with jam and spread thick with yellow clotted cream fresh from the cows we had just bicycled by.

Sark and sister isles Jersey and Guernsey are part of an archipelago divided into two self-governing bailiwicks, both loyal to the British crown but deeply rooted in French culture. The hybrid heritage felt strangely familiar and particularly congenial for me, a first-generation American, and my wife, who is French, as we island-hopped to visit Gallic-flavored towns, medieval castles and the eccentric former home of author Victor Hugo, among other sites.

The carrot for the kids was the Battle of Flowers, an annual carnival on Jersey scheduled for Aug. 12 and 13 this year and considered one of Europe's finest. A family-friendly community event with none of the rowdiness of a New Orleans Mardi Gras, the Jersey celebration is a cavalcade of colossal floats, fantasies covered with woven tapestries of flowers, the islands' most famous natural resource, accompanied by costumed revelers, dancers and bands.

During our six days in the Channel Islands, we met no other Americans. Affluent English retirees, attracted by the absence of capital gains and inheritance taxes, and tourists from other parts of the United Kingdom are present in droves. Many come for the climate -- 68 degrees on average from May to September and more sunny days than anywhere in Britain.

History is another draw. Annexed by the Duchy of Normandy in the 10th century and used as a refueling station by William the Conqueror in his conquest of England in 1066, the islands maintain a bicultural identity that dates to 1204, when the English King John (the same sire who harassed Robin Hood) lost Normandy to the French King Philip II (Philippe Auguste). Given the choice, the locals threw in their lot with the British monarch and thus earned in perpetuity the quasi-independent status of "crown peculiar."

Though English is spoken everywhere today, Anglo-Norman was the lingua franca as late as the 1920s. Few speak the old dialect anymore, but place names and folklore keep it alive.

Beauty with a past

One of the great traditions is the Battle of Flowers on the waterfront in St. Helier, Jersey's capital. We were in the thick of things, comfortably ensconced on a grandstand, as the band struck up "God Save the Queen" and a dapper gent in a gray seersucker suit seated in front of us -- the lieutenant governor, it turned out -- rose to proclaim, "May the 2003 battle commence!"

A sky-blue tank shot pastel-colored petals into the crowd, and that was about as bellicose as things got. The flower-bonneted grande dame to our left lamented the passing of the battles of yore, at which competitors would strip their floats bare of blossoms to bombard the enemy and one another.

Still, the mood was hardly sedate. Green Hulk look-alikes gesticulated with comic menace from a float called Bizarre Affair, a monumentally bosomed flamenco giantess commandeered a motorized bull and a titanic Cat in the Hat (our children's favorite) from the parish of Grouville went chapeau to chapeau with the Mad Hatter from Trinity parish -- all of them bedecked with flowers.

About 4,500 locals are involved in the planning and execution of the event, according to the Official Programme, with as many as 150 volunteers engaged in the hand-gluing of flowers on each float. The proximity of the ocean adds to the aura, as if the floats all come gliding in on the surf, Botticelli's "Birth of Venus"- style.

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