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Thoughts for the Weekend & this Week’s Links

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To Rennes and Back.

How is it that French cities are so good?

Rennes, a city that may not be on the typical tourist map or in the top ten French cities by population, is a hidden gem. It may not boast a grand cathedral like Rouen, but it offers a unique experience, almost like a mini Paris, with its vibrant streets, efficient transport, and a charm all its own.

After spending a couple of nights in the capital of Brittany, I couldn’t help but compare it with two south-coast English cities of similar population sizes. The comparative size is what I can’t get my head around.

How do the French manage out-of-town shopping while retaining a healthy and vibrant inner city? For starters, there are no identikit malls in Rennes, nothing like Liverpool ONE, St James Quarter in Edinburgh, Westgate in Oxford, or West Quay in Southampton. Most UK cities have one of these sorts of developments. In smaller cities, they suck the life out of the existing city as all the retailers rush like sheep to be in the newest and shiniest development. Southampton is a good example, and if you want to see the worst, visit Yeovil. Actually, don’t bother. Go to Brest instead. As French cities go, it’s pretty terrible, but I’d recommend it over Yeovil any day. Plus, it has an urban cable car.

Speaking of public transport, Rennes has a Metro system. When it opened in 2002, it was the smallest city in the world to have one. A second line was added in 2022. Remember when South Hampshire thought about a rapid light rail network, including a tunnel under Portsmouth Harbour to connect Gosport and beyond? Conceived in the late 1980s, plans were dumped in the early 2000s in part due to the depth of the tunnel required to go under the harbour. How did it take a decade to work that out?

Today, I find myself a bit down on UK cities. But my sense of Rennes and other non-glamorous French cities, like Caen, is that they seem to get the infrastructure right. They balance city and suburban retail, and they get the density right. Rennes has some fantastic-looking apartment buildings, both new and old.

French retailers do not appear to have bailed out on city centres. Galeries Lafayette, which outside Paris feels like a decent Debenhams, has fifty-plus stores in France. Debenhams has long gone, and Marks and Spencer have left massive holes in many towns and cities. Bournemouth is one.

There is Amazon and online shopping in France. The massive distribution centre being built on the outskirts of Caen shows that. Carrefour is 20% bigger than Tesco by revenue, and their HyperMarkets are always out of town and part of a mall of chain stores. So it’s not like French planners have insisted everything stays within the city limits.

So I’m totally mystified. But the good news is Rennes is only about two hours from the ferry near Caen. Unless you leave your passports in the hotel safe and don’t realise until you’re halfway, then it’s a four-hour trip.

Design for the Weekend: Portland Terrace

Portland in Dorset is a tied island. I imagine most visitors either head out to the lighthouse or never quite make it onto the island by visiting the marina. But the first urban area you meet on arrival is the village of Fortuneswell. If it was in a trendy part of Cornwall or if Rick Stein decided it was the place to be, you’d not find three-storey Victorian houses with amazing views of Chesil Beach and Lyme Bay for around £250,000.

It’s a strange little place, not at all cool, with narrow, steep streets and tightly packed houses. You can lie in bed and hear the waves dragging the pebbles from the beach all night long. Like Rennes, it’s a hidden gem in my view, with no chance of an identikit mall ever appearing.

So don’t share this with Rick and his chums, and watch me look at ways to improve this terraced house with views of the sea and the possibility of a second little house in the back garden.

This week’s web links, carefully curated to pique your interest, include a canal house and boat, along with some electric barbeques.

I’m always eager to hear your thoughts and suggestions on the topics discussed. You will always find me at carl@carlarchitect.co.uk.

All the best

Carl's signature

This Week’s Links:

South Hampshire’s once-planned light rapid transit system.

The most expensive property on the market in Portland.

A fantastic canal house in Bruge.

Or you could try an actual canal houseboat.

A decent restaurant in Ouistreham while you wait for the night ferry.

Visit Rennes.

And some day trips from Paris. I’m not sure I’d ever go on a day trip from Paris, but all of these places are great places for a trip, including Monet’s house and garden in Giverny.

Electric BBQs are all the rage, it seems, with Smeg announcing a new range of products at this year’s Salone Del Mobile in Milan

But one of these from Carrefour is good enough.

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