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In pursuit of happiness, in Granville

Granville’s fierce tides and their monstrous waves have always drawn crowds.  Our vintage postcard is just one of handfuls we have come across depicting natures attack upon these cliffs.

Match!
Match! Promenade le plat-Gousset, in Granville, Normandy.  Casino just out of view to the left.

The waves are crashing over Le Plat-Gousset, a coastal path built from Granville’s own sturdy rocks and concrete.  But why call it ‘plat-gousset’? Roughly translating as ‘flat gusset’?

A flat pocket

Le Gousset is the little pocket in a waistcoat that holds coins.  Le plat-gousset is a flat pocket, suggesting the wearer has no money.  It is not a coincidence the path runs away from Granville’s casino.

Polite tourist pages suggest the pathway was named for visitors who could not afford to go into the casino, as an entrance fee was charged for many years. They would walk on by, along Le Plat-Gousset to enjoy the free sunshine and sand.

We suspect the perilous path earned its name for being the final gamble of those who had lost everything in the casino.

Or it could be named for Georges Bonheur (George Happiness), whose ambition built the casino and whose avarice, or trust, lost him everything.

Casino and the empty pocket promenade to the left
View of Le Plat-Gousset promenade (left) from the cliffs, with the 1910 Casino under the old town.

Welcoming the summer visitors

Granville embraced tourism and the new ‘sea bathing’ early in the 19th century.  With their men away fishing the chilly Newfoundland waters until autumn, it suited Granville womenfolk to rent their spare rooms to holiday-makers.

At first the visitors travelled to Granville for their health. The earliest seaside hall was recorded in 1827.  Built of wood it was designed to accommodate the bathers and offer somewhere for them to eat. The hall stood by the site of the present casino, at the foot of le Roc.  A letter from the mayor in 1835 estimated 700 to 800 people arrived that summer, half advised by their doctors for their health, the other half their companions.

Granville beach by Eugène Louis Gabriel Isabey 1863
Granville beach by Eugène Louis Gabriel Isabey 1863

Decent for dunking

For decency, the beach was divided with an area designated for ladies to bathe near the casino and another for gentlemen (clothed and unclothed) further along the beach.  Lifeguards kept a keen eye, one paddling in a canoe and ladies were accompanied into the sea by sturdy local women.

It wasn’t long before the rich, looking to escape smelly industrial (and just plain grubby) Paris, followed them.  By the middle of the 19th century during summer months salty Granville wore the façade of an elegant coastal city.

Early 19th century etching of Granville. One of the first halls for bathers is on the right, the fishing port on the left.
Early 19th century etching of Granville. One of the first halls for bathers is on the right, the fishing port on the left.

The visitors wanted entertainment so the seaside hall was enlarged in 1858 for shows, concerts and dances, with enough space to fit 300. The first casino was built in 1859 and around this time tennis courts and a golf course appeared.  When the Paris-Granville train line arrived in 1870 every spare room from grand hotel to humble hut was hired over the summer. The adverts proudly stated passengers could take the shockingly brisk 6pm train from Paris and be in Granville for 6am, in time for breakfast and a morning dip in the sea.

chemins-de-fer-granville-mont-saint-michel

The incomer

In 1909 an incomer, Georges Bonheur, flattered the town worthies to think Granville had the potential to be one of the greatest French seaside resorts.  He convinced them it could only benefit from a new casino and two enormous hotels. Georges had investors with him and ambition, the town was impressed and Mayor Adrien Letourneur signed the contract.

Georges engaged young Parisian architect Auguste Blysen.  He had a good eye; Auguste would go on to design the art deco Le Grand Rex cinema in Paris, Bagnoles de l’Orne casino on the lake and many more iconic buildings of 1920’s and 30’s. For Granville he created an India inspired casino with 400 seat theatre, restaurant, two gaming rooms, baccarat, music lounges even a reading room. Every inch was luxury.

The casino was formally opened at 2.30pm on 15 July 1911, by Jules Pams, Minister of Agriculture.  Georges’ development was a great success and he became a celebrity of sorts in the grateful and rather richer town of Granville.

Vintage travel poster showing the old town, beach and le Plat Gousset
Vintage travel poster showing the old town, casino complex, beach and le Plat Gousset promenade

Concrete and art deco

All that held Granville back now was room for the crowds.  An ambitious project in 1925 lowered the path through the rocks to the casino, beach and Le Plat-Gousset, which was extended and strengthened with the excavated stones. The casino was modernised; wood replaced with nice modern concrete, the façade slimmed down and the mouldings reworked.  The restaurant and the reception room were updated into the popular Art Deco style.

The casino with India inspired towers
The casino with India inspired towers sits under the old town as waves crash into Le Plat-Gousset. A few beach huts can be seen clinging to the cliffs.

In the same year Georges entrusted Auguste Bluysen to build him a beautiful villa on his Castel des Petits Champs estate.

Life was good until Georges, the brave and successful entrepreneur, invested his entire fortune in a sure thing.  He wasn’t alone, the crème of Paris society all the way up to the prime minister of France were in on the deal.  Unfortunately their investments all led to Serge Alexandre Stavinsky, known then as le Beau Sacha, handsome Sacha. Handsome Sacha was a fraud.

Handsome, dishonest, Sacha

Regrettably for the Paris elite Sacha had immense charm, boundless greed and a complete lack of morals. He combined these skills to network his way into the highest financial circles. Here he convinced new friends to invest hundreds of millions of francs in worthless bonds.  As manager of the Bayonne pawnshops, at one time he used emeralds that once belonged to the Empress of Germany for security. Of course he lied.  They were just green glass.

Alexander Stavisky - handsome Sacha (with a bit of the Ryan Gosling?)
Alexander Stavisky – handsome Sacha (hints of Ryan Gosling?)

Not everyone was taken in but when newspapers tried to investigate his affairs he bought them off, sometimes with expensive advertising contracts or even buying the entire newspaper. He was finally put on trial for fraud in 1927 but the trial was delayed and Sacha granted bailed an extraordinary 19 times.  Eventually, despite the threat of exposing some very high up people as fools who failed to warm others, Sacha realised the situation was hopeless and fled in December 1933. He was found on 8 January 1934 in Chamonix with a gun in his hand and a hole in his head.  Officially a suicide, the distance the bullet was said to have travelled suggested he must have had an extremely long arm…

Hundreds of citizens had lost money and the government was strongly suspected of covering up their own involvement in Sacha’s crimes.  The scandal forced Camille Chautemps, prime minister, to stand down.  This didn’t stop the riots.  Faith in France’s political leaders was never the same again.

A fortune, lost

As one of Sacha’s unfortunate investors, Georges found himself after a lifetime of hard work, broke.  He was forced to sell the beautiful Granville villa and sold it to Genevilliers, his hometown just outside of Paris. Genevilliers probably didn’t need a villa in Granville but made the purchase. They had the kindly idea to use it as a holiday home for children of the town’s poorer families.

Happiness

Named for Georges as Château-Bonheur’, ‘happiness castle’ welcomed around 400 youngsters every year.  Over the decades thousands of children who lived in a grey town were given the chance once a year to play in the chateau’s soft meadows, eat regular meals and build sandcastles in the sun. Château-Bonheur definitely enhanced and possibly changed, thousands of lives. In 2002 Granville bought the villa, renovated and reopened as an activity centre for their own children.  Happiness indeed.

Chateau Bonheur and children Pic from a news story - click to link
Georges’ villa, Chateau Bonheur and children – Pic from a news story, click to link

This link goes to a cine-archives short film about the Chateau during its time as a children’s holiday home in 1936. Quite a long intro by Mayor Jean Grande but then a charming, rather moving insight into those glorious days. Well worth a look.

Today

Le Plat-Gousset is still a risky walk when the tides and wind are high.  Just a few years ago in 2008 the first aid station, stone benches and parapet were completely destroyed by a storm.

If you visit, steps at the end of Le Plat-Gousset go all the way up to Dior’s garden.  Or if you prefer, take the steps behind the casino up to the old town.  From both views are magnificent.

View from the old town, Granville
View from the old town, Granville

 

Vintage travel poster
Vintage travel poster

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