Tuesday, 26 October 2010

France 2010, Hardelot Plage (again) and Etaples

The cottage was just a few kilometres from the holiday resort town of Le Touquet Paris Plage but we hadn’t visited yet so we agreed that as this was our last day that we really ought to go and see the place and after breakfast we loaded the cars and set off.

We made good progress at first but as we got closer to the coast the roads began to get busy, progress slowed down and then eventually ground to a complete halt. I calculated that we were still about six kilometres from the town and the coast and the traffic was at an almost complete standstill. It seemed that everyone else in Northern France had also decided to visit Le Touquet today.

I have visited Le Touquet a couple of times and stayed there while on golfing holidays and I think it is a very nice place but not so special that I would want to queue for an hour or so to get in and then struggle to find a parking space if I ever made it. Not sure because unlike the surrounding towns of Nord Pas de Calais, the words ‘quaint’ and ‘medieval’ have no place there. The resort is too young for cobbles and ramparts and the same goes for museums and Cathedrals. I also seem to remember a lot of dog shit! The main event is Le Touquet itself, a case of leisure over culture and I was certain that we could all live with the disappointment of not actually going there so at a convenient junction we left the line of crawling traffic and decided instead to revisit Hardelot because we were certain that there were some parts of the town that we had missed earlier in the week.

The locals call Hardelot ‘little Le Touquet’ but there were no such traffic problems getting in and we drove effortlessly to the centre and parked in a car park where we were the only two cars. The sun was shining but it was a bit too breezy for the beach so we headed instead for the tiny town centre and its couple of streets of shops and restaurants. Actually there wasn’t a great deal to see and this didn’t take very long and very soon afterwards we were on the promenade and enjoying the bracing sea air.

Hardelot is a well-to-do sort of town and many Parisians own property here and use it for summer and weekend breaks. Apart from the grand villas however I personally don’t find the place that attractive and behind the sea front is a ribbon of featureless high rise flats most of them with their shutters firmly closed for most of the year. Like Le Touquet, Hardelot was occupied by the Nazis in the Second-World-War and they did huge amounts of damage before retreating ahead of the Allied invasion forces. Much of it had to be rebuilt and this explains the prominence of these rather unattractive buildings.

We walked back through the town and found a sunny spot to stop for a refreshment break and ordered some beer and sipped it slowly on account of the prices and then speculating that the roads might be less busy now we decided to have a second attempt at getting into Le Touquet.

The route to Le Touquet took us towards the old fishing town of Étaples on the river Canche and just outside the town we stopped to visit the largest Commonwealth War Graves site in France where nearly twelve thousand soldiers are buried.

Because of its strategic position Étaples was the scene of much Allied activity during World War One due to its safety from attack by enemy land forces and the existence of railway connections with both the northern and southern battlefields. The town was home to sixteen hospitals and a convalescent depot, in addition to a number of reinforcement camps for Commonwealth soldiers and general barracks for the French Army. By all accounts this was a truly dreadful place and most soldiers buried in the cemetery died after treatment in the hospitals. It is said that after two weeks, many of the wounded would rather return to the front with unhealed wounds rather than remain at Étaples.

It was also a particularly notorious base camp for those on their way to the front. Under atrocious conditions, both raw recruits and battle-weary veterans were subjected to intensive training in gas warfare, bayonet drill, and long sessions of marching at the double across the dunes. There was resentment against the officers who enjoyed the better conditions of Le Touquet and from which the men were forbidden to visit and this led to a famous mutiny in September 1917 which was brutally repressed.

Apart from the solemn rows of white headstones there was no reminder of this unpleasantness today as we entered the cemetery through the impressive memorial designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and walked through the carefully tended graves. I had never visited a war graves site before and it was poignant to read the inscriptions on the graves and sad to see how young so many of them were who never returned to England. Molly ran and skipped through the rows of graves and I was struck by the fact that she could only do this because of the ultimate sacrifices made by all these men.

After the visit to the cemetery we continued on our journey towards Le Touquet but at Étaples the traffic ground to a halt again and not wishing to spend our last afternoon in a traffic jam we resigned ourselves to not seeing Le Touquet this year and turned the cars around and returned to the cottage at Longvilliers.

It was lovely sitting in the garden in the late afternoon, the sun was shining and there was no wind, Molly played in her pool, the wasps kept falling in the improved trap, we drank some beer and wine and Richard prepared for what he promised would be the best log fire of the week. Later, when it had cooled down, Molly and I went for a walk into the village and had a last look at the livestock in Camille’s garden and I knew she understood that this would be the last time because we were going home tomorrow.

Molly went to sleep earlier than usual and Richard didn’t let us down with the fire. He supervised a final excellent barbeque meal where we used up all of the remaining food including the last of the pasta dishes that Rachel and Sally had prepared four nights ago! After the food Richard placed his specially selected log on the fire and it entertained us for a couple of hours or so as it burnt away in the brick barbeque and slowly turned to embers and ash. We had enjoyed our barbeque meals but they were all over now and we left the garden and went to bed knowing that the first job in the morning was to pack.

The next day the weather was miserable again so with no reason to hang around we finished our packing, tidied the cottage and after the return of the deposit we set off for Calais with plenty of time allowed for a second visit to Carrefour at the Cité de Europe to stock up on cheap beer and wine.

We left France in a rain storm and arrived backing England to be greeted by another one and on account of the bad weather we felt sorry for all the people queuing to take our place on the ferry for the return crossing.

We had had another good week in France and we all look forward to returning again perhaps next year.

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