Tuesday, 19 October 2010

France 2010, Montreuil Sur Mer and Berck Plage

On Sunday morning the weather was rather mixed and it was difficult to predict with any real degree of confidence just how it might turn out later on. Sally was up early with Molly and complained about the television channels all being in French (I’m not sure what she was expecting) and the others stayed in bed a while longer waiting for improvement. Eventually Richard joined me and while we sat and had a cup of tea I thought how good it was to be on holiday again with the world early morning farting champion.

After breakfast we peered into the sky and out towards the horizon looking for clues and not being at all certain we set off for nearby Montreuil sur Mer.

Montreuil sur Mer is a delightful town which despite its misleading name is nowhere near the sea at all but is an inland market town with spectacular walls, traditional architecture and a pretty market square with a statue of Lord Haig who lived nearby during the First-World-War. We have visited Montreuil before of course but it is difficult not go back because it is a “ville fleurie”, which means it is colourful and vibrant and does not show any self restraint on the planting up of window-boxes. Flowers cascade over the walls lining the approach to the town, rambling climbers cling to the old stone balconies and every roundabout is a floral work of art. Inside the Market Place colourful petunias ran riot in front of the town hall and scarlet geraniums drizzle over the surrounding buildings with their tiny garret windows and haphazardly sloping roofs.

We needed a few extra provisions and with supermarkets being inconveniently closed on Sunday in France the girls went looking for somewhere to get provisions and although Montreuil is not a big place, just a few old squares linked by uneven cobbled streets, this managed to take longer than it really should have so Richard and I took responsibility for finding a bar with a vacant table and ordered a beer. Eventually everyone returned and sat for a while at the pavement bar and we all watched nervously as a few spots of rain began to fall and umbrellas started to go up all around but we needn’t have worried too much because the solitary rain cloud soon passed over to be replaced with a promising blue sky.

Montreuil was once an important strategic town on the English Channel but by the nineteenth century after the sea had retreated over fifteen kilometres away it had become a sleepy medieval town on the coaching road from Calais to Paris. The famous writer Victor Hugo spent a brief stay here and during that time was inspired to use it as the setting for his famous novel, Les Miserables, about the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Empire and the 1830 revolution.

It was lunchtime and the bar was filling up with diners so not proposing to order food and feeling in the way we left the bar and walked through the square and out onto the walls that surround the quiet town. From the top of the ramparts, which circle the town, there are splendid views across the surrounding countryside. A river meandered through the valley and fresh bales of golden hay shimmered in the distance as swallows swooped theatrically close to the vertical stone walls. An old man behind the wall attended his abundant allotment, stooped to pick a marrow the size of a rugby ball and families ambled at an appropriate pace along the top of the walls. The scene had a timeless grace that I remembered and I actually never tire of going back.

Eventually we turned away from the old defensive walls and walked back into the town through the twisting uneven streets past elegant shops and chocolatiers, more flower displays that wouldn’t survive a weekend in an average English town and estate agents with properties that had prices way beyond my budget.

The sun was shining so it was time for the beach so we left Montreuil and took the road the short distance to nearby Berck sur Mer which was once a working class seaside resort that hosted mining families from northern France and the Low Countries while the well-to-do went to Le Touquet just up the coast. We followed signs to the beach but these it has to be said weren’t terribly helpful and after a couple of wrong turns we found it almost by chance and gratefully parked the cars.

At mid afternoon the tide was all the way out and after we had climbed over the undulating dunes with their energy sapping sand that sucked at our feet we found a flat expansive beach of hard sand and lagoons of water cut off from the retreating sea full of crustaceans and tiny fish now at the mercy of people picking over the aquatic debris left behind by the waves. There was plenty of beach for everyone and there were expansive views one way to Le Touquet and in the other direction the town of Berck that were interrupted only by the sentinel rows of steadfast and sturdy gnarled wooden groins that lined the beach.

We found a perfect spot and spread our towels and then spent a couple of hours in the sunshine walking continuously back and forth to the shore line with Molly as she enjoyed herself in the shallow water of the lagoons but being unsure of the waves not really prepared to go into the sea with any real confidence. We built sand castles and collected shells and this was a perfect afternoon which reminded me of my own childhood holidays. I never went to France of course when I was young and I wondered if she had any idea just how lucky she was to be here.

After an afternoon relaxing on the beach, we took a scenic route back to the cottage through unremarkable but non-the-less quite beautiful countryside. I have grown to really appreciate this part of France and think it sad that that most people roar past it as quickly as they can on the autoroute from Calais heading to the south. Here there were soaring wind turbines, quaint villages, sun-dappled fields, tranquil streams gliding at their own gentle pace, and fields full of immaculate dairy cows all plump and sleek and so obviously contented.

We were beginning to feel at home now and the early disappointment had completely evaporated as we sat in the garden in the warm sunshine drinking beer and experimenting with unfamiliar cheeses as Molly played in her plastic paddling pool and Richard began to prepare for this evening’s food cooked on an impressive barbeque. As the day tipped over from afternoon to early evening we walked through the village and went to see Camille’s poultry and after we had successfully worn Molly out and she had gone to bed Richard fired up the coals and he cooked a fine meal of kebabs, local sausage and Mick Dawson’s gammon steaks that we had brought with us all the way from England.

After the food Richard found some logs in the cottage wood pile and we put the barbeque to an alternative use as a log fire as we sat out under a clear velvet sky full of twinkling stars as Richard kept the fire going long enough to enjoy a trio of gins before finally calling it a day full of optimism about the weather for tomorrow as we abandoned the glowing red embers and reflected on an excellent day.

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