French leave in Montreuil-sur-Mer
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Whenever you fancy a brief visit to France, take the ferry
and go to Calais. Less than an hour from there you will find the handsome
little town of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Take the coast road and travel about 70
kilometres southbound towards Le Touquet. Montreuil-sur-Mer is France at its
most elegant best and has much to entice the British traveller.
Montreuil is always
busy with many shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. The local inhabitants scurry
around with their commercial business but the ordinary French family life goes
on as well, all at the same time. Watch it all for yourself in the cafes and
streets. There is a large square in the centre. It serves as a free car park
during the week but provides space for an energetic market on Saturday
mornings. You can browse with the locals and buy almost anything that you like.
I have loved the
charm of this French town for many years. There are so many quaint little
houses in varying states of repair that provide a very picturesque, Gallic
environment. The older properties have often been the subject of watercolour
paintings that I relish so much. Have a look on the internet and find them for
The higher part of Montreuil
is surrounded by rampart fortifications built in the 17th century.
You can walk around them easily and admire the panoramic view of the French
countryside. The unfenced sheer drop of
about a hundred feet just below your toes would never be allowed by the British
health and safety brigade. A full circle stroll takes about half an hour and
the views are a great spectacle. No one ever seems to fall over the edge. If
you stay in the town overnight, take a walk around the ramparts at ground level
as it gets dark. The experience is a little spooky but the children will love
it. When you get back to the square, you will need a glass of something French
to steady your nerves.
will be interested to know that Montreuil-sur-Mer was the setting for ‘Les
Miserables’ by the illustrious writer Victor Hugo. The book’s main character,
Jean Valjean, used to be the mayor of the town. There is a little museum close
to the edge of the fortifications that deals with this association.
Montreuil was also
the headquarters of the British army during the First World War. It sits a
little away from the Western Front where much of the fighting took place. The
ramparts protect a mini fortress that was the operations centre for General Douglas
Haig. He was the chief of the British and Commonwealth expeditionary force
despatched to fight in the trenches in 1914. This headquarters is open to the
public. It is used as a museum representing many appropriate themes on a
constantly changing basis. It is an eerie experience to follow the footsteps of
Haig in the gloomy and damp environment. There is a very prominent statue of
the General astride his horse, on the edge of the market square. He sits in
front of an active theatre reminding visitors of the literary and Great War
associations so closely associated with Montreuil. Much admiration for the British
presence during the Great War is still held by the local people. A main route
on the edge of the town square still has an active cafe bar called ‘The
I have often briefly
stayed in Montreuil-sur-Mer during my travels in France. On one occasion the ‘Circus
Buffalo’ came to town and they were setting themselves up on the market square.
The culture was a little American but all of the performers were French. It
appealed exactly to the Gallic taste and I bought a ticket for myself. Many of
the families of the town visited and they all loved it without pretention. The
acts were traditional and included obscure animals to impress the youngsters.
All were invited to participate if they wished. The French children loved it
all and returned home afterwards laughing with their parents. By the following
morning the circus had packed up and left town. There was not a trace of any
discarded debris or rubbish left on the central square.
There is an upper
and lower part to Montreuil. The market and all the action takes place in the
upper bit. Just a short walk down the
hill, however, there is the fast flowing river Canche. Here you can hire a canoe
under the careful supervision of lifeguards and try your skills in the water
stream. Many young people bring business to the rushing current. The railway
station is also down the hill. You can travel to Montreuil by train from Calais
if you want. The service routes via Boulogne where you must change but it only
takes about an hour.
Try staying in the
town for a day or two and experience a bit of French rural life. For a small
town there are plenty of hotels at good prices. One of them is called the Hotel
de France and it is rumoured that Emperor Napoleon stayed there for a night
during his travels. Nowadays it looks as though it is about to fall down. It is
run by an English couple who have gone totally native and love their changed
life. Stay there for a night and enjoy the eccentricity. There are lots of
places in Montreuil to keep everyone fed and watered. Enjoy the favourite French
pastime of lounging on the terrace with your glass of Cotes de Rhone and watch
the world go by in the sunshine.
It is easy to travel to Montreuil-sur-Mer from the Kent coast. The ferry will take about an hour and a half and then it is easy to continue by car or train. Go just for the day if you want or perhaps stay a little longer. The French people in Montreuil-sur-Mer always welcome British visitors and you will feel very much at home in their elegant little town.
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