For a brief visit to France which gives you a taster of real France, real close, take the ferry to Calais. Less than an hour’s drive from there you will find the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer, about 70 kilometres along the coast towards Le Touquet says seasoned traveller and Francophile, Bob Lyons.
Montreuil-sur-Mer is France at its rural and Gallic best
A busy little town with many shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. The inhabitants scurry around conducting their commercial business and ordinary French family life goes on around you. There is a large square in the centre which serves as a free car park during the week but also provides space for a large market on Saturday mornings where the locals buy fresh vegetables, fruit, organic meat, locally produced cheeses, poultry and free range eggs – the important things that make French food so special!
I love the charm of this French town. There are so many quaint little houses in varying states of repair that provide a very picturesque environment. The older properties are often the subject of watercolour paintings and the town encourages the work of artisans and painters with subsidised shops in the old peasant cottages on the little rue de Clape en Bas.
Montreuil is surrounded by rampart fortifications built in the 17th Century. You can walk the 3km rampart path in about 30 minutes and admire the panoramic view of the French countryside and the unfenced sheer drop of about a hundred feet just under your toes. If you stay in the town overnight, take a walk around the ramparts at ground level as it gets dark. The experience is spooky and the children will love it. When you return to the square, you will need a drop of something French to steady your nerves!
Literary pundits will be interested to know that Montreuil was the setting for Les Misèrables by Victor Hugo. The book’s main character, Jean Valjean, used to be the mayor of the town and every year the town puts on a son et lumière show of Les Misèrables involving hundreds of the townsfolk.
Montreuil was also the headquarters of the British army during the First World War. It lies in the centre of where much of the fighting took place and the Citadel was a hive of communications. There is a very prominent statue of General Haig astride a horse on the edge of the market square in front of the town’s lively little theatre, reminding visitors of the literary and Great War associations.
There is an upper and lower part of the town. The market and all the action takes place in the upper bit and, down the hill, 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, there are always plenty of young people that bring business to the river. The railway station is also down the hill, and though trains are not frequent you can travel to Boulogne or Calais on one of the high speed local trains from here.
A day or two in Montreuil-sur-Mer will let you experience a little bit of French rural life. There is plenty of accommodation in the town, from swish hotels, B&B and even a charming camp site at the base of the ramparts. The Hotel de France is one of the oldest in town, built in 1578 and it seems as though it is about to fall down. It is run by an expat couple who have gone completely native and love their French life. Stay there for a night and enjoy the eccentricity. There are lots of places in Montreuil to keep everyone fed and watered – from Michelin starred restaurants to pizza parlours. Enjoy the favourite French pastime of lounging on the terrace with your glass of Cotes du Rhone and watch the world go by in the sunshine or even in the rain – the cobble stones glisten in the wet but it doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm for this splendid hill top town.
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 continue by car or train. Go for a day or for longer – the French people there always welcome the British and you will feel very much at home in their elegant little town.
Find out more about Montreuil-sur-Mer