Around an hour from the port town of Calais, Montreuil-sur-Mer in northern France is a perfect weekend destination as well as a great stop off point for travellers going to and from the UK. Easy to reach from the A16 main auto route, coming here offers a slice of history and gastronomy as this little town is home to a superb 2 Michelin star restaurant and a dozen truly excellent brasseries, restaurants and cafés.
Fabulous weekend break destination
There are plenty of hotels and chambre d’hotes. If you’re after a special stay and a special meal, the 4 Star Chateau de Montreuil definitely fits the bill. This gorgeous little manor house has 10 charming bedrooms, each different and each special – from medieval style with a 4-poster bed to Chanel-like elegance. The views from every room are fabulous.
The restaurant is a big lure and dishes are of the classic French style. An aperitif and nibbles in the gorgeous salon are de rigeur on a cool day with a big roaring fire. If the sun’s out, the landscaped gardens are exquisite.
From here you can easily walk around the ramparts of the citadel, following in the footsteps of Hugo who sat under a plane tree in 1837 dreaming up the story of Les Miserables. The view is largely unchanged.
Take a wander in Montreuil-sur-Mer
In Place Darnetal, the chocolate boutique, complete with chandelier, is hard to ignore with its handmade chocolates tempting you from the windows. Walk to the left and you’ll arrive in Place Gambetta where you’ll find the Chapelle St Nicolas rebuilt by Clovis Normand, a pupil of Violet le Duc. You’ll also find the Abbatiale St Saulve which was part of a much bigger building from the 12th century. Montreuil-sur-Mer takes its name from the Latin word monasteriolum, meaning small monastery
Over the years Montreuil-sur-Mer has seen its fair share of dramatic events. They include a serious earthquake in the 15th century, invasion by the armies of Emperor Charles Quint and a siege by Henry VIII of England. More recently the town acted as headquarters for General Haig during World War I. A statue of him astride his horse sits before the town theatre. It was made by Paul Landowski (whose best known work is Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro).
Bars, bistros and boulangeries
Just to the right as you face General Haig is a fabulous boulangerie/patisserie. Le Grémont, a contender in the best baker in France competition. Here, the speciality loaf is called a Valjean. It was named after the character in Les Miserables, who in the book had a factory in Montreuil-sur-Mer. Just across the road is Fromagerie Caseus, a cheese shop that attracts cheese lovers from far and wide to buy its absolutely superb selection. There are plenty of local specialities from stinky Maroilles to sublime Sire de Crequy.
The large central square, named after General de Gaulle is lined with bars, restaurants and shops. On a Saturday morning it bursts into life as the weekly market lures shoppers from all over the area. Head to the little rue du Clape en Bas for a tranquil aperitif, or a delicious snack in one of the tiny cafés.
Then continue your walk of discovery heading back towards the Citadel to take a tour of the ancient buildings and visit the town museum.
The fortified gates date to the beginning of the 13th century as do several towers which once provided protection to what was a port town. Hence the name sur Mer (on sea). There’s no sea there now, in fact Victor Hugo wrote that he was a bit miffed about it! But over the centuries the estuary from the channel which led up to the steep walls of Montreuil silted up and now the waves are some 10km away in Le Touquet. But he was smitten enough with the town to write Les Miserables based on the people he met and the scenes he saw in the town.
This was one of the first citadels built in France, commissioned by Charles IX in 1567. It was improved by Vauban, Louis XIV’s engineer. Now, it houses part of the collection of the Roger Rodière Museum of France and is a classified site for the protection of bats.
Each year the townsfolk of Montreuil dress up to the nines and put on a most amazing show. Les Miserables is performed on the ramparts by a cast of some 500 locals, accompanied by cannon and horses. It’s an absolutely brilliant event, professional but heartfelt.
While you’re here – eat. Seriously – Montreuil-sur-Mer, “Destination Gastronomique”, really is that good. There are regular food and wine festivals and lots of really excellent restaurants.
Locals love: Froggys which specialises in rotisserie. Le Caveau (terrific brasserie fare and scrumptious Flemish pizzas). Anecdote, industrial chic décor and a fabulous menu. Bistronome for great steak frites and innovative but classic cuisine. To really push the boat out, world famous, 2 Michelin Star La Grenouillère is truly special.
Walk off the calories on the cobbled streets of this picturesque little town. Or, take a turn around the ramparts which takes about 40 minutes.
Useful websites: www.tourisme-montreuillois.com/fr; www.pas-de-calais-tourisme.com; ladestinationgastronomique.com/fr