Montreuil-sur-Mer is a little French town in Pas de Calais, northern France that is simply steeped in history.
Enter the town from the A16 main road at Junction 26 from Calais and you enter a different world. Gone are the motorway signs and artefacts – instead ancient cobblestone roads, huge arched gates into the upper walled town, classic lamp posts that delight, a chateau, grand aristocratic houses, tiny peasant cottages, churches, typically French squares and pavement cafés await you.
This is a town in which to lose yourself. While away a lazy hour or two watching the bustling market in the main square on a Saturday morning, amble in and out of artisan shops and round the narrow winding cobble stone streets admiring the pastel coloured shutters on the ancient houses; choose from a rafts of places to eat and drink from tiny bistros to Michelin starred restaurants, wander round the 3km long ramparts that run the entire length of the upper town or visit one of the museums or art exhibitions.
From the moment you enter the grand stoned arched town gateway you feel the history oozing from every corner. Nip to the Tourist Office which you’ll find just inside the walled town on the ramparts and pick up a map and guide book or even an audio guided tour and see for yourself just how fascinating a story this place has to tell. I took a tour with Jean-Marie Chevalier from the tourist office and spent a morning wandering around soaking up the ambience and learning the history of this fascinating place.
In earlier centuries, the town lived up to its name of “sur-Mer” – on sea/or on water. The sea in fact never came up to its walls as most believe but a tributary of the river, a very wide arm, did lap at the walls right up until the 14th Century before silt put an end to this watery power base and the nearest sea is now 10km away to the west in Etaples.
As you stand on the ramparts next to the Citadel and look out over the surrounding countryside, 40m up with stunning views over the Canche Valley, sheep call from below and birds sing in the trees. Away to the left you will see an enormous building – La Chartreuse. Montreuil-sur-Mer was an important religious centre; there were thirteen churches at one point. La Chartreuse, a huge walled monastery is below, in the walled town in Neuville-sur-Mer, built by Edouard, Count of Boulogne and open to the public after a grand restoration project.
The old Gate of Louis XIV onto the citadel still stands – Vauban, the King’s engineer renovated the existing citadel, there was no need to build a new one as the 13th Century walls and the ruins of the ancient castle first built by King Philippe Auguste to house his soldiers who were there to protect this important royal harbour were still useful. You can in fact still see one of the 13th Century towers with its huge gothic gateway and underneath the Citadel is a warren of passages and rooms.
The royal connections are everywhere Louis XIV twice visited the town, Napoleon I came several times to establish a camp here with the aim of conquering the English and this was the only Royal harbour in the 10th Century, the first port of the royal household of the Capets under King Huges Capet. In English he is called King Hugh and Jean-Marie remarks that he isn’t the only Hugh who is a fan of Montreuil-sur-Mer, actor Hugh Grant has been seen in one of the Michelin starred restaurants there!
Charles V and his rampaging armies reduced much of the town to ashes in the 16th Century and Henry VIII may take some responsibility as well for causing destruction here, it was a strategic military town and their fighting over it caused a decline for a while.
Everywhere you look in this town there are flowers – in baskets around the beautiful wrought iron lamp posts, on walls, windows, troughs, the side of the road, the restaurants “we are proud of our 4 Star Ville Fleurie classification” says Jean-Marie.
There are also spectacular houses called “Hotel Particuliers” like Mary Wooster’s House. Mary Wooster lived in a grand house with her English husband Frank. They were a wealthy couple and liked to have lots of friends to enjoy parties at their beautiful house but, Mrs Wooster also liked her privacy so, she had a guest house built for them next door – across the ramparts. She built a little bridge so that they could pop across for drinks and dinner. When she died Mrs Wooster left the houses to the town of Montreuil. The guest house is now a hotel, the Chateau de Montreuil and has a Michelin starred restaurant, the other house “L’hôtel Acary de la Riviêre” is a museum.
The grand houses reflect the fact that the upper town was reserved for the aristocrats; the lower town was where the poor lived, Les Misèrables Victor Hugo called them. He visited in 1837 and later used his memories of the town and the people he met to form the basis of his book Les Misèrables. We walked up the steep and cobbled Cavée St Firmin, the old entrance to the upper town, scene of a coach crash in 1837 that inspired the visiting writer Victor Hugo, nothing much has changed.
Montreuil was an important religious town – there were once 13 grand churches, I counted 4 in the space of three minutes of walking including the Abbey of Saint Firmin. This centuries old building suffered attacks from the troops of Charles V, saw action in the French Revolution and went through an earthquake but it is still standing and is very beautiful inside. Several of the churches have been recycled – a hotel (L’Hermitage much loved by premier league French footballers and celebrities) and a lycée (school) amongst them.
Everywhere you go in Montreuil you will see fascinating and historic sites and monuments such as the statue of General Haig who had his headquarters in the Citadel here in WWI. Located in front of the town’s theatre it was sculpted by Paul Landowski who made the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. Walk down the little Rue de Clape en Bas with its artisan shops and bars or rue de Clape en Haut or the Old Rue Croquempot which refers to the practice of archers shooting birds for practice in medieval times.
A weekend here will never be enough – you will definitely want to come back.
Montreuil-sur-Mer Tourist Office website (English language version)
In and around Montreuil-sur-Mer:
The Bastille Day Antiques Fair – every July 14
Les Misèrables – the town puts on a show every summer on the ramparts – every July and August
The Saturday market
Day Trips to France: Calais, Boulogne, St Omer, Dunkirk, Gravelines