Bastille Day in France is a time of celebration, relaxation and fun.
For me that means the annual antiques fair at Montreuil-sur-Mer – a fabulous mediaeval village in the Pas de Calais region of France (just an hour from Calais).
I love this place with its upper walled town where you’ll find an ancient citadel, chateau, fabulous cobblestoned squares, wonderful grand houses next to ancient abodes leaning on each other for comfort, higgledy piggledy roofs and gorgeous flower displays. Walk round the ramparts where Victor Hugo promenaded with his mistress nearly 200 years ago and you’ll see why he got the inspiration for Les Miserables here… down below is the lower town where the “miserable” poor people lived. It’s not the same today, the lower town is filled with wonderful boulangeries, charcuteries, flower shops, organic veg shops and picturesque houses. It’s the upper town though that draws the tourists the most – it is so very French with a friendly atmosphere, great bars and restaurants including two with Michelin stars and there is always something going on.
For many years the antiques fair has been held on Bastille Day in the upper town – hundreds of professional dealers as well as flea market stall holders turn up; the locals open their garages and doors and pack the pavement with all manner of eclectic times and visitors arrive from Paris, Belgium, the UK, Holland and elsewhere to find a unique item, a bargain and a little bit of France to take home.
Those who are serious arrive at 6.00 in the morning – the rest of us arrive a bit later! By 09.00 parking at the bottom of the hill was full but there are plenty of surrounding roads if you don’t mind a little hike. It’s worth it.
I hot footed up the Cavée St Firmin – a steep cobbled stone hill leading from the lower town to the upper town and the road where Victor Hugo witnessed a coach crash which became the inspiration for the pivotal coach crash scene in Les Miserables where Jean Valjean saves the life of a stranger.
You could pay €1 for an old butchers display tag or thousands of Euros for centuries old furniture and ornaments – I was quite taken with the old wooden cinema chairs above. There is a huge array of things to admire and to buy and I witnessed some serious shopping going on. British dealers Susannah and Lee from Brighton, South of England, bought a darling little cart and then filled it with goodies – chandeliers, leather bags, kitsch shelf units and all sorts. I asked them if they rated the Montreuil-sur-Mer brocante “oh yes, it’s great – but don’t tell anyone, we don’t want everyone to come here”. Lee told me he visits this fair every year – for Susannah it was a first visit but she says she will definitely be back for more! They stayed at the Hotel de France, the same hotel where Victor Hugo lunched with his mistress, where Napoleon stopped for victuals as well as many other famous people over the years since it first opened in 1578. I asked Susannah what she thought of it – it’s such an unusual, quirky and ancient place, not remotely modern or minimalist and most people either love it or loathe it “like being in an Alice in Wonderland dream on LSD… crazy, amazing but with clean towels and sheets!“ – she loved it.
The sun was shining, there was a buzz in the air, the cafés, bars and restaurants were doing a roaring terrace trade – everyone was happy.
I browsed the hundreds of stalls for six hours stopping for a quick lunch at the Brasserie Victor Hugo and then met friends in the charming little café de la Place Verte where we had a cold beer and a bottle of wine. It’s not posh but it is real France, a barmaid with an eye patch, a Rastafarian server and his pal wearing a T Shirt declaring “FBI instructor”- I doubt it very much!
We sat and watched people arriving in the town for the end of the brocante and for the night’s festivities – fireworks at the Citadelle. Opposite a lady opened her window and lifted her little kitten to watch the fun – she looked blissfully happy with her little pet and I asked to take her photo.
It might not be the best brocante in France but it certainly is one of my favourites and I know where I’ll be spending next Bastille Day!
The Day in Pictures – Montreuil-sur-Mer antiques brocante, Bastille Day
Visiting British antique dealers Lee and Susannah with their old cart laden with goodies:
Time to cool off round the town fountain:
The 350 year old Hotel de France did a roaring trade in their cool courtyard restaurant: