Every Saturday for as long as anyone can remember, and much further back than that, there has been a market in the main square of Montreuil-sur-Mer, Pas de Calais. It is a lovely little town, filled with cobbled streets and narrow alleyways that snake their way through the middle of ancient buildings and shops.
It is a lively place and people come from villages far and wide to do their shopping on a Saturday morning and to meet friends at one of the many little cafés and bars in town.
It’s called sur-Mer which means on sea, but there is no sea here, it is 10km away at Le Touquet. In fact the sea never reached here but the river Canche once lapped up the sides of the town, wide enough to sail a boat down to the sea and there was once an important port here. That river is now a stream and thanks to centuries of silting it has all but disappeared in this part of the region, now it is popular with fishermen eager to catch trout for tea.
The market is a typically French blend of household goods and food with a spattering of artisan products and farmers with rabbits and chickens for sale. For me, this market stands out for the abundance of local people who arrive and set up with a table bought from the kitchen at home and lay out their home grown produce to tempt us. From local potatoes called Ratte du Touquet, tomatoes of all shapes sizes and colours grown in their greenhouses, raspberries, eggs, a few carrots and all manner of fruit, veg and farm produce – complete with dirt, you know you’re getting something that was freshly picked the day before or in the morning before they set off for town. It doesn’t earn them a fortune, just enough to fund their hobby and buy more seeds for more vegetables. I always try to buy something from these producers. They always have a story to tell or a recipe to share.
The market square is surrounded by bars, restaurants, brasseries and a spattering of shops and services. It’s popular with locals and surrounding villages and especially with Brits. At less than an hour’s drive from Calais, Montreuil-sur-Mer offers a taste of real France almost on the doorstep of England.
The town has a little theatre, a tiny cinema and a couple of enthusiastic museums. It has the remains of a once very impressive chateau, parts of which go back to the 13th Century. Inside the porch entrance of the chateau are the Coats of Arms of local knights who left here to fight against Henry V and his army at nearby Agincourt.
There’s something to see on almost every street, ancient churches, beautiful old houses. It’s a ville fleurie – which means they make much of making it bright and floral and from spring to summer it’s a riot of colour as lamp posts, troughs, window boxes and every bit of grassy walkway is lush and vibrant and in spring covered in bright meadow flowers. The flowers make their way to some of the stalls too, a clever way to lure us shoppers in for a closer look as we admire the lovely and nonchalant stacking of bright veg and vibrant petals.
I recommend you drop your shopping off, enjoy lunch in the town and walk it off afterwards on the ramparts where you’ll enjoy stunning views over the local countryside.