Situated 40 metres above the mouth of the river Canche, enclosed by its ramparts, Montreuil-sur-Mer is the most beautiful walled town in the north of France and just one hour by car from Calais.
It was founded around a monastery in the 10th century by Helgaud, Earl of Ponthieu; its name probably comes from ‘monasteriolum,’ which means ‘small monastery.’
Montreuil-sur-Mer once controlled communication links on land and sea. It lay on the land route connecting Normandy and Flanders when the Canche estuary and port were accessible to seagoing vessels. Today the Canche runs lazily through the marshes, where once a major commercial port existed in the Middle Ages.
If history is your passion, then look no further. There are three heritage tours allowing visitors to discover the military, trade or religious past of the town and there are six churches in and around Montreuil-sur-Mer to visit.
The tourist information centre, by the bridge leading up to the citadel, will offer you all the information that your heart desires in the form of leaflets, maps and brochures, plus a very helpful staff who take pleasure in practicing their English on you.
Well laid out flower beds lead up to the ancient stone archway taking you onto the cobbled stone streets of the town square; Montreuil-sur-Mer, a ville-fleurie has been awarded a 4-star national floral distinction since 1998.
The pavements are lined with elegant, black wrought iron lampposts, turned at the top in one, two and sometimes three perfect scrolls supporting the lamps, which softly illuminate the streets at night.
Once in the main square ‘Place du Général de Gaulle’ you will find an abundance of restaurants, bars and cafés, where you can dine out on the pavement and watch the world go by; or you can wander off into the medieval side streets where quaint little shops cater for the tourist, selling everything from English newspapers and souvenirs to antiquities. Discover for yourself the wonderful chocolate shop!
You can sit by the edge of the fountain, much loved by little children for its water jets, which rise and fall in no particular order and produce shrills of excited laughter.
Just behind the fountain and in front of the ‘Place du Théâtre’ is a statue of Marshal Haig on horseback. Sir Douglas Haig set up his headquarters in Montreuil-sur-Mer in the 1914-18 war, in collaboration with the French army. This was the town’s first military role since the 17th century.
Saturday is market day in the square; a colourful and friendly occasion where you can buy local produce, bread, fresh vegetables, fruit, cheeses, fish, meats, clothes, flowers and everything you would expect from a French market.
You can take a relaxing walk on the top of the tree lined ramparts, which are easily accessible from many of the the town’s side-streets. The contrast of the gentle slope leading up to the wall and the sheer drop of some 40 metres on the other side, which look over the surrounding fields and country side is quite impressive. It is interesting to imagine what it must have been like when the walls were first built in the 9th century. Be warned however, that although the walls have been renovated, there are no safety rails at the top, so be sure to hold on tightly to the young and intrepid.
The citadel was built on the foundations of an old castle belonging to Philip Augustus in the 13th century. Only the two towers and the entrance, which once housed the King’s lieutenant, remain. The citadel, which shows seven centuries of architectural history, is open daily between the hours of 10.00-12.00 and 14.00-18.00 and is well worth a visit. Just a few euros for a two hour visit. Hand-held audio guides are available, in French, English and Dutch for a supplement of one euro and are highly recommended in order to make the most of your tour.
King Charles IX of France had the bastions built to the latest defensive innovations after the town was ransacked in 1537 and fifty stairs lead down to where his soldiers defended the town. As you follow your tour plan of the citadel you will encounter many steep and narrow stone staircases – sensible shoes are a must!
Today, just behind the old chapel – housing many interesting stone relics and religious wood carvings – is a rustic outbuilding which has been transformed into a 40 bed youth hostel, with all mod cons. You can book a bed for the night at a reasonable price, early booking however, is recommended for the holiday season.
To conclude your visit in Montreuil-sur-Mer, why not take a walk in the streets of the picturesque town and trace the footsteps of Victor Hugo? The great French author visited the town in September 1837 and took lunch in The Hotel de France, formally called Auberge de la Cour de France – which you can still find looking almost unchanged. Hugo walked along the ramparts and streets of Montreuil-sur-Mer with his mistress, drinking in the sounds and sights and the lasting impression that the people and the sights made on him later inspired Les Misérables. Every summer, about 600 inhabitants of the town dress up as their ancestors and the characters in his story. About 300 of them taking part will be volunteers in a‘ Son et lumière’ performance of Les Misérables. Some of them will impressively arrive on horseback – others in carts or on foot.The two hour show performed in the town’s haunting 16th century citadel, depicts the past with reality and fiction, until just after midnight, when a display of fireworks brings a magical evening to a perfect close. Groups can benefit from a guided tour of the town, a dinner at a restaurant plus the sound and light show ‘Les Misérables’ in the citadel.Tickets and information from www.lesmiserables-montreuil.com or from the tourist information centre.
The unique historical ambiance of Montreuil-sur-Mer may well give you lasting impressions too…
By Marilyn Catchpole-Dossat, Blogging chez les Ch’tis
Website for Montreuil-sur-Mer Tourist Office