Tag Archives: France

Germany, Across the Rhine to Strasbourg

Strasbourg Cathedral Alsace France

“Rising above the high-pitched roofs with multi-storied dormer windows, several churches stand out on the skyline. The cathedral, whose single spire dominates the Alsatian plain, and the four old churches …  fit coherently into an old quarter that exemplifies medieval cities.”                                                          UNESCO

We parked the car in an underground car park close to a part called Petite France which is a popular corner of the city where the full flowing river splits up into a number of canals, and cascades through bridges in a small area of attractive half-timbered houses and cobbled streets and we walked through crooked lanes and alleys that followed the southern loop of the river that surrounds the old city.

As we walked the rain followed us across the border from Germany but it was only light and it wasn’t cold so it was quite pleasant walking around the little streets making progress towards the main square and the Cathedral.

The  historic centre, the Grande Île, was classified a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1988, and this was the first time such an honour was placed on an entire city center.  There were some grand buildings here with lots of medieval half timbered houses that had avoided destruction during the two world wars but the best building of all was the mighty sandstone cathedral which dominates the whole of the city.

At one hundred and forty two metres, it was the world’s tallest building from 1625 to 1874 and it remained the tallest church in the world until 1880, when it was surpassed firstly by Cologne Cathedral and then Ulm Münster.  Today it remains the sixth tallest church in the world and was described by Victor Hugo as a “gigantic and delicate marvel“, the cathedral is visible far across the plains of Alsace and can be seen from as far off as the Vosges mountains in France and the Black Forest in Germany.

There was a very typical French café next to the river where we enjoyed a very gallic snack of croque monsieur that was in total contrast to the Teutonic hospitality that we had become used to over the last few days and it felt strange to be trying to communicate in basic French rather than the basic German that I had been finding so difficult, vin rouge and bier grande seemed much more natural than rot wein and bier vom fass.

While we sat in the Café Montmartre the weather started to improve and the sky started to lighten so we stepped back out into the street and revisited the Cathedral and the surrounding streets and for just a brief moment there was a break in the cloud and a pool of blue sky opened up over the city.  It didn’t last long however and the clouds closed in again as quickly as they had parted and with no real prospect of improvement we walked back to the car park and left the city.

I liked Strasbourg very much but one thing that did let it down was quite a lot of dog waste because the French don’t seem to have a problem with, or a conscience about, letting their precious animals take a poo on the pavements.  It is essential to be very careful when walking in France!

The French authorities are trying to tackle the problem but are making little progress and even heavy fines (€440 for a first offence) have had little impact.  In Paris it is estimated that there are sixteen tonnes of dog do every day, which causes four thousand five hundred accidents a week.  Removing it costs €15m a year!  And let’s not forget that that is €15m of tax payers money that is spent on clearing up for selfish dog owners who have abandoned their own social conscience.

Leaving Strasbourg by a different route from the way we came in was a lot more straightforward than I had imagined except that if there were to be a traffic light count and city league table I wouldn’t be surprised if Strasbourg came top of the list for having the most.  We crossed the Rhine at the industrial town of Kehl   and back in Germany there was an easy drive back to Offenburg where before returning to the Rammersweeir Hoff we needed some room supplies.

It was Sunday and we were startled to find that the supermarkets and the convenience stores were all closed and there was a near moment of panic until we tried a garage which thankfully had a fridge full of German beer and some screw cap wines to choose from.

We were back at the hotel quite early again today but this time there was no rugby on the television so we had to channel hop through the German stations and rely on BBC World for an English speaking option.

In contrast to the previous night the dining room was practically empty when we went down for dinner and as this was the last night we treated ourselves from the expensive end of the menu and Kim had a larger than necessary fillet steak and I had a veal cordon bleu which proved to be a real struggle to finish.  This was our final meal at the hotel and the quality of the food had certainly matched what we had enjoyed the previous year.

Strasbourg Cathedral Alsace France


Germany, Across the Rhine to Alsace

“What is it that gives a frontier its magic? Not the fact that that it is a territorial or political boundary, for these are artificial, dictated by history.  Perhaps it is language that gives to the crossing of a frontier its definitive flavour of voyage.  Whatever the answer the magic is there.  The traveller’s heart will beat to a new rhythm, he will examine the strange new coinage.  Everything will seem to be changed, including the air he breathes”  –  Lawrence Durrell

It was another disappointing morning and there was a slight drizzle in the air but the weather looked brighter to the west so we decided to drive in that direction and visit the French city of Strasbourg on the other side of the Rhine.

After breakfast in the hotel we drove through Offenburg heading for Strasbourg and followed the road to the border where the road crossed the Rhine and passed into France through an immigration control without any sign of activity.

The Rhine is one of the longest and most important rivers in Europe; it begins in the Swiss Alps and flows for nine hundred miles to the North Sea.  That’s only about half as long as the Danube and it certainly doesn’t make the top one hundred longest rivers in the world, coming in at only one hundred and eleventh but is still very impressive.

From the very earliest times it has been an important trade route and today it remains a vitally important transport link that serves the industrial cities of the Rhine through France, Germany and the Low Countries and today, just like every other day, it looked businesslike and industrious with huge freight barges transporting raw materials to the factories along its banks.

All of a sudden there was absolutely no mistaking the fact that we were in France.

The river is about three hundred metres wide and in that short distance there was a total transformation from one country to another.  The architecture, the language, the dog shit on the pavements and the French grunge was in total contrast to the clinically clean German towns and villages that had been left behind on the other side of the river.

Strasbourg is the seventh largest city in France and is regarded as the cultural cross roads between Germanic and Latin culture.  In the recent past Strasbourg has been passed between Germany and France like an unwilling baton in a relay race.  Before the French Revolution it was a free city but the fanatical Jacobins seized it for the Republic.  In 1870 after the Franco-Prussian war culminated in the creation of modern Germany  it was ceded to Berlin but after the First-World-War in 1918 it returned to France.  In 1940 the Nazis seized the city and it was liberated again in 1944 and has remained French thereafter.

I have often wondered about national boundaries and how people stop being one nationality and become another and speak another language just because there is a line on a map but here it was easy to understand because the River Rhine creates a very clear boundary between two very different cultures.

Because of this I expected to be a mixed up sort of a place but actually not a bit of it because, thanks to an intense period of Francization immediately after the war including the forced suppression of the use of German and other local dialects, Strasbourg is definitely French which is appropriate really because it was here in 1792 that Rouget de Lisle composed the Revolutionary marching song La Marseillaise, which later became the national anthem of France.

It is an interesting fact that France is one of four nations (together with Andorra, Monaco, and Turkey) that has never signed the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.


Strasbourg is in the French region of Alsace which itself lies on the major European political fault line that more or less follows the Rhine and separates France from Germany.  It includes the independent states of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland which are collectively a legacy of the old independent European state of Burgundy which ultimately failed to survive because of its vulnerable geographical position lying as it did between the states of France and Germany (although not existing as we know it today until 1871) which from the fourteenth century onwards were always grinding horribly against each other.

And it is quite possible to imagine that the disputed regions of Alsace and Lorraine might themselves also have ended up as an independent state.  In fact in November 1918 the Diet of Strasbourg proclaimed an Independent Republic of Alsace-Lorraine but this only lasted a few days before French troops arrived and occupied it.

Strasbourg France Alsace

Northern France, Hardelot Plage (again) and Etaples

Longvilliers France

“If I should die, think only this of me: 
That there’s some corner of a foreign field 
That is forever England. There shall be 
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;”                                                                Rupert Brooke – ‘The Soldier’

The cottage was just a few kilometres from the holiday resort town of Le Touquet Paris Plage but we hadn’t visited yet so we agreed that as this was our last day that we really ought to go and see the place and after breakfast we loaded the cars and set off.

We made good progress at first but as we got closer to the coast the roads began to get busy, progress slowed down and then eventually ground to a complete halt.  I calculated that we were still about six kilometres from the town and the coast and the traffic was at an almost complete standstill.  It seemed that everyone else in Northern France had also decided to visit Le Touquet today.

I have visited Le Touquet a couple of times and stayed there while on golfing holidays and I think it is a very nice place but not so special that I would want to queue for an hour or so to get in and then struggle to find a parking space if I ever made it.  Not sure because unlike the surrounding towns of Nord Pas de Calais, the words ‘quaint’ and ‘medieval’ have no place there. The resort is too young for cobbles and ramparts and the same goes for museums and Cathedrals. I also seem to remember a lot of dog excrement.  The main draw is Le Touquet itself, a case of leisure over culture and I was certain that we could all live with the disappointment of not actually going there so at a convenient junction we left the line of crawling traffic and decided instead to revisit Hardelot because we were certain that there were some parts of the town that we had missed earlier in the week.

The locals call Hardelot ‘little Le Touquet’ but there were no such traffic problems getting in and we drove effortlessly to the centre and parked in a car park where we were the only two cars.  The sun was shining but it was a bit too breezy for the beach so we headed instead for the tiny town centre and its couple of streets of shops and restaurants.  Actually there wasn’t a great deal to see and this didn’t take very long and very soon afterwards we were on the promenade and enjoying the bracing sea air.

Signature in the Sand Molly

Hardelot is a well-to-do sort of town and many Parisians own property here and use it for summer and weekend breaks.  Apart from the grand villas however I personally don’t find the place that attractive and behind the sea front is a ribbon of featureless high rise flats most of them with their shutters firmly closed for most of the year.  Like Le Touquet, Hardelot was occupied by the Nazis in the Second-World-War and they did huge amounts of damage before retreating ahead of the Allied invasion forces.  Much of it had to be rebuilt and this explains the prominence of these rather unattractive buildings.

We walked back through the town and found a sunny spot to stop for a refreshment break and ordered some beer and sipped it slowly on account of the prices and then speculating that the roads might be less busy now we decided to have a second attempt at getting into Le Touquet.

The route to Le Touquet took us towards the old fishing town of Étaples on the river Canche and just outside the town we stopped to visit the largest Commonwealth War Graves site in France where nearly twelve thousand soldiers are buried under row upon row of  beautifully maintained white headstones many simply engraved with Rudyard Kipling’s words, A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God.

Because of its strategic position Étaples was the scene of much Allied activity during World War One due to its safety from attack by enemy land forces and the existence of railway connections with both the northern and southern battlefields. The town was home to sixteen hospitals and a convalescent depot, in addition to a number of reinforcement camps for Commonwealth soldiers and general barracks for the French Army.  By all accounts this was a truly dreadful place and most soldiers buried in the cemetery died after treatment in the hospitals.  It is said that after two weeks, many of the wounded would rather return to the front with unhealed wounds rather than remain at Étaples.

Etaples France War Graves

It was also a particularly notorious base camp for those on their way to the front. Under atrocious conditions, both raw recruits and battle-weary veterans were subjected to intensive training in gas warfare, bayonet drill, and long sessions of marching at the double across the dunes.  There was resentment against the officers who enjoyed the better conditions of Le Touquet and from which the men were forbidden to visit and this led to a famous mutiny in September 1917 which was brutally repressed.

Apart from the solemn rows of white headstones there was no reminder of this unpleasantness today as we entered the cemetery through the impressive memorial designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and walked through the carefully tended graves.  I had never visited a war graves site before and it was poignant to read the inscriptions on the graves and sad to see how young so many of them were who never returned to England.  Molly ran and skipped through the rows of graves and I was struck by the fact that she could only do this because of the ultimate sacrifices made by all these men.

After the visit to the cemetery we continued on our journey towards Le Touquet but at Étaples the traffic ground to a halt again and not wishing to spend our last afternoon in a traffic jam we resigned ourselves to not seeing Le Touquet this year and turned the cars around and returned to the cottage at Longvilliers.

It was lovely sitting in the garden in the late afternoon, the sun was shining and there was no wind, Molly played in her pool, the wasps kept falling in the improved trap, we drank some beer and wine and Richard prepared for what he promised would be the best log fire of the week.  Later, when it had cooled down, Molly and I went for a walk into the village and had a last look at the livestock in Camille’s garden and I knew she understood that this would be the last time because we were going home tomorrow.

Molly went to sleep earlier than usual and Richard didn’t let us down with the fire.  He supervised a final excellent barbeque meal where we used up all of the remaining food including   the last of the pasta dishes that Rachel and Sally had prepared four nights ago!  After the food Richard placed his specially selected log on the fire and it entertained us for a couple of hours or so as it burnt away in the brick barbeque and slowly turned to embers and ash.  We had enjoyed our barbeque meals but they were all over now and we left the garden and went to bed knowing that the first job in the morning was to pack.

The next day the weather was miserable again so with no reason to hang around we finished our packing, tidied the cottage and after the return of the deposit we set off for Calais with plenty of time allowed for a second visit to Carrefour at the Cité de Europe to stock up on cheap beer and wine.

We left France in a rain storm and arrived backing England to be greeted by another one and on account of the bad weather we felt sorry for all the people queuing to take our place on the ferry for the return crossing.

We had had another good week in France and we all look forward to returning again perhaps next year.

SeaFrance Calais

Northern France, Boulogne Sur Mer

Street Entertainer Boulogne Sur Mer

We were all relieved to find that it wasn’t raining and it looked as though Camille’s welcome forecast was completely accurate because the weather this morning was in complete contrast to yesterday, the sun was already shining and the sky was a blank blue canvas.

We followed the early morning routine that we had already established, went to see the ducks and the hens, visited Camille and saw the rabbit and walked a while through the village before returning to the cottage for our usual farm house breakfast, part English, part continental but every day a perfect combination of the two.  On account of the good weather we did some washing and hung it on the line before we finally left the cottage and set off for Boulogne about twenty-five kilometres away.

Being mean and naturally reluctant to pay the motorway toll we took the cross country route again and much to the girl’s annoyance made a small detour to visit the wind turbines high on a hill and with good views all around and then we carried on and made good progress until we reached the southern outskirts of the town.  We were aiming for the north so it would have been much more convenient to use the motorway because the route through the town was congested and confusing and when we reached the car park we were aiming for there was no room anyway so we had to drive a kilometre or so out of town to find somewhere else  to park.

Actually, we were so far out of town that we were within sight of the La Colonne de la Grande Armée, which is a column that was erected in the 1840s and is a fifty-three metre-high monument topped with a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte. (Higher than Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square which is slightly shorter at forty-six metres high).  It marks the base camp where Napoleon massed France’s biggest ever army of eighty thousand men ready to invade England.  It was initially intended to commemorate a successful invasion of England, but this proved to be a bit premature and as he didn’t quite manage that it now commemorates instead the first distribution of the Imperial Légion d’honneur.  Originally, when it was first completed, the statue had looked out over the Channel towards England, the land Napoleon had confidently expected to conquer but after the Second World War,as a mark of respect to the British allies in the war the French government turned the statue of Napoleon round to face inland to symbolise that that was the end of any Gallic invasion plans.

We strolled casually down the hill into the town past the Nausicaa Aquarium, one of the largest in France, on the sea front and walked along the port and this was a surprise because Boulogne, it turns out, is the biggest fishing port in France and there is a large fishing fleet including deep-sea trawlers and factory ships, as well as smaller sea-going and inshore fishing boats.  A third of France’s fresh fish catch is landed here, and a huge quay-side fish processing factory makes 20% of the nation’s tinned fish, and half of the frozen fish, fish fingers and other fish based ready meals.

The girls wanted to shop but this wasn’t in our plans so we left them to it and continued on up a steep hill to visit the historic centre.  Boulogne old town is built within the original Roman walls and has recently been well restored and it was in complete contrast to the concrete and glass of the sea front and the shopping streets.  Here was the beating heart of a medieval city with a castle, a cathedral and narrow streets lined with charming properties, little shops, cafés and bars.  In the middle was a public space with imaginative public art based on giant vegetable sculptures called ‘Le Jardin de Gulliver’ which was probably something only the French could do so well.

We hadn’t allowed a lot of time for this and we could have done with longer but it was very hot now so after a beer and a baguette at a pavement café (where I had to discreetly tackle an especially obnoxious nappy (diaper)) we walked along the main street full of interesting shops and busy restaurants and under the walls of the huge cathedral which was rebuilt in the nineteenth century as a symbol of the revival of the French Catholic Church after the Revolution in which the old cathedral and so many other churches were closed and destroyed.  We didn’t go inside but even from the street we could appreciate the size of the massive dome which is one of the biggest in Europe.

We left the old town by a gate next to the Castle Museum and I am forever amazed at the bits of trivia that I pick up on my travels because who would have guessed that inside is the most important exhibition of masks from Alaska in the whole world?  Why isn’t the most important exhibition of masks from Alaska in Alaska? We didn’t go inside because we weren’t sure that Molly would appreciate it so we left and walked through the gardens beneath the walls and back to the agreed rendezvous point with the girls where they were waiting for us after completing their shopping.

We had enjoyed the old town and Sally and Rachel their shopping but now it was time to leave.  Richard and I walked back up the hill to the cars while the others stayed on the white sandy beach in front of the aquarium. It is a nice beach but is only temporary because every winter storms strip the sand away and then every summer the city council imports several hundred tonnes from further up the coast to make sure that Boulogne has a beach to enjoy at least for a few months.

There was a confusing route out of the town but by a combination of judgment and good luck we managed to find the correct road out and once we had cleared the scruffy outskirts we were soon back in the open countryside and motoring south back towards the rural tranquility of our holiday village.

Back in the garden Molly played in her paddling pool and I had a couple of beers while Richard and the girls went to the supermarket for a few supplies that we were running short of (especially tomatoes).  This had been another excellent day and I had enjoyed the return trip to Boulogne which had so surprised me last year as a town well worth a visit but one so very easily missed.  Best of all, our weather forecasting neighbour promised us another sunny day tomorrow.

We didn’t do anything different in the evening of course, Molly stayed up for as long as she possibly could before finally giving in and then Richard prepared the barbeque and cooked a similar meal to every other night.  It would have been nice to go out for a meal but we all remembered last years expensive disaster when Molly wouldn’t sit still and it cost us nearly €100 for a meal we didn’t really enjoy so it was much easier to stay at the cottage, cook for ourselves and enjoy a few beers.

As the evening drew to an end I had the inevitable accident with the log fire.  Poking around in the embers a piece of red hot charcoal fell onto the ground and as I took evasive action I lost control of the red hot poker and struck Richard in the back of the leg and in the process leaving him with a brand that he was stuck with for the rest of the holiday.  I went to bed soon after that before I could do any more damage.

Boulogne France

Northern France, A Washout and a Day Inside

Longvilliers France

This morning there was a disappointing grey sky with heavy clouds relentlessly rolling in from the west that, in a summer holiday sort of way, didn’t look especially promising.

Longvilliers is located in the Pays-de-Calais Department which is the coolest, wettest region of the country and that is a chance that you take when choosing this part of France for a vacation even in July and August.  The main influence on the climate is the North Atlantic Ocean and whilst this keeps the area free from extremes of temperature it also makes it quite windy and wet and the flat-low lying terrain prevalent in the west of France allows these weather systems to blow far inland.

There was no sign of improvement after breakfast had been cleared away so Richard and I went to the supermarket with the girls because as it was their turn to cook tonight they wanted to select the ingredients for their planned meal.  It was gloomy on the way to Montreuil and spitting with rain when we left the supermarket with the provisions that we needed but by the time we returned to the cottage there was a steady drenching rain that kept us confined to the house.

It was midday and we were certain there was time for improvement so we did the things that you have to do on holiday when bad weather forces you inside while waiting for any signs of a change.

We had a cup of tea, did a bit of tidying up and Sally and Molly had an early afternoon nap.  Finally we had a beer and played cards for an hour as we watched the rain trickling down the window panes and slowly our earlier optimism began to drain away.  At three o’clock we gave in to the inevitability of it all and resigned ourselves to a complete wash out.  Sure now that we wouldn’t be driving anywhere today Richard and I opened another bottle of beer, Rachel and Molly did some crayoning and Sally read a book.

In the cottage next door the English family had had enough and about mid afternoon we saw them packing their bags into their car and they explained that they were fed up with the weather and they didn’t especially like their accommodation anyway so they were going home.

Later on it actually started to ease off, the nasty dark grey clouds gave way to light grey clouds and the rain changed to just a steady drizzle and so having had enough of being inside we found a garden umbrella and Richard and I went outside to drink our beer, Molly put her rain suit on and played in the garden without any concern at all about the weather and we all started to cheer up.

Although it was cool there were still some wasps around and one that was pestering Richard became agitated as he tried unsuccessfully to swat it and it carried out a lightening fast attack and stung him on his wrist and within seconds his arm was red and swollen and we were searching for the first aid kit.  Richard went looking for revenge and after killing a couple then improved the wasp trap and watched enthusiastically as one by one they came by and fell in and drowned.

As the day went on the weather kept improving (it couldn’t get any worse) and by early evening the rain had stopped and we were able to take our walk through the village along the side of the Dordonne River which was flowing much faster tonight on account of all the rain.  Camille spotted us and came to say hello and he promised us major improvement for the next day. ‘Soleil, soleil’ he kept saying and poking a finger towards the sky which we interpreted as tomorrow’s forecast for full sun and blue skies.

As it was the girl’s turn to cook we left them to it and sat in the garden where it was damp but it hadn’t rained for the last two hours and waited for a gastronomic delight.  We knew that we were to get a repeat of last year’s offer of a couple of pasta dishes and based on that previous experience we did offer some advice on portion control but they took no notice and cooked two full packets of pasta and produced enough food to last for the rest of the week.

It really wasn’t fit to sit outside and eat so we were forced inside tonight but the cottage had a large farmhouse table and it was good fun to spend a long time over a big meal, enjoy real conversation with family without the interruption of a television and afterwards play some more cards, drink some more beer and progress slowly towards the final gin and tonics as the heavy rain returned outside.

And inside as well as it turned out because we had left the bedroom windows open and in our room the wind had blown the driving rain through the velux roof window and had completely soaked the room.  There was a puddle on the floor and the bed linen was soaked right through as well as any clothes that had been left carelessly lying around.  We had to clear all of that up of course before we could go to bed…

… and it was raining again.

Longvilliers Cottage Garden

Northern France, Hardelot Plage and a BBQ Accident

Camille Longvilliers France

There was much better weather the next morning so after breakfast we were in no particular rush to leave the cottage and stayed around the garden and entertained Molly before taking a slow walk along the village lanes to see the farm animals.

Camille spotted us and came outside to say bonjour and then insisted on a guided tour of his garden with its immaculate vegetable plot overflowing with plump ripe produce.  He couldn’t speak a word of English but he explained in great detail what everything was and how best to prepare, cook and eat it.  I could follow some of this by picking out the odd familiar schoolboy French word but to be honest most of it was just a rapid Gallic blur.

Molly had no interest in the vegetables but she liked it when he took us into an outhouse to introduce us to his pet rabbit (I like to think it was a pet and not just being fattened for the pot) and a scruffy white dove in a tiny cage and she was very reluctant to leave.  I had to bribe her out with a walk around the poultry pens and a quick lesson in bird identification.  I knew that having seen it she wasn’t going to forget that rabbit and sure enough we had to visit the thing every day after this until the end of the holiday.

Mid morning and Richard and I went to the nearest supermarket about fifteen kilometres away and took Molly so that the girls could get ready for a trip to the sea and with the sun shining we planned to return to the beach but this time to visit the nearby resort of Hardelot in between Le Touquet and Boulogne.  Richard and I had played golf there a couple of years ago but we had never visited the beach before.

To get there required a cross country journey through a succession of small towns and villages along narrow roads meandering through undulating countryside with golden fields of freshly cut hay contrasting with and harmonising perfectly against the rich green meadows with their herds of lazy grazing cattle.  We reached the larger town of Dannes next to a series of ugly clay quarries carved thoughtlessly out of the countryside and then picked up the approach road to Hardelot and the beach.

Like most of this coastline Hardelot is lined with a ribbon of attractive white sand dunes decorated with wispy tufts of grass and facing out to the sea but what makes this place especially attractive is a six hundred acre forest immediately behind the coast line.  In 1905, an Englishman, Sir John Whitley, who had already developed the resort of Le Touquet, bought huge amounts of this land and immediately set about developing Hardelot as a new and fashionable resort with an aspiration to create a world centre of excellence for sports.  A number of new villas were built on the seafront and in the pine forests by the famous architect Louis-Marie Cordonnier, a friend of John Whitley, who designed these vast and unique villas that today characterize the small town.

We parked the car in a side street next to the tall villas with their wooden verandas and brightly painted woodwork and walked to the beach through immaculate open spaces and well maintained streets and I was struck with something that makes Hardelot stand out from other places in France and that was the total absence of dog dirt and for once we didn’t need to be careful where we walked.  Mostly in France they don’t mind offensive canine poops spread all over the pavements for people to step in and slip on but here they keep this place really clean and I was pleased to see signs on the promenade that made it clear that dogs were definitely not welcome in Hardelot.

Before going to the beach we found a restaurant with pavement tables on the edge of the promenade and as Molly was fast asleep we decided not to disturb her and stop and have a drink.  Only one drink mind you because one thing that never ceases to amaze me is the bar and restaurant prices in France.  There seems no real logic to it – Richard and I had a 30cl bottle of beer and each one cost €3.5 but I can buy six bottles of the same beer in Carrefour for just a few cents more and these excessive charges must result in hundreds of lost customers.  I certainly won’t use the bars in France as much as I would, say, in Spain or Greece.

After Molly woke we spent an hour or so on the immaculately clean beach (surprisingly not Blue Flag) and Molly built some more sand castles and decorated them with shells in between paddling in the unexpectedly warm sea and running about on the firm hard sand.  But the weather began to change as clouds swooped in from the west and took the sun away and with a stiff breeze blowing it was turning chilly so we decided to call it a day and return inland where the sun was still shining.

Getting out of Hardelot proved a lot more difficult than getting in and two or three wrong turns meant that we ended up in an unfamiliar location and we had to fumble our way along the narrow lanes trying to find our way back to Longvilliers.  It wasn’t that bad of course and we did get to enjoy some more views of the countryside on the way.

Back in the cottage garden where we were sheltered from the wind and the sun was still shining we drank beer and wine and ate afternoon snacks, Sally crafted a wasp trap to distract and catch the little critters that were bothering us, Richard selected logs for this evening’s barbeque and Molly played in her pool and kept us entertained with her antics.  It was a lovely garden overlooking Camille’s well stocked vegetable plot and with plenty of space to run about and play in.  We were beginning to like this place more and more.

In the evening we did almost the same as the previous night with another fine meal outside under the stars, played some card games and the chit-chatted our way through a few bottles of French lager and proceeded to the gin and tonic.  Sometime just before midnight the alcohol took control and losing the power of coherent speech and the loss of essential muscle control which nearly led to a nasty accident while poking the logs on the fire I decided that enough was enough and retired to bed leaving Richard to attend to the burn on his leg and to straighten up the garden behind me.

Longvilliers Northern France

Northern France, The Beach at Berck sur Mer

Berck Sur Mer France

The sun was shining so it was time for the beach so we left Montreuil and took the road the short distance to nearby Berck sur Mer which was once a working class seaside resort that hosted mining families from northern France and the Low Countries while the well-to-do went to Le Touquet just up the coast.  We followed signs to the beach but these it has to be said weren’t terribly helpful and after a couple of wrong turns we found it almost by chance and gratefully parked the cars.

At mid afternoon the tide was all the way out and after we had climbed over the undulating dunes with their energy sapping sand that sucked at our feet we found a flat expansive beach of hard sand and lagoons of water cut off from the retreating sea full of crustaceans and tiny fish now at the mercy of people picking over the aquatic debris left behind by the waves.  There was plenty of beach for everyone and there were huge views one way to Le Touquet and in the other direction the town of Berck that were interrupted only by the sentinel rows of steadfast and sturdy gnarled wooden groins that lined the beach.

We found a perfect spot and spread our towels and then spent a couple of hours in the sunshine walking continuously back and forth to the shore line with Molly as she enjoyed herself in the shallow water of the lagoons but being unsure of the waves not really prepared to go into the sea with any real confidence.  We built sand castles and collected shells and this was a perfect afternoon which reminded me of my own childhood holidays.  I never went to France of course when I was young, our annual holidays alternated between Cornwall, Wales and Norfolk and I wondered if she had any idea just how lucky she was to be here.

Berck sur Mer

After an afternoon relaxing on the beach, we took a scenic route back to the cottage through unremarkable but non-the-less quite beautiful countryside.  I have grown to really appreciate this part of France and think it sad that that most people roar past it as quickly as they can on the autoroute from Calais heading to the south. Here there were soaring wind turbines, quaint villages, sun-dappled fields, tranquil streams gliding at their own gentle pace, and fields full of immaculate dairy cows all plump and sleek and so obviously completely contented.

We were becoming contented as well and beginning to feel at home now and the early disappointment had completely evaporated as we sat in the garden in the warm sunshine drinking beer and experimenting with unfamiliar cheeses as Molly played in her plastic paddling pool and Richard began to prepare for this evening’s food cooked on an impressive barbeque.

As the day tipped over from afternoon to early evening we walked through the village and went to see Camille’s poultry and after we had successfully worn Molly out and she had gone to bed Richard fired up the coals and he cooked a fine meal of kebabs, local sausage and Mick Dawson’s gammon steaks that we had brought with us all the way from England.

After the food Richard found some logs in the cottage wood pile and we put the barbeque to an alternative use as a log fire as we sat out under a clear velvet sky full of twinkling stars as Richard kept the fire going long enough to enjoy a trio of gins before finally calling it a day full of optimism about the weather for tomorrow as we abandoned the glowing red embers and reflected on an excellent first day.

Longvilliers France BBQ

Northern France, Montreuil Sur Mer

Montreuil Sur Mer France

On Sunday morning the weather was rather mixed and it was difficult to predict with any real degree of confidence just how it might turn out later on.  Sally was up early with Molly and complained about the television channels all being in French (I’m not sure what she was expecting) and the others stayed in bed a while longer waiting for improvement.  Eventually Richard joined me and while we sat and had a cup of tea I thought how good it was to be on holiday again with the world early morning farting champion.

After breakfast we peered into the sky and out towards the horizon looking for clues and not being at all certain we set off for nearby Montreuil sur Mer.

Montreuil sur Mer is a delightful town which despite its misleading name is nowhere near the sea at all but is an inland market town with spectacular walls, traditional architecture and a pretty market square with a statue of Lord Haig who lived nearby during the First-World-War.

We have visited Montreuil before of course but it is difficult not go back because it is a “ville fleurie”, which means it is colourful and vibrant and does not show any self restraint on the planting up of window-boxes.  Flowers cascade over the walls lining the approach to the town, rambling climbers cling to the old stone balconies and every roundabout is a floral work of art. Inside the Market Place colourful petunias ran riot in front of the town hall and scarlet geraniums drizzle over the surrounding buildings with their tiny garret windows and haphazardly sloping roofs.

We needed a few extra provisions and with supermarkets being inconveniently closed on Sunday in France the girls went looking for somewhere to get provisions and although Montreuil is not a big place, just a few charming squares linked by ribbons of uneven cobbled streets, this managed to take longer than it really should have so Richard and I took responsibility for finding a bar with a vacant table and ordered a beer.  Eventually everyone returned and sat for a while at the pavement bar and we all watched nervously as a few spots of rain began to fall and umbrellas started to go up all around but we needn’t have worried too much because the solitary rain cloud soon passed over to be replaced with a promising blue sky.

Montreuil was once an important strategic town on the English Channel but by the nineteenth century after the sea had retreated over fifteen kilometres away it had become a sleepy medieval town on the coaching road from Calais to Paris.  The famous writer Victor Hugo spent a brief stay here and during that time was inspired to use it as the setting for his famous novel, Les Miserables, about the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Empire and the 1830 revolution.

It was lunchtime and the bar was filling up with diners so not proposing to order food and feeling in the way we left the bar and walked through the square and out onto the walls that surround the quiet town.  From the top of the ramparts, which circle the town, there are splendid views across the surrounding countryside.  A river meandered through the valley and fresh bales of golden hay shimmered in the distance as swallows swooped theatrically close to the vertical stone walls.  An old man behind the wall attended his abundant allotment, stooped to pick a marrow the size of a rugby ball and families ambled at an appropriate pace along the top of the walls.  The scene had a timeless grace that I remembered and I actually never tire of going back.

Eventually we turned away from the old defensive walls and walked back into the town through the twisting uneven streets past elegant shops and chocolatiers, more flower displays that wouldn’t survive a weekend in an average English town and estate agents with properties that had prices way beyond my budget.


France, Return to Carcassonne

Cacassonne City Walls

“It is said that the stones have a magnetism that draws people back time and time to the city. I’ve heard it’s to do with ley lines.  Carcassonne has the same legend.  At certain points across the earth the energy builds up and creates a pull, a pulse and in these places unusual and mystical things can happen”  Patrice Chaplin – ‘Albany Park’     

On the way down to breakfast the next morning, knowing how precious the French can be about their language, I attempted some simple communication with the receptionist about the arrangements for petit dejeuner.

I am fairly certain that I selected the right words but graciously concede that I may not have had them in the correct order and this is an annoying thing about the French because they like you to try and speak their language, which is fair, but then ridicule you if you don’t get everything absolutely grammatically correct, which isn’t very encouraging.

It’s a good job we don’t humiliate them when they mangle the English language with zis and zat and their inability to understand when and when not to use the letter H, but anyway, this woman looked at me as though I was from the very bottom of the evolutionary chain and asked with a large dollop of sarcasm if I would prefer it if she spoke English?  Most Europeans are really pleased if you attempt a few words but the French really don’t like anything that they perceive as a corruption of their ‘beautiful language’ and I nodded meekly and although I wanted to say qui  merci I said yes please.

It was overcast and much cooler this morning as we walked through the streets of Castres to the car park and we were glad to get in the car, turn the heater on and set off back to Carcassonne for our early afternoon flight as yesterday’s blistering afternoon temperature was fading away into a recent memory.  I was fairly sure of the way to go but the Satnav lady decided that I would like to take the difficult scenic journey instead of the direct route and before we reached the main road at Mazamet she took me onto a minor road and into the Forêt de Montaud and soon we were climbing again along winding roads through a deciduous beech forest back into the Black Mountains.

I could have asked Kim to plot a more sensible alternative route using the paper map but the truth is that she isn’t too good with maps and this responsibility generally brings on a panic attack as he stares blankly at the multi coloured squiggles hopelessly looking for a clue and before she has even pinpointed our position it is generally too late because we will have missed the turning anyway.  I shouldn’t really be critical because her inability with maps would be rather like me being asked to interpret a knitting pattern and she is very good at that.

I suppose this was going to save us a kilometre or two and it was quite picturesque but it was at the expense of our timetable and as we planned to drive into Carcassonne and to La Cité for a final coffee before going to the airport at a convenient junction I eventually overruled the Satnav and instead of driving deeper into the forest made for the direct route and the main highway.

We arrived in Carcassonne at ten o’clock which gave us an hour in the old fortress so we walked through the main gate and the narrow streets and made our way to the main square where it was too chilly to sit on the pavement so we were forced inside instead.  While we sat with our final drink we reviewed our holiday and made a comparison between France and Spain to see if we could reach consensus on which we like best.  We had enjoyed visiting this region of France but I have to say that we both agreed that we have a preference for Spain.

It isn’t fair to make that statement without some explanation so here are our reasons: First of all the centrepiece of every town and city in Spain, the Plaza Mayor, which is the first place we visit when we arrive somewhere new but there isn’t the equivalent in France; secondly, Tapas and the complimentary bowls of food in the bars and bodegas which the French don’t do and thirdly, staying with bars for a moment, the prices are much better in Spain because I can never understand the sky-high price of drinks in French bars and restaurants; fourthly I’m afraid it is back to the unpleasant subject of dog excrement because this really is a most disagreeable aspect of France.

Leaving the city we drove to the airport and returned the car and when I enquired everyone seemed to have forgotten about the refund that I was due on the rental overcharge and I had to remind the staff at the car hire office.  I didn’t get the refund of course just a sort of vague promise that it would be sorted out and that was the best that I could hope for without making a scene or trashing the place.

Although the airport was tiny it had a high quality restaurant overlooking the runway and bearing in mind that the last place anyone would choose to go out to lunch in England would be Stansted or East Midlands Airports this seemed to be a popular place with local people who were arriving here by the tableful just for their lunch.  As we sat by the window waiting for the plane to arrive the weather continued to deteriorate as grey sky muscled in from the west and brought some spots of rain and by the time we had passed through security and immigration control and were boarding the plane there was a downpour which gave everyone a thorough soaking as they queued to climb the aircraft steps.

Like the terminal building that struggled to accommodate all of the passengers the runway looked barely long enough to cope with a Boeing 737-800 and I noticed that the end of it curled up into an incline like you see on aircraft carriers presumably to give the plane a bit of last minute assistance in getting off the ground but the pilot got us up without incident and we quickly flew into the clouds and below us France was completely obscured from view.

Back home I contacted EconomyCarRentals.com and their customer services department told me that it would take at least twenty days to deal with the overcharging mix up but they would deal with it as soon as they could.

post script:  It took nearly thirty days, several emails and a critical blog post to get it sorted but I did eventually receive my refund but I’ll think twice about using EconomyCarRentals.com ever again.

Carcassonne France

France, Castres and Holiday Reflections

Castres France

It was a lovely day now and the sun was shining as we left the hotel and first of all transferred the car to an underground car park and then emerged from below ground into les Jardins do ‘’Evéché which were designed and laid out in the seventeenth century by the same landscape gardener who worked as part of the team on the gardens at the Palace of Versailles.

The walk took us past the Hôtel de Ville and the Cathedral and down to the banks of the River Agout where we discovered the real gem of Castres.

Lining the river on the right bank were les Maisons sur l’Agout which is the old medieval riverside quarter where the old tanners’ and weavers’ half timbered houses with running balconies overhang the water and their colourful shutters and windows cast reflections on the gentle water of the river.  It reminded me of Girona in Catalonia although this was much smaller in scale and rather more attractive.

After we had taken more pictures than we really needed we walked over the river and along the front of these riverside houses where we could see that most of them were now restaurants and cafés with prices to match their enviable position.  We did a second circuit of this old quarter and then walked into the heart of the city and the Place Jean Jaurès where there were cafés spilling out into the square adjacent to a statue of the famous French socialist politician at one end  and an elaborate water fountain at the other.

We stopped for a drink here and as we sat in the hot sunshine we could see that this was a city in complete contrast to Béziers.  It is the largest city in France without a motorway link which means that it is something of a relative backwater and where Béziers was in some parts grimy and uncared for Castres was smart, upmarket and busy.  I also have to contradict myself here about the French and dog excrement because here the streets were immaculately clean and there was no doggy poop on the pavements at all.

After the short refreshment break we resumed our walking tour of the city and arrived at the Goya Museum at the Hôtel de Ville which has the largest collection of Spanish paintings in France except for the Louvre in Paris.

Kim wasn’t keen on visiting a museum so she sat in the sunshine and I took a tour of the rooms which culminated in a special temporary exhibition of Goya’s prints titled ‘The Disasters of War’ which were sketched as a protest against the violence of the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising, the subsequent Peninsular War of 1808–14 and the setbacks to the liberal cause following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814. I found this rather surprising because the prints essentially set out scenes of atrocities, starvation, degradation and humiliation carried out by the invading French army against the Spanish people.

Goya Disasters of War

Our next task was to select a restaurant for later so we walked through the main square again and through some more medieval streets with authentic buildings and examined the menus of the three recommendations made by the hotel.  We quickly made our decision before going back to the square for a second drink before returning again to the riverside where we anticipated that the position of the sun would now be perfect for more reflection pictures – and we were right!

The Hotel Europe turned out to be an excellent choice, a quirky place with an eclectic mix of furnishings and rooms.  Ours was on the fourth floor up a creaky wooden staircase and through the heart of an old medieval building.  We spent some time in the room and then prepared to return to our chosen restaurant.  I really wanted an authentic meal so despite my squeamishness about the way it is produced and knowing that my vegetarian daughter would never approve or understand, I started with Fois Gras and for main course selected a Cassoulet.

The previous time I  had a Cassoulet was in a French restaurant in Baden-Baden in Germany and the beans resulted in an explosive and unfortunate intestinal reaction but I thought I would take a chance and try this traditional dish in the region where it originates from.  It was rather nice but a bit expensive and I cannot really understand why a few beans, a duck leg and a Toulouse sausage should cost nearly €20!

The last time that I had a Cassoulet in France was in 2017 in Vic-Sur-Aisne when I cooked it myself after getting great advice from a butcher on a market stall. Everyone seemed to enjoy it I have to brag.

We enjoyed our meal, it was the best of the holiday and when we had paid up and left we wandered along the river for the final time before returning to the hotel for our final night in France for this time.

River Reflections Castres France