On this particular tour, we may well have saved the best for last. I don’t know how often our route into and out of of France has taken us along the Opal Coast and straight past the flourishing little town of Montreuil sur Mer (M sur M) but, henceforth, I suspect we will be stopping here again and again. M sur M is a small wholly authentic French town unlike so many others in this particular region of France which all too often resemble home county towns on the other side of the English Channel. Except for the fact it is no longer “sur la mer” (the Canche estuary silted up almost 500 years ago leaving the town some 12 kilometres from the coast) we both loved everything about the place.
We parked up at Camping La Fontaine des Clercs, a comfortable municipal site to the south east of the town just outside the old town ramparts. From there it is an easy 20 minute walk to the town centre although it took me an additional 45 minutes after I chose to walk a part of the ramparts which almost completely enclose the old town. It was a fine walk with pleasing panoramic views over the surrounding countryside. Vanya didn’t come along but, instead, charged me with finding a decent restaurant for the evening.
Later that evening, Vanya did accompany me into the town. We passed through an old brick portal, totally avoiding the ramparts (Vanya simply doesn’t do heights), and up through a series of short cobbled streets and alleys to the town’s principal square, the Place General de Gaulle. One of the streets, Rue Clape en Bas, features a series of workmens cottages which date back to the 16th century but you only have to look at the dates engraved above the front doors elsewhere in the town to realise that almost all of it dates back to anything between 200 and 400 years ago. Vanya was as impressed as I with the place.
Place General de Gaulle is a wide open space mostly given over to car parking except on Saturdays when the local market is held. This space is ringed by bar-restaurants, small arts and craft shops, patisseries, chocolateries and a particularly impressive fromagerie (Fromagerie Caseus) holding an amazing choice of more than 150 different cheeses.
Once a year, on Bastille Day, Place General de Gaulle is wholly given over to a huge Antiques Fair. The square is also home to a statue of Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig. There’s not many of those around the world! Posters around the town serve to inform that M sur M was Haig’s GHQ during WW1. The statue was erected in 1931 but had to be completely rebuilt after being used for target practise by occupying German soldiers during WW2.
Not far from the Place General de Gaulle on the Place Gambetta is the Abbey Church of Saint Saulve. Originally a 12th century church but almost completely rebuilt in the 16th century it is a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and the inside is seriously impressive. The church holds one of the finest collections of sacred art across the north of France and, also, the relics of Saint Austreberthe who was famed for her visions and miracles.
There have been many illustrious visitors to Montreuil sur Mer but none more so than Victor Hugo, the famous poet, novelist and dramatist and perhaps the most important of France’s romantic writers. He became a frequent visitor to M sur M after first visiting the town in 1837 with his mistress and the town and some of its inhabitants became the inspiration behind his great historical novel “Les Miserables”. Hugo refers to the town as M sur M in his novel and the town became the home to the books principal hero Jean Valjean. Many characters in the novel were based on people Hugo met when he visited the town. He stayed at the Hotel de France (you can overnight in the same room he used) and the then Innkeeper and a barmaid were real life models for the characters of Monsieur Thenardier (the Innkeeper) and his wife. The characters of Fantine and her daughter Cosette too were based on people he met in the town.
Much of the old town including the Hotel de France look precisely as it did when Hugo used to visit and parts of it, especially on the street of ‘La Cavee Saint Firmin’, featured in the 1925 film version of Les Miserables. Every year at the end of July/early August some 500+ of the town’s 2,100 population put on an outdoor Son et Lumiere (sound and light) show of Les Miserables.
There are a number of fine restaurants in M sur M, the Chateau de Montreuil (with it’s Roux protege Christian Germain) being perhaps the most famous but there are several others listed in one or both of the Michelin Guide and the Gault & Millau French Restaurant Guide. Alexander Gauthier, voted France’s greatest chef just a few years ago, has three restaurants in the town including the two Michelin Star “La Grenouilliere”. La Grenouilliere was closed during our visit but at late notice and with our dogs accompanying us we obtained a table in a sister restaurant – ‘Anecdote’. Anecdote opened in 2015 in what was part of the old Hotel-Dieu hospital and it features the signature recipes of Gauthier’s father, also a Michelin Star chef. Vanya and I will each testify that the food and wine was fantastic (as was the service).
What a find!