Montreuil sur Mer (Hauts de France), France March 2022

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!

Sully sur Loire (Loiret), France March 2022

From Chateauroux we allowed ourselves just two more nights in France before catching the eurostar back to the UK on 3 March. The first of these two nights was to be spent parked up in the front garden of a National Dog Trainer just to the north of Chartres in the hamlet of Bercheres Saint Germain (Don’t ask me how Vanya found that one!) but before then there was sufficient time to visit Sully sur Loire.

Sully sur Loire is a small pretty town in the Centre-Loire Valley. It’s most interesting feature is the picturesque Chateau de Sully sur Loire; a medieval castle with battlements, an impressive moat and fairytale conical towers. Now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage site this was a functioning castle in every sense of the word and it is steeped in history. Joan of Arc was briefly detained there after failing to liberate Paris (she escaped only to be captured by Burgundian Lords and was then executed); Anne of Austria and her young son, the future Louis XIV, stayed for a while together with the Cardinal Mazarin (rumoured to be the Queen Regent’s lover) and; last but not least, the 18th century philosopher Voltaire stayed over on at least two occasions.

Built in the 13th century, the first Dukes de Sulley took the castle on during the 14th century and it remained with that family until 1962 when the Loire Department purchased it and made good the damage caused during the French Revolution and a seriously bad 1918 fire. As stated above, it is now a museum and a most impressive building.

We had sufficient time in Sully to both walk the chateau grounds and grab a bite to eat in a local cafe bar but then it was onwards and upwards towards Chartres and the small village of Bercheres Saint Germain and the house of our national dog trainer, the lovely Floriane Moliere.

Chateauroux (Inde), France February 2022

We stopped in Chateauroux on the way south a few weeks ago and enjoyed our stay so much that we decided to return for a couple of days. This would give us the chance to get the dogs seen by a local vet (for tape worm medication as required by the UK authorities) but, perhaps more important, it would enable us to stock up on some of the white Reuilly wine that we so enjoyed during our last stay.

Unfortunuately the return trip didn’t go quite as smoothly as we had hoped. Yes we arrived safely at Camping La Belle Isle in the centre of Chateauroux (and we quickly found the Vet’s surgery just around the corner from where we parked the Van) and, yes, we quickly found the bar at which we discovered the Reuilly but, the bar was closed both on the Sunday that we arrived and on the following day. Indeed most of the town was closed for the Sunday and Monday (and this included the Sports Bar I had used previously).

This misfortune resulted in me having to walk many miles to obtain the Reuilly. I ended up walking a wine triangle (a) 3 kms from our campsite on La Belle Isle to the E Leclerc Hypermarket followed by (b) a second 3km leg to the Carrefour Supermarket and then (c) a third 3km walk back to the Van. The good news was that the Reuilly selection at Leclerc was sufficient to justify driving the Van there and stocking up as we left Chateauroux.

I really didn’t mind the walk around Chateauroux. It allowed me to see more of the place. Amongst other things I took time to look inside both the Eglise Notre Dame de Chateauroux and the Eglise St Christophe on Rue des Fontaines…

…and justified my stopping at La Ginguiette (bar) on La Belle Isle to enjoy a couple of glasses of Reuilly while the sun went down.

Rochefoucauld (Charente), France February 2022

Our next proper stop was to be in Chateauroux (such that we could both obtain the necessary paperwork to take the dogs back into England and stock up on some of the Reuilly wine that we so enjoyed on our way down through France) but just an hour or so down the road we paused at Rochefoucauld.

A small town of just 3,000 people, Rochefoucauld is best known for it’s Chateau overlooking the Tardoire River but there are a couple of other fairly interesting historic buildings in the town (including the Carmelite Convent and the Notre Dame de l’Assomption Collegiate Church) and it has a very pretty centre.

We left the Van on a small parking lot by the river, between the chateau and the town centre and went for a brief wander.

We started with the Chateau, some parts of which date back to the 10th century although; the place was considerably enlarged at different times between the 15th and 18th centuries. Throughout, it has been owned by the Rochfoucauld family and some of the family still live there. The chateau was open to visitors as we arrived but at 10 euros per person entrance fee and with only an hour to go before our lunch reservation we restricted ourselves to the gardens.

The small town of Rochefoucauld is a joy.

It was a bright sunny Sunday and at around midday there were plenty of locals sitting outside the various cafes and bars, engaging in conversation, sharing glasses of wine, watching the world go by and generally letting things happen.

And on to the Au Moulin restaurant. It was empty as we arrived but within minutes of our settling down and placing our order the place was packed… and small wonder; the food, the house wine and the service was excellent. The wine was a Bordeaux Blanc Sec, Chateau du Grand Plantier and it was for pennies!

Of course, something had to go wrong and it did. I’ll not go into too much detail as to what happened but, Vanya took the dogs back to the Van while I went to get the bill and all three of my debit/credit cards were declined. Talk about embarrassed! I had to run after Vanya and get one of her cards. It seems one of my cards was relatively new and had not been activated and I had used the wrong pin numbers for the others – three times on each card!! It was a very good wine but I didn’t think I had drunk that much.