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 recall how often our route into and out of of France along the Opal Coast has taken us straight past the thriving little town of Montreuil sur Mer but, from now on, I suspect we will be stopping here again and again. It is a lovely little wholly unadulterated French town so unlike others in this particular region of France. We both liked everything about the place although it is no longer “on the sea”. The Canche estuary silted up some 500 years ago and the coast is now some 12 kms away.

We parked up at Camping La Fontaine des Clercs, just outside the old town ramparts. Only two towers remain of the 13th century castle but there is a fine walk around the well preserved ramparts which almost completely encircle the old town. Because of her acrophobia Vanya didn’t join me on my walk along the ramparts.

However, later in the evening, Vanya did accompany me into the town through an old brick portal in the walls and she was as impressed as I with the place. I’ve not heard anyone talk about M sur M and it is therefore for me an undiscovered beauty with a mass of old houses and short cobbled streets and alleys. One of the streets, Rue Clape en Bas, features a series of workmen’s cottages dating back to the 16th century but you only have to look at the dates engraved above the front doors elsewhere in the old town to realise that almost all of it dates back to anything between 200 and 400 years ago.

We made our way through the town to the Place General de Gaulle which is a wide open space mostly given over to car parking except on Saturdays when the local market is held. This square 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. We were told that on Bastille Day the square 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). 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 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 (famous poet, novelist and dramatist) 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 frequently 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 the town, 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 were offered 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. Vanya and I will each testify that the food and wine was fantastic (as was the service).

Our evening in the Anecdote ended in a bit of an uproar after our German Shepherd dog (Nala) decided to move my chair just as I was sitting down after a trip to the loo. Much to Vanya‘s amusement and that of the waitress, I tumbled backwards to the floor and then; just as I was regaining my feet, I stepped into the dog’s water bowl. Even the Maitre d’ was laughing at this stage.
No matter, it was a great evening and 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 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 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 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 Montrichard (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 monuments 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 morning/afternoon and 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 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 and the house wine 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.

Montguyon (Aquitaine), France February 2022

And so by 26 February the journey home was well and truly under way.

We were booked to travel through the tunnel to England on 3 March and that gave us a generous 5 days to get through France to Calais although, we intended stopping in Chateauroux for a couple of days to get the dogs cleared for travel back into the UK and to stock up on some of that lovely Reuilly wine we had sampled on the way down through France.

Leaving Zarautz we crossed the border and drove some 200 miles into France. We stopped for the night a little way past Montguyon at a small, quiet site in Le Fouilloux.

There is little of interest around Le Fouilloux but the campsite was pleasant enough and it is within an hours drive of one of the prettier small towns in the area, La Rochefoucauld, where we intended taking brunch the next morning.

And so it was…

Deyme (Haut-Garonne), France February 2022

This will be a short entry.

We had a great evening in Chateauroux but left early the next morning without spending any real time exploring the town. Such a waste but it is not getting any warmer and really bad weather is expected tomorrow. We are determined to continue south so as to find warm, sunny weather as quickly as possible.

The day’s drive from Chateauroux took us all the way to Deyme, just south of Toulouse. We are poised to enter Spain tomorrow where we should finally find some sun.

Deyme really isn’t worth visiting. Sorry but, for a surprisingly large village of more than 1,000 people, there’s absolutely nothing to the place. I couldn’t even find a baker’s shop, which is virtually unheard of in France. I suspect that until not so long ago this was a simple hamlet which, as Toulouse has grown, has seen a significant influx of commuters and/but little or no change to the local infrastructure.

That’s all there is to say about the place. Sorry Deyme.

Chateauroux (Inde), France February 2022

The next day, Saturday, saw us leave Bouafles very early (by our standards) and head due south towards Chateauroux. It was bitterly cold outside the Van and any lingering doubts about staying on in Bouafles were soon dispelled.

Two hundred miles (and some three supermarkets) later we checked into Camping La Rochat which sits by the Belle Isle Lake at the edge of Chateauroux. The 8 acre lake is wrapped in 12 acres of parkland and the dogs loved it, running around madly in the long frost covered white grass. Yes, Chateauroux was as cold as Bouafles.

Leaving Vanya to warm up and rest in the Van I set off to check out the town and find a decent restaurant for the evening. I failed miserably on both counts. The L’Ecrin des Saveurs had been identified to us as the best restaurant in town and it both looked the part and had a very appealing menu but was fully booked. I carried on down the Avenue Marcel Lemoine towards the town centre checking out other restaurants on the way and disaster struck. Le Queen’s Berry was open!!

Le Queen’s Berry proved to be a very fine and very welcoming sports bar and brasserie serving excellent (room temperature) draft Guiness and, if that wasn’t enough, the 6 Nations rugby union match between France and Ireland was about to begin. The locals prevailed upon me to stay and watch the match, finding me an excellent spot at the bar next to the Guiness tap. I subsequently failed in my duty to find a restaurant.

Later that evening Vanya and I set off with the dogs to find a decent restaurant. She wasn’t overly impressed with my fall back position which was a Vietnamese Restaurant I passed on my way back from the match but, joy of joys, we found a perfect little bar in some back street near the town centre which served a fine charcuterie board and some excellent wines.

We didn’t get to see much of Chateauroux but we had a fine evening and there’s always another time.

Oh! I forgot to mention that Chateauroux is the birthplace of both Napoleon’s aide-de-campe and friend General Henri Bertrand and, wholly unrelated, the actor Gerard Depardieu. There you go.

Bouafles (Normandy), France February 2022

And so begins a short impromptu trip (Tour 5?) down through France to Spain.

Life has been all too restrictive in England during the winter months under Covid and with France & Spain now relaxing their Covid rules and opening their borders to the Brits (provided one is fully vaccinated and has a Covid Passport), we decided to go for a drive down to Spain. Currently, the weather in the south of Spain is pretty good with lots of sunshine and temperatures in the low to mid 20’s. If it holds, that’ll suit us. Such a trip also provides Vanya with the opportunity to practise some Spanish.

I’ll not bore you with details of all the last minute organisation needed to get us ready to go (such as collecting the Van from North Wales and making it ready, securing the necessary Covid paperwork to satisfy both the British and French authorities, obtaining paperwork that would enable us to take our dogs overseas, booking places on the cross channel ferry from Dover to Calais because the Eurotunnel trains were already packed out, etc). It will suffice to say that during the afternoon of Friday 11 February we arrived in Calais, raring to go.

It was cold as we arrived in France (seriously cold) and the weather forecast suggests it will get colder still (well below freezing). This, combined with the fact that the cold spell is to be followed by wintery storms across pretty much all of France has prompted a change of plan. We have decided to make haste towards Spain where the weather forecast is considerably more settled.

That being the case, after docking at Calais we immediately set off some 150 miles south west towards our first camping site, Camping Chateau de Bouafles, which sits next to the small town of Les Andelys in the Eure Department of Normandy.

Ordinarily we would have stayed at Bouafles for at least a couple of days. Les Andelys was originally a fishing village on the Seine, dominated by the 12th century castle of Chateau Gaillard. The castle is a bit of a ruin nowadays but it is steeped in history and offers tremendous views over the River Seine and the surrounding countryside. The castle alone would have kept me occupied for a while but add to this the Collegiate Church and; the charming old town with it’s narrow paths and alleys and half timbered houses and; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s association with the town (he and his family lived here for some time with the castle & town inspiring a number of his books & novels) and; don’t forget the Saturday morning market and; well, Les Andalys is worth at least two days of anyone’s time.

Having written all that, the morning temperature of minus three degrees centigrade and the promise of impending rain/snow brought me back to my senses and into the Van’s driving seat. Perhaps the weather will be better in Les Andelys as we return to the UK?

Fecamp (Normandy), France September 2021

And so we came to Fecamp.

I was near here just two years ago, walking the cliffs between Yport and Etretat but, for some reason, I never made it to Fecamp. I missed out then because Fecamp is a pretty little town well deserving of a couple of days of anybody’s time and; that is precisely how long we stayed this visit (although a chunk of our time was spent securing the necessary paperwork to get us and our dogs back into the UK).

Fecamp is a long established fishing port nestled amongst the tallest cliffs on the Cote d’Albatre (the Alabaster Coast). For many years the town’s primary interest was cod (Fecamp being the largest cod fishing port in France) with many of the port’s larger trawlers regularly making round trips to Newfoundland in search of cod. It wasn’t until the 19th century, as sea bathing became popular with high society, that the town moved towards becoming a seaside resort.

The port now holds as many pleasure boats as fishing boats but fishing (together with associated industries) remains a way of life for a significant number of the town’s 20,000 population.

The view back into town from the harbour side is dominated by the 16th century Church of Saint Etienne but, pretty as that church is, the principal tourist attractions away from the seafront are the 12th century Abbey Church of St Trinite and the 19th century Palais Benedictine.

Commonly known as Fecamp Abbey, the Abbey Church of the Holy Trinity in Fecamp was founded by Richard I Duke of Normandy on the site of an earlier church destroyed by Vikings. The church was frequently extended; becoming part of a large Benedictine abbey that would prosper until the French Revolution caused its closure and many of the the buildings were sold or destroyed. Now only the church still stands but it remains a seriously large albeit, from the outside, unattractive church. At 127 metres the nave is as long as the church of Notre Dame in Paris. In addition to holding the remains of Richard I of Normandy and his son (Richard II of Normandy), it houses an unusual yet very important religious relic namely, two vials of Sacred Blood. This blood was supposedly collected by Nicodemus at the foot of Christ’s cross following his crucifixion and was then inserted into the trunk of a fig tree that eventually washed up in the swampland of Fécamp. This legend seems a bit far fetched but it has served to attract pilgrims to the church for centuries.

For my part, the most impressive building in Fecamp is the Palais Benedictine. Built at the end of the 19th century the Benedictine Palace is a masterpiece of Gothic & Renaissance architecture. It is also the only place in the world where the “Benedictine” liqueur is distilled. First created by a 16th century monk, Dom Bernardo Vincelli, and then developed by Alexandre Le Grand some time during the French Revolution, the recipe is a closely guarded secret but it is also very difficult to describe it’s taste. The museum and the distillery inside the building are both open to the public and the distillery offers tours and tasting sessions.

There was time during our stay in Fecamp for me to take just a short walk along the cliffs outside the town. I chose to walk the cliffs to the south of the town, heading towards Yport (although it was never my intention to go quite that far) but I think the better walk would have been to the north.

Cap Fagnet and a more picturesque stretch of high cliffs are to the north. There are also fine views over Fecamp from Cap Fagnet; a number of well preserved WWII bunkers which can be explored and; of course, there is the small Chapel of Notre Dame de Salut with it’s gilded statue of the Virgin Mary on the roof. This chapel is dedicated to all sailors lost at sea. The track to the south has no fine view back over the town and, whilst there is an occasional WWII bunker, the views are not as good as those to the north.

The next day – that was it. The dogs had been seen by a local vet and their pet passports were all properly stamped up. We were in possession of our Covid Test certificates. We were ready to leave for the Eurotunnel. There was just time for a final walk around Fecamp, a spot of lunch (a kind of cheese stew, would you believe?) and then we were off…

The Fourth Tour of Europe was concluded…

St Aubin sur Mer (Normandy), France September 2021

And so we arrived at Camping Sandaya La Cote de Nacre; a five star campsite in St Aubin sur Mer where Vanya intended we relax and enjoy the sun one last time before heading for Fecamp (where the dogs had to be examined by a vet before they could travel and where we had to go through the required antigen tests for Covid before we ourselves could travel) and then the Eurotunnel and home.

Located in the heart of the terres de Nacre beaches, St Aubin sur Mer is a small and quiet seaside resort with a fine sandy beach. It was not always so. The town is situated at the eastern end of what was known as Juno Beach on D Day, 6 June 1944, and; it was the scene of some particularly bitter fighting between, on the one side, the 2nd Battalion of the German 736 Infantry Regiment and, on the other side, elements of the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division, the Canadian 10th Armoured Regiment and the British 48 Royal Marine Commando.

The considerable damage caused to the town on and around D Day has long since been made good it the place is now a very popular and pretty seaside resort but, there is still much about to remind visitors of the events of 1944.

All along the seafront promenade there are placards (with photos) recognising the supreme sacrifice of individual soldiers on and around D Day. Also, at the western edge of the town a small War Memorial (and flags) now stands where once there was a German pill box and machine gun.

There was fierce fighting all across the town but nowhere more so than at the western end of the beach around a bunker known as Widerstandnest 27. During the morning of 6 June 1944, a total of 70 shells were fired from the bunker’s 50mm cannon (the empty cases were counted at the end of the battle) and these destroyed at least 6 Canadian tanks before the cannon itself was neutralised and the gun crew killed. This bunker and it’s 50mm cannon has been left as a permanent memorial on the promenade.

After almost 3 months of travelling we came to St Aubin sur Mer for a little R&R and we certainly did that (as the following three photographs testify), enjoying the sun, some local food and beers (as well as some superior French wines) but; I make no apologies for dwelling in this particular blog on the events of 6 June 1944. Throughout Normandy, and especially around the D Day beaches and up and down the Cotentin Peninsula, the French people continue to honour and respect the efforts of all those involved in helping liberate their country back in the 1940’s. This response of theirs requires recognition and appreciation, not least because it is as strong as ever even after some 75+ years.

And so to Fecamp…