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!!