Guise (Hauts de France), France September 2023 (Tour 8)

And so to Tour 8, which started somewhat inauspiciously with our discovering, the day before departure, that the refrigerator in the Van was faulty. The inside of the fridge was warm; so warm Vanya felt compelled to throw almost all of the food out. That was not good but, worse, was the thought of setting off into a hot summer in Europe with no facility for keeping our wine and beer cold… that thought kept me awake almost all of the Sunday night and resulted in me contacting Lee from Raemoir Caravans at 4.30 on the Monday morning. Bless him, he was round at our house by 06.30 trying to fix the problem. He was unable to say for sure what the fault was and suggested we might need a new fridge. Shock! Horror! The last one cost me 2,000 euros and that was pre-covid when everything was much cheaper. I preferred to think that it could just be an air block in the gas pipe caused by parking the Van on the fairly steep slope that is Balsdean Road (that’s an altogether cheaper thought) and resolved to test that theory by driving through as many large pot holes as I could find on the way to Le Folkestone Shuttle. England’s children are back at school today after the summer holidays or I would have opted for a time trial drive around the local schools with all their speed bumps – sleeping policemen we used to call them.

And so to Tour 8… Some eight hours after setting off; shaken, battered and bruised and with much of the contents of our cupboards now scattered all over the Van floor (there are a great many pot holes between Brighton and Folkestone) we reached Guise in the Hauts de France. We’d find out if we’d dislodged the hoped for air bubble the next morning.

It was late Monday afternoon when we arrived in Guise – just enough time for a brief exploration. I should have remembered that in rural France, lundi is much like another Sunday. Indeed the weekend in such places will often extend across the Monday and Tuesday. The town was very quiet and, certainly, there were no restaurants open. We settled for one of the small Turkish run cafes. We found one without too much difficulty which served a reasonable bottle of wine, a bucket of moules and a large plate of exceptionally good chips. Oh and chews for the dogs, all for 25 euros. The owners were very welcoming and it seemed we were back on track.

I didn’t notice any rail station during my brief tour of the town but there was evidence of one in the graffiti.

Guise is a small town of almost 5,000 inhabitants situated on the L’Oise River towards the south of the Hauts de France. It’s the agricultural centre of the Aisne Department but it doesn’t have a great deal going for it other than the remains of a medieval castle (which was closed when I arrived at it’s gates) and for being the birthplace of Camille Desmoulins – a prominent figure of the French Revolution who along with his close pals, Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton, lost his head to the guillotine. Actually, Camille Desmoulins was executed after complaining about the excesses of the Reign of Terror. His old pal Robespierre thought he’d gone soft and in those days, that was enough to see you denounced as a traitor to the revolution.

I’ll say no more about Desmoulins or Guise except that it served as a useful place to break our journey towards Germany. We planned to start our tour in Germany in the Rhein Palatinate – a place called Saarburg. I’ll leave you with a few photos…

Montreuil sur Mer (Hauts de France), France April 2023 (Tour 7)

We began what will be an all too brief tour of just one month (because we have to be back in the UK for a friend’s wedding early in June) by revisiting an old favourite of ours, Montreuil sur Mer. This place wasn’t without incident last time we were here (this was our last stop of Tour 5 before we returned to the UK) with us both enjoying an outstanding meal at the Michelin Star Restaurant, Anecdote, and; then, back at the campsite, locking ourselves outside of the Van (with the dogs on the inside) and my having to break into the Van and causing some £600 of damage. It could have been a lot worse.

Once again we stayed at ‘la fontaine des clercs’ campsite just outside the city walls. There were a great many more people in the town this time, no doubt due to it being a bank holiday weekend (May Day tomorrow), but while many places were closed for the holidays, we were able to get a reasonable meal and wine at Brasserie Le Caveau on the Place de General de Gaulle. There were a couple of other restaurants we wanted to try out; one situated on the town walls which specialises in light local produce (Le Pot du Clape) and the other a creperie (Creperie le Clan des Elfes) but both were closed. Next time.

It didn’t take long for Vanya and I to reacquaint ourselves with the town (Vanya even joined me for a brief stroll along part of the town ramparts – she’s getting better with heights) and soon enough we were sitting on the main square under the watchful eye of Field Marshall Douglas Haig drinking a glass of Chardonnay.

Check out the measure of Chardonnay in each glass

The last time we were here (February 2022), on the way back from dinner, we passed an old and somewhat derelict looking hotel/restaurant which was up for sale – Le Relais du Roy. We passed it again and it appears to have been sold and reopened as a restaurant without so much as a lick of paint…

The hotel as was one year ago (left); the hotel as is now (centre); and a look inside one of the windows now (right).

Whatever else may be said about “Le Relais du Roy”, it certainly isn’t lacking in character.

I’ll not repeat everything I said about Montreuil sur Mer in my last blog on the place and there’s little point me posting photos of the same sights as before (Le Relais du Roy excepted). Instead, I will leave you with a couple of photos of the area we had hoped to eat in. That’s the Pot du Clape in the first photo below…

… HOWEVER, Montreuil sur Mer really is a great little town and one we would heartily recommend especially if you are into good food and of course Les Miserables. If you want more information on the town, take a read of the previous blog I wrote on this place but, better still, visit the place yourself.

Well, that’s Day 1 of Tour 7 over. Tomorrow, we head south to Champagne. Vanya wants a drink.

Montreuil sur Mer (Hauts de France), France March 2022 (Tour 5)

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. Why not?

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!!

Wimereux (Hauts de France), France June 2021 (Tour 4)

EUROPE TOUR 4 BEGINS – Finally, the Covid situation seems to be improving! It is June 2021 and France has re-opened it’s borders to tourists and we have begun another tour of Europe. Hurrah!

The original plan was that Tour 4 would commence late March or early April 2021 and last until the end of Summer, with us exploring some of France, Austria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Georgia (and perhaps even Azerbaijan) and then finding our way home again. The new Brexit rules limit the amount of time we can spend in EEC countries to just 90 days in every 180 day period, hence we developed an outline plan that would see us divide our time evenly during the first six months of the tour between EEC (France, Austria, Italy and Greece) and non EEC countries (Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan). The delay caused by Covid lockdowns has put paid to that plan and as of now we have no fixed agenda. We are back in France with the Van and our two dogs and that is all that matters. We’ll make plans as we go.

The paperwork necessary for us to get back to France was enough to try the patience of Job. If Covid wasn’t bad enough with vaccinations and vaccination certificates, Antigen tests and associated certificates, etc; Brexit rendered our pet passports invalid and … Sod it! You don’t want to know! We’re here.

During previous tours the trip through the Chunnel went very smoothly but on this occasion there was a delay for the best part of two hours because of a train breakdown – frustrating but no real problem. We can live with two hours out of a tour that will hopefully last a number of months. In real terms it meant only that when we finally arrived in France we decided to park up sooner rather than later so as to find a decent restaurant and bar.

A little town called Wimereux delivered on all counts. It’s a fairly quiet seaside resort on the French Opal Coast just to the east of Boulogne. We found a well priced municipal camping site on the edge of the town, stocked up on essentials from a local Carrefour store (i.e. bottles of Cotes du Rhone, Picpoul de Pinet and, of course, Vanya’s favourite Cremant) and not long after were sitting on the terrace of a reasonably priced beach restaurant eating oysters and mussels with carafes of particularly good Muscadet and a not bad Chardonnay.

Wimereux was a pleasant enough place and it served our purpose but, except for the beach it offered little to warrant staying on and in the morning we elected to move on to Bayeux in Normandy.

Presles-et-Boves (Aisne), France November 2020 (Tour 3)

It is Friday 25 June 2021 and it is only now that I discover I didn’t complete and post the last blog of Europe Tour 3 during 2020! Silly me. Here it is…

Our last night of the third tour was spent in France at a small two star campsite in the hamlet of Presles-et-Boves on the Aisne River and it was some time early in November. An increasing number of Covid lockdowns throughout mainland Europe had finally prompted us to conclude the tour and head back to the UK and we broke the journey from Colmar to Calais at the ‘Camping Le Domaine de la Nature’. No, it wasn’t a naturist campsite!

The owners of the campsite were wonderful in that they were quite happy for us to stay over in the event the Anglo-French border was closed because of Covid but, no problem, we secured a place on the Shuttle back to the UK the following afternoon.

Sadly, no interesting photos; just two snaps of the River Aisne, where we walked the dogs. A disappointing ending to a really great tour.

Lille, France (Oct 2017)

Losing track of the days now.

None of my sources could identify a suitable campsite within Lille city limits and I therefore elected to stay a few kilometres outside of Lille at a place called Peronne-en-Melantois. Peronne-e-M is a little more than a hamlet and the campsite I found is not much more than a field in a farm on the edge of the hamlet. The proof follows:-

My immediate neighbours on the campsite

Oh…and this one knocked about with a cockerel that sounded off non stop for a good hour from about 5.15am. Perhaps not surprisingly, the cockerel didn’t hang around to get his picture taken!

The only real positive about Peronne-e-M is that it is just a couple of kilometres walk to another hamlet (Fretin) which at least has a station (well, a sort of station because trains do stop there) and it is on the Gare de Lille Flandres line. I had to wait a while for a train but in less than a quarter of an hour of the train arriving at Fretin, I was at the Gare de Lille Flandres and right in the centre of the city.

You would be hard pushed to know you had arrived at the village without this sign

Lille is France’s tenth largest city and it has some striking buildings, many of which are on or near the Grand Place just a couple of hundred yards from the station. Grand Place is also known as the Place General de Gaulle (after the visionary French Brexit campaigner General Charles de Gaulle) who was born in Lille.

I took a few photos but they were all rather rushed. After my last few days in Belgium, Lille was simply too busy for me. I had dinner there (it was nothing to write home about) but otherwise didn’t stay long because I wasn’t sure when the last train left the City for Fretin. It was dark by the time I got back to Peronne-e-M.

Grande Place, Lille

One of the more attractive buildings, especially inside, is the Catholic Church which is en route to the Grand Place.

I’ve covered little more than 45 miles in the Van over the last few days. At this rate I’ll not get across the Alps before winter. The Grossglockner is already shut. I’m going to have to find another route through Austria. Time to check out the French Auto-routes…

Day 9 – To France and Onwards

The Channel Tunnel crossing from Folkestone to Calais was a doddle (and very quick). I booked it online and simply followed the instructions in the confirmation letter from Euro-Tunnel and then the signposts in Folkestone. The rail crossing itself (if something going under the sea can be termed a crossing) was just 35 minutes but the whole journey from leaving Dave’s house in Canterbury to my parking place in the centre of Kortrijk in Belgium took less than 4 hours.

One observation I would make regarding the crossing is that the train rocked almost as much as any ferry I have travelled on – I didn’t have any Stugeron 25 to hand to combat motion sickness but the acupuncture learned on the Caribbean cruise earlier this year worked once again. Hurrah for alternative medicine (assuming always that acupuncture qualifies as alternative medicine)!

Not very exciting but the first photo in France!

Regarding the journey from Calais to my chosen destination of Kortrijk, it was straight forward. The downside was that I spent a good 1.5 hours listening and responding to a French language tape only to find that the Belgians in Kortrijk studiously avoid speaking French. They speak, read and write Flemish; English as a foreign language and; French only as a last resort. I should have realised this beforehand given that Kortrijk was previously known as Courtrai (at least by me). Oh well.

I know what to do in a fire but what about the rest of it?!?!

Time to go and explore Kortrijk.