La Côte d’Opale

I hadn’t spent much time exploring the north coast of France, except for lovely Dinard – (see Dinard film festival entry). Usually, it was ‘à travers La Manche’ and then full speed ahead for the autoroute to the south. But I was about to find out what I had been missing, when my sister and her husband invited me to go with them to Wimereux, on the Côte d’Opale. A name that conjures up beauty and mystery swathed in the misty appeal of opals. (Bognor sadly doesn’t elicit the same reaction.)
Early morning, a nip in the air and a blackbird carolling on top of one of the branches of the eucalyptus. The tree has been savagely lopped but now acts as a brilliant lookout post for the birds. They see themselves very much the king of the castle and I’m expecting a vulture to materialise any day, which could put paid to our local yapping dog! Mmmm… dark thoughts abound …
I hate packing and leaving home but having shut and locked the door behind me, the ties are severed, giving way to a frisson of excitement and anticipation, a quickening of the pulse, an air of expectation …
I arrived at Strawberry Hill station on time with my small case and there they were, Christine and Mickey, parked up, waiting and ready to go. In a couple of minutes we were off and on our way to the Channel tunnel. It was what I call a grey goose day with a soft down of cloud above and the wind ruffling the trees. The roads were fairly clear going our way but there was a mile long weary jam towards London on the other side.
We arrived at the tunnel in good time. There are lots of hoops to get through, where robot machines offer the only assistance but Christine sailed through the reefs of Scylla and Charybdis successfully by pressing the right buttons and we drove onto the waiting train. Mickey was now with his nose in his newspaper, having bought coffee all round. He looked benign and content in his own little kingdom in the back of the car. Outside, there was a frisky little chalk pony etched into the hillside.
At the Channel tunnel  -  Au revoir Angleterre!At the Channel tunnel – Au revoir Angleterre!
Aaargh – I am suddenly aware of being in a metal box, which is in another metal box and now under the sea. Somehow the Eurostar protects one from the knowledge of where you really are. People with their books and laptops or convivially chatting to one another give an easy ambience, as the waiters pass up and down and the anticipation of lunch blots out any incipient fishy anxieties i.e. fine dining, rather than being offered up as fishfood.
Sitting in the car is more basic. There is grey metal all around you, accompanied by various clanging noises and you are encouraged not to walk around. Walking around is not an attractive option anyway but opening the car door is a good idea to warn off claustrophobia. And après tout, the time passed so quickly and soon we were in the french fresh air, bowling along empty rural roads in a rolling agricultural landscape.
When the Eurostar reaches France, I’ve always noticed a corrugated iron shed in a field on whose side, in giant letters, are the words ‘Beer and Wine’. I don’t know quite how but I’ve always read it as ‘Beer and Swine’ and imagine the interior with lots of plump, snorting porkers off their trolleys/trotters. Alcohol is meant to tenderize, n’est-ce pas? As we drove off towards Boulogne, there it was, in the selfsame field. I mentioned it to Christine, and she said she had had the same experience! Meanwhile, Mickey dispensed his favourite mints from the back seat. Being slightly hard of hearing, our merriment was a mystery to him and anyway, he was otherwise engaged.
We didn’t stop to check out ‘Beer and Swine’ but carried on our seaside route past Cap Gris Nez with Napoleon’s statue in the distance, his back towards England – the country which evaded him. There are stretches of impeccable, long and sandy beaches but a chilly outlook kept us in the car until we arrived at a small square in Audresselles to find a cosy simple restaurant offering ‘soupe de poissons’ with rouille and warm baguettes. Christine had hoped to go to ‘La Marie Galante’. It was closed but ‘Le Retour des Flobards’ revived us for our onward journey to Wimereux.
There was a stiff sea breeze but as we got to Wimereux the sun came struggling through and having offloaded our luggage at the Hotel du Centre, which was in the middle of a grand redecorating session inside and out, we made our way to the seafront through small streets of picturesquely nautical houses. I expected to find M. Hulot doing his funny walks along the sea front.
Wimereux is blessed with a wonderful ‘digue’ or promenade wholly for pedestrians – or roller skaters. No cars, just a long stretch of sandy beach below the promenade, which also acts as a very well and beautifully constructed sea wall. A few small cafés offer super delicious ice cream and pâtisserie with the plus of stunning views. On a clear day you can see the white cliffs of Dover across the water.
Mackerel sky, WimereuxMackerel sky, Wimereux
Seaside houses, WimereuxSeaside houses, Wimereux
A coastal cornucopia of colours...A coastal cornucopia of colours…
The Hotel du Centre is known for its ‘belle cuisine’ and the dining room is redolent of a different era ‘à La Coupole’ but the restaurant isn’t open on Mondays. So, after a walk around the town, in the early evening we repaired to a small place on the sea front, which had a bar in the shape of a boat. Kirs royales were followed by fresh grilled fish along with salad and scrumptious ‘pommes dauphinoises’. Meanwhile our view over the sands featured men on galloping steeds, followed by a spectacular sunset, where we looked in vain for ‘le rayon vert’.
Three kirs royales conjure up ...Three kirs royales conjure up …
les trois mousquetairesles trois mousquetaires
as 'the lone and level sands stretch far away' ‘the lone and level sands stretch far away’ …
‘Le Rayon Vert’ was initially written about in a book by Jules Verne in 1882 and a film of the same name was made by Eric Rohmer in 1986. The film is about a young girl who wants to meet somebody she can share her life with but has no idea how or where to look for him. She finds herself alone in Brittany, where everybody else is on the beach enjoying ‘les grandes vacances’ and she is alone. She eavesdrops on a conversation about ‘le rayon vert’.
The ‘rayon vert’ is an atmospheric, optical phenomenon, very rarely seen as the weather has to be very clear and at the right temperature. If you watch the sunset over the sea, just as the sun slips below the horizon there is sometimes a green flash as it disappears – the selfsame ‘rayon vert’. When you see it apparently you can read your own feelings and those of others too. You can imagine the romantic film Eric Rohmer came up with. Worth watching!
Shades of Eric Rohmer ...Shades of Eric Rohmer …
The sunset in Wimereux was sumptuous but there were traces of cloud just above the sea and we looked for ‘le rayon vert’ in vain. However, as we walked along the seafront we came upon this house – so maybe in the right circumstances it is possible that the green flash occurs in Wimereux!
'Digue' at Wimereux, towards sunset‘Digue’ at Wimereux, towards sunset
Blue grey and gold ...Blue grey and gold …
A lone kite surfer pays homage to the setting sun ...A lone kite surfer pays homage to the setting sun …
Time for a nightcap ...Time for a nightcap …
The rich satisfaction of crême brulées kept the cold night wind at bay as we tottered over to the Hotel Atlantique for a nightcap, finally picking our way home through the twilight to our comfortable hostelry.
My room was well set out, with pretty nasturtiums garlanding the tiles in the bathroom. There was an old fashioned loo, which seemed to work on a piston like arrangement and flushed extremely violently but efficiently. I made a note not to flush it during the night, should I need to get up! Outside, there were filmy muslin curtains blocking off the passage at the far end where the workmen were doing renovations. At night, they shivered in the wind and put me in mind of ghosts. I had a hot shower and compared notes in bed with Michael Palin on hotel rooms. I am reading ‘Full Circle’ – his journey around the Pacific Rim.
Under the covers... bonne nuit! Under the covers… bonne nuit!
The next day dawned grey and stormy but we set off to explore the Fish Market and ‘vielle ville’ in Boulogne. Although I’d been to Boulogne several times before, I didn’t know it well. Most times were in the car, which we put on the train to go to Nice or Brive-la-Gaillarde, so saving us time and avoiding danger on the long roads south or west. On one return journey to the channel ferry, we were woken in the middle of the night by a huge jolt, followed by the train stopping. It was some time before the guard made an appearance to let us know that seven cows had wandered onto the line in the night and two were dead, having met with the train head to head. ‘Bifteck, bifteck’, he shouted excitedly as he spread the news. We arrived home very late.
At Boulogne the wind was trying to tear off our clothes as we got out of the car and made our way to the fish market by the harbour. It was now raining and the boxes of cold, wet fish looked rather doleful. Boulogne has special memories for Mickey, as long ago it was here that he docked, having come over from England in a very small boat with his friend. This is also the first place in France that he and Christine came together. They stayed in a two star hotel overlooking the port. It was because of his love of railways and train travel that Mickey came upon Wimereux, just a little way down the coast. The railway survives!
We left the poor cold vendors of fish and climbed up the hill to the ‘vielle ville’, where the ‘hôtel de ville’ was looking impressive, heralded by a garden of multi coloured flowers.
Hôtel de ville, vieille ville, BoulogneHôtel de ville, vieille ville, Boulogne
Still contending with a biting wind but the rain having let up a little, we walked around the ramparts, which must be very agreeable when the sun is out. Built into the ramparts is the castle, which looks formidable and even more menacing in bad weather. In the central yard there is a plaque to a citizen of Boulogne who risked his life during the second world war to take a platoon of Canadian soldiers through a secret passage into the castle and surprise Nazi soldiers. The Germans had taken it over as their headquarters. Today there is an exhibition of Matisse but we are too early for opening hours. Critics sometimes accused Matisse of not being politically aware/radical enough in his work. His reply was that he wanted his audience to feel that they were sitting in a comfortable armchair when looking at his paintings. And why not? A little respite from life in the raw can do wonders for revitalising good energy and positive thinking.
Crossing for visually literate dogs ...Crossing for visually literate dogs …
Afterwards we made our way back down the hill – the rain began again in earnest but it was too windy for umbrellas. Mickey dove into a tabac to buy a newspaper and then we carried on, feeling very knocked about by the vicious gusts of freezing rain. When we got back to the fish market, Mickey found himself a little shelter in which to wait, while Christine and I raced back along the shoreline for the car.
Next stop, Le Touquet. I’d never been. It has one of the longest beaches I’ve seen in Europe. There are some very grand hotels and big, decorative, well-to-do villas. But the town was empty and many of the shops were closed. Obviously, the ‘season’ had yet to start. I can imagine it in summer, alive with a welter of chic and not so chic tourists. More chic than not, however….. le Touquet is upmarket and even has its own airport.
As we were wandering along the pavement, a restaurateur came out and invited us into his – well, equivalent of a ‘diner’. He treated us a bit like a sheepdog herding sheep! As we only wanted a bowl of soup and there seemed to be nowhere else open, we soon found ourselves sitting at a somewhat greasy table. However, the soup was good and hot and we had a large dinner to look forward to in the evening, having made a reservation at the hotel before we left.
I should mention that we drove through Étaples, where there is a fish restaurant in an octagonal building on the sea front, which is owned by a co-op of fishermen and renowned locally. Somewhere to make for next time.
The sky had cleared and we went on to Montreuil, which is a pretty town on top of a hill, a little bit inland. It is called Montreuil-sur-Mer – and I haven’t yet found out why. There is a lovely château, now a rather grand hotel and down a little snicket at the back we found a very comprehensive wine shop, tasting included! Mickey had opted to find a café and was sitting happily immersed in his paper. It was still cold and windy so we decided after a short exploration of the town to make for home comforts and dinner.
Central square - MontreuilCentral square – Montreuil
We got back to Wimereux with plenty of time to spare and Christine suggested that she and I went to the local supermarché – Le Carrefour – in Wimille, which is just on the outskirts of the town. I had some requests to honour. Jars of ‘confit du canard’ and some good ‘boxes’ of wine, where you can just pour yourself a glass of an evening, (the wine stays fresh for six weeks approximately,) instead of opening a whole bottle. This last comment probably doesn’t sound very exciting but it’s practical and means you can drink on your own without temptation – maybe it’s my Scottish genes but I can never open a bottle of wine just for myself. And I’m sure the French keep the ‘best’ boxed wine for themselves and export the rest. Anyway, that’s what you think when you are of a suspicious nature!
I’ve always loved going round French supermarkets with their names that conjure up unaccountable visions. e.g. Mammouth and Sodiprix are two I find extraordinarily wonderful. And we all love Leclerc – ‘yes, it is I, Leclerc’ has us dissolving into laughter every time but it’s quite difficult to explain if you don’t ‘get’ it! And why would you? Stephen Fry would though.
The upshot of it all was that I collected the ‘canard’ and saw that the boxed wine was piled up on an ‘island’ in the middle of the store. I was puzzling over which one might be best and reached up to have a closer look. There was that moment of silence followed by a huge crash. The wine box was in my hand but the crash of broken glass had been quite close. I stood transfixed with horror. Christine came up and said, ‘Oh dear, some poor person has had an accident’. I felt rather sick inside. ‘I think it was me’, I said. I realised there must have been a row of bottles behind the boxes, hidden from view. Christine went round the back of the island to find pieces of shattered glass lying amidst a large pool of red wine.
Time stood still. Nobody came. Then I remembered seeing somebody filling shelves and went to find him. I spoke in French. ‘Monsieur, je suis vraiment desolée mais j’ai eu un désastre. Malheureusement, j’ai cassé une bouteille de vin’. The man looked at me and did not seem at all perturbed. He told me not to worry and then went off to get a floorcloth. What a relief! I didn’t dare go back to see how expensive the wine was that was lying broken and bloody on the floor. The French for a floorcloth is ‘la serpillière’ – a word I had learned in my French class just before coming to Wimereux! Rather chastened, we made for the till. I had bought quite a lot, so felt a bit better. Thank you, Carrefour, for being so laid back and sympa!
The hour for dinner approached – and not a moment too soon, as I was ravenous. We were ushered into the dining room by Monsieur (le propriétaire) and went to bed two hours later – replete and completely and utterly satisfied! I won’t go into detail. Just to say much recommended and you should go and try for yourself. Back home tomorrow.
The dining room first thing in the morning ...The dining room first thing in the morning …
Detail of mosaic floor in foyerDetail of mosaic floor in foyer
I could hardly believe it was time to go but our train wasn’t until the afternoon and the morning was as blue skied with radiant sunshine as yesterday had been dark grey and a tempest of freezing rain. After breakfast we packed our things into the car and then went for a walk along the beach. A blast of ozone and the crying of seagulls greeted us. While Mickey took himself off to the Atlantique for hot chocolate and to do some writing, we enjoyed an invigorating walk along the beach. The tide was out and there were some schoolchildren poking about in rock pools and the scene could easily have been in the 1950s. We were in no hurry – we could see windmills in the distance at Boulogne, where there is a long jetty, at the end of which is a lighthouse. I’d bought a few postcards and one was of brightly coloured air balloons which are set off from the beach at Wimereux in summer time.
Windmills, lighthouse and ferryWindmills, lighthouse and ferry
on the beach ... microcosmon the beach … microcosm
Time to leave this pretty town and make our way back along the sunlit coast. The weather was perfect – quite unbelievably summery after yesterday. Barometers measuring the temperature must have been quite puzzled, lurching from extreme to extreme! I’m always surprised how the light and warmth of the sun and blue skies, reflecting blue seas lift the mood so incredibly quickly. Anxieties are spirited away as if you’ve taken off a bulky, heavy knapsack. There must be a happy medium which I have yet to find as the weather affects me enormously. But how dread it would be to just have, say, a black sky all the time. Or a sky without all the different types of clouds. I love rain (sometimes), I love storms (sometimes), I love sunshine and warm balmy evenings. I loathe humidity because it changes me into a wet gibbering rag. I suppose it’s all to do with ‘infinite variety’.
Au revoir, Wimereux...Au revoir, Wimereux…
There are a lot of concrete bunkers and pill boxes from the second world war strewn along the coastline and there is an especially impressive one on the way to Wissant, just along the coast. As we had plenty of time, Christine and Mickey said I ought to see it as it was both a gun emplacement and a bunker and the whole now houses a museum. We should definitely keep these relics of wartime on show and this bunker certainly keeps the realities of war alive. It was a chilling experience to go round the museum, with the thought that not so long ago we would have been shot on sight. Concrete is an unforgiving material and here it helps to enhance the grisliness of what went on.
A blot on the landscape - now a museumA blot on the landscape – now a museum
Concrete bunker from another angle ...Concrete bunker from another angle …
The ugly face of war...The ugly face of war…
Inside the bunker 1Inside the bunker 1
Inside the bunker 2Inside the bunker 2
chillingly elegantly crafted ...chillingly elegantly crafted …
This museum is well worth a visit – or even two, because there is so much to see. And the men in charge were charming … should you be so inclined, there are original souvenirs of life in wartime on sale.
We went outside to examine the huge gun that was used to bombard England. It did enormous damage to some Channel ports like Dover. Its reach was unbelievable. The noise must have been shattering.
I’ve put in a lot of photos here but the ‘lest we forget’ phrase comes to mind. And I want to remember all the very many who died for their respective countries, giving up their lives that we might enjoy the freedom of ours. It’s a sobering thought.
A snarling dog of war ...A snarling dog of war …
As we were leaving, much to our delight we saw a tiny bird surveying the scene from its impressive new home! It just made you think … quite a lot.
Free as a bird ... a perfect nesting placeFree as a bird … a perfect nesting place
Time was moving on and we had stayed longer here than we meant to. When we arrived at the small town of Wissant there was a huge market blocking the whole street. Christine and Mickey said that they always had moules-frites when they came over. Last chance. We parked the car and walked down to the square and found the perfect place – sitting outside in the sun with a cool beer and a bucket full of moules each, with a pile of (unfortunately) very crispy, unctuous, unputdownable frites! Children came by on bikes, old men hobbling with sticks and families with baskets of food to take home from market.
Wissant - memories of moules-frites ...Wissant – memories of moules-frites …
The journey home was without trauma. It’s good to know what delights lie just across a narrow stretch of water – there’s a whole new world to explore – a different culture which I appreciate! Merci à vous deux, Christine et Mickey!

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