Having deliberately wiped all my French from my brain when I started focussing on German at school, these days I can only put a few French words together and can not string a whole sentence together. This wasn’t too much of a problem for my latest European getaway. I took myself completely out of my comfort zone a fornight ago, and spent 2 nights in Boulogne-sur-Mer in Northern France.
Leaving after work on Friday night, the whole journey took 6 hours 15 minutes, which included a 30 minute stop in Bracknell and the ferry journey. This was my first time going on the ferry instead of through the Channel Tunnel – and driving on to the ferry was not nearly as terrifying as I thought it might be. I was quite impressed with how quick it was to get through. Arriving in Dover at 20:55 within 20 minutes I was on board the ferry and on the way to France.
I stayed in a hotel directly opposite the beach, the Opal’Inn – pretty much the first hotel you come to when coming in to Boulogne from the A16 motorway which connects the city with Calais. It was dark when I arrived but at first light I could see the good view down to the sea front. The sea was quite a long way out. In the November wind and rain it wasn’t exactly beach weather, but in Summer it would be great.
Boulogne is France’s biggest fishing port… I walked past the fish market on my way in to town. The smell coming from it showed the scale of the fishing industry here. Having spent Friday night in the car I needed to stretch my legs properly so I walked the Ville Fortifiée (city wall), a 1.5km circular route around the historic centre of the city. At 11am the city fell silent as an air raid siren sounded to mark a 2 minute silence for Armistice Day.
Continuing my walk around the ramparts, I could hear a band playing the French national anthem and then watched the parade, including the band, people dressed in WW1 costume, military heroes and local school children as they reached the Place de la Resistance.
In the afternoon, I went for a drive. First I drove along the coast road to Cap Gris-Nez, the closest point of France to England located directly opposite Dover. I’ve heard that on a clear day the White Cliffs of Dover can be seen. Saturday was not a clear day, and Dover was not in sight. So near, yet so far!
Later in the afternoon I drove South to Saint-Valery-sur-Somme. I drove there on the slower route avoiding tolls, and returned to Boulogne on the Autoroute, driving through the French péage system for the first time. It was really quite easy, aside from having to get out the car and walk round to the ticket/payment machine. I arrived in Saint-Valery at dusk, and while the museum I had wanted to see had now closed (I had planned to arrive earlier but left quite late), I still had a good walk around and grabbed a bite to eat in the café.
For the journey back to Boulogne, I used a toll section of the French autoroute for the first time. I was impressed at how it is possible to drive for miles without seeing another car (unheard of in Britain). The fee for the stretch of the A16 I used was just short of €5 and it shaved almost 35 minutes off the journey.
I had dinner in a restaurant back in Boulogne, trying some French for the first time… looking up the necessary phrases using Google Translate on my phone beforehand. French, it is fair to say, is not my cup of tea. It just sounds like one big slur to me.
The following morning after breakfast I checked out of the hotel walked in to the centre of the old town, and caught a bit of the Rememberance Sunday service at the cathedral. Afterwards, I made my way to Nausicaa, France’s national sea life centre, almost opposite the hotel. I quite enjoyed watching the feeding of the sealions – they’re almost like dogs in the way that they respond to commands and after the keepers leave they all dive in to the water and start playing together.
The wind had got up a bit making walking around the town quite difficult, so I got in the car and for aboutt 100km until I reached Arras, the capital (and 3rd largest town) of the Pas-de-Calais department. I parked a 10 minute walk from the Grand Place and went for some lunch in a café. After taking photos in the square I went in to the tourist information centre, bought some postcards and a ticket to climb the Belfry tower. Using my best French I asked a Frenchman to take a photo for me… Of the whole weekend asking for the photo was just about the only French sentence I managed to string together without too much difficulty!
I called in to the patisserie and got something to take home, and returned to the car. It took a good couple of hours to get back to Calais with virtually no traffic around! The ferry journey back was a bit busier than the outbound ferry, several schoolparties making plenty of noise, so I made my way to the quiet zone so that I could lie down and went to sleep until we reached Dover. A wise decision – with strong winds and quite a big swell, once we got out of Calais Harbour the crossing wasn’t the most comfortable…
Despite not knowing much French, I enjoyed the weekend away and hope to do more French trips in the future. However, my final two foreign trips this year will be in my normal Northern European playgrounds of Germany (Itzehoe – first weekend of December) and Belgium (Bruges – the weekend before Christmas).