This week has seen me running around Les Hauts de France ( formerly known as Pas de Calais, Nord, Aisne, Oise and Picardy……… Picardy being famous for the WW1 song, The Roses of Picardy, and less romantic the Battle of the Somme). The French government are trying to reduce the bureaucracy ( there are over 35,000 mayors) and have reduced the number of regions from 22 to13.
And so it was that I was recruited as the Granny, to help out #1 daughter and her son, to be a family enjoying the obvious and not so obvious attractions of Northern France.
And it also happened that my sons godmother arrived from Texas the day before we had to leave ( alarm set for 4.30am). We set off from Dover on a P and O boat to Calais. Many years since I have traveled on one, and I am sure that this one was from a bygone era ( circa 1985), it certainly looked like it needed some TLC, but never mind, we decamped to the lounge and traveled in relative comfort.
Off the boat and onto Lille, which is now the capital of Les Hauts de France. After battling with a hotel manager, who had definitely perfected the Gaelic shrug we found our film crew and the lovely guys who were going to drive us around the old city in some ancient Deux Chevaux. Tradibalade is the company and oh what fun! Actually, we once owned such a vehicle and on our move from Brussels to Normandy, just me and the dog, drove along the autoroute, around Paris in this car, even having to move into the slow lane with the trucks, going up hill !
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In the front car, was the driver, our cameraman Joe with all of his equipment and Jon the director, in our car was Olivier, our driver, #1 daughter and Sam in the back seat and me in the front. We raced around the old town in true French fashion, even driving side by side on wide boulevards ( I guess anything goes when filming) with us waving to the crowds as if we were royalty or even famous. Finally, Jon was happy and we were free to explore the delights of Fred, the home of the unbelievable cakes called Les Merveilleux. The line was out of the door and minions behind the scenes frantically making more to replenish the ever decreasing window display. We actually bought some, but then left them in the car, forgot about them until Young Sam declared that they had melted!
( Help is at hand however, as there is a branch of Fred in London, and so more were subsequently bought and devoured.)
So onto Parc Astérix, not somewhere, I would normally visit and especially not on a hot Sunday afternoon, but it was on our itinerary. It is not far from Paris and consequently pretty busy. We sampled many of the rides and even Sam who normally does not like to get even a single drop of water anywhere on himself, was excited by the roller coaster splashing through troughs of water at high speed.
Moving swiftly on to Amiens, where there is a pretty canal running through the town, but the only ( for us) noteworthy visit was the 800 year old cathedral. We ate Moules Frites by the side of the canal ( only after the crew persuaded the owner to move our designated table literally outside of the restaurant). # 1 daughter declared that the Moules were great ( though small) but what about the Frites…. not up to scratch I’m afraid! The 800 year old cathedral, is perhaps the reason to visit, where one can pay for the candles by credit card, though Sam didn’t understand! But don’t go on a Monday, as everything else is shut !
Hence we decamped to St. Valery sur Somme. What a pretty town, if you have not been it is a must. On the Bay of the river Somme, scene of many battles during the first world war, but today it has bird watching, seal spotting, kayaking , steam train rides and miles of bike trails. Bikes can be rented courtesy of Petra, both pedal and electric. #1 daughter took the pedal with a seat attached for Sam and myself the electric. Having never ridden one before it was a first, but am now convinced it is the way forward. Up and down the boardwalk we went, ringing our bells vigorously to warn the amblers that we were coming, This was done with the accompaniment of a Drone, much to the amusement of the bystanders.
Finally we were done, onto lunch, I had to try the local speciality, ” La Ficelle de la Baie de Somme” This is a crêpe stuffed with a duxelle of mushrooms and moules or ham) in a bechamel sauce, gratineé, served with salad and once again frites. Once again the frites left much to be desired, I might give up at this point, and as for the local dish, underwhelming I’m afraid.
After lunch it was the local vintage train, we three had the first class carriage ( the one with the upholstered seats, the others were wooden) along with our film crew, Jon directing and Joe once again with his equipment strapped to him and not forgetting the drone! And then we were done, ready to move on to Boulogne
I have been to Boulogne many many times, but in reality only ever passed through en route to the ferry terminal. The ferry and the hovercraft are no more, but Boulogne has another string to its bow, or there are other fishes in the sea and indeed Boulogne has the largest aquarium in Europe!
We were very fortunate to have early access to this amazing place, which is based on the Columbian Island of Melpelo, which is a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the largest sites for breeding sharks of all kinds. Nausicaá is massive, it took 6 weeks to fill with sea water and holds over 1,600 species. It really was amazing and if you are ever near Boulogne, out it on your ” To DO ” list.
We finished off our trip with a visit to Cap Gris Nez area and Wissant beach. For those who think they might do a cross channel swim ( think Sarah Thomas, 37, who has just completed the heroic feat of swimming it four times in a row and swam for more than 54 hours non-stop !)
We had fun driving up and down the country lanes, with Jon asking ” just one more time” or” can we do it with the drone?” and then onto the windswept beach, where the kite surfers were out in force. I was requested to ask one such man if the crew could film him as he took off, but “Non” was the answer, so they filmed others who were already doing their flips out at sea.
Young Sam braved the waves and enjoyed the wonderful sand dunes, but as is typical of out of season seaside resorts, cafes were shut, though it had been market day and we had to follow “Deviation” signs to actually get to the beach.
And last but not least, back onto the P and O ferry, but not without some difficulties, thank you UK Border Force, the crew with all their gear in a white Van and us, with a foreigner in Tow ! What were we thinking !, Anyway we made it, just, the crew wanted to be last on, and we were. A little bit more filming, Sam playing in the kids corner and the Purser kindly taking part as well, but no time to eat, Dover quickly came into view, off the boat and up the motorway to London. Phew hectic 5 days but interesting and fun as well, will I do it again? only if # 1 daughter needs me, and then it will be Of Course !
And as for those Frites, well maybe the French have to do better, this is one where the Belgians certainly excel.