31 December 2007

Vacances par la Mer

After a quiet but enjoyable Christmas Day spent pottering about watching DVDs and Sky whilst house-sitting Steve & Fiona's apartment, I packed my bag on Boxing Day for a quick trip to northern France on the Eurostar. Unlike my last trip under the Channel, this time the train departed from the new St Pancras International terminal near King's Cross, so I took the DLR and Tube up there and quickly filed through Customs. I settled into my seat, and after a high-speed flit through the outskirts of London and through the fields of Kent the Eurostar arrived at Calais-Frethun station, after a journey of 65 minutes. Calais-Frethun is about 10km outside of Calais itself, and here passengers for Calais depart the train in double quick time - it's pehaps a two minute stop before the train roars on to Brussels or Paris.

The station was largely deserted and there were no buses into Calais, so I waited 20 minutes for an almost empty local train service, which rumbled into town in less than 10 minutes for the princely sum of €1.90. It was a kilometre and a half walk to the youth hostel where I was staying, but the night was mild and I couldn't be bothered waiting for a bus, so I just relied on Shank's pony. I was virtually the only person out and about on that dark evening - the rest of Calais was very sensibly indoors. Having found the hostel, I checked in, ate the supplies I'd brought with me from London, and enjoyed tackling the crossword in the Times before bedtime.

It turned out to be a poor night's sleep as I'd left the heater on, so the room was cooking all night. I also managed to wake up with a headcold, but I refused to entertain the notion of missing out on sight-seeing. After breakfast in the hostel dining room (baguettes and jam), I was mildly puzzled to look our the window and notice that it was still dark outside despite the time being 8.45am - and yes, I had set my watch properly after crossing the Channel. It soon lightened up though, and I walked back through town, although little was open at that hour. I was planning to visit the nearby town of St-Omer, but the train wasn't for an hour or so, so I looked around Parc St-Pierre, where this fountain took my fancy:

It's a copy of the Three Graces statue from Versailles. The park also contains an ugly concrete bunker complex that the Germans installed during the WW2 occupation for use as a military command post. Now it houses the Museum de Guerre, but unfortunately it was closed for the winter months. Across the road in front of the imposing Hotel de Ville (town hall) stands the famous 'Burghers of Calais' bronze by Auguste Rodin (1895), which illustrates the six Calaisiens who offered themselves to the town's besieger, Edward III of England in August 1347, in the hope of saving the lives of the remaining inhabitants. This heroism earned the six men their lives, but the town remained in English hands until 1558. I'd seen a full-scale copy of the famous bronze in Canberra, but it was good to see the original (pic); however, the Christmas funfair rollercoaster ride in the nearby carpark detracted from the air of solemnity somewhat.

It was a 25 minute trip inland to St-Omer, and the double-decker train was again almost entirely empty. The sleepy country town boasts the ruins of the formerly enormous Abbey of St Bertin. I say 'formerly enormous' because only the vestiges of the 14th century Abbey remain, but the extent of the foundations is marked out and the dimensions were substantial. The other main sight in the town is St-Omer's impressive basilica, which lies in the centre of town. An inquisitive black cat tried to sneak inside the doors when I entered, but he wouldn't've liked it, because it was deathly cold inside, and like the local trains, there was hardly anyone around. In one transept, the workings of a massive ancient clock over the main doors emitted a stately heartbeat, while nearby candles flickered over the rough-hewn stone coffin of St Erskembode, an 8th century Irish monk. A row of tiny shoes atop the coffin are the offerings of believers praying for relief for their crippled children.

There wasn't much else to do in St-Omer other than admire the little River Aa, which is only known for its alphabetical hierarchy. So I took the train back to Calais (cue really exciting video link)...

...and girded my loins for a visit to the town's contemporary nexus, the reason most of its millions of visitors pass through: the hypermarkets. A 15 minute bus ride away on the outskirts of town, Cite Europe is a gargantuan palace of consumerism. While I didn't bother with the enormous Carrefour supermarche, and the hundred or more shops weren't particularly special, you have to be impressed with a mall that has its own snow-races for kiddy toboggan rides, and even a fake ice floe for kids to try out ice-fishing. The only downside of the trip to the mall was the bus journey back - the penchant of French kids to play tinny techno really really loudly on their mobile phones is even more obnoxious than that of their English brethren. (Hey, I'm in my thirties, so I'm allowed to be crotchety about young'uns).

The next day I took another train down the coast half an hour to investigate Boulogne, or Boulogne-sur-Mer to give it its full title. Up on the hill the old town sits within its imposing medieval walls, which still follow the outline of the walls erected by the Romans in the 2nd century. Outside the main gate into the old town there's a rather incongruous full-size Egyptian Nile riverboat on poles (pic), to commemorate the exploits of local hero Auguste Mariette, an Egyptologist who founded the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Inside the walls there's a massive basilica (pic) and the citadel, which was liberated by Canadian troops in September 1944 when they were led by a townsman through secret tunnels in order to surprise the German garrison of 200 soldiers.

Down in the main part of town the cold sea breeze was making a nuisance of itself, so after a quick look around I was pleased to find a branch of the same traiteur we enjoyed at lunchtime in Armentieres six weeks before. Being a creature of habit, I ordered the same traditional repast: a ham and emmental baguette, a slice of chocolate cake and an Orangina to go. Parfait!

Later, back in Calais I went for a walk near the hostel on Plage Bleriot to see the ferries leaving port (pic). Plage Bleriot is known for at least two well-remembered events: in 1875 Captain Matthew Webb arrived here after successfully completing the first cross Channel swim, and in 1909 the superbly-moustached Louis Bleriot departed from here in his 25hp monoplane to achieve the first aerial crossing of the English Channel. As the sun set I strolled back through the town, admiring the Christmas lights adorning the Theatre...

...and avoiding the buzzing scooter riders swarming amongst the Friday night shoppers. Soon enough it was time to retire though, so I took the free navette micro-bus (a glass box on wheels) back through town and turned in for the night, before my 9am Eurostar back to Angleterre.
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