by Robert Lidster
My wife and I entered the French region of Nord-Pas-De- Calais via the port of Calais. The crossing from Dover onboard the P&O ferry ‘Spirit of France’ had taken 90 minutes and had been one of the smoothest Channel crossings that I have ever experienced. We were however, 30 minutes late; this was due to our late departure from Dover. The morning had been a very foggy one and the ferries had all been running a little late. Even as we boarded at 12:20pm, the fog was only just showing signs of clearing.
The ‘Spirit of France’ is a very new ferry, built in 2011 and only having been in service a couple of months prior to our crossing. The ferry is some 213 metres long by 32 metres wide and weighs in at 49,000 tonnes. Maximum speed is 23 knots but the average is a more sedate 18 knots. Facilities onboard are much improved to those on some of the older ferries; there is now a very nice outside deck bar with ample seating (starboard side for smokers, portside for non smokers). There are two other café/bar areas and for main meals there is the choice between the ‘Food Hall’ (self service) and the ‘Brassiere’ (waiter service). There is also the ‘Club Lounge’ where, for a supplement, passengers can have a comfortable seat in peaceful surroundings with complimentary tea/coffee and newspapers.
Having already gone through customs and passport control in Dover, once we had driven off the ferry in Calais, the way was clear for us to proceed to our destination. Our base for the next three days was to be ‘Chateau Tilques’ near St. Omer, just a short 30 minute drive from Calais. We chose to avoid the motorway and toll road and instead took the D943. Although a slower road than the motorway, we found the D943 a very good road to drive and much more interesting. Once out of the built up area of Calais, we drove for 22 miles through pleasant countryside and interesting villages and towns.
‘Chateau Tilques’ is a four star hotel and is part of the Najeti chain of hotels. We had booked a double ‘Charme’ room in the chateau. There are 29 chateau rooms with a further 24 rooms in the modern ‘Pavillion Du Parc’. Once settled into our room, which was a little on the small side but had wonderful views of the grounds and lake, we went for a swim in the indoor heated swimming pool.
The chateau was built in 1891 on the site of a 17th century manor house, the restaurant is situated in the original 17th century coach house. Facilities at the chateau include the restaurant (fine dining); bar and lounge; 24 hour front desk; tennis court; indoor pool; bicycle rental; free wi fi; free car parking and ten acres of wonderful grounds to explore.
Having enjoyed a relaxing swim, reasonable sized pool no deeper than 1.40 metres, we returned to our room to get ready for dinner. As previously mentioned, our room was not overly large, but it was comfortably furnished with everything we needed for our stay and it was clean. The bathroom was a good sized room with a full sized bath with shower attachment, tiled walls and floor which was of a modern design. This was in contrast to the bedroom which was decorated in a style more fitting to a chateau.
Dinner was excellent and the staff friendly and attentive. The meal was supposed to be three courses but with all the extra ‘From the Chef’ dishes that came between courses, it was more like a six course dinner.
For our first full day in France we were visiting St. Valery-Sur-Somme, a 60 to 70 mile drive away depending on which route you take. After a good breakfast of eggs, bacon, cereal, fruit and the customary meat and cheeses, we set off. We decided to take the cross-country route (the shortest) as opposed to the coastal route (some 10 miles or so longer). The morning had started off foggy again and there was little chance of seeing any coast from the road. The road we took was a surprisingly good road with very little traffic, it was tree lined on both sides and took us through towns, villages and of course open countryside.
We stopped at Forges for tea and coffee, today was Sunday so the roads were very quiet and very few shops or cafes open. We found a little bistro which was open, four or five Frenchmen stood at the bar and a couple sat at one of the tables. As we entered we were greeted by everyone in the place, staff and customers alike. After exchanging pleasantries, we ordered our tea and coffee and sat at one of the tables to drink them (one of the curiosities of French bars and restaurants is the system whereby, there may be up to three different prices for food and drink. There may be one price for standing at the bar, another for sitting at a table and a further price if they have a terrace). On leaving the bistro we were bade farewell by all assembled, a very friendly town.
St. Valery-Sur-Somme is situated at the mouth of the Somme River and is to the west of the Somme battlefields. Originally settled by the Gaul’s around the time of the Roman invasion the town has also been occupied by the Franks, the English and the Germans. It was here that William the Conqueror assembled his fleet before the 1066 invasion of England. It was also in St. Valery that whilst under the control of the English in 1431, Joan of Arc was held prisoner in the local prison prior to being moved to Rouen where she was burned at the stake.
Today, St. Valery (named after a 7th century Gualaric monk) is very much a tourist town, popular with the French. The town has a delightful walkway along the river where pleasure boats of all types and sizes can be seen. There are boats providing pleasure trips and a seasonal narrow gauge railway known as ‘Chemin De Fer De La Baie De Somme’ (Somme Bay Railway). The train runs the entire length of the bay, connecting Le Croytoy with Noyelles-Sur-Mer. Car parking can be a little tricky at busy times, we managed to find a space by the river which enabled us to have a most enjoyable walk. The fog had now lifted and it was a beautiful sunny day, unusually so for March. After our walk we re-located to the beach area at the mouth of the river, here we could see the town of Le Croytoy on the other side of the bay.
As the weather had improved so much, we decided to take the coast road back to St. Omer. We drove to Berck-Plage near Le Touquet but as views of the coast were almost non existent, we changed course and once again drove cross-country. This deviation took us through some beautiful countryside, through tiny lanes and more tree lined avenues.
Our second full day in France was spent in Lille. As we didn’t relish the drive into the city with the inevitable traffic jams and hunt for parking space we chose to take the train. Chateau Tilques is only three miles from St. Omer, but to our surprise it was an 18 euro taxi fare to the train station, each way!. The train journey which would take 50 minutes cost 46.80 euro return for the two of us, much better value for money.
Lille is the capital of French Flanders and is at the crossroads of French Flanders and Champagne country. There are two train stations, the older Lille Flandres, where we arrived from St. Omer, and the newer, modern Lille Europe where the Eurostar train arrives and departs. Lille is a busy city both with commerce and tourism and there is an abundance of hotels. The quality and price of the hotels can vary enormously and for a decent 3 or 4 star hotel expect to pay more than the average.
The city has more than its fair share of attractive buildings and public squares. Unfortunately, it also has more than its fair share of beggars who along with the obligatory dog by their side, congregate on the streets and around the restaurants in the hope of extracting money from the shoppers and diners. This of course is evident in most cities nowadays and is not unique to either Lille or France. There are ample eating establishments and even in March, the cafes and restaurants around the main square were full of customers enjoying the spring sunshine.
Apart from the beautiful squares and architecture, Lille also has delightful botanical gardens; a zoo; many wonderful churches and the ‘Citadelle’ a star shaped military fort designed by the French military architect Vauban. Around the perimeter of the Citadelle is an extensive park area where the zoo is to be found as well as a children’s play area and food outlets. The canal runs alongside the park and it is possible to take boat trips. One of Lille’s claim to fame is the fact that General De Gaulle grew up in the city.
On our way back to the Chateau that evening we stopped in St. Omer to have dinner, we ate at ’La Terrasse’ and had a delightful meal. The restaurant is very popular with the locals, it doesn’t have an English menu and the waiting staff do not speak very good English. However, the staff were most friendly and helpful and at the end of the evening ordered a taxi to take us back to the chateau. All in all a perfect end to a delightful stay in France.