Tag Archives: Boulogne

The Surprise of Boulogne-Sur-Mer

I didn’t have high expectations of Boulogne-Sur-Mer because I imagined it to be a place of little interest where people arrive by ferry and drive through very quickly without stopping on their way to more interesting places.  From the garden of the gîte where we were staying we could see a large Cathedral and a tall military column and so as we were so close it seemed only good manners to go and have a look.

On the approach to the city through shabby pot holed streets there was little to make me review my original perception and when we parked the car and walked into town I didn’t really expect this to be a very long visit at all.

Some postcards in a souvenir shop showed some surprisingly nice views of Boulogne so we set out for the Cathedral and the old town to try and discover the best part of the city.  At the top of the steep hill there was a medieval city wall and a gate leading inside and suddenly Boulogne took me by surprise because inside was something I was not expecting at all.

Boulogne’s Old Town is built within the original Roman walls and has recently been well restored and it was in complete contrast to the concrete and glass of the sea front and the shopping streets.  Here was the beating heart of a medieval city with a castle, one of the biggest Cathedrals in Europe and narrow streets lined with charming properties, little shops, cafés and bars.  In the middle was a public space with imaginative public art based on bits of old motor vehicles and scrap parts which was probably only the French could do this well.

The sun was shining and my opportunity for my favourite moules et frites and we found a pavement café on the Rue de Lille where a Frenchman was playing accordion to entertain the diners and I achieved my holiday objective of enjoying a pot of steaming molluscs.

After lunch we strolled around a while longer, outside the huge Cathedral, which was rebuilt in the nineteenth century as a symbol of the revival of the French Catholic Church after the Revolution in which the old cathedral and so many other churches were closed and destroyed.  We didn’t go inside but even from the street we could appreciate the size of the massive dome, which is one of the biggest in Europe.

At the other end of the old town was the town hall where there was free entry to the Belfry Tower that included a guided tour and history of the building, which was helpfully given in English as well as French.  There was a long climb with a couple of stops for informative narrative and there were good views from the top of the tower and we were lucky to be part of quite a small group of visitors because we had time and space to enjoy the rooftop vista.

We left the old town by a gate next to the Castle Museum and I am forever amazed at the bits of trivia that I pick up on my travels because who would have guessed that inside is the most important exhibition of masks from Alaska in the whole world?  Why isn’t the most important exhibition of masks from Alaska in Alaska? We didn’t go inside because we weren’t sure that Molly would appreciate it so we left and walked through the gardens beneath the walls and back to the agreed rendezvous point with the girls where they were waiting for us after completing their shopping.

On our way back to the seafront there was another surprise because Boulogne, it turns out, is the biggest fishing port in France and there is a large fishing fleet including deep-sea trawlers and factory ships, as well as smaller sea-going and inshore fishing boats.  A third of France’s fresh fish catch is landed here, and a huge quay-side fish processing factory makes 20% of the nation’s tinned fish, and half of the frozen fish, fish fingers and other fish-based ready meals.

While we had been exploring the old town the girls had enjoyed the Nausicaa Aquarium and were waiting for us on the white sandy beach when we returned slightly late to meet them. Every winter storms strip the sand away and then every summer the city council imports several hundred tonnes from further up the coast to make sure that Boulogne has a beach to enjoy at least for a few months.

Boulogne had taken me by surprise that’s for sure and because of that it has now made its way onto my ‘must return to’ list!

 

Napoleon Bonaparte and the Grand Armée

The 22nd June 1815, after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, is the date that marks the end of the reign of the French Emperor and dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte.

In 2009 I stayed in a holiday cottage near Boulogne in Northern France and one day drove to the town stopping on the way to visit La Colonne de la Grande Armée, which is conveniently situated next door to Carrefour.

The column was erected in the 1840s and is a fifty-three metre-high monument topped with a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte. (Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square is shorter at forty-six metres high).  It marks the base camp where Napoleon massed France’s biggest ever army of eighty thousand men ready to invade England.  It was initially intended to commemorate a successful invasion of England, but this proved to be a bit premature and as he didn’t quite manage that it now commemorates instead the first distribution of the Imperial Légion d’honneur.

Originally, when it was first completed, the statue had looked out over the Channel towards England, the land Napoleon had confidently expected to conquer but after the Second World War, the French government turned the statue of Napoleon round to face inland, as a mark of respect to the British allies in the war.

The French Language

“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”  Mark Twain – ‘The Innocents Abroad’

Eventually an old lady in an extravagant floral blouse and with a worn out old dog for a companion appeared from an adjacent room and enquired if we were there for the tour and we told her that yes we were.  She went to a great deal of trouble to explain that her English was poor and clutching her stomach she told us that her doctor had advised her against speaking in English because this made her ill. I’m not a medical person but this seemed a bit unlikely to me and she had no credible explanation for a diagnosis of stomach cramps just through speaking English and as we set off she proceeded to speak perfectly even though it was in a hushed and croaky voice.

This was really excellent, we were the only people on the tour and we were getting an exceptional commentary all around the interior and the exterior of the Cathedral. But then disaster struck as party of French people gate-crashed the party and after a short debate about language preferences with these unwelcome latecomers she continued for the rest of the tour in about 75% French.

She apologised to us for that and lamented that “English people cannot speak French and French people will not speak English!” This shouldn’t have surprised us of course, we know how precious they can be about their secondary World language so we just had to accept the inevitable and struggle to make sense of the French and be grateful for the few snippets of English that infrequently came our way.

‘The problem is not that French is impossible to learn: you can hear it spoken perfectly in Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco. No, the real problem with French is that it is a useless language’. Jeremy Paxman (UK Journalist)

There is no good reason for the French to be so stuck-up about their language, after all it is only the eighteenth most used in the World, Chinese is first, followed by Spanish and then English. More people even speak Portuguese (sixth) and worst of all German (tenth). The French, it seems, need to come to terms with the balance of linguistic power.

The French are proud of their language of course and their reluctance to communicate in or even simply acknowledge English gives me the opportunity to demonstrate my fluency in everyday essentials when I am in a restaurant:

Vin blanc sil vous plait’                                                                                                                ‘Vin rouge sil vous plait’                                                                                                            ‘bier grande sil vous plait’                                                                                                        ‘bier grande vite’.                                                                                                                                   And so on.

Now the French don’t especially like making things easy for visitors and sometimes I get the distinct impression that they would rather not have us in their country at all and a restaurant in La Rochelle on 17th April 2007 was no exception as it was clear that they could barely tolerate us.

The menu was exclusively in French (I’ve no objection to that – we don’t have multi-lingual menus in the UK) which made meal selection a little challenging but we were not put off by this because we have tackled menus in Latvian, Croatian and Polish and by comparison this was a piece of cake. I attempted some multilingual conversation with the waiter but he was clearly not impressed and I gave up therefore when he announced with the hint of a sneer that passed for an apology that there were no mussels left tonight.

We ordered an alternative and then we had an incident over condiments. He didn’t provide us with any and forced us to request them in what little French we knew while he kept up a bulwark against international relations while steadfastly refusing to understand us. We got passed salt and pepper but got stuck on vinegar.  I tried in several different ways of pronunciation and even mimed shaking a bottle but this fellow totally refused to comprehend and brought us a selection of various sauce accompaniments but never any vinegar.

I am convinced he knew exactly what we wanted but was enjoying watching us struggle. We finished our meal and left and I made a point of collecting up every last cent of change and didn’t leave him a tip and we agreed that we wouldn’t be dining there again this week.

One way around this problem is to rehearse in advance what you want to say. On another visit to France, this time to Boulogne in 2009 we needed some postage stamps so I rehearsed over and again ‘quatre timbre sil vous plait’ and by the time we found a shop was practically word perfect.  The problem with this of course is that having impressed with the opening sentence then the shop assistant replies immediately in impenetrable French and the only two options are to nod vigorously and hope you are making the appropriate response or just stand there flapping and looking a complete twat!  I did a combination of the two and it must have worked because I got the stamps and they were the correct ones for postcards to England. Merci beaucoup!

A Life in a Year – 19th August, Boulogne-Sur-Mer

 

I didn’t have high expectations of Boulogne-Sur-Mer because I imagined it to be a place of little interest where people arrive by ferry and drive through very quickly without stopping on their way to more interesting places.  From the garden of the gîte where we were staying we could see a large Cathedral and a tall military column and so as we were so close it seemed only good manners to go and have a look.  On the approach to the city through shabby pot holed streets there was little to make me review my original perception and when we parked the car and walked into town I didn’t really expect this to be a very long visit at all. 

Some postcards in a souvenir shop showed some surprisingly nice views of Boulogne so we set out for the Cathedral and the old town to try and discover the best part of the city.  At the top of the steep hill there was a medieval city wall and a gate leading inside and suddenly Boulogne took me by surprise because inside was something I was not expecting at all.

Boulogne’s Old Town is built within the original Roman walls and has recently been well restored and it was in complete contrast to the concrete and glass of the sea front and the shopping streets.  Here was the beating heart of a medieval city with a castle, one of the biggest Cathedrals in Europe and narrow streets lined with charming properties, little shops, cafés and bars.  In the middle was a public space with imaginative public art based on bits of old motor vehicles and scrap parts which was probably only the French could do this well.

The sun was shining and my opportunity for my favourite moules et frites and we found a pavement café on the Rue de Lille where a Frenchman was playing accordion to entertain the diners and I achieved my holiday objective of enjoying a pot of steaming molluscs.

 

After lunch we strolled around a while longer, outside the huge Cathedral, which was rebuilt in the nineteenth century as a symbol of the revival of the French Catholic Church after the Revolution in which the old cathedral and so many other churches were closed and destroyed.  We didn’t go inside but even from the street we could appreciate the size of the massive dome, which is one of the biggest in Europe.  At the other end of the old town was the town hall where there was free entry to the Belfry Tower that included a guided tour and history of the building, which was helpfully given in English as well as French.  There was a long climb with a couple of stops for informative narrative and there were good views from the top of the tower and we were lucky to be part of quite a small group of visitors because we had time and space to enjoy the rooftop vista.

We left the old town by a gate next to the Castle Museum and I am forever amazed at the bits of trivia that I pick up on my travels because who would have guessed that inside is the most important exhibition of masks from Alaska in the whole world?  Why isn’t the most important exhibition of masks from Alaska in Alaska? We didn’t go inside because we weren’t sure that Molly would appreciate it so we left and walked through the gardens beneath the walls and back to the agreed rendezvous point with the girls where they were waiting for us after completing their shopping.

On our way back to the seafront there was another surprise because Boulogne, it turns out, is the biggest fishing port in France and there is a large fishing fleet including deep-sea trawlers and factory ships, as well as smaller sea-going and inshore fishing boats.  A third of France’s fresh fish catch is landed here, and a huge quay-side fish processing factory makes 20% of the nation’s tinned fish, and half of the frozen fish, fish fingers and other fish-based ready meals.

While we had been exploring the old town the girls had enjoyed the Nausicaa Aquarium and were waiting for us on the white sandy beach when we returned slightly late to meet them. Every winter storms strip the sand away and then every summer the city council imports several hundred tonnes from further up the coast to make sure that Boulogne has a beach to enjoy at least for a few months.

Boulogne had taken me by surprise that’s for sure and because of that it has now made its way onto my ‘must return to’ list!

A Life in a Year – 22nd June, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Grand Armée

The 22nd June 1815, after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, marks the end of the reign of the French Emperor and dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte.

In 2009 I stayed in a holiday cottage near Boulogne in Northern France and one day drove to the town stopping on the way to visit La Colonne de la Grande Armée, which is conveniently situated next door to Carrefour. 

The column was erected in the 1840s and is a fifty-three metre-high monument topped with a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte. (Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square is shorter at forty-six metres high).  It marks the base camp where Napoleon massed France’s biggest ever army of eighty thousand men ready to invade England.  It was initially intended to commemorate a successful invasion of England, but this proved to be a bit premature and as he didn’t quite manage that it now commemorates instead the first distribution of the Imperial Légion d’honneur. 

Originally, when it was first completed, the statue had looked out over the Channel towards England, the land Napoleon had confidently expected to conquer but after the Second World War, the French government turned the statue of Napoleon round to face inland, as a mark of respect to the British allies in the war.

 

A Life in a Year – 17th April, The French Language

The French are proud of their language of course and their reluctance to communicate in or even simply acknowledge English gives me the opportunity to demonstrate my fluency in everyday essentials and I had to use all of that knowledge here:

‘Vin blanc sil vous plait’

‘Vin rouge sil vous plait’

‘bier grande sil vous plait’

‘bier grande vite’.  And so on.

Now the French don’t especially like making things easy for visitors and sometimes I get the distinct impression that they would rather not have us in their country at all and a restaurant in La Rochelle on 17th April 2007 was no exception as it was clear that they could barely tolerate us. 

The menu was exclusively in French which made meal selection a little challenging but we were not put off by this because we have tackled menus in Latvian, Croatian and Polish and by comparison this was a piece of cake.  I attempted some multilingual conversation with the waiter but he was clearly not impressed and I gave up therefore when he announced with the hint of a sneer that passed for an apology that there were no mussels left tonight. 

We ordered an alternative and then we had an incident over condiments.  He didn’t provide us with any and forced us to request them in what little french we knew while he kept up a bulwark against international relations while steadfastly refusing to understand us.  We got passed salt and pepper but got stuck on vinegar.  He totally refused to comprehend and brought us a selection of various sauce accompaniments but never any vinegar.

I am convinced he knew exactly what we wanted but was enjoying taking the piss.  We finished our meal and left and I made a point of collecting up every last cent of change and didn’t leave him a tip and we agreed that we wouldn’t be dining there again this week.

One way around this problem is to rehearse in advance what you want to say.  On another visit to France, this time to Boulogne in 2009 we needed some postage stamps so I rehearsed over and again ‘quatre poste sil vous plait’ and by the time we found a shop was practically word perfect.  The problem with this of course is that having impressed with the opening sentence then the shop assistant replies immediately in impenetrable French and the only two options are to nod vigorously and hope you are making the appropriate response or just stand there flapping and looking a complete twat!  I did a combination of the two and it must have worked because I got the stamps and they were the correct ones for postcards to England.