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Boulogne-sur-Mer, France: A Daytrip

Medieval Gate of Old Boulogne

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One day in early 1993, when Linda and I lived in South Norwood, London, I popped into a local travel agent on the high street that had just recently opened. I found out they chartered daytrips to several destinations around Southern England by coach, and in addition, I was pleased to find out that they also did trips to Northern France. Not long before this, France had declared food and alcohol to be duty free for Brits who came across the channel to shop. At this time, Brits were enticed to come across in droves for shopping sprees at brand new Hypermarkets.

Well, I didn’t really fancy the shopping, but I thought it would be great to spend a day in Boulogne-sur-Mer, for I had seen it from the inside of a train twice before on trips to Paris, and I thought it looked fascinating--at least the Old Town, with its domed-church, and gray-stoned buildings that were decaying the way Northern French provincial towns do. In an instant I fell in love with the idea of going to Boulogne for a day. After all, it was a very historic place; not many people that I knew had ever been there, and it was so relatively close my emotions positively salivated at the idea! Boulogne (or somewhere nearby) was where Julius Caesar carried out his two invasions of “Britannia” back in 55-54 BC. Napoleon Bonaparte went to Boulogne with a large army and confidently contemplated doing the same at the turn of the 19th century, and Hitler, who probably thought he could do the job more efficiently, supposedly went to Boulogne during WWII and dreamed of invading England, drawing up elaborate plans, but alas, the task was insurmountable. So, you see, Boulogne has a special history due to its location, and it is France's biggest fishing port.

Well, Linda had never been to France before, so, later on, I asked her if she wanted to go; that we could book it at the local agent and everything would be taken care of. We had to get a visa for her to travel to France, of course, but that wouldn’t be too hard. The beauty of booking with the agent was that it was a local outfit. The agent would be driving the bus himself and it was convenient for us to begin and end the trip from our local high street. Much to my delight Linda was interested in going, so we booked it. It would be the most ambitious daytrip we’d ever had together because we had to make two trips up to the French Embassy in West London with Linda’s passport to get a darn visa.

On the day of the trip, March 6, 1993, we boarded the coach at 6:40 a.m. Our bus driver/tourist agent, who was fifty-ish and gray haired, drove us to a couple more locations, locally, in South London to pick up some more passengers, about thirty-five in all, and then proceeded to Dover, where we rode a P&O ferry across the channel. The bus drove onto the ferry, along with a lot of other buses and cars for the crossing, which took about 45 minutes. During the crossing we all had to get out of the bus and go upstairs to the upper decks to sit, eat, or walk around.

When we reached the other side, we all got back into the bus and it drove a short distance to a customs booth, where a French customs officer came aboard and looked at all of our passports that had already been collected by the driver. Everything was in order, so the bus headed southwesterly, bypassing Calais, and on to the Hypermarket that was located on the outskirts of Boulogne. The plan was to spend 2.5 hours at the Hypermarket--a glorified mall--so that we could load up with duty free stuff (the Brits loved to get alcohol and cheese) and then we would go to Boulogne proper, and spend about three hours doing whatever we liked. Linda and I weren’t especially interested in the Hypermarket, but we made the best of it and had a good look around. We didn’t realize that the mall would be so far out of Boulogne that we would be stuck there. We thought we could walk into Boulogne; sightsee, and then catch the bus later, but it didn’t work out that way. I asked the bus driver about the possibility of shortening the stay at the Hypermarket (it seemed like an awfully long time to spend there), but he gruffly said that he couldn't possibly change the plans now.

Two old ladies that came on the bus elected to hire a taxi to go to Boulogne straightaway, which seemed like a brilliant idea, but Linda and I were just a tad bit curious to see what the inside of a modern French Hypermarket looked like, so we stayed there for the duration. Yes, it certainly had enough cheeses to make General de Gaulle proud! When everyone got back on the bus, it didn't look like anyone bought very much, and not a few of us were long since bored with the mall and itching to go!

So…NOW we were finally driving into Boulogne (great, it’s about time!), and the driver parked the bus down by the harbor. (What?!) All along, we were hoping to explore Old Boulogne and now we were parked at the harbor, and Old Boulogne was way up the hill! (Drat!) Well, undaunted, Linda and I briskly walked up the hill, for it seemed the day was fast escaping. Eventually, we reached the gates of the Old Town, and it appeared to be worth the effort, thankfully. It was a splendid medieval walled city. The entrance had an enormous 13th century stone rampart, with thick walls surrounding a tightly compacted quarter which had been built over an earlier Roman fort, and was large enough to have a few streets and vehicular traffic, albeit a limited amount. It was wonderful! It is also interesting to note that Henry VIII besieged these very walls in 1544, and briefly captured Boulogne!

The temperature was a bit chilly and the day mostly-cloudy and dull, being early March, but the conditions weren’t bad for exploring an impressive place like this. I couldn’t wait to get inside and have a look around! First thing, we saw the main square, called "The Place of the Resistance," with a town hall and clock tower. Then, as is my custom in a walled city, we circumnavigated the wall along the sentry walk, taking in the views of the buildings and streets below. We paused at the old castle, or chateau in the far corner that looked well preserved and solid, and walked over arches in the wall, where cars and pedestrians pass to-and-fro through a cobble stoned gate. Outside the wall, on one side, was a park with several clay tennis courts--orange colored, just like at Roland Garros, in Paris.

After viewing the sights from the wall, we ambled along the main thoroughfare of the Old Town, called rue de Lille. Glancing into souvenir shops and restaurants along the way, we walked slightly uphill to Cathedral Notre Dame, the highpoint of town. Not to be confused with ND Cathedral, in Paris, this church has been built and rebuilt over the spot where a Roman temple stood originally. Demolished during the French Revolution, today it has a tall, domed rotunda (one of the largest in Europe), and looks neo-classical with baroque accents. Inside was not particularly ornate, but the rotunda was exceptional. One of the prized treasures of the cathedral is the “Our Lady of Boulogne” statue--a wooden statue of Mary, holding Jesus, sitting in a boat. As a tradition, they carry this statue through the streets on great processions every year. The church is also known for its vast crypt that goes back to Roman times.

By now, Linda and I were hungry, so we decided to find a restaurant to eat, and we wanted something that was not too cheap, but also not too expensive. I would like to say that we dined in a five-star restaurant on hors d’oeuvres, beef bourguignon, something with oysters, and a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but we were far too frugal for that. We found a tidy little restaurant on the main square, unceremoniously named “Mamma’s Café,” which was practically empty, but had a friendly young waitress who was easy to get along with. Being foreign and not well-versed in French cuisine, we opted for two salads, bread and potage (vegetable soup), which turned out to be delicious and served with the utmost kindness. It was a completely satisfying situation, and I could tell that Linda was enjoying herself on her first visit to France, which made me feel wonderful in return.

After the meal, the sky began to darken with indistinct rays of twilight, and shop windows began to glow. At a souvenir shop I spied earlier, we bought some postcards and a kitschy souvenir tray, with an illustrated map and “Nord de la France” printed on it. We then walked out of Old Boulogne, reluctantly, back down the hill past interesting old facades that in a short while blended into typically newer buildings, to the waterfront, where we saw the bus still parked.

We had a little bit of time left to kill, so we looked around in some shops and bought a bag of potato crisps to eat later on the ferry (ferry food is expensive, after all). The bus driver saw us carrying the bag of crisps and abruptly said, “Don’t you be eating those crisps on my bus, the crumbs are too hard to clean up!” We stood there, dumbfounded, like a couple of ten-year-olds, and assured him that we wouldn’t eat them on the bus.

The trip home was uneventful, though the travel agent driver had seemed annoyed about something ever since we left the Hypermarket today. I couldn't figure out what was bugging him. Maybe he was expecting some kind of commission from the Hypermarket, and it didn't pan out. I don't know. Anyway, the bus had a TV/VCR, so the driver showed the movie “Police Academy,” which I thought was tasteless, and then “Ghost” after that. Linda took a nap, and I think I did as well. When we rolled into South Norwood it was 11:00 p.m.--a long day indeed. Visiting France is never easy, but I found Boulogne to be--once we finally got there--“amiable, fin et elegant” (friendly, refined and elegant)! That was the only daytrip we ever made to France. What a pity we never found the time to book another one, or, better yet, take several days and drive our own car. A daytrip to France is just too darn short and exhausting to smell-the-coffee at a Hypermarket!

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