19 December 2000, Tuesday
After heading west yesterday, today we headed east. This was to be my Christmas present from Eoin and Anna: a trip to France for lunch!* There had been a flurry of phone calls to friends and family—We’re going to France tomorrow, what do you want us to pick up for you?—because at that particular moment** the exchange rate between French francs and British pounds was very favorable. So favorable, in fact, that even with the cost of the trip (gas, train fare, time), it was a bargain to shop in France.
So we arose at four in the morning and drove two hours east to Dover, where we caught the channel tunnel train. Yes, we went under the English Channel (it still doesn’t bear thinking about too closely). Although one doesn’t actually drive through this tunnel: you pull the car up onto the train, which then dips below ground and zips you across in a thirty-five-minute ride. When you rise up on the other side, well … you’re in France. Calais, to be specific.
Eoin then drove us another thirty minutes down the coast to Boulogne-sur-Mer. Boulogne. (The Brits pronounce this boo-LOIN, apparently—but the French pronounce their town’s name like this: boo-LONE-yeh.) Eoin traveled quite a bit on business; he was not only familiar with the charms of various French towns, he was fluent in French. Useful when you bring two rubes from Tennessee to visit. 🙂
The countryside and buildings looked similar to what we’d just left … and yet completely different too. This has a lot to do with the fact that, unlike England, France was occupied by the Nazis during World War II; as a result, a lot was bombed, which necessitated much rebuilding.
They said that Calais was very touristy, which is why we didn’t linger there. But Boulogne was the opposite of that. It was lovely. And the French decorate for Christmas a little more than the British, including the somewhat unsettling phenomenon of Santa effigies climbing the sides of buildings all over town. Sort of like an invasion.
The rectangular shape of Boulogne’s old town walls reveals its origins as an old Roman fort; Boulogne’s harbor in the estuary of the River Liane was the base from which the Roman emperor Claudius successfully invaded Britain in AD 43–45.
We walked through the gates of Boulogne’s medieval castle, Château-musée, crossing the high and narrow stone bridge across the moat as we looked up at the towering stone walls.
This castle was the stronghold of the counts of Boulogne, who effectively ruled this area in the Middle Ages when the French kingdom was much weaker and fragmented. The château strengthens the weakest landward-facing corner of the town’s defensive walls, which were built in the thirteenth century on the foundations of earlier Roman walls. There are four gates by which you can enter the old town inside, one on each side of the rectangular fortification.
Inside the walls, a charming old town in the shadow of a beautiful church (Notre-Dame de Boulogne) was full of little shops and restaurants and bars.
A central outdoor square had been decorated to celebrate the season: Christmas trees (decorated!) surrounding a hut (Santa’s house!), and even fresh potted cyclamen in the sod, to make it prettier. There was nothing like this in England, and I found it very festive.
By then it was lunchtime, and Eoin took us to a place he had visited many times, Le Parisien Restaurant. And it was very good!*** We indulged in a long, very French meal. I had fresh cream of asparagus soup, steak in garlic sauce with green beans and a mound of French fries, followed by “tart,” which was somewhat akin to apple pie. Seating was tight (cozy!) to American eyes, but Anna had reminded me repeatedly that we simply have more room in the United States.
After lunch we wandered in the shopping district, buying chocolate, coffee, and other little souvenirs. We also bought three boxes full of wine and champagne: most of the shopping for friends and family was booze. (We arrived back in Berkshire that night with a trunk packed full of French wine.) I even bought a couple bottles of Bollinger (champagne) at Anna’s urging.
After the bottles were carried back to the car, we spent time in the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Boulogne. It was so lovely. This was my first experience, really, with an elaborate European cathedral, even though this was just the local church in a small town. It’s not particularly famous. But it was truly beautiful to me. By this time it was late afternoon, in December, and growing dark both outside and inside. I have a few photos I took inside but nothing worth showing here. (Here’s a whole page of photos, though.) This relatively new building (it was built between 1827 and 1875) is large and really dominates the old section of town—but the church has a majestic history, so perhaps it’s deserved. There’s been a Christian church on this site since the fourth or fifth century.
Later we walked around the old town ramparts (remember those stairs?) to get an overview of Boulogne. I learned the French love their dogs as much as the Brits do, and they were up there on the ramparts/walls with their pets, taking a late afternoon stroll. This interesting walk on the wall offers good views inside to the old town, and looking outward to the newer town center, the port, and the sea.
We took many, many photographs, even as the sun was rapidly sinking. The lights came on at Notre-Dame.
We ended the day in a French bar drinking hot chocolate—it had grown quite chilly. Anna urged me to try an apertif, pastis … an anise liqueur loved by the French. I think it might be an acquired taste, but I love licorice, so it suited me. The liqueur is strong, and generally served neat (a small amount, straight) with a side of water, which in my case came in a chilled, decorative glass bottle. When you mix the two, the water turns a milky white.
And then we headed back to the train and our journey home. Quite a Christmas present!
* An opportunity to see a second country on this trip!
** This was before the euro.
*** I’ve since checked reviews of it and it seems to have gone down in quality in the last thirteen years. That’s a shame.