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Part Five. It Walks by Night….

October 21, 2012

Most of my memories of touring in northern France are of grey days and drizzle, with the odd day of hard winter sun, for by now I had my first little house to pay for and a garden to make….so escapes were made when nothing useful could be done at home.

A look at the weather forecast, a glance at the sky…and I’d be off, my small bag on the back seat and a map on the seat beside me. They weren’t always wonderful, those maps…but as long as they showed the main towns and villages I was confident I would not get lost.

After all, I was touring, not hareing down to the Riviera to the sound of Trenet and ‘Nationale Sept’.

I can’t remember whether the French Tourist Office had started christening every bit of coast in sight by some name or other at that time…..I was certainly not particularly aware that an area I liked to visit was called the Cote d’Opale, I just liked the area from the sands of Belgium to the estuary of the Somme.

Up north the land was flat, drained by ditches and canals…further west the hills started, villages strung out along the little rivers while the coast was marked by cliffs and inlets. Inland was the area I thought of as ‘the War’…the battlefields, the cemeteries, the waste of life…I stayed away.

Driving down from Boulogne on the main road was the sign to Montreuil sur Mer…..miles inland from the sea it had once been one of the main ports of medieval France perched on its hill high above the Canche. When you look at those ports…like Barfleur, the port used by the Angevins between their French and English domains…it brings home to you just how small were those ships which carried wool, grain…and armies… across the short seas of the Channel.

From port to fort…as the Canche silted up the town became one of the fortresses guarding the border of France with the Spanish Netherlands until sacked by the troops of Charles V who, as was usual for soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire, indulged in their traditional sport of pulling down the churches.

Rebuilt by Francois I, remodelled by Vauban under Louis XIV, war wandered away from Montreuil just as had its medieval commerce, leaving it a sleepy small town on the road to Boulogne, which is how Victor Hugo saw it in the 1830s when on holiday at Etaples and some twenty five years later used it as the setting for part of ‘Les Miserables’….Jean Valjean being maire of the town before ‘revealing all’ to save another from the galleys.

Pretty, a bit touristy even then, it was a gateway to the little valleys surrounding it….pretty villages, watermills, quiet stands of trees….and on the coast the seaside towns…more Hove than Brighton….where the litterati spent their holidays while the glitterati went to Deauville.

I could not efface all contact with’ the War’. At Etaples where nine base hospitals had operated the graves stretch into infinity…English laid with English, Africans with Africans, Chinese with Chinese….discrimination or solidarity..who can now know.

Etaples had been an artistic colony in the nineteenth century…as had Wissant before it.

Forget Monet and Giverny…look  at Manet. Rejected by the Navy he never lost his interest in boats and seascapes.

While of a lesser order Chigot celebrates the shrimp catcher.

Those grey shrimps which have the taste of the sea……a pain to deshell, a delight to eat.

On this occasion I was returning to Boulogne to take the ferry because I wanted to see the column commemorating the army assembled under Napoleon I to invade England and, having decided not to climb to the top, drove into Wimereux to seek lodging for the night.

By this time I was broken in to French  hotels… paid, had your passport confiscated and then carried out the French national sport which should by now have achieved Olympic recognition.
Charging up a flight of stairs with luggage in hand before the time switch on the light cut off, leaving you to find your room number in something resembling a wartime blackout.
This experience alone explains the theory of farce.
Having found the room, clean, but sporting a bedside table upon which every travelling arsonist had put in a training session with matches, you then had to find the bathroom.


It would be somewhere in the corridor, so you had to open your bedroom door while holding your keys and washbag and in the light from your own room identify the light switch.
Then, leaving the light on in your room, sprint up and down the corridor looking for the unnumbered door which would, with luck, be the bathroom.
It wasn’t guaranteed to be.
Someone’s granny could get a terrible shock as the visitor burst in looking for a loo.
‘Allo, Allo’ had nothing on it.

And don’t think about a bath…if one existed at all it would be one of those tiny tubs with a seat upon which you sat while soaping yourself.
Let no one say that the French lack innovative talent.
They’d invented the shower stool before inventing the shower.
Bit like minitel and the internet, really.

No, you usually had the loo, an occasional bidet and the wash basin. The hook on the back of the door served as towel rail and place to park your garments.
You’d forgotten your towel?
Another sprint along the corridor. And get some soap while you’re at it.
However there was usually a loo roll.

So the amenities at the hotel came as no surprise. Monsieur had two rooms available. Would I like to see them?

Indeed I would.

Monsieur led the way and opened the door. The walls and ceiling….but not the floor… were covered in blue grey shag pile carpeting.

Monsieur showed me the second room…shag pile again, but in a vivid flame orange.

I settled for the first, hanging a scarf on the door handle to indicate the exit.

It was like a night from Edgar Allan Poe….I felt the shag pile descending to smother me while outside there was a distinct and repeated sound of heavy breathing.

At dawn I gave up and drew back the curtains…grey but not shag pile.

Outside the window, on the leads, a large Alsatian regarded me solemnly, then turned his back and defecated mightily.


  1. Lovely story. My husband is working in Paris at the moment. He went to the nearest hotel to where he is working and asked the price. He was given a rate for the day and one for the night. For nights only he would have to take his things out of the room for the day guests. Although it was cheap he decided to use a hotel with exclusive 24hr usage of the room for the week. No shag pile though.

  2. By the sound of things the room should have been covered in it!
    It sounds like the 24 hour hotels here with hourly rates which proudly claim that they have hot water!

  3. You’re really making me want to explore north-east France now, Helen. 🙂

    I’ve had experience of those hotels too, though never with carpet on the walls, just wallpaper everywhere it could be persuaded to stick. The worst was a Videotel on the Parisian peripherique, when I was acting as courier to a group on their way back from the Passion Play at Oberammergau. Talk about sleazy! Whoever booked that hotel should have been shot. Mind you, they pulled out all the stops with the food to persuade us to stay. 🙂

    • I’ve been lucky (relatively speaking) with Paris hotels…..but some others will remain long in the memory!

      North east France is a great place to visit…I only scratched the surface, really…and I regret seeing no more of Lille than the eurostar station.

  4. “Charging up a flight of stairs with luggage in hand before the time switch on the light cut off, leaving you to find your room number in something resembling a wartime blackout.”—Oh, did that bring back memories! I remember French hotels like that. 🙂

    • And isn’t it amazing that travel writers never seem to encounter them….

      • They’re probably not as poor as I was back then. 🙂 But I was in France, and when you’re a young American woman, that’s all that matters. And honestly, those hotel rooms weren’t any worse than some of the apartments I’ve lived in, many of which were simple sleeping rooms with common bathrooms shared with others. Glad those days are over. 🙂

  5. I’ve not experienced apartments like those….but I’ve known a few leaky roofs when cut loose from the hall of residence.
    I still remember a hotel where everything I touched in the room was sticky…not to speak of the hotel in a popular resort which was closed in August so the the proprietor could go on holiday….

    I look at the travel columns and wonder who they are writing for.
    Cynical answer…probably for the tour company who paid their trip.

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