Hi, everyone – Libby again. Well, I want to catch you up on our adventures, culinary and otherwise, since I last wrote.
We settled into day-to-day living in Boulogne-sur-Mer for a while, with me attending fitness classes at a nearby gym called “BodyFit Club”. I’m fitting in with the regulars there, who now greet me with “air kisses” on both sides (as if I was one of “les gars”), and trying to keep up as the instructor called out his instructions, in French, “un, deux, trois, remontre, encore”.
Meanwhile, back at the flat, Gary was cooking up a storm with his already famous “carbonnade a la flamande” with French beef, local beer, and Pas-de-Calais’ own smoked garlic. We thought the French beef was superior to Canadian for this dish, but even if it wasn’t, it sure tasted good alongside the superb Cote de Rhone our landlord left for us when we arrived at the flat (along with two jars of excellent local pate, a selection of French cheeses, and some jellied candies).
We decided to spread our wings again after our Lille jaunt to day-trip the connected set of towns called Les Etaples and Le Touquet just up the coast not far from Boulogne. A short train ride took us to the combined Etaples-Le Touquet station.
Since it was market day in Etaples, and Le Touquet was still a bus-ride away, we resolved to focus on Etaples that day and return another day to Le Touquet. French President Macron represents that riding as it happens, and apparently has a house there.
Etaples turned out to have a lovely, bustling market full of locals buying produce and household items. Etaples is a fishing port and boasts some seriously good fish vendors and fish restaurants. We saw the freshest and most inviting fish and seafood of the trip at a fish market and adjoining restaurant called Aux Pecheurs d’Etaples.
Fish caught that very day is prepared by the chef and his team there and reservations are at a premium. We couldn’t get a table but resolved to return next week. Instead, we installed ourselves on the sunny patio of Au Vieux Port right on the main square where we received a warm welcome and enjoyed delicious salads and local beer and wine. Gary noticed the heaping portions of steaming moules marinieres and wants to go back. Sigh, so many things to do and taste and so little time!
A day later, we headed to Saint Omer only 50 km away, where we spent overnight. We heard, from a vendor in the Boulogne outdoor market, that Saint Omer’s market was not to be missed, if one likes such things – which we do. This time, the train ride required a switch in a small town called Les Fontinettes.
Having gotten on and off a half dozen French trains on this trip, we have been amazed that not once have we been asked for our tickets. No one comes to collect your ticket. No conductor paces through the cars and no one stands at the entry way to the tracks. Strange.
In any event, Saint Omer turned out to be a dream. Untouched by the world wars, it has much to recommend it. Beautiful, spacious squares, clean streets, historic architecture, and much more.
We were more than impressed by their “jardins public”, a 20-hectare public garden, described as “one of the finest and most original landscaped parks in the north of France.”
It has a multitude of delights including manicured English and French gardens, the remains of the ramparts designed by Vauban on its western edge, a 1905 carousel (hidden from the Germans), a gazebo, and a zoo of chickens, roosters, ducks and peacocks with even an occasional fawn. It also has outdoor gym equipment and fitness areas.
A city brochure explains as follows:
”The multiplication of public gardens in the 19th century stemmed from a trend among the bourgeoisie who wished to reproduce the way the aristocracy lived during the ancien regime. The landscaped gardens of Saint Omer immediately became a favourite place for a stroll or for enjoying leisure pursuits. Nothing has changed in that respect.”
The historical centre reflects a treasure trove of riches. A recently renovated beautiful theatre, formerly its town hall, holds court in the main square.
In addition, Saint Omer’s beautiful cathedral dates from the 13th century. Its interior is now known as one of the richest in France. Its two main treasures are the clock dating from 1558 and its organ case but the woodcarving is also spectacular. In addition, the ruins of an abbey created in the 7th century are available for a visit.
Finally, the library of Saint Omer is now housed in a part of what once was an old Jesuit school (both French and English Jesuits resided there.) There is a collection of ancient books, amongst them a copy of two of the most sought-after books in the world, the Gutenberg Bible and a First Folio of Shakespeare. We were given a personal tour by the resident director of the library, a Ph.D. in medieval literature who actually discovered the aforementioned Shakespearean tome. He told us that the French Jesuits who were previously resident there and who were tasked with the job of cataloguing the ancient library’s contents perhaps didn’t fully realize that they had a First Folio copy of Shakespeare’s works and catalogued the author as “Guillaume Shakespeare”. This delayed revelation of the holding.
Saint Omer is also considered to be foodie heaven with many excellent restaurants, some regionally-focused. We had dinner one night at a place called the “Dries Kalder”. Its owner has an off-beat sense of humour with a series of ladies’ bras strung over a laundry line suspended from the ceiling. Notwithstanding, it was one of the best meals of the trip; Gary absolutely loved the waterzooi, a Flemish stew of fish (it can also be made with chicken), vegetables, including carrots, leeks and potatoes, and a light cream sauce.
Saint Omer was a highlight of our trip to that point; but next we went to Ghent in Belgium for a three-day visit. It was the “cherry on top”. But, more on beautiful Ghent in my next post, so stay tuned.