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19 OCTOBER 2015
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Richard Cawthorne explores an intriguing corner of northern France
To walk through the ancient streets of Montreuil is to follow in the footsteps of famous people, not least the Count of Ponthieu, Vauban, Henry V (possibly), Victor Hugo and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.
Ponthieu was the man who in the 9th century caused the first rampart walls that guard the town to be built. Reinforced, added to and remodelled over the years, they remain Montreuil’s trademark image and carry the memories of giants of their times, including Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, Marshal of France and the foremost military engineer of his age.
Despite such bellicose-oriented beginnings, the word most people fasten on when seeking to describe Montreuil – still called officially Montreuil-sur-Mer, though its passage to the sea via the river Canche silted up long ago – is charming.
This little medieval community in northern France, just round the corner from Calais, is pint-sized, with cobbled streets, old houses to admire and churches to explore in an area that is easily walkable for most visitors.
For my visit, I was based at the Hermitage Hotel, which offers good value and good-sized rooms and is within strolling distance of most of the sights, including a selection of excellent restaurants. The hotel has a classic bar and a buffet breakfast is served every morning.
It also houses within its courtyard another good reason for visiting Montreuil, an attractive shop which is the French outpost of the Hertfordshire-based not-for-profit club the Wine Society. Members who shop here are guaranteed a saving of £24 per case on UK prices.
Elsewhere on the hotel front and further up the scale with rates to match is the Chateau de Montreuil, a four-star manor house opposite the ramparts.
It boasts individually-decorated rooms in the main house and a garden annex, all rooms with minibars and satellite TV and some rooms with four-poster beds. There are also three bi-level cottage suites with separate sitting rooms and whirlpool tubs. Even if you don’t stay there, it’s worth investing in a meal at its gourmet restaurant. There is a lunch menu at 37 Euros while dinner costs from 75-95 Euros.
Moving on in history from the ramparts, which provide a healthy walk with views of the surrounding countryside, Henry V is rumoured to have scouted out Montreuil in 1415 on his way to Agincourt just down the road. Whatever the truth of that, a gateway in the Citadelle of which the ramparts form a part, bears the coats of arms of local knights who left here to fight against the English at the famous battle.
Next in line comes Victor Hugo, who used his experience of Montreuil to base part of his epic work Les Misérables there.
As with the Henry story, the tale doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Hugo was in Montreuil for only a few hours in September 1837, but it was enough to confirm the town’s immortality and every summer the good citizens present a spectacular outdoor “son et lumière” version of Les Mis which draws huge crowds, many of them Brits fresh from the Channel Tunnel about an hour away by road.
Another catalyst to bring travellers from the UK to Montreuil is its more recent place in history as the site for the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the British Army under Field Marshal Haig during World War I. A new exhibition commemorating these events can be seen in the Citadelle.
The general staff moved here in March 1916 from St Omer as the Western Front widened in favour of the Allies, reinforcing the already-large military presence in the area.
When the Germans occupied Montreuil during World War II, a statue of Haig on horseback that had been erected in the town was taken down and is believed to have been destroyed. It was rebuilt in the 1950s, using the sculptor's original mould.
In short, Montreuil is a rewarding place for a weekend or longer away, with plenty to see, learn and enjoy. A Saturday market adds to the flavour, while the selection of restaurants is enough to keep any hungry soul happy.
I sampled the chateau’s gourmet offerings, experienced simple fare at Froggy’s Tavern and, for something different, indulged in a tasting menu at La Grenouillere, a treat of what is described as “minimalist” cuisine for £70. www.tourisme-montreuillois.com www.thewinesociety.com
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