Travel: Montreuil-sur-Mer, France
PUBLISHED: 10:46 16 January 2016 | UPDATED: 15:20 18 January 2016
Once a military stronghold with literary and royal links, the charming French town of Montreuil is a Pas-de-Calais gem and an ideal weekend wine-run destination, says Richard Cawthorne
What links bustling Stevenage with the historic town of Montreuil in northern France? It sounds like one of those pub quiz questions where the answer hovers just beyond your grasp, but in this case the explanation is simple. The Wine Society, which has its headquarters in the Herts new town, maintains what it calls its French outpost in Montreuil, a leisurely drive down the coast from Calais, where members can stock up on their favourite labels at reduced cost while visiting the Pas de Calais region. The society has just celebrated 10 years of having a shop across the Channel.
Whatever your reason for calling in on Montreuil, it is worthy of a visit. To walk through these ancient French streets 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, among others.
Ponthieu was the man who in the ninth century created the first rampart walls that guard the town. 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 the 17th century, who did his bit of wall strengthening to keep the community safe from would-be invaders. The ramparts 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 a little place called 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 historically comes Victor Hugo, who is said to have drawn on his experience of Montreuil in his work Les Misérables. As with the Henry story, the tale doesn’t bear too much scrutiny though. Hugo was in Montreuil for only a few hours in September 1837, apparently on his way to visit his mistress.
But its inclusion in the novel was enough to confirm the town’s immortality, and every summer the good citizens present a spectacular outdoor ‘son et lumière’ version of the French Revolution epic which draws huge crowds, many of them Brits fresh from the Channel Tunnel about an hour away by road. The Wine Society organises regular trips to the performances as well as other events throughout the year.
Another catalyst to bring travellers from the UK here is its more recent place in history as the site for the General Headquarters 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 the Second World War, 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 original mould.
Its historic role in conflicts belies today’s sleepy atmosphere. 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 town, just round the corner from Channel, is pint-sized, with cobbled streets, ancient houses to admire and churches to explore, all 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 strolling distance from most of the attractions, including a selection of excellent restaurants. The hotel has a classic bar and a buffet breakfast is served every morning. The attractive Wine Society shop complete with sign is housed in the hotel’s courtyard. At current prices, 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 have minibars and satellite TV and some have four-poster beds. There are also three cottage suites with separate sitting rooms and whirlpool tubs. Even if you don’t stay here, 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. Other hotels making the top 10 list include the Cog, Auberge de Grenouillere, Les Hauts de Montreuil, Hotel le Vauban and Le Close Des Capucins.
A Saturday market adds to the flavour, while the selection of restaurants and their accompanying celebrity chefs 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, in the much-praised auberge, a treat of what is described as minimalist cuisine for £70. And if you have time, and as you would expect of France, there are several more recommended places to eat, among them Le Darnetal, Salon Rodiere, L’Atelier 26, Auberge du Vieux Logis and Les Remparts.
With the chance to stock up on wine, excellent food and centuries of history, this pretty town is a rewarding place for a weekend or longer away, with plenty to see, learn and enjoy and a convenient base from which to explore the rest of the region.
For more details, see tourisme-montreuillois.com
A Wine Society lifetime membership costs £40.
For information, see thewinesociety.com