I thought I’d share the memories of a trip I took some time ago and hopefully it may inspire some of you to take on a similar itinerary. I set off with some friends for a week away in the car to try and pack in as many sights and sounds as we could without spending most of the time in the car. It worked out pretty well all in all.
Day 1 Dover – St Omer
Having dodged the baulk of the traffic en route to Dover, we spent an hour aboard the ferry before the joy of seeing Calais and its roads free from cauliflowers or cabbages courtesy of the permanently disenchanted farming community.
St Omer lay just a few minutes away, along with our first alfresco refreshment of the trip. St Omer is an ideal pit stop, especially if you’ve already had a long drive to the Kent coast. It has plenty of hotels, a decent town square, some pretty landscaped gardens to stroll around and plenty of places to eat.
We arrived mid-afternoon and after checking in to our hotel we enjoyed the gardens then settled in for a well-earned drink in the square, followed by a typical dinner of the region; savoury pancakes stuffed with ham and cheese, some simply cooked fish in beurre blanc and chocolate mousse. All in all, a solid start.
Day 2 St Omer - Arras
Our next leg of the journey was short, just a few miles south to the town of Arras. Similar in size to St Omer, Arras has the same feel to it and has plenty of spots to stay and eat in. We first headed out to visit the First World War monument at Vimy Ridge and the nearby trench works that have been maintained as they were a hundred years ago.
The sight of the narrow trenches and the crater pocked landscape is very moving and thought provoking. The many, many names inscribed on the walls of the monument itself are every bit the same. For anyone who has an interest in history or who wants to pay some respects to a generation that endured so much, it’s well worth a visit.
Lunch in Arras followed and then a lazy afternoon and a just a couple of drinks around the town.
Day 3 Arras - Epernay
The next stage of our journey was around 90 minutes and took us to the heart of Champagne country. We visited Epernay and took in a quick guided tour round the Dom Perignon cellars. However to actually buy a few bottles of the legendary fizz we headed off the beaten track and into the hills to find some local smallholders.
It didn’t take long.
An elderly lady was stooped over her broom, sweeping her drive as we pulled over and in some rather ghastly schoolboy French I inquired about the possibility of a “petit degustation” nearby. The old lady looked up and beckoned us in.
Thirty minutes later we left with several bottles for a pittance. The champagne was crisp and as good as anything six times the price. We tasted madame’s local version in her garage and as we began to leave she tugged on my friend’s sleeve and handed us a bottle of pink. “Un cadeau” she said, smiling and thanked us for visiting. If you are going to buy while you are in the region I couldn’t recommend this approach enough.
It beats the prices in Epernay or Rheims and it brings you into contact with some lovely people. Don’t worry if you’re French isn’t great; as long as you make some sort of token effort you’ll be welcomed as a friend and treated to some delicious wines.
Three and a half days in and all going well….in part 2 I’ll take you from dinner in the world’s smallest hamlet, to glorious chateaux and the rolling landscape of Normandy before the boat takes us home once again.
Read Part 2 here
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