Montreuil sur Mer is a very handsome French town that has become a favourite resting place for so many people. That is especially the case for English visitors. It lies firmly on the Cote d’Opale close to Le Touquet. It is no longer ‘on sea’ anymore due to the silting up of the marshland to the west of the town. It is surrounded, however, by ancient fortifications that provide a haven for the most splendid examples of Gallic culture that could be found almost anywhere else in France. I use it frequently as my first stopping point each time I leave the ferry in Calais. I have been doing that for years and I love spending time in the town.
I was in Montreuil in the summer of 2016. It was the most glorious summer day and it was 14 July. That was the major French public holiday of Bastille Day and the local administrators never fail to mark that event. They stage an annual spectacular antiques market that spreads across the whole upper town centre. The local people look forward to it so much and it is a great day in their year.
The Bastille was the prison in Paris that was liberated during the French revolution. French people celebrate that occasion poignantly across the whole country but Montreuil always does it in style, without fail, each year.
All of the streets of the higher area of the town on this day are closed to traffic. This is because everywhere is awash, literally every square inch, with the most extraordinary selection of stalls selling just about everything. That day I had to park my car at the bottom of the hill and stagger back up the cobbled roads to join the throng. The streets were full of people clutching enticing items that they had bought from the traders.
Market stall holders were mainly French but sellers also came from Holland, Belgium, Germany and a few even as far away as Australia. The local family people also took part. Many had erected tables in their gardens to dispose of their no longer needed, but often classically French, household goods and furniture. Many were eating carefully prepared lunches in their gardens as they hopefully waited for business.
Visitors will find absolutely anything that they might desire. Furniture, pottery, art, household goods, medals, clothes and even mopeds are in abundance. I saw a person carrying two metal aircraft models of positively rare antique authenticity. I wished I had seen them first. Early purchased large items can be left with the stall holder until the roads open again and picked up later. Take them home in your car. The streets were flooded with happy families and children all strolling carefully and full of excitement looking for the perfect item. I saw the event as one of modest commercial gain, innocence and family togetherness as could be found almost anywhere in the world on that day.
If visitors have a taste for French life, they will look for items that have the wear and tear of French family living that has been acquired over decades of loving use. The more wear the better somehow and the price will often be just a few Euros. Many old battered objects can find a new home to get their love back all over again amongst a new family.
Montreuil sur Mer always is home to so many bars and restaurants. They are all open on 14 July and enjoy much good trade as they provide such a satisfying service to all in the town. The market and visitors are contained by the timeless security provided by the grand walls of fortification associated with the ramparts.
I enjoyed my afternoon strolling through the streets so much and vowed to make it a personal annual event. It was though, 14 July 2016. Later that evening, right at the other end of France on the Cote d’Azure, an event opposing the very nature of human happiness took place. A terrorist attack using a large, stolen construction truck mowed down 86 innocent people to their deaths and injured over 400 hundred other people along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. It was a sensational event in France that will never be forgotten.
The national sense of sadness that descended across the whole country contrasted so movingly with the genuine family happiness in Montreuil sur Mer that had existed earlier in the day. National mourning grasped the entire nation and rightly so. For me that evening, I reflected very much on the feelings of the town people of Montreuil as I thought of my day now ending under such different circumstances. I thought of all of the people of France, including some personal friends in Nice, who had suffered such pointless wickedness.
Visit the antiques market on Bastille Day next year in Montreuil if you want to. Love the experience but always remember the event of 14 July 2016. It will be part of the French echo for eternity.