Lyric or prose? A winter walk in northern France

What’s the difference between a randonnée and a balade? Among other definitions, my French dictionary translates the former as a hike, the latter as a walk. It’s sometimes hard to tell them apart. A recent day spent on the GR120, which runs for 170 kilometres along the northwest coast of France, demanded plenty of the leg muscles, but was delightful enough to be merit the less prosaic balade. (GR, for the uninitiated, stands for grand randonnée).

AmbleteuseThe prime aim of this brief break was to celebrate my wife’s birthday with some serious eating, and to do a big, pre-Christmas shop in a Boulogne hypermarket. But we’ve come to the view that hiking – or walking – in the Pas-de- Calais department is an important, if less obvious, bonus. Our section of the GR began in a car park just north of Wimereux, with its ornate Belle Epoque residences. We planned to wind up the trip with lunch there at the Hotel du Centre, whose restaurant, with its reassuring, unchanging unassuming, old style Frenchness, unfailingly produces sole meunière and skate in black butter of the highest quality. We walked a stretch of sandy track, between thickets of sea buckthorn, and descended steeply to the Baie de la Slack (Bay of the (River) Slack), with its backdrop of camel hump sand dunes. This was the Côte d’Opale, punctuated by two promontories – Cap Gris Nez and Cap Blanc Nez – though there was little sign of the milky blue its name implies. A chilly wind blustered. A grey sea flailed against the beach, sending gobbets of spume across the pebbles, where they coalesced and lay quivering like îles flottantes, covering our walking shoes. But the predicted rain failed to materialise. Beyond the far end of the shingle we could see the formidable rampart of Fort Mahon at the mouth of the Slack. The fort  was built by Vauban at the end of the 17th century, Baie de la SlackBreakers pounding its western wall flung up huge clouds of spray. I hadn’t checked the tide schedule*, which was careless because, should the sea did threaten to cut us off, there seemed to be no way of escaping through the dunes without defying the keep out signs, planted to protect their fragile ecology. As the dying waves slowly encroached my wife began to fret. “Don’t worry, the tide’s on the turn”, I assured her, hoping I sounded at least marginally more credible than this month’s election promises. Like Basil Fawlty mentioning the war, I think I got away with it. Sooner than expected the route swung inland along the reed beds of the Slack Estuary, planned jumping off point for an aborted invasion of England by Napoleon, before crossing a bridge and doubling back to Ambleteuse on a narrow road lined with impressive homes and holiday retreats of varying vintages and styles, from neo-Gothic with slate spires to contemporary, with huge, panoramic windows. Lovely places from which to watch the birdlife on the nearby marsh and the shifting light over the sea.

Walking on sand is hard workWe broke for lunch in a small restaurant at the top of the town – fish soup for me, saddle of lamb for her – and struck out again the way we had come. The stand out dinner on this two night break had been at L’îlot Vert, in Boulogne’s walled, hilltop old town. It rates a Michelin Bib Gourmand for good cooking at reasonable prices. After a €34 menu that included smoked haddock gnocchi, and slow cooked beef cheek with salsify, we made our way back down steep, narrow medieval streets, deserted enough on a wintry night that you might half expect footpads to spring from shadowy corners. The half hour slogging back to our hotel might, for some, have constituted at least a petit randonnëe, but like our day on the GR120 it, too, had something of the lyrical about it.

*You can check tides with local tourist offices. 

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Roger Bray

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