Calais and Dunkirk

Sunday 19th October 2008, Gravelines, France
This morning the rain glowered down from billowing grey skies threatening to soak us if we dared to venture out on our bikes. We called its bluff and survived with no more than an ineffectual drizzle before it scudded off across to England.

We are both Francophiles and are prepared to see all that is good with France. However, we cannot be blind to its faults and within minutes this morning we found ourselves moaning about the national problem of dog fouling. We have been pretty well unaware of dogs over the past few months but here everybody seems to own one – or three! Some are tiny, yappy things that if it were not so universally flat here it would be great to drop over a cliff, others are so huge they leave mega-bore deposits all over the pavements. What is it in the French psyche that simply accepts such an anti-social action as normal? Nobody seems to care much, owners simply waiting until their pet has finished before walking on. When we started these travels three years ago a French friend was angry that an English newspaper claimed the French were the dirtiest nation in Europe. At the time we were indignant too, but after visiting every country in the EU except Rumania and Bulgaria, we are reluctantly forced to agree. There is a certain element in France that is prepared to live amidst filth and to hell with their compatriots.

This is not a very attractive part of France. It is the first time we have been here and to be quite frank, we have been really stretched to fill our day. We thought the town would have a couple of interesting forts, judging by the map. We did discover the very substantial remains of a Vauban citadel and some pleasant gardens, but the town centre was completely silent and deserted and certainly Les Grand et Petit Forts Phillippe did not live up to their names. We had assumed they would contain Napoleonic defences against the English.

Vauban ramparts, Gravelines

Inside the Vauban fortified walls we discovered one major curiosity - a massive stone cistern designed to capture the rainwater falling on the church roof and other buildings. The water was channelled via an aqueduct into various storage reservoirs to provide Gravelines with a secure supply in times of siege and drought. Constructed in 1724, its capacity was a massive 1,420,000 litres.

Cistern and aqueduct from church, Gravelines

18th century taps of the cistern, Gravelines

Having cycled all around the town, its ports and beaches we returned to Modestine for lunch and wondered how to drag out the rest of the day. It wasn't worth packing up Modestine to drive anywhere. We'd need to return here tonight as we know of no other campsites around. We took another bike ride by the coast and through some woodland but it was all rather boring.

Quaint old EDF nuclear power station beside the campsite, Gravelines

Ideally we'd like to cross to England straight away but our onward plans mean we cannot arrive before Wednesday as we will have nowhere to sleep. The campsite here does not have wifi but does have an expensive internet with a French keyboard where we checked out ferries from Calais and Dunkirk. There is nothing suitable from Dunkirk so tomorrow we plan to drive to the terminal at Calais to book a crossing. We may be trapped on the Dunkirk beaches but the circumstances don't compare with that of the British soldiers back in May 1940 when 340,000 of them were stranded here, caught between the German army and the sea. Then an emergency evacuation was launched by brave fishermen along the South Coast of England in a largely successful attempt to get them home.

We will fight boredom on the beaches, Gravelines

Monday 20th October 2008, Gravelines, France
We now have a crossing booked to Dover on Wednesday. We drove to the port at Calais this morning, and really we could probably have crossed on any of the shuttle boats making their way steadily across the Dover Straits – or as it is called here, Le Pas de Calais. The advantage of turning up at the port was that they took one look at Modestine and declared she was a high sided car rather than a motorhome. The cost of 52 euros for the three of us was therefore considerably less than had we booked on line as a camping car.

Back in 1347 Calais was captured, after a long siege, by the English king, Edward III. When the city eventually fell, after holding out for a year, six of the city burghers offered their lives to their English captors in an attempt to save the lives of the rest of the citizens. They were eventually spared but their heroism is recognised in a famed bronze statue by Rodin in the public gardens in front of the 19th century Renaissance-style Town Hall.

Town Hall, Calais

Burghers of Calais, by Rodin, Calais

The inhabitants were evicted and the city became a prized English possession during the 15th century, providing an important toehold on the continent. In 1558 it was recaptured by the French. The English monarch, Mary Tudor, was so affected by the loss of the city that she declared that Calais would forever be written upon her heart.

Neither of us had ever been to Calais before and we would never share Mary Tudor 's opinion. We didn't find it an appealing city in the 21st century. This area has long been known as the Cockpit of Europe. It is here that so many of the major battles have taken place, right back from the times of Edward III up until the two World Wars of the 20th century. Inevitably the city has been scarred and damaged, so that today there is almost nothing of its past to be seen. It is a characterless town of uninspiring flats, wide empty spaces and ugly façades of shops and a few cafés, with cars lining both sides of most streets.

In a shop window we saw a photo of Calais in 1945. It was completely flattened. Unlike elsewhere in Europe though, either because there was too little of merit surviving, or because the will to restore was lacking, the debris was simply cleared away and a completely different city built to replace it.

Calais in 1945

No sooner had we parked and set off across the huge wasteland of a car park, than we encountered the French curse of dogs' mess yet again. It beggars belief just how much lies scattered across pavements which are streaked and discoloured with countless litres of canine urine. A lady stood patiently waiting while her giant sized poodle selected one of the parked cars, raised its leg and emptied itself all over the front wheel and bodywork. She then calmly walked on past us, completely unperturbed by our barely suppressed rage. The only way this attitude might change is if a French minister's child were to be infected with toxocara canis. Legislation would then definitely be passed and enforced overnight. That's how politics so often works here.

Near the post office we discovered a monument celebrating the wedding of Charles de Gaulle and his wife who were married in the nearby church in Calais in 1921. That's about as good as it gets. We did though, also discover one of the only really old buildings in the city which had somehow survived everything that had been thrown at it, from sieges to earthquakes and allied bombing, since it formed part of a defence system for the town back in 1224.

Monument celebrating the wedding of Charles and Yvonne De Gaulle, Calais

Watch tower, Calais

We crossed the canal which encircles the old town and the railway track and eventually discovered the main shopping area with one or two buildings of interest, including the wonderfully ornate theatre building and another 19th century building where the famed Calais lace was produced.

Theatre, Calais

Returning, literally across the railway line, we noticed many young black immigrants gathered in small groups standing around in the chill wind with nothing to do. These are the migrants trying to reach Britain. They get this far and are stuck, so they hang around, hoping, that against the odds they will discover a way to cross those 21 miles of water and reach England. Through the streets more and more young men appeared, converging on the railway line which they then walked along until they reached a large temporary building. As it was lunch time we imagine they are receiving emergency meals but where they go at night and how they are living is a sad mystery. They may no longer be in the news, but they are still quite openly here, in their hundreds, waiting and hoping.

Economic migrants gathering for food, Calais

Unless anyone is interested in hearing about us queuing in the post office, we'd exhausted all the excitement Calais could offer, so we rejoined Modestine and set off to discover where Louis Blériot took off when he completed the first powered flight across the English Channel in 1909. We eventually located his monument, set back from the beach, erected by the French Aviation Club. It is astonishing to realise how fast aviation developed and the major role aircraft played during the 1914-18 war, just a few years later. From Blériot to Biggles in five years!

On the beach itself we climbed up over the dunes where the solid remains of German bunkers are gradually being submerged beneath the sand or are tumbling down into the sea. From here we strained our eyes towards England, but a sea mist was sweeping in and we could see no more than several P&O ferries crossing in both directions. We must have been standing almost on top of the Channel Tunnel as we looked out across the beautiful green sea where waves were already being whipped up by an impending gale.

Monument to the aviator Louis Blériot, Calais

Bunkers subsiding in the sand, Calais

Channel Tunnel seen from above, Calais

Almost continuously since we left Norway the landscape has been flat and around Calais it cannot get any flatter. It doesn't even have Dutch drempels here! Along the coast are the Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Gris Nez and some steep hills for Modestine to climb. By now the wind was really fierce and a fine mizzle was soaking the countryside. At Cap Blanc Nez we parked and walked to the monument, leaning hard into the wind. It was wonderful to be back in a wet, windy, hilly landscape, a sea gale howling across the cliff tops while down below, breakers rolling in, white and foaming as they broke against the cliff. Such a coastline is so familiar and quite different from the seascapes we have seen around the sandy coastlines of the Baltic and the North Sea.

Cap Blanc Nez is so bracing!

We continued to Cap Gris Nez, the closest point to England, but there was nothing to be seen on the horizon. In the past we have stood on the cliffs of Dover and clearly seen the headland where we were standing today.

Looking south from Cap Gris Nez

We returned to Modestine soaked through. Our camping book told of an open site near Boulogne so we continued around the coast. By the time we arrived it was teeming with rain and we were more than predisposed to staying there. However, it was three times dearer than we had been paying and more than half the ferry price back to England! The final straw was being told showers were not included. So we decided to return to the site we've been using. It only took thirty minutes to get back on the motorway and tomorrow we will visit Dunkirk instead of Boulogne.

Tuesday 21st October 2008, Gravelines, France
After braving the tepid showers in the unheated sanitary block we drove into Dunkirk parking Modestine in a side street on the edge of the town.

Like Calais, it has suffered much during both World Wars and there is little historical architecture to attract tourists. It was the first French city to be bombarded and the last to be liberated. 90% of the city was destroyed.

The 15th century church of St Eloi, Town Hall, Belfry and the small chapel of Notre Dame des Dunes have all been rebuilt but that is really all the city has to offer. Almost everything else consists of brick boxes in which people either live or work and the streets are as polluted to walk in as those of Calais. The tourist office suggested we take a stroll around the docks area. Fortunately yesterday's wind and rain had dropped but apart from a three-masted tall ship and a decommissioned light vessel there was little of interest to make the walk worth while.

Belfry, Dunkirk

Flamboyant gothic church, Dunkirk

Port, Dunkirk

Town Hall, Dunkirk

We were interested to discover more about the mass evacuation of the British and French troops hemmed in on the Dunkirk beaches by the advancing German army back in May 1940. We discovered the Mémorial du Souvenir in a series of casemates dating from the 1870s, just behind the beach where the action took place. Here though, we ended up getting really confused as the museum had just prepared an exhibition on Dunkirk's involvement in the First World War while we were seeking information about the evacuation from the beaches during the Second World War. The curator explained the special exhibition, which blocked access to the material we needed, had been mounted in commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Armistice ending the First World War on 11th November 1918. If we wanted to see material on the First World War we'd have to crawl behind the display panels to see the old photos and newspaper cuttings beyond.

Casemates housing the War Museum, Dunkirk

He explained that although the evacuation has always been of major importance to the English, the French have rather played it down, in part because they are uncomfortable about the role of their country in the war at this time. De Gaulle was in England leading the Free French, France was an occupied country controlled by the Vichy government which itself was under the control of Germany. At the time, Germany made propaganda from the British withdrawal, claiming we had been defeated and had abandoned our French allies to their fate. This view was also spread throughout France by the Vichy Government and many French believed it. They have therefore never made much of the phenomenal achievement of rescuing 340,000 soldiers from the beaches of France and getting them across to England. Of those rescued, 120, 000 were French and there were also several thousand Belgians. The reason there were more British soldiers rescued was not, as propaganda has implied, because Britain was only concerned in rescuing its own, but because there were far more British soldiers than French concentrated in Dunkirk.

Of course the battle itself was a defeat for the allies but the rescue operation, known as Operation Dynamo, which took place between 28th May and 4th June 1940, was a resounding success with six times as many soldiers rescued than had been hoped for. The German army had the Allies trapped and had they pushed their advance, rescue would have been impossible. However, for some reason Germany waited for a couple of days, never believing it possible to co-ordinate a rescue mission. Meanwhile, every possible seagoing craft along the south coast of England was requisitioned, as well as many from France, and both civilians and the Navy worked round the clock for six days, despite heavy bombardment by the Luftwaffe, so that, by the time Germany finally took Dunkirk, only a handful of French soldiers were still there to be taken prisoner.

We were very confused by the time we left the museum having been reading about major events in both world wars in parallel. We have already written last year about French involvement in the First World War at Verdun. Today we were concerned with Dunkirk during WW2. We walked to the beaches where we found a memorial. Otherwise there was a vast, empty expanse of clean, white sand. Deserted today, it was from here the rescue boats took off the soldiers in boats so heavily laden men were hanging onto the sides as they were carried through the water.

Monument commemorating Operation Dynamo, Dunkirk

Empty stage of the Theatre of War, Dunkirk

This has been our last day in mainland Europe. Tomorrow morning we take the ferry across to Dover ready to see Kate on Thursday before she flies off to Peru to begin her own adventures. So we ended the day with some retail therapy, buying wine and chocolate for friends we hope to see back in England over the coming few weeks.

It seems so very long ago that we were in the north of England and took the ferry from Newcastle to Norway to set off on our long voyage around the Baltic. It has been an astonishing journey. We have learned so much, seen so many different places in so many different countries and met so many interesting and friendly people on the way. We have passed through a dozen countries, used eight different currencies and struggled with the basics of ten different languages. Amongst the highlights are drinking coffee in the home of an elderly lady deep in an Estonian forest, taking Modestine for an unofficial ride over the border into Russia, jolting our way across Poland on its dreadful roads, seeing the dismal living conditions of Russians abandoned by their own country in Lithuania, being shown how to use army rifles in Finland, visiting the palace of Tsar Peter the Great in Tallinn, sleeping in the car park of one of Estonia's most exclusive hotels with the option of a deluxe chocolate massage and watching a flight of huge, gangly cranes land on a flat, empty field in Estonia. Above all though, it has opened our eyes once again to the turmoil and hardship in which so many people in Europe have had to live over the course of the last century.

Now though it's time to get back to reality for a while. We need to get home to sort out the garden for the winter, give Modestine an overhaul and attend to such mundane matters as laundry. We've not so much as seen a washing machine since we were in Lithuania. Our suitcase is empty and our laundry bag bursting at the seams!

But we will be back in France in a few weeks' time where we hope to spend the winter gathering material for Ian's continued research of Alain's study of the book trade in Lower Normandy prior to the French Revolution. Our blogs will be less frequent as we will not be travelling around, but they will probably continue and we'd be delighted if any of you care to stay with us.