It should be noted that during our homebound journey northwards, we did actually stop overnight at a small campsite at Val-de-Vesle, near-enough midway between Dijon and Calais. It too was supposed to be flanked by a river which turned out to be a disappointingly fluid-free and over-brambled ditch. There was nearby, in its stead, a dirty-great industrial-sized canal as straight as a very dull accountant, along the side of which we cycled, with massive grain-stores as the only landmarks in this featureless agricultural prairie. We were quietly in search of (as – it has been whispered – we always are) a quiet, thirst-slaking hostelry, tavern, bar or pub. Since this was rural France, none of these options were forthcoming and we instead returned unfulfilled by any hint of hospitality (or indeed humanity) to the Knumptywagen. Here we allowed ourselves a peaceful night and set off northbound again, feeling holier-than-thou for having indulged in some semi-strenuous exercise. (On the bikes, thank you, and not during the peaceful night, OK?)
Yet again, with our new-found, emergent campsite confidence, we’d researched a site at Sangatte, just outside Calais – and it was to this we were headed for our final overnight stop on foreign soil. Beforehand, in amongst the fervent camp-site research, we’d also accidentally identified a potential wine-hypermarket in Calais which we felt duty-bound to visit, never having indulged in any form of ‘booze-cruise’ experience before.
The most striking feature of our chosen outlet – the imaginatively and memorably named Calais Wine Superstore – was the large Tasting Room into which we initially wandered, somewhat in awe at how such a facility could be so devoid of supervision nor any form of access control whatsoever. The owners, it appeared, were similarly from our Sceptred Isle (which might also explain the Northern Irish accent cashing us out on departure) and they had seen fit to install a large circular standing-height table on which was provided a wide range of opened wines, all available for help-yourself, free, DIY tasting. Which we began to do.
“Oh my word, you’re English” spoke an authoritarian, well-educated and vaguely-tobaccoed voice from the other side of the table. “Where are you from?” Slightly confounded by our response of “Croatia” we engaged in conversation with this benign gentlemen, who was accompanying his Gastro-Pub-In-Surrey-Owning-Son to buy “wines for the business. We do it about 10 times a year” he pronounces, proprietorially pouring himself yet another very large glass of red and waving the bottle hospitably in our direction. “My wife really enjoys this one. Look, it’s £4.99 a bottle – marvellous value!” he proffers, his now slightly dubious pouring technique evidencing just how much tasting he’d actually done. We back gracefully out into the main store in search of anything under £3.99 – just for a sense of one-upmanship.
Less than fifteen minutes up the road, Sangatte surprised us. With a dubious reputation gained from the installation of a refugee camp here in 1999, it was a pleasing, sleepy-looking and innocent little town with many similarities to the small, unassuming coastal towns on the opposite shore of La Manche. Our campsite was a mix of residential chalets and a wind-blown handful of European campers, presumably also ‘in transit’ and thankfully without refugee status. Yet.
The beach was also surprisingly inspiring of our awe. Wide, flat and tide-washed sand was backed by a benign sea upon which plied many ferries, glinting like beacons in the light of a still-bright lowering sun. Tall denuded forested groynes stood in silent patient rows right along the beach, in an eerie homage to the lines of troops who must have awaited anxious evacuation from similarly wide, sandy beaches a little further to the east of our current position – over 75 years previous.
On a lesser road through the town and indeed, almost on its outer edge, a little local (and possibly entertainingly named) restaurant – Le Blanc Nez – appeared to be open, through whose dingly-belled door we tentatively entered. “Bonsoir Monsieurdame, une table pour deux?” to which we mutely nodded, swallowing our previously rehearsed opening gambit in the face of impressive local linguistic capabilities. Comfortably full of smiling regulars, many of whom nodded an international greeting (weighted with pity for our Brexit-induced sense of awkwardness), we were efficiently seated and menus presented.
“Excuse-moi, erm, Madame, s’il vous plait? Quelle est le plat du jour?” enquires your favourite wordsmith, as a result of which we smiled and nodded innocently as our matronly, bustling waitress machine-gunned us with what was, no doubt, a mouth-watering description of the finest dish to have ever emerged from her table de cuisine. Not one sound, not one syllable, not one word was either recognisable or intelligible to us and while fellow diners smirked with Gallic discretion into their napkins at our amusing plight, we reverted to type and pointed at stuff we thought sounded edible from the menu.
Joking apart, the food was wonderful; very French, stylistically-presented but unpretentiously homely in both its flavours and portion size. Un coupe de champagne celebrated our last night ‘on the continent’ and then a huge black enamelled pot of steaming Moule Mariniere avec les frites for my companion while a decent slab of beautifully-cooked cod in a shellfish sauce graced my side of the table complete with mixed vegetables steamed to al dente perfection. A wonderfully pallid and therefore clearly home-made crème caramel was shared between us, while the lady on our neighbouring table grappled with an ‘ooh-la-la’ énorme plat du profiteroles which were, collectively, very definitely bigger than her head.
‘Very tres bonne’ say our subsequent journal notes and indeed it all very was. A short cycle ride back to the Knumptywagen for a nightcap followed by an undisturbed night on a campsite in Sangatte prior to our return to the UK – where we are doubtless soon to become European outcasts in our own right.