(Bergues and Dunkirk)
Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis
Our main reason for visiting Bergues developed from watching the French movie ‘Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis’ (‘Welcome to the sticks’). It is the highest grossing French movie and gets 75% on Rotten Tomatoes. We first saw the film a long time ago, perhaps in 2009 soon after its release. It is a charming, funny movie – if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing a treat. Subtitled obviously, but it hardly interferes at all with warmth and humour of the story. It’s a ‘fish out of water’ comedy that follows a postman from the south of France who is sent to work in a small town in the north. There he will be alone, cold, wet and surrounded by the northern French savages who speak the almost unintelligible dialect – Ch’tis. We’ve always loved the movie.
We’d found out a couple of years ago that the town featured in the movie is Bergues, easily accessible by barge. So of course, it was immediately on our barge bucket list. Our original plan was to visit soon after the start of this season – but low water levels in the region prevented that. Later, it seemed we were not going to make it here at all, so we consoled ourselves by hosting Craig and Stef to a movie night (while holed up in Courchelettes Resort) where we all had a good laugh. With the serial changes in plans, we were here now – and ready for another showing of the movie. We did this a few days later with Alan and Sarah after they arrived.
Recently refreshed with the movie, we took a cycle and walking tour around the town to the buildings featured in the movie – a fascinating diversion in itself and all the better because Bergues is a simply delightful town.
A couple of days after we arrived we were delighted to see the gorgeous Rotterdam Diena with Alan, Sarah and Loubelou arrive. They cruised past, executed a professional and speedy 180º turn, without bow thrusters, and moored up to the pontoon ‘behind’ Catharina Elisabeth.
She had been a working barge in Rotterdam harbour and Sarah and Alan have gone to considerable lengths to preserve her heritage features including her working colours. In all, we spent five days together outside the walls, in and out of each other’s barge, sharing moules frites on Diena one evening and confit duck and a movie (guess which one!) on Catharina Elisabeth a day or so later.
Their company added greatly to the enjoyable time we had at Bergues.
Musée du Mont-de-Piété
We’re always up for a bit of art – and the gallery in Bergues came well-recommended. The Musée du Mont-de-Piété was originally a pawnshop built between 1629 and 1623. Since 1953 it has housed a museum of natural history and art. It contains a varied and interesting collection, particularly of Flemish paintings from the 16th to 18th century.
However, we both found the most spectacular aspect to be a special exhibition of the art of Jean Francois Fernand Lematte (1850 -1929). Not especially famous but an artist native to the region noted for his realistic and often ethereal treatment of women subjects in his paintings. We adored this interpretation of the four seasons:
Here’s a selection of some of his other paintings on display.
Around and about in Bergues
Over the days we were there we walked and cycled around much of the old town.
Up the hill, there were the remains of the Abbey of Saint-Winoc, mostly destroyed in 1789 during the French Revolution
only the ‘Tour Pointue’ (pointed tower) and the Tour Carrée (square tower) remain
– both enormous and a testament to how large the original abbey must have been (you can see it in the 3D map in the previous blog). In one of the museums /galleries we visited we read a little about the Abbey, and Saint Winoc’s main claim to fame, one of his many miracles.
The story goes that one afternoon, a child fell into the river and disappeared. The family begged the abbott to provide a carriage so they could reach into the river to rescue their child. Soon after, the child appeared on the roof of the carriage. Smiling, happy, unharmed. This would have been a wonderful end to the tale, if it were not for the fact that families then took to tossing their sick children into the river, hoping for a miraculous cure, following three such dunkings into the water. Eventually, the authorities had to put a stop to that as it was becoming commonplace and the number of drowned innocents was unacceptable.
Back in town, there was a curious tower that seemed to just be part of some dwelling
and of course, the Mairie (town hall) with the local géant sitting outside.
A little further on was one of the most poignant war memorials we had seen anywhere – a testament to both world wars, which, incidentally had devastated Bergues on both occasions.
Bergues was an important fortified town and, as pretty much every such fortress, had the hand of Vauban heavily involved in the design and construction of the fortifications (again, refer to the map in the previous blog for an appreciation of the star fort of Bergues). There is a plaque at the Gate of Cassel memorialising the great military architect and the building of the walls in the late 17th century.
Nearby is a sculpture with an agricultural bent – of a dairy cow celebrating the earliest herd-book (an aid to the efficient breeding of elite cattle) in France.
On the more mundane side of things, but quite fascinating, was that each evening there was a parade of a large flock of geese who moved from a spot behind Catharina and swam leisurely down to a nighttime haunt somewhere around the corner in front of us.
We never saw them return, probably too early for us, but, every evening, down they all came quacking, squawking and hissing at the occasional dog being walked.
We also had a very successful visit to the supermarket that yielded us five cans of duck. Seemed opportune to have an accounting of our stores – an even dozen cans of mostly duck confit along with few other duck delices (and remember, we had eaten a few cans already).
The other, much-anticipated event, was a meal at the ‘Le Breugel’ restaurant. This is one of the oldest buildings in Bergues, dating from 1597. It’s now a restaurant serving traditional Flemish food and is highly rated.
Our DBA mooring guide informed us that they offered roast suckling pig on certain days of the week. We checked with the restaurant and Thursdays and Fridays were the nominated days. So in Lisette’s best French, we booked for the Thursday, confirming that the pig would indeed be on the menu. The day finally came, and, drooling with anticipation, we arrived and were led to our trestle table. Madame, walking a little ahead of us, ever so casually, mentioned over her shoulder that, on this particular evening, there would be no pig on a spit – ‘pas de cochon’.
Had Ian heard, we probably would have turned around – that was the entire point of booking to eat here that night! Anyhow, we sat down and made the best of it. Frankly, in addition to the disappointment of the menu, the meal was not enjoyable (perhaps the wrong choice) and the service incredibly slow. Rather seemed like a tourist trap – but maybe we weren’t in the right frame of mind, others have raved about it.
“Dunkirk”, to us Australians, was high on our list of towns to visit and a train ride there was only a few minutes from Bergues. For the first time, we took our bikes on the train – they have carriages specially set up to cater for them although the obvious intent is to hang them from the roof of the carriage – not possible with our two heavy electric bikes.
After arriving, we set off first for the fairly new war museum dedicated to the evacuation of Dunkirk, housed in Bastion 32 which was the headquarters for ‘Operation Dynamo’.
The exhibition was comprehensive without being overwhelming and had a good mixture of artefacts and explanatory material. As you might expect, pretty much everything was available in English. There were a number of dioramas including one covering what is known as the 29th of May Disaster when German aerial attacks almost stopped the main part of the evacuation following sustained attacks on the north mole and almost rendering it unable to take further ships for embarkation of the troops.
We picked up a lot about the lead up to, conduct and aftermath of Operation Dynamo – which has proved a satisfying background as we have now watched a number of movies: ‘Dunkirk‘, ‘Darkest Hour‘ and perhaps the best of them, the charming ‘Their Finest‘ – a movie about creating a WWII semi-propaganda movie about the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Next, we headed towards the main cultural museum of Dunkirk, passing the paddle steamer Princess Elisabeth. This ferry was an active participant in the evacuation of Dunkirk and was refurbished and used in the recent movie. It is now moored permanently and being set up as a restaurant.
As we had punctuated the day with lunch, we only really had time to visit the main museum and not the other venues – three ships and a lighthouse. Still, the displays were impressive although mostly in French. There was a series of murals on the wall depicting the growth of Dunkirk as a port, a number of cultural exhibits, some amazing models of ships
and one of the wooden barges that used to carry cargo in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The next day, our last in Bergues, we spent relaxing and having a ride through town to avail ourselves of the very well stocked fromagarie near the belfry. The selection of cheeses was overwhelming – Lisette was going to buy a few as a treat for Ian, but decided he would have to come in with her and point at some. In the end, we retreated with some of our favourites which now includes the moderately smelly Maroilles cheese, a favourite of the region and featured in the movie. And our first Epoisse, which was everything we understood it to be. Very ‘on the nose’ but delicious.
The week we had spent in Bergues was by far the longest we have spent (voluntarily) in any one place while cruising. It was a nice change to the rather hurried cruising lifestyle we’ve been forced to adopt given our rather short length of stay each year (and the 1,000 km we always seem to map out before we leave home). The town itself had a rich and interesting history and, of course, now we had the recent experiences that linked us to the film. We’d also had great companions in Alan, Sarah and Loubelou, each hosting dinner on our barges, and eventually planned to travel from Bergues to Veurne together, which was a pleasant change from our usual cruises.
Our next stop would be our winter port, Veurne just across the border but, with some days to spare, we planned to top up with fuel and do some more maintenance in advance of bedding Catharina down before our eventual departure for home.