Thursday, 22 December 2016

Picardy is perfect in autumn

 A lot of Brits get the ferry over the Channel, drive off in Calais or Le Havre and then... Zoom! They're off down south. The only thing they know about that first bit of France they land on – it's a region called Picardy, by the way – is that, pre the Brexit vote, they could buy cheap booze there.

However, even with the exchange rate going pear shaped for those who get paid in pounds, there are plenty of good reasons to pull up right here.

For a start, there's the food. This is moules et frîtes country and when they say moules, they don't mean the 15 or 20 mostly empty shells you get if you order this dish in London, where it's ridiculously overpriced. They mean an actual bucketful of fresh molluscs at a very reasonable price, which usually includes a seaview for free.

Then there's the vast sky that's an ever-changing picture. We were lucky enough to stay in a seaside apartment with a terrace facing the sea operated by Madame Vacances and every time I looked out at la Manche I was reaching for my phone camera, because it was so amazing – and so different from the last time I looked.

We were based in Cayeux-sur-Mer, a working fishing village that's had a lot of money spent on it recently, so that it now has a very enticing boardwalk promenade and groynes installed to keep the pebbles on the beach from getting washed away. It's also conveniently close to one of Picardy's prettiest towns, St Valery-sur-Somme. Here you'll find a medieval Old Town up on the hill with connections to Joan of Arc (the British kept her in a cell here on the way to burning her at the stake in Rouen) and a very pleasant, canal-side newer town, mostly built in the 18th and 19th centuries, lower down. There's a Sunday-morning market (best buys were the local homemade jams), plenty of good restaurants and two activities worth getting involved in.

The first is the seal-watching boat trips – tickets are bought in the tourist office – and the second is the steam train that will take you via an hour's journey round the bay to Le Crotoy – and back again, of course. Top tip: get off in Le Crotoy, walk the 10 minutes to the harbour and have a prix fixe three-course lunch, then walk back to the station for the return ride.

There was one peculiar thing I noticed throughout our short break and that was the lined-up ducks. We've all heard the phrase 'getting your ducks in a row', but this was the first time I'd seen it. And I saw it more than once. The best suggestion I got was that they were hunters' decoys and that would be a soothing answer, because otherwise, how the heck – and why – would ducks want to line up in this way? Ah, well, one of life's little mysteries. 

We travelled to Picardy for our four-day break on the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre with Brittany Ferries, and treated ourselves to a cabin both ways. This is definitely the way to go. For a start, as soon as you board, you feel as if your French holiday has begun (though all the crew speak perfect English) and for a second, the cabin with en-suite facilities provides a place to sleep – of course – and a haven to retreat to, where you can take a shower, nibble on brought snacks, leave your stuff and generally be out of any limelight when you feel like it.

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