Thursday, 27 September 2018

Bats in the belfry

On the Thursday of our holiday week, our weather app said it would be cloudy but dry, and we would get to see the sun in the afternoon. I said, let's wear a dress!

The dress I chose is one you've seen before, quite recently actually. But you know what, I do wear my clothes more than once, especially when it's such a gorgeous one. I fell in love with its mustard colour and orange, green and white flower print the minute I clapped eyes on it at Think Twice two years ago. This time I accessorized it with my green, round-buckled vinyl belt and green beads (the ones on the front have a flower design on them) and, on its collar, I pinned a 1950s brooch, which looks as if it was made of tiny white flower petals.

I added a cardigan and my orange leather jacket for the day, not to forget my Clarks Cloudsteppers, which must be the most comfortable holiday shoes ever.

We were off to France - the border's just under six kilometers from our cottage - and our destination of choice was a town called Bergues, which is about nine kilometers from Dunkerque, in the Hauts de Flandre region.

Our satnav, which clearly loves getting us off the beaten track, soon made us turn off the main road, and onto twisting and turning single track roads, through fields heavy with crops and tiny timeless hamlets.

It was then that the first drops of rain started to fall, getting more and more intense, until we could barely make out the road signs. The rain stopped as abruptly as it has started, at which point it dawned on us that we must have passed the French border and were now in France!

After about half an hour we arrived in Bergues. The town came into the spotlight with the successful French comedy, "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis", which was filmed in Bergues and released in 2008.

For the French, the North isn’t somewhere they choose to go! Apart from that obvious culprit, the weather, there's the so-called Ch’ti patois (or slang), which is different from the standard French, giving rise to a general presumption that the region is unsophisticated.

As a result of the film, which became one of the best selling French films ever, all things "Ch'ti" became trendy almost overnight, giving tourism a boost, with the number of visitors flocking to the town rising dramatically.

There's a theory which claims that the "Ch'ti" nickname for the inhabitants of the north of France (a contraction of "Ch'timi") was invented by French soldiers in the trenches when confronted with their northern counterparts and their local dialect, where "c'est toi" and "c'est moi" sounded like "ch'ti" and "ch'mi". 

I'd printed out a 5,2 kilometre walk  called "Bergues: Nature and History", which started at the cattle market, Place de Marché aux Bestiaux, where there was ample space to park.

The charming but dilapidated wooden building with its peeling pale blue paint, is home to the market's cattle scales and from what we could see through its slightly grimy windows, it seems to be still in use.

Surrounded by ramparts and canals, the fortified town of Bergues is dominated by the silhouette of its belfry.

The tourist brochures claim that whether you arrive in Bergues by road or by waterway, you will always be welcomed by the sound of the chimes of its belfry.

There were no chimes for us, though: it was just our luck that scaffolding had been erected all the way up the 47 metre high tower, silencing the carillon with its 50 bells in the process.

Below is how the belfry, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005, looked like in better days. The postcard on the left shows the previous version of the belfry dating from the late 14th Century, before its destruction in the Second World War, after which it was rebuilt between 1958 and 1961.

The fine Flemish-style town-hall was initially built in 1665 in another location.  In 1871, it was moved and rebuilt, stone by stone, in its current spot. With its mullioned windows, pilasters and sculptured obelisks, it is reminiscent of buildings from the same era in Flemish towns on the other side of the border, in Belgium.

After all, this is a French town with a long-standing Flemish history!

Our walking leaflet directed us to the right of the town hall and then, where the road forked, to bear left into Rue des Annonciales. This had us stumped as the mentioned street clearly was the one to the right, not the left. Did we already get it wrong this early in the walk? Blaming it on a bad translation of the original French instructions, which was later confirmed, we took the mentioned street, where we could soon see a magnificent if time-worn marble arch in front of us.

Beyond the arch, which marks the entrance to the Jardin Public (public garden), and at the end of an uphill path, we could see two ruined towers standing guard.

These are all that remain of the once important abbey of Saint Winoc, which was torn down during the French Revolution.

Bergues was founded on this small hill, and took its name from the Flemish “groene berg”, meaning “green hill. The first mention of Bergues dates back to 857. In 885, Bergues was fortified by Baudouin the Bald, Count of Flanders, to protect it from the Vikings. The Count entrusted the local religious authorities with the relics of  Saint Winoc, a patron saint who converted the region to Christianity at the end of the 7th century.

In 1022, the Benedictine abbey of Saint Winoc was founded and remained very influential in the region until the French Revolution.  

Apart from the marble arch, only the Square and Peaked Towers, which acted as a landmark for navigation for ships entering the Dunkirk Channel, survived the destruction.

The Square Tower, built at the transept crossing of the old abbey, is the town's oldest construction, while the Peaked Tower was located at the entrance of the abbey.

Now, we were instructed us to leave the public garden and turn right on a residential street towards the town walls. Here, we had to pass underneath an arch, then down a set of steps, until a quiet, enclosed path, running between the ramparts and the moat, which circles them, was reached.

The ramparts, 5300 meters long, have surrounded almost the entire town for many centuries.

Originally fortified as early as the 9th century, the defenses of the town of Bergues were rebuilt in 1383, and modified by Vauban in the 17th century.

It is possible to walk either on top or alongside of them, the latter of which we were doing, until the walk's instructions directed us up a flight of steps, and back the way we had come but this time on top of the walls.

All this exercise had made us peckish, and as it was getting late, we were all set to make a detour back to the town centre in search for a place to eat.

By now, we were back in the public garden and crossing it as directed by our guide, when suddenly, like a mirage, a chalet housing a restaurant appeared as if out of nowhere.

Perusing the menu, and liking what we saw, we went inside, and ordered herby brochettes, which came accompanied by a fresh salad and Tabbouleh in cute little tagine pots.

It would be our best meal of the entire week, and the service couldn't have been friendlier either. This little gem, called l'Aubette, comes fully recommended should you ever find yourself in Bergues.

After lunch, our walk found us back alongside the ramparts, but at least we were now out of the woods, if only literally.

Soon we arrived at a busy road leading into town, which we had to cross. We then passed the Porte aux Boules, one of the town's five gates, beyond which we needed to rejoin the moat.

Here we met another example of things getting lost in translation, as we were instructed to walk along the left of the moat, whereas we had to keep the moat on our left!

We meandered along this particularly picturesque part of the moat, which is called the Canal du Roi, with the curtain walls of the ramparts reflected in the tranquil waters.

Where the moat ended, we walked along a stretch of tarmacked road, until we reached the Canal de Bergues. This is one of the oldest French canals, started in the 16th century, and connecting Bergues with the port of Dunkerque.

In order to return to the town centre, we re-crossed the busy road we'd crossed before. The resident gaggle of geese seemed to know their traffic code, as they patiently waited until the road was clear before crossing.

Back in town, we passed the municipal museum, housed in an elegant 17th century building, which used to be the Mont de Piété (Mount of Piety), an institutional pawnbroker ran as a charity.

The museum has a large collection of mostly Flemish paintings and drawings from the 16th to the 19th century, as well as a natural history collection. 

Finding ourselves once again at the Belfry, we concluded our visit to Bergues with a cup of coffee in one of the small cafés lining the main square, the Place de la République, before returning to our starting point and car.

One day, when the Belfry's restoration has been finished, we would like to return and climb its 193 steps for a bird's eye view of this lovely little town.


  1. What a fascinating walk that was. I felt as if I was with you all the way. Such a shame the belfry was open but there's always the next time.

    I loved your green dress and all the lovely accessories.

    Hope you have a great weekend.

    1. Thank you, Veronica. Now we'll have a reason to go back, won't we? xxx

  2. ohhh Bergues! We were in Bergues in March 2017, I wrote a blogpost :)
    It is such a charming little town.
    I enjoyed your wonderful pictures Ann. Thank you for reminder and a wonderful trip with you.
    You look amazing in this dress :)
    A very huge hug Tina

    1. Thank you Tina, and I'm glad I reminded you of your trip. I immediately popped over to your blog to find the post. Isn't it funny we photographed the same "patisserie" and that we both made pictures of those geese? xxx

  3. I love these walks you go on. I keep telling my husband that when we return to France we need to do this sort of thing. Seems like such a great way to spend a holiday.

    Have you seen La ch'tite famille? It came out in 2018. Hilarious! I had no idea of the other film. Now I need to watch it too. At first I was confused when I started watching the other movie since I thought, "What the heck? I can't understand their "French" at all!" And I thought I was out of practise. Ha ha!


    1. I had no idea there was a second film, Suzanne ;-) I first thought it was a sequel, but after reading the synopsis, I don't think it is. While I was waiting for Jos to fetch his cap from the car, I was accosted by an older Ch'ti lady, who told me I looked "jolie" but that's about the only thing I understood ... xxx

  4. I can't help think those capped towers look like giant gnomes, which of course makes me smile. Am marking the films down for the winter when we stay in and watch more screen. Danny is *almost* fluent now, but I will still need subtitles ;)

    1. Well done for Danny being almost fluent in French. I'm not fluent at all, or rather, I'm out of practice, so I'd definitely need subtitles! xxx

  5. what a lovely excursion with lots of interesting architectural details and landscapes!. I watched that film which made me laugh a lot, even if I know that many jokes were lost in translation (that is what Mr.A. told me, as he can understand french way better than I do, because my french vocabulary is all about food or récipes!). This film success proves that 'local humour' can be enjoyed all over the world!
    And you look particularly comfy and cool in your beautiful dress (so fabulous colors!) and cute shoes!
    So lovely post!

    1. Thank you, Monica! I love it that you watched the film, as not many people outside of France seem to know it! xxx

  6. Another wonderful post, Ann! I really enjoy looking at your beautiful photos and reading about your interesting travels. You look fabulous in this dress, Ann! It's such a pretty print and the accessories are wonderful. Love the shoes! Even better that they are comfy as well as cute! Hope you have a great weekend, Ann! XXX

    1. Thank you Sasha, I love that dress very much, and I was happy to find its blue version last Spring! xxx

  7. Thanks for taking me out with you and |Jos, I really enjoyed my trip! Visiting Bergues must be like visiting certain regions of the Uk with our hard to understand accents.
    I loved how chocolate box pretty the building are and how wonderfully tranquil the castle ground look.
    You and I seem to have the same luck whjen it comes to visiting monuments, we always pick they days they;'re closed or covered for renovation.
    Loving that mustard dress especially with the red accessories. You're a vision of autumnal loveliness! xxx

    1. I was accosted by an older lady while in Bergues, who I guess spoke Ch'ti. I only understood the odd word. But I guess you're right, I've had the same happen to me in the UK, and my English is way better than my French! xxx

  8. Oh my. You do visit the most scenic places. Love to see all your travel photos. Such a charming town. And your dress is adorable. Love the color combinations.


  9. I loved your trip, the photos were so good and the background history was fascinating.
    Your dress is fantastic, that beautiful collar gives it a 40's look and you look great in it. xxx

  10. you do the best sight seeing tours!
    love you in mustard <3
    hugest hug! xxxxxx

    1. Thank you Beate, I do love a bit of mustard ;-) xxx

  11. It's amazing how everything is so tightly interwoven in our world - the cultures, the traditions and the languages... It tickles me that you can travel from one country to another and back just in one day! (Being from the largest country in the world and living in another huge country, you know what I mean!) How many languages do you know, Ann? Is it a hobby or your profession if I may ask? Lovely stories, very educational, lots to learn (and I need a dictionary for some words!). And your pictures and portraits of you and Jos are always very soulful and touching.

    Love your outfit, full of life and fire! <3

    1. Belgium is such a small country, if you drive two hours in either direction, you're in another country! As for the languages I know: I'm fluent in only two, Flemish of course as it's my mother tongue, and English, my adoptive language. I speak French, but I'm out of practice, and I speak (a little bit) and certainly understand German. I can read Beate's and Tina's posts without the aid of a translator ;-) xxx

  12. Such a quaint spot, really lovely! I've never ever been to France, which is silly as it's so close! You always inspire me to travel, with your lovely accounts of your trips. x

    1. We do not even have to cross the Channel, but still do not go to France very often. But if you're staying only a few kilometers from the border, it would be a shame not to hop over! xxx

  13. I wish that I lived only 6 kilometres from the French border! My French might be better if I did! I loved reading your account of Bergues, somewhere I've never heard of and I must check out Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis. Xx

    1. My French would be better too if I visited France more often. We only "hop over" when we're staying in the area. Oh, do check out the film, Fiona, it's hilarious! xxx