Pained: Loon-Plage to Calais

When I woke up on my second morning of doing the Belgian coast walk, I felt like I was going to die: I was already shaking, and I hadn’t even gotten out of bed, yet.  Therefore it was somewhat of a pleasant surprise to wake up after my first 38km on the French coast feeling positively sprightly, and ready to hit the road.

Leaving my hotel in Loon-Plage, I started off along the highway.  Our overlord, i.e. Google, suggested I keep following that highway the whole way to Calais: that way it would be just 26km for the day.  Naturally, I had other ideas: after all, there was a natural reserve on the coast which was basically calling my name.

Spoilers: I should not have listened.

The day started off well, with my encountering the first of what is a series of ‘fortified villages’ on the Route des Villes Fortifiees.  Despite the somewhat morbid name, Gravelines was a gorgeous little town ringed with a solid wall, and I had a lovely time exploring the old fortress.  I had an even lovelier time when I left and realised that the Christmas markets meant there were stables of cute baby animals just next door: pheasants, goats (<3), llamas, and some huge shaggy donkeys.  Quite an odd array, really—and possibly best not suited to the freezing weather.

After leaving town, I started bending towards the coast, striking out for the aforementioned national park—Reserve Platier Oye.  Granted, there was a nice little jaunt through some hedges, with birds in a variety of colours flitting back and forth; however, I wouldn’t make the same choice again.  Once I was already on the coast, heading back to the main highway would have cost me a couple of extra hours, and the in-between-y road was pretty damn boring, to be honest.  Fields for days, and that’s about it.  Though I did get to befriend a horse, so that was nice.

At around the 25km mark, I started to really feel exhaustion hit me.  My legs weren’t happy, my feet weren’t happy, and I was basically half-sobbing…with 8km to go til Calais.  Had I just stuck to the main drag, I would have had a shorter day and not been in such a horrendous state: but, absolutely miraculously, I did actually make it to Calais in the end.  I had booked the hostel there, and while somewhat broken—and they put me up two flights of stairs (sob)—I did get a room to myself.

I’d been advised that restaurants close early in Calais for whatever reason, so decided to head straight out for some food.  That turned out not to be the case, but in either event, I was going wherever was closest: which turned out to be an ab-so-lute-ly amazing Punjabi restaurant.  I’ve never had veg biriani so good, and I’ve had a lot of biriani.  (Still can’t spell it, mind.).  If you do find yourself in Calais, it’s called Restaurant Le Punjab, and is by Calais beach.  They do also have cocktails, and my piña colada turned out to be pretty much straight alcohol.  Not that I was complaining, obviously.

By the time I’d returned to my room, showered and stretched, it was getting pretty late.  All there was left to do was video the spoiling bruises on my hips from my pack and the horrendous dark bruising on my right foot, and distribute the resulting cinema to my friends, so that they could feel just as disgusted and concerned as I did.  Because that’s what friends are for, after all.

Loon-Plage to Calais via the coast: 34.93km.

Ecstatic: Calais to Audinghen

I swear Calais’ Punjabi restaurant gave me superpowers, because I woke up on day three feeling like I wasn’t going to re-commence sobbing with every other step.  My mission for the day would be reaching Audinghen, as the only village under 40km away with accommodation less than 80 euro for the night.  (I was very much missing Spain’s ever-present albergues peregrinos.)

Starting in the pre-dawn light, I struck out parallel to the beachfront, passing through a village with French, European, and Canadian flags on the way.  Speaking of decorations, people’s festive decorations were still up, and one of my quiet joys on this trip was France’s apparent obsession with murdering Santa Claus as brutally as possible.  I saw him hanging from windows, chimneys, ladders, tumbling down from terraces, swinging from letter boxes.  Santa clearly does *not* have an OH&S policy (though hopefully he does have life insurance?).

As I continued, the beach fell away, and I started to climb towards what turned out to be Cape Blanc Nez, a German outpost during WW2.  It was back to bunkers everywhere, and the wind on top of the cape itself was immense.  I was fascinated to read that they were able to hit Kent, as in in-the-UK-Kent, with 1 tonne bombardments from there.  I mean, obviously it’s bad and all, but how amazing is that??

Descending the hill, I was really hoping it was time for coffee, because honestly, half of me doing these walks is just coffee forcing my legs forward.  I walked into a cute hotel just below the cape, L’Escale, where I was able to both buy water and meet all my caffeine-based needs.  Also, I spilled water all over their floor, and they were cool about it, sooo.

I waited in the hotel until the sudden rain passed, and then headed off once more.  An hour later, it was time for lunch—at ‘Chez Nicole’, a place which had just two meal options: mussels and frites, or jambon and frites.  Needless to say, I asked for just frites, though the bowls of mussels that were coming out were seriously impressive (scary?).  One bowl for two people was about as big as my rib cage.  I don’t think they get many vegetarians in that cafe.

My path took me somewhat inland after this, as I followed ‘littoral’ routes over hills and through several more villages.  I started to meet locals out walking their dogs, including one couple with an extremely pattable sepia-toned Australian shepherd.  Finally, at the top of one hill, I reached the town of Tardinghen, from which I could see the famed white cliffs of Dover.  It’s so ridiculous to be standing in one country, and be able to see over the waters to another!  Just imagine if New Zealand was that close to Australia.  I think they’d be embarrassed enough to tow themselves away in fairly short order!

At last I reached Audinghen, where I tried to check into and pay at my hotel.  Minor problem being that their card machine was broken, and I didn’t have enough cash.  “The nearest ATM is only 5km away, in the next village,” explained the lady.

Hard nope.

I offered to do a bank transfer in front of them, but the lady didn’t know their bank details, as she was looking after the hotel for her friend.  She then suggested I make the same offer at the restaurant over the way, where happily there was not only a woman who spoke English, but who was effusive in her efforts to help me.  With her assistance, the hotel agreed to let me pay the following morning, when their card machine would apparently be working.

My heroic lady suggested I follow the road east out of town to Cape Gris Nez, which I was very much hoping to do.  Why have one ‘cape nose’ in a day, when you can have two?  So despite starting to feel a bit terrible, I struck out for the lighthouse on the point, which was only a couple of kilometres away.  As I headed towards it, the light was heading into golden hour, and the rain-strewn hills and fields made for stunning company.

At last, as the sun was approaching the horizon, I reached the Cape Gris Nez lighthouse and reserve.  It was, hands-down, the most amazing sunset of my life.  I went full ‘double rainbow guy’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQSNhk5ICTI) and started crying at this sunset.  Possibly a combination of pain and endorphins helped me out, there.  Also, it bears saying again, it was utterly gorgeous.

It was time to troop back to Audinghen for some food at the helpful restaurant, before returning to the hotel.  While waiting for my food, I started reading this book about a woman in 1920s Alaska whose marriage was failing, who had lost a baby and was now trying to kill herself.  Probably a little much after an emotional sunset, tbh, not to mention the two glasses of wine.  Apparently trying not to cry very publicly in restaurants is now a thing that I do.

As it turned out, I was the only one staying in this most budgety of hotels, which was disconcerting.  There weren’t even any staff—just me, some shutters, and the looming possibility of ritualistic death.  I may have checked under the bed for bodies while doing my evening stretches…just maybe.  (Luckily, I did make it through the night, as the next day would be the final day of my trip—for now.)

Calais to Audinghen, via Capes Gris and Blanc Nez: 34.59km.

Hysterical: Audinghen to Boulogne-sur-Mer

After three days and nearly 110km, day four would finally be a shorter day.  My destination was Boulogne-sur-Mer, which seemed to be the last place to get an ‘easy’ connection back to Brussels via Lille.  I did briefly consider just continuing to walk, ad infinitum, but my body was honestly not up to it.  Also, you know, things to do (and a PhD supervisor who may or may not read my blog ;)).

Day four barely dawned at all: the sea was ferocious, and the sky was so filled with grey salty haze that the sun barely made an appearance.  It was windy, evocative, ethereal.  I felt like a character out of Tolkien or something, stumbling amidst the barrows.  Except that my ‘barrows’ were clifftops.

From my ‘murder hotel’ in Audinghen, I firstly headed to what was marked as the ‘sea wall museum’ on Google Maps.  I was hoping this would be some kind of pagan-esque tribute to the sea—one can only hope—but it turned out to be another war museum, in memory of the ‘sea wall’.  Nevertheless, had I not detoured down that road, I wouldn’t have seen a sign pointing to the ‘route nordique’.  “Pues, soy Nordica,” I said to myself, “so this is clearly the route for me.”

The path took me to the seaside and a religious statue of some kind—I clearly did not care enough to take a good look—before working its way up to the clifftops.  Thence followed a dramatic period of mud, blustery winds, and a violent sea.

A few kilometres later, I decended back to sea level, then meandering through various gorgeous traditional fishing villages. These had historically used a special type of boat—a ‘flotard’—when heading out to sea, and there were still examples of flotards in the towns—a chunky flat-transomed boat, designed to be wheeled backwards into the waves using a tractor.  Having seen how wild those waters can get, I’m honestly amazed.

A couple of villages later, I took the ever-inevitable coastal route, and found myself walking along an extremely rugged beach.  With the sea-spray in the air, it appeared borderline apocalyptic.

While days one and three of my walk were amazing, day four was a bit more akin to day two: an exhausted grind. Though I was walking a much shorter distance, it took me a long, long, long time to do it, and for the remaining time until I reached Boulogne-sur-Mer, I was mainly focused on convincing one foot to move in front of the other.  (More regular training might be helpful…?!)

At last I reached the top of a hill, expecting to see Boulogne-sur-Mer laid out in front of me: and I did.  But what I wasn’t emotionally nor physically ready for was the fact I was going to have to first conquer another hill.  I may have wailed.  Loudly.  “You want me to go up a fucking hill???  Howwwwwww”.  Yes, I was in a state: I had only walked ~23km that day, but it had taken nearly seven hours to cover, instead of a more normal 4.5.

A significant amount of old-lady shuffling later, I made it into the town and to the closest train station, but it was another two hours until the next connection to Lille.  So I looked at my phone, considered the fact there was no coffee in my immediate area, and realised I was just going to have to fill the time by exploring the town.

As it turned out, Boulogne-sur-Mer was super interesting.  It, like Gravelines, is one of the ‘fortified villages’, and has a history going back to Rome.  There’s a wall surrounding the old town, a huge cathedral, gorgeous medieval squares, and a proper castle.  By which I mean, the castle had a moat.  With water.  (And presumably sea monsters.)

Overall, it was an amazing trip, and well worth doing.  I feel like the next section I do on my ‘all around Europe’ coastal walk will likely be back in Spain (the Barcelona-Valencia strip is too tempting!), but France really delivered.  With a few alterations—e.g. avoiding the dangerous highway/overpass west of Dunkirk, and taking the inland route from Loon-Plage to Calais rather than opting for a coastal detour—I think it would make a fantastic extension to existing established through-hiking trails.  Doing it with other people to cut down on accommodation costs, and perhaps avoiding the middle of winter, might also be good.  I can imagine that those with an interest in occupation of the French coast/WW2 would find it especially rewarding.

Audinghen to Boulogne-sur-Mer (with bonus exploration!): 27.29km

Total from De Panne in Belgium to Boulogne-sur-Mer in France via coastal and littoral trails: 134.9km.