Thursday, 12 January 2012

Family Fun en Francais

Once a year if you are lucky (more than once a year if you are really lucky) you get to escape from it all.  With an over-packed suitcase crammed full of more clothing than one family could ever need, but packed 'just in case',  we leave behind the monotony and routine of home to embark on an adventure together.  No school, no work, no TV, no internet...nothing to distract us from being together 24/7 for a week or two.  It is time to relax, reconnect with each other, enjoy some quality time and make precious memories.  If you can combine sunshine, sand and a beautiful location into the mix, then so much the better!

In the Eurotunnel
Since having five children, our holiday locations have become less exotic, but that does not diminish the excitement and anticipation that precedes our annual escape.  Although my two eldest children have left home, we still try to incorporate them into our family holidays where possible.  In 2010, we rented a lovely French gite close to Le Touquet in Northern France.  The location was not too far from the Eurotunnel terminal, making it a convenient location for travelling, especially in a car cram packed with luggage and four of my children.  However, the landscape, architecture and ambience are so different, it feels a world away from our Shropshire home.  It simply feels so French!

Our Gite - chez nous for a week.
Ooh la la!
We arrived at the gite located in a rural village that prided itself in its green credentials.  The villagers recycled everything, collecting it weekly with a horse and cart.  We instantly fell in love with the place.  From the old dog who came sniffing around to check us out, to the boules pitch in the back garden, our little taste of French life was perfect.

Very often, Northern France is dismissed as a holiday destination, with tourists from England treating it as nothing more than a thoroughfare to sunnier climes.  This is such a mistake as there are many reasons to holiday there.  The weather is generally warmer than in the UK. Prices are very reasonable which is a consideration during times of recession.  The countryside and beaches off the beaten track are beautiful, unspoilt and never crowded.  The food is great and with access to the hypermarches you can get some fantastic bargains and enjoy a week of fine dining very cheaply.  The air is clean and the rural atmosphere is so relaxing that you really do have the feeling of getting away from it all.

Le Touquet is quintessentially an elegant, chic resort and was considered the beach side playground of wealthy Parisians.  It is very lovely with exquisite 20s and 30s architecture housing boutiques and hotels.  The beach is very clean, sandy and perfect for kite flying, collecting shells and simply breathing in the fresh sea.

Gorgeous Untouched Beaches
 For us however, it is the wild sand dunes and forest on the edge of the beach that captures our imagination.  You can lose yourself in the trees growing out of the sand, it is quite magical.  We have made it our playground, collecting pine cones, posing for photos and marvelling at the way the light filters through the foliage.  Best of all is the tranquillity, nobody except for the occasional French lady walking a Poodle disturbs your peace and quiet.

My Boys in The Forest
Boulogne is actually a beautiful place and so much more than a cross channel port town.  At its heart is a historic 13th century walled town complete with narrow, cobbled alleyways, walled pathways and the Basilica Notre Dame.  You are transported back to another time.

There are quaint little cafes, shops and bars within the old town walls.  We bought ourselves berets in a typically touristy move!  We bought baguettes from a little boulangerie and ate them on a bench overlooking the cathedral.  We lit candles in the church remembering our loved ones.  The cathedral is very beautiful and well maintained, with a tranquil atmosphere.  The perfect place to reflect.

Saying a prayer for Great Grandma xxx

The Nausicaa National Centre of the Sea is on the sea front.  It is an extremely impressive aquarium housing some 35,000 creatures in an array of amazing tanks and displays.  We spent a lovely afternoon looking at some remarkable animals, learning about the oceans and handling some marine creatures.  I loved this grumpy trio of fishes!
Grumpy Fish
We were allowed to stroke some rays in a big tank which was amazing. They came over to be petted and slithered against our hands.  They genuinely seemed to like it!

We also visited the local town of St Omer which is famed for its beer.  The alcohol free Panache is a big hit with the older kids, giving them a taste of French culture!   The town includes the old ramparts and is another historical gem.

Etaples is home to an inspiring and moving military cemetery.   Over 10,000 graves dating back from May 1915 mark the fallen soldiers from World Wars 1 and 2.  Although this may not be everyone's idea of a  place to visit, we found it really humbling.  I think it is important that the children grow up to understand the sacrifices made in the name of freedom.  We paid our respects to the fallen and felt the solemnity of this beautiful, but incredibly sad memorial.

Paying Respects to the Fallen.
Northern France and the Pas de Calais are hugely underestimated but make an affordable, easy to reach holiday destination.  With a larger family, a gite is a perfect solution for accommodation and provides a real ambience of French life.  Food is great in France.  Local boulangeries and patisseries are full of exquisite baked goods.  The wine and the beer is second to none.   Hypermarches sell everything you can dream of for self catering accommodation, and the shops are such fun with roller skating check out staff and seafood tanks to rival Nausicaa!  

Patisserie Goodies.
I love that there is so much on England's doorstep, that provides a really unique and enjoyable holiday for my family.  As our youngest gets older, we will enjoy exploring further afield, but we'll always have a soft spot for our Northern French family holidays.

 This post has been written for the Tots100/Al Fresco Holidays competition.  Check out the Al Fresco website ( for more information on their 54 fabulous European parc holiday destinations.  I might  consider one for my next family holiday...they really do look great!


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