From automated check-in to formality-free disembarkation the Eurotunnel crossing was quick, easy and comfortable. On the other side, a short motorway hop followed by a quick look at a Route Nationale took us to our base at St-Omer – attractive old town although I didn't like the cobblestones much. A little GPS assistance located the hotel which welcomed us to its garage, charging us only for one parking space for all five bikes. The rooms were fine, and so was the restaurant, from whose menu du terroir at €14 I chose potage aux poireaux and gratin d'endives followed by chocolate mousse.
The following morning we set off in light rain for a look around Flanders. The first stop wasn't too far to travel: the St-Omer aerodrome where the British Air Services Memorial commemorates the British flyers who'd been stationed there in WW1. (The RAF's 16 Squadron was formed here, and its Jaguars have a cartoon figure of The Saint on their tails for this reason, but they're going out of service soon.)
Next stop was La Coupole, a gigantic bunker built by forced labour, intended to manufacture and launch the V2 rocket bomb, Hitler's secret weapon to destroy London from space. Despite pounding from Barnes Wallis's 6-ton Tallboy bombs, the dome-shaped roof remains approximately intact. Under it today, as well as displays of the V2 and other secret weapons of WW2, is a museum of the Nazi occupation of the Pas-de-Calais. Hitler expected this to be the site of the Allied invasion in 1944 and its people suffered privation and humiliation perhaps even worse than those in Normandy.
From here we rode through the Flanders countryside past hipped-roofed farmhouses and mansard-roofed village residences, via the only sizeable town, Arques. We didn't stop there as we didn't need any more Asterix- or Tintin-themed glassware. huskyteer had chosen excellent routes, avoiding all main roads and showing us plenty of the country. The place-names clearly showed the Flemish influence. As we approached the town of Kassel the route began to ascend, and we stopped at the highest point in Flanders, 167 metres. Here a monument commemorates the times the strategic town was captured, sacked, and rebuilt. Notable also were an equestrian statue of Marshal Foch, and an estaminet offering typically Flemish fare for our lunch – andouillette with mustard sauce – and excellent Belgian beer.
More Flanders fields as we wended our way to the day's next attraction, a village distillery where gin has been made from malt, oats and rye for nearly 200 years. For only €5 a head, including dégustation, Madame the owner showed us the entire process from shovelling the grain, to triple-distillation in copper stills, at France's only remaining craft-based distillery. Under attack not only from the decline in digestif drinking and the globalisation of brewing (there are no longer any maltings in France), it's also no longer allowed to sell the fermentation residue as pig food – today's choosy porkers require a full analysis and Certificate of Conformity for their menu.
Returned to St-Omer via a scenic route along the river Aa, in plenty of time to relax for an hour before stepping out to dinner at one of many restaurants around the elegant town square. Never seen such large portions – when I ordered a starter of Camembert rôti I wasn't expecting a whole one. Didn't manage to finish my Carbonnade Flamande either, but the flavour was delicious.
Sunday morning saw an even more leisurely start, but quite a lot of rain. We set off for Boulogne via the minor routes, pottering through villages, up hill and down dale, hardly seeing another vehicle. In need of some coffee, we stopped in the small village of Quesques and found its café open, though empty, and most hospitable. The TV in the family kitchen, through which we passed en route to the external toilette, was showing a church service, while the actual church across the road was deserted. When we left, the family turned out to wave us on our way.
Boulogne-sur-Mer seemed like the big city after our countryside meanderings. Down by the water are plenty of restaurants with easy parking outside. I was tempted by a bucket of moules, but with an afternoon's riding ahead, settled for sausages and chips. We set off on the final leg of 20 miles to the Eurotunnel terminal, taking the twisty coastal minor road which was extremely enjoyable with its bends, inclines, views, and lack of other traffic. Stopped for a few minutes at Cap Gris-Nez, the closest point to England, just about visible through 28km of murk, and admired the large radar installation that helps regulate the traffic through the world's busiest waterway.
Soon afterwards, we were rushing under that waterway again, and not much later, encountering heavy traffic on the M20, M26, M25, M3, but not the M27 which was mysteriously closed. It would be nice to think that road pricing, which France has always had, would bring French-style traffic levels and surface quality to UK roads. In the meantime, a big well done to huskyteer for the opportunity to use a properly managed road network for a weekend, as well as agreeable rides, interesting visits, and gourmet meals.