The Scottish Mail on Sunday
PEARSE LEHANE, 46, a seasoned traveller, sailed from Dover to Calais aboard P&O Ferries’ Pride of Kent, in a bid to discover the hidden cultural gems of Northern France. I’m standing in the doorway of the Musée Vivant in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire. It’s 1pm. A sleepy, unapologetic Frenchman is turning the lights on. You see, there’s no one else inside. Just me, the old man and a cat (possibly also a stray). He unlocks the door to the museum, waves his hand in a vague way – then closes the door behind me. I’m all alone. In a First World War museum. Wow.
I’m absolutely not supposed to be here. But that’s the beauty of being a 40-something Road Tripper.
I missed a left-hand turn to somewhere else, turned right – because, what the hey – and now I’m standing beside a genuine Vickers machine gun. I know it’s a Vickers, because that’s what the handwritten note says it is. This is an absolute gem of a place.
I also feel foolish. Ablain-Saint-Nazaire really should have been on my itinerary – it should have been the place I was trying to find. But that’s the joy of travelling in your own car, off the clock, off the beaten track, to the beat of your own drum. Whatever you were supposed to find, I guess you find it.
For me, travelling with P&O Ferries from Dover to Calais isn’t just about the 46 sailings per day; or the on-board shop where you can save up to 50 per cent on high-street prices; or the cheeky Starbucks; or the 90-minute crossing; or even the option of priority loading and disembarkation.
No. What I love is the freedom it affords me, to travel the way I want on the roads I find before me.
I arrive at Dover in good time, and, without even asking, am offered an earlier sailing (when does that ever happen at an airport?). My adventure starts the minute I set foot on board, and, a mere 25 minutes after check-in, I’m sitting on the aft deck with a tall caffè mocha. As the sun beats down on the white cliffs, I’m sorry I didn’t go for a frappuccino #highclassproblem.
We see the French coast within 20 minutes, which I take as my cue to head to the shopping precinct. Because my boot will be doing all the carrying, I go large – ensuring all I have to think about when I hit the motorway is where I want to go, what I want to do. This isn’t just starting the adventure early, it’s starting it in some style.
Wandering out of the Musée Vivant, I learn that Ablain-Saint-Nazaire is the largest French war cemetery anywhere in the world, and from March through to November, the volunteer ranks of the local ‘Guards of Honour’ stand in silent vigil for the fallen. Every day. This is truly a breathtaking place.
It’s just a short walk to the Anneau de la Mémoire (‘Ring of Remembrance’), a structure designed absolutely in keeping with the environment and spirit of the scene.
In under an hour I’m parked up outside the Louvre-Lens (is it très British to mention the parking is free?). In a nutshell, the Louvre-Lens is the overflow site for its much grander, much crowdier Parisian namesake.
The main exhibition space is smartly laid out. You arrive at a point 3,500 years in the past and walk forwards in history to the Romantic period. If you were expecting a poor showing from a satellite museum, think again. There’s a Botticelli, a Rembrandt, a Raphael, and a Reynolds (Sir Joshua, if you’re asking). There are also some impressive marbles, one of which serves as a crisp reminder that the internet’s fascination with Kim Kardashian’s posterior is a tale older than time. I take a selfie in a 200-year-old Turkish mirror, #unembarrassable.
I dine at Le Derby Brasserie, a three-minute walk away. There isn’t a menu, just a waitress who says, ‘We have, potchevlech – how do you say, you know, three kinds of meat?’ That’s my kind of haute cuisine. Three kinds of yum.
I drive to Wimereux. A splendid Pinot Noir awaits on the balcony of my room at the Hotel Atlantic. I watch the sun set on a day of random chance, random choices and wonderful outcomes.