Nestled in France’s north-east countryside is the place where people’s imaginations wander when they picture a French village. Cobble stone streets, iron details on side gates, and forts with drawbridges welcome each person who cross into the old citadel’s walls.
Bergues (loosely pronounced: behrrg-eh) is a small village 15km away from Belgium’s border with history dating back to 882CE. After spending two nights in Lille for the long weekend we were looking for a change of scenery on our last day as we drove back to the Calais-Dover ferry. Bergues ended up being the perfect drive through destination.
The locals of Bergues are content and in tune with the movement of their town. Cars swerve around the narrow streets, canal boats are mored in the old citadel moat, and gaggles of geese stop, look and honk to make their presence known as they cross the roads. There is a sleepy yet hard working air to Bergues as farmer’s market stalls pop up and amazing rotisseries make your mouth water in the main square.
But don’t forget, if you’re visiting France on a long weekend Mondays are not a good day to explore shops or stay out for long lunches. In France Mondays are days best spent not working, so if you see something open for lunch or a treat go in because you don’t know where the next open place will be! You are guaranteed to have a simple plate of food put in front of you that will blow your socks off with quality, flavour, and a quintessential French twist.
Even in a small town like Bergues you are guaranteed to stumble across beautiful patisseries. We were lucky enough to follow our noses to the scent of butter, chocolate, and sugar to Franchois Christophe for this incredible selection of goodies. It was an hour before closing as well – 4 for the price of 3? We’ll take 8!
While Bergues envelopes you in its pastries and fresh food that celebrates local farmers, what truly charms you is the historic remains surrounded by glorious greenery. As you’re licking your fingers after patisserie number three you cannot help but notice there is not an inch of Bergues that has been left untouched by war. Throughout the centuries armies have trained by the Tour Carree of St Winnoc abbey and 20th century troops have slowly marched through Town Hall while making their way from one front to another. By the end of WWII 80% of the town had been exposed to, and bombarded by, the shells and terrors of war. The most notable damage to the local church and rows of houses was during the Batter of Dunkirk where the whole town was subjected to air raids and advancing lines of attack.
Bergues’ most iconic landmark is its bell tower. When you first hear the tower’s chimes you immediately try to picture how a person, or even two to three people, could pull on large ropes so quickly. Visible from every corner of the citadel there are 50 bells which are played by a special keyboard similar to an organ more than four times in an hour. The tower is beautiful with gold detail on the hands and a true landmark to the French countryside, a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It was a wonderfully unexpected detour on our drive back to the Calais-Dover ferry and I can happily say I will recommend it to anyone else driving through the north-east of France.
Pick a patisserie (or eight), locate one of the five portes as a starting position and explore. Stroll through the narrow streets, admire the roses growing in every front garden, take a photo of walls where shrapnel still remains from WWII, try and guess how long houses have been there by the tilt of their roof, sit under the swaying trees in the public gardens and become a temporary cog in the slow moving French town of Bergues.