It's all plain sailing
PUBLISHED: 18:42 18 November 2009 | UPDATED: 14:47 24 August 2010
FLANDERS By Victoria Huntley People always think Flanders is flat, our tour guide André says, gesturing towards the mostly flat landscape, but it s not; we have les Monts de Flandre and we re very proud of them. Les Monts, or mount
By Victoria Huntley
"People always think Flanders is flat," our tour guide André says, gesturing towards the mostly flat landscape, "but it's not; we have les Monts de Flandre and we're very proud of them."
Les Monts, or mountains in English, are, in fact, a series of fairly small hills in the otherwise pancake-esque countryside dotted on either side of the French-Belgian border.
They were, as legend would have it, created by a weary giant and his wife after they grew tired of hauling sacks of earth across the landscape and dumped their loads on the flats (there is also a geological explanation for the incongruous formations but the Flemish prefer their folklore, which seems to always feature giants).
French Flanders is not, I can't help thinking to myself, exactly the Himalayas, although it is quite pretty. Everything is geared towards utilising the even plain, and fields full of celeriac, potatoes, wheat, barley, maize or grazing cows are scattered with a handful of smallish towns and the odd windmill.
The town of Bailleul, which was almost totally destroyed in the First World War but was rebuilt exactly replicating of the original Flemish architecture, has an impressive tower atop the town hall where tourists can look out over the surrounding 'mountains' and across the border into Belgium.
Typical stepped Flemish architecture and towers, where expert bell ringers use an organ-like contraption to ring scores of chimes to create a tune, are the mainstay of towns in Flanders and a trip up one such tower in the pretty medieval walled town Bergues surprisingly reveals a talented carillonneur frantically playing the Beatles' hit Yesterday.
Bergues is the biggest and most lively of the French Flemish towns with boutiques, cafes, restaurants and delicatessens lining the market square, as well as its own giant (every town's got one) proudly sitting outside the hotel de ville, while his spare head is kept in the bell tower.
Food is generally pretty rustic but generally good, with pork and game terrines, cheeses and beery beef stews featuring prominently on menus, although dinner at our hotel Hostellerie St Louis was a slightly more sophisticated affair, or it would have been 25 years ago.
Smoked duck breast was served with "seasonal fruit" including watermelon, mango and mango sorbet and noisettes of emperor fish came with a mould of jellified spinach puree.
Brasserie d'Esquelbecq uses local grain and both Flemish and Kentish hops to brew a selection of beers from blonde through to dark, including an organic version, and brewery staff are happy to give a guided tour followed by a sample in the kitsch bar afterwards.
Beer is also on offer at the fascinating Steenmeulen Moulin where the infectiously enthusiastic Monsieur Markey gives tours of his still working windmill - which he refurbished practically single handed, using horses to replace the gigantic sails - and his crazy museum of Heath Robinson farming contraptions.
How to get there
Eurostar from London St Pancras to Lille Europe or Calais
Where to stay
Hostellerie Saint Louis, 47 rue de l'Eglise, 59470 Bollezeele
What to do
Site of the massacre of 80 British soldiers by the Nazi SS in 1940, Wormhout: Le Steenmeulen Moulin, 550 route d'Eecke, 59114 Terdeghem, www.steenmeulen.com; Brasserie d'Thiriez, 22 rue de Wormhout, 59470 Esquelbecq, www.brasseriethiriez.com
Moulin de la Roome, 885 route de la Roome, Terdeghem