Saturday, June 30, 2007

Kurt in Dunkerque

Dunkerque was not on the programme. Well, it was, but simply as the place into which our mini-bus would roll, allowing us to climb straight aboard the Tikeibank, prior to setting forth across the oceans. Only it didn’t quite happen that way. We were destined to see rather more of Dunkerque than the shipyards. For, like all good cargo ships, the Tikeibank is, surprise!, running late. In fact, when we arrived here, she was way behind us. That she had been held up by the need for the replacement of a faulty lifeboat, we had already been told in London, but allegedly that problem had been fixed, allegedly she was on her way (I had actually believed the lifeboat thing was happening here!), and, allegedly, we would still sail, as re-re-scheduled, on Saturday 18th. Some time. Any time. But Saturday 18th.
So why were we here on Friday?
Because the mini-bus, apparently, does not run on a Saturday. So we five voyagers had to be transferred to France one day in advance. We would sleep the night in a small hotel in the centre of Dunkerque, and board the ship on the morrow. Some time. Any time. A repeatedly altered time. But on the morrow.

It is now the morrow. 4pm on the morrow. And we have just been re-re-altered to ‘taxis at 9.15pm’. Maybe. Hopefully. For we have been out of our hotel rooms since 11am and are currently camped out with our luggage and our computers in the hotel lounge. It’s very comfortable (and I’ve just been served coffee), so I’m not in any way complaining, but it would … perhaps I should be positive and say ‘will’ .. be nice to get aboard, installed, unpacked and so forth after ten weeks living out of one and a bit suitcases.

But that is, actually, the only reason for my anxiety to get on. For Dunkerque, against all my expectations, has turned out to be a wholly good thing. I expected a rather frowsy dockside city, sort of grey and grubby, as such cities can so often be, and with little of interest to be discovered.

Not so.

To start with, the Hotel Borel, situated on the edge of one of the largest watery yacht-populated areas in the middle of town, is very nice indeed. I had a smart little room in which the essentials – large, comfortable bed (these seem nowadays – as opposed to ten or twenty years ago -- to be the happy norm), powerful shower, splendid bathroom – were very well cared for indeed, and in which I was very comfortable. My only grouch was that – although they offer wi-fi, you have to pay 10 euros for three hours. Since that is against my principles, the blog didn’t get blogged, and no-one got any emails. This chunk of history will, as a result, not get posted until I reach Christchurch.

As soon as I was installed, I sallied forth for a bit of shopping. Yes, me! Shopping! For, as you will recall from my Paris episodes, I had not succeeded as yet in laying my hands on those very necessary-for-the-voyage espadrilles. Also, since we were to be in town for the night, and the ‘free’ evening meal at the hotel (which doesn’t do dinners) was a micro-waved TV-dinner, I wanted to scout out a ‘petit restaurant’ where I could devour my last plate of tripes for the present.

Having at first taken the wrong turning, and ended up in a very unglamorous suburb of the town, I had the notion to follow the signs saying ‘centre ville’, and I thus discovered the said ‘centre’, just across the water from our hotel. Dunkerque having had a history full of wars (I even passed a monument to the dead of the Franco-Prussian one), it is inevitably a mixture of much that is new and newish with only a limited amount of ‘old’, but the main street features a very impressive brick Hotel de Ville, a splendid and sizeable bullet-marked church, a huge war (1st and 2nd) memorial clock tower, and the city seems to be monument-mad. Monsieur Jean Bart – whoever he is -- features largely, and the local corsairs – who I presume are the ‘Paul Jones’ lot – are also much remembered.

Anyway, more importantly, the main street sported a shoe shop, that shop happily stocked espadrilles, at a mere 6 euros a pair, and I (after lingering a little over a bright scarlet pair) ultimately purchased the entire contents of the ‘size 44’ shelf. Mission accomplished.
The second part of my mission, however, proved to be in vain. There are Turkish restaurants, tandoori restaurants, Italian restaurants, a Greek restaurant, sea-food restaurants (naturally), and even the occasional French restaurant, as well as the usual range of brasseries and bistrots, mostly featuring moules (naturally) and/or brochettes. One even had andouillettes, but only at lunchtime. But tripes? Hélas. They were nowhere to be found.

Back at the hotel, we confirmed that there was no ship, and that we were definitely staying the night, so come 6 o’clock Graham and I decided that it was aperitif time and adjourned to the café next door where we killed a few beers in the company of Dominic, an underwater gas-pipe engineer who has been here since January doing said piping. And he still doesn’t have more than a word of French!

In the absence of tripes, I had made my decision over dinner. On instinct. Directly opposite the café was a tiny, eccentrically modern-decorated little ‘restaurant de poissons’ named La Vague. And something inside me just said ‘this is for you’.

How right can you be. La Vague, I can report, turned out to be a veritable pearl. A modern-style fish restaurant with flair and fashion ... and, oh! The food!
As you know from past tales, I am not a big eater. I love good food, but in small doses. So it’s normally a case of one dish. The dish I chose, on this occasion, was a ‘panaché de poissons’ .. a small piece of this fish, and a small piece of that one ...
Graham, whom I had persuaded to join me, even though restaurants of this style and class have not hitherto been in his repertoire, but who as an ex-fisherman has nothing to learn about seafood – chose sole.
Both our meals were quite simply superb .. but that is only a small part of the story.
I began with a whisky as aperitif .. there was a choice of more brands than you can imagine (I chose Ballantine’s) .. and this in a restaurant of six tables, one toilet and a small kitchen (yes, I went in to say ‘thank you’) .
Then came a little ‘sandwich’ starter. It was fish in one part, raspberry in another .. and I missed the rest of the description, as when one of the two very young gentlemen who are the ‘front of house’ for the place described it to me in too dulcet and mumbly-high-speed French, I was so taken aback by the ‘raspberry’ that I missed all the rest.
Then came our main course, accompanied by a very nice bottle of Sancerre. 30 euros, but what the hell. Already it was evident that La Vague was a very, very superior place.
As we gently finished off our wine, two more little surprises turned up. The first was actually a huge surprise. A pair of little wooden sticks, in a glass of what looked like white sand, upon which was whirled what I can only describe as pink candy-floss! I don’t quite get the reasoning behind it, but it was perfectly nice.
And then, when it seemed all was finished, and the coffee and cognac (well, why not!) ordered, along came two delicious little chocolatey thingies..
We lingered longly over the last stages of our meal … and I was so carried away that I simply have no idea what the bill was. It didn’t matter. Ah! Graham says it was 88 euros. Plus a ten percent tip which for once I was eager to pay. Well, I call that a bloody bargain.

Anyway, if you ever need to eat in Dunkerque, it’s La Vague, 9 Rue de la Poudrière, 59140 Dunkerque (Citadelle) tel: 03 28 63 68 80.

Friday dawned bright and cool. The Hotel Borel serves an excellent buffet breakfast, but breakfast was not the main thing on anyone’s mind. The question was ‘what time do we board?’. Finally the answer came. Sigh. 7.15pm.

So it seemed like a good idea to go for another stroll around Dunkerque. And the first thing I find ... just across the bridge from the hotel? A bistro serving: tripes 10 euros. Seems as if my lunch is calling me.
But Bank Line has arranged for us all to have a midday lunch on the firm at another bistro. Which doesn’t do tripes, but … it’s the one that does andouillette at lunchtime! So andouillette it is. And jolly good andouillette it was … accompanied by several glasses of splendid French biere brune, and followed by a fairish slice of tarte aux pommes. On mange bien a Dunkerque.

After lunch, Lyndall needed to go to a camera shop to buy a lens filter. So I went along too, in my role as our little band’s French-language person-in-chief. We didn’t have any luck with the filter, but from the camera shop we continued on to the merry Friday market – where I lashed out ten euros on a replacement for my crumbling belt – and then on through a nice, long amble round the port area. More monuments (mostly to lifeboatmen of ages gone by), the office and the specialised boats of the ‘Phares et Balises’, the local lighthouse maintenance folk, endless lovely yachts swooping in from the sea digue which was visible in the distance, and a port museum featuring a big fully-rigged German training ship of 1901, rechristened the ‘Duchesse Anne’, a 1940s fire-boat, an ancient pilot boat ..

We arrived back at the hotel at 4pm and were there and then greeted with the news … boarding time no longer 7.15pm but 9.15pm.
But every cloud has a silver lining.
I have just been across to La Vague and booked a table for Lyndall and I at 7.30 pm opening time precisely. I have explained to my friend the chef that we need imperatively to leave at 9pm to catch our ship … which I guess means that the lingering cognac is not going to happen tonight!
Well, we may be boarding our ship late, but we will board it happy!

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