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Town that lays claim to be seaside of Paris

By Ron Smith

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The French seaside resort of Le Touquet was all the rage in the 1920s and 30s, and was noted as a destination for Parisian men to take their mistresses, but while retaining its classic style travel writer Ron Smith finds it has all the modern attributes to be a must-visit town...


I WANTED to see Le Touquet. It is on the French Channel coast, 2 hours from Paris and 3 hours from London. Between the wars it was THE place to go and be seen, very Hercule Poirot.

In the days before air travel became an undignified strip search, queue and shuffle experience, there was a super way to go to Le Touquet or Paris. It started in 1956. BAC 1-11 jets would fly from Gatwick to Le Touquet. Passengers descended from the aeroplane and waiting there, on the tarmac, was a train which you simply got in and off it went to Paris, and the same in reverse.

This lasted until 1980, when the railway line was abandoned, and finally killed off by the Channel Tunnel and cheaper air flights. The Le Touquet airport still proudly calls itself "International", but today only one small 6 seater plane flies to Leeds. The railway tracks are still there embedded in the tarmac, and the tracks head off towards Paris, but for only a few hundred yards, parallel to the "Allee de la Royale Air Force".

Would this be typical of the town? Faded grandeur and peeling paint? Not at all – far from it. I arrived by train from Arras, which has connections to Paris by sleek TGV express trains. You arrive today at Etaples, which is across the river from Le Touquet. You have to take a taxi, but it is not far – you can see it. Le Touquet also calls itself "Paris Plage", or the seaside of Paris. It has a seafront of 4kms of sand, part of a total of no less than 18kms of fine sandy beach.

Between the wars, the locals called the trains from Paris the trains of "Cocu". This refers to the Parisians who came with their mistress, leaving the wife in Paris, or brought both. The man and his wife stayed in the huge posh hotels, and the mistress stayed in a slightly less posh but still huge hotel. Today there is just one of these magnificent huge hotels left; the others have been turned into flats.

The seafront has been spoilt by solid blocks, forming a great wall, of 1970s ugly flats, but the town behind is still very interesting, although none of it is ancient or historic. Tourists still come here, mostly French (so it must be good) from Paris, Lille or Rheims, then Brits, and also Belgians, Dutch and Germans. The resident population of the town is 5,600 people in the winter, but swells to 100,000 in the summer, to cater for the tourists.

Even off season it is popular. In February 2013 there was motorbike racing on the sands, when 300,000 people turned up. The sand was landscaped to provide chicanes and hillocks, and when the tide came in and smoothed it all out, it was remade when the tide went out again. The tide goes out 1 kilometre here, the sea is so shallow.

One of the many activities here is "Longe Cote". Every Sunday at 10am groups of people walk up to their thighs in the sea, all along the coast. It is said to be good for the circulation. It is strange to see around 200 people strolling along in the sea. The beach is the focal point of Le Touquet.

Wind surfing is popular and was invented here by Louis Bleriot, who was the first man to fly an aeroplane across the Channel. He put sails onto a wheeled chassis, and still today his invention is extremely popular. At the main base to rent these machines, they are building a replica of Bleriot's original one. The broad promenade also sees people flying kites, kite surfing is popular too, and strings of horses and ponies, which you can hire and have lessons.

One of the main attractions for British tourists is the golf. There are three main courses here, which rank in the world's ton 100 courses, and there are international competitions, as well as training courses for beginners. The list of activities is long, and includes archery, swimming pools and lessons, cycling (the whole area is flat, and there are 23 kms of dedicated cycling paths) and tennis. There are no less than 25 open air and 8 heated tennis courts.

In the estuary between Le Touquet and Etaples there are innumerable small boats and yachts. You can go for sailing lessons, hire craft or have guided sails. There are so many activities available here all the year round that all the family will find lots of things to keep them busy. As you would expect, there is also a busy night life with night clubs, discos, concerts, exhibitions and the casino. When such things were not legal in the UK, Le Touquet opened their casino, and Brits came here to be seen and to gamble in this new stylish way.

The profits of the casino were instant and huge. The tax on the profit was enormous and in the first year alone allowed the town council to pay for and build the magnificent town hall (Hotel de Ville). This solid and almost Disney-like building is in the town behind the sea front. Opposite it is another fantastic solid building, the church of St Joan of Arc (Sainte Jeanne d'Arc), a magnificent church opened in 1911, dedicated to St Joan (who, of course, we burned at the stake).

St Joan was not made a saint until 1920, so this church can rightly claim to be the first church in the world that was dedicated to St Joan of Arc. Having a tall belfry which was a good look-out point, it was badly damaged by bombardment in June, 1944. It was rebuilt and repaired between 1950 and 1955.

Two other landmarks were destroyed during the war. It is said that the first inhabitants of Le Touquet were the lighthouse keepers, who were given cottages next to the two lighthouses that were built here in 1845. Again, these tall structures were good lookout points during the war, and so were both blown up by the Germans in September, 1944. A temporary lighthouse was erected on top of the town hall in October, 1944, which lasted until a new one could be built. In 1947 the architect Louis Quételart was appointed to design a new one. The work started in 1948 and was completed in 1951.

Louis Quételart had also designed the benches on the sea front, the bus shelters and the airport building, all in 1930s style, and even the swimming pool diving boards. He also designed over 100 of the whimsical villas that are dotted in and around the wooded area behind the town and in the dunes for the rich folk. His new lighthouse is actually in the middle of the town – not on the coast – and its light can be seen over 50kms away. It is made from concrete, faced with orange brick and white stone, is octagonal and each section of the octagon is concave. It is a striking edifice, 57 metres high, 67 metres above sea level, and you can climb up inside it (274 steps though) for great views out all along the town and the coast.

The lighthouse keeper's house adjacent is now the museum of lighthouses. If you go to www.letouquet-museevirtuel.com you can pick up live web cams from three different points in the town to see what is happening there right now.

In the centre of the town you will see the half circle of the covered market. This building is as clean as if it was made form a plastic kit. You can buy fresh fish here, one of the specialities of the town, especially crevettes (shrimps) which thrive here and are brought in fresh daily. Nearby is a splendid Post Office. This stylish 1930s type building is actually converted from a church.

One of the best known shops is the Au Chat Bleu (the blue cat). Two sisters opened a sweetie shop in 1912, and it became known as the shop with the two Persian Blue cats, and the name has stuck. In 1920 they moved to a tea room opposite the prestigious Westminster Hotel, to cater for the upper class ladies (or maybe the mistresses?) and then moved again in 1929 to the present shop in the Rue St Jeanne. In the heydays of the 1930s delivery boys cycled to all the private villas and hotels with chocolates. Their chocolate is famous and worth a visit to this unique little shop to try out their sweeties.

To make life easy, there are three electric bus routes in and around the town, free, shuttling all day every day.

Le Touquet was not what I expected. There is no faded grandeur or peeling paint. It is up to date, catering for the modern tourist and family holidays, with still traces of the stylish 1920s and 1930s.

As you would expect, there is a whole range of hotels and boarding houses, camp sites and caravan parks. I stayed at the Castel Victoria Hotel. It has 25 rooms in an art deco building in the centre of town. Each room has been extensively modernised, like Le Touquet, updated to modern standards. To eat out, there are no end of restaurants, perhaps one of the best is "Ricochet" which offers reasonably priced menus and fish specialities, in the Rue de Paris.

Getting to Le Touquet is not as easy as it used to be. By road, it is about one hour from Calais, so if you are driving to France it would make an ideal stopping off place for a day or two. I arrived by train from Arras and Lille, which are easy to reach by train direct from Charles de Gaulle airport. I returned from Etaples by TGV to Paris Gare du Nord, from where it is easy to get a train direct to the airport. The best way to go is to fly with Air France directly from Aberdeen to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. There are three return flights a day between Aberdeen and Paris, taking 2 hours, and flights are available if booked in advance for around £219 return. See www.airfrance.co.uk. To book your onward French railway tickets you can go to www.raileurope.co.uk who are official agents for French Railways and will supply everything including reservations.

For more information on Le Touquet and the area go to www.letouquet.com, or www.northernfrance-tourism.com or www.uk.pas-de-callais.com.

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