General Information about Montreuil-sur-Mer
Montreuil is a town of about 2,600 inhabitants in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. Despite its name, which translates to “Montreuil-on-the-sea,” it’s actually located about 10km from the sea on a hill above the river Canche. In the middle ages, the Canche was easily navigable from the sea and Montreuil was an important port; nowadays, however, the river winds through marshland and is only navigable by kayaks and small fishing boats.
From the 13th to the 16th centuries, Montreuil occupied a position of strategic importance and was a heavily fortified garrison town. The medieval ramparts circling the Upper Town are one of the biggest local tourist attractions, and are well worth a visit–set aside an hour or two to make the complete circuit.
In addition to its medieval history and connection to Les Misérables, Montreuil’s attractions include its picturesque streets, the Church of Saint-Saulve and the Hôtel-Dieu chapel, nature walks in the surrounding region, canoeing on the Canche, award-winning citywide flower displays, local cuisine, and the Malins Plaisirs festival in August, devoted to opera, music, and theatre.
Getting There & Getting Around
Montreuil-sur-Mer is about three hours from Paris by train. Tickets are available in advance through SNCF, the company that controls the French rail system, or in person at a ticket booth. Prices vary by schedule, averaging around 50 euros for a round-trip ticket from Paris. Since Montreuil-sur-Mer is on a regional line, you’ll probably end up taking the TGV to a hub station–probably Arras or occasionally Béthune–and transferring to a local train. If your transfer point is Arras, you’ll pass through Saint-Pol and Hesdin, Valjean’s stopping points on his way to Champmathieu’s trial, and you’ll discover that the journey that took him eighteen hours in 1823 takes a little over an hour today due to the wonders of modern technology.
Montreuil is divided into the upper city and the lower city by a steep hill and an impressive rampart that surrounds the upper city. The train station is in the lower city and the town is too small for a bus line, so leave that fifty-pound wheeled suitcase behind unless you want it to wrench your arm off as you drag it up a very steep cobblestone street. Maps are available in the tourist office near the citadel, but Montreuil is a very small place and it’s impossible to get lost–if you don’t know where you are in the upper town, wander until you reach the ramparts and follow them back to the citadel.
If you want to stay overnight, there are combination restaurant-hotels everywhere. You might also want to try the Hotel de France, the oldest hotel in Montreuil and the place where Victor Hugo allegedly stayed when he visted in 1837–ask for room 12b.
Les Mis-Related Activities
When Victor Hugo was travelling through the north of France in 1837, he stopped at a small town in the Pas-de-Calais region on the way back to Paris, noted it in a letter to his wife Adèle, and appeared to forget about it. In 1847, as he was working on the first draft of his masterpiece, then titled Les Misères, he noted, “M— sur M— is a pretty little town… I passed through there ten years ago and I remember nothing remarkable besides a walk on the ramparts, where I saw a good old priest who was reading his breviary while seated upon a cannon.” From this single recollection he drew the setting for the first volume of his novel.
Hugo might have forgotten most of the details of his visit to Montreuil-sur-Mer, but the city itself certainly hasn’t forgotten Hugo. Shops named after characters from the novel are scattered throughout Montreuil, and a substantial part of its tourism is based on its connection to Les Misérables. To wit:
- The Spectacle Son et Lumière “Les Misérables à Montreuil-sur-Mer” takes place every summer at the end of July and the beginning of August. Locals don costumes and re-enact the events of the novel, with narration lifted straight from Hugo’s text and a variety of dances, pyrotechnics, and special effects.
- Guided tours entitled “In the Footsteps of Victor Hugo” are available for groups.
- Hugo himself stayed at the Hôtel de France when he passed through. Room 12b, the room he stayed in, is available for reservation.
- It’s probable that the Cavée Saint-Firmin, a treacherously steep cobblestone road at the entrance to the upper city, was Hugo’s inspiration for Fauchelevent’s cart crash.