Boulogne-sur-Mer's old town. The French love New Year's Eve – probably more than Christmas. Time to bring out the oysters, foie gras and champagne, and it's on New Year's Eve – not Christmas – when people sell bunches of mistletoe to be kissed under at midnight. With this in mind, I thought that even a diabolical weather forecast shouldn't get in the way of a fun French new year.
It did, of course – at least in the beginning. The ferry crossing was truly awful as the ship bounced its way across the channel. Thank goodness seasickness disappears the moment you step off a ship.
Most of the old town's restaurants were resolutely shut, or had no plans to stay open for le Réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre, as New Year's Eve is called in France. Eventually we found Le Parisien, a cosy little place that was taking bookings, albeit with a €5 deposit. Seconds after walking out, we were accosted by a restaurateur we tried earlier but who wasn't opening that evening. He was out of breath. "I tried to stop you. Did you make a booking there?" Well, yes, we did. "Oh God, it's horrible. Really nice owner but the food is terrible. You'll regret it in the morning." Marvellous news.
Still, there was the town to wander round, which we haven't done for many years. Twinkling lights hung everywhere, keeping up the festive air. The mulled wine in Le Français café was delicious, and it was just as entertaining watching the elderly locals file in two by two for their glass of sparkling wine.
Dinner ended up being perfectly adequate – nothing worse than some of the mediocre meals we'd had in France before. As it was only just past 10pm, we headed into the lower town to find a place in which to see in the new year. Bars we had seen open earlier were closing their doors. It wasn't looking promising. We spotted a crowd outside Le Français smoking under the awning. Ah, just the spot. "Soirée privée" said the sign. Oh. The smokers commiserated with us and helpfully pointed out another bar down the road that should be open. "Where are you from? Are you from the region?" We're from Britain. "Eengleesh!" said one woman delightedly. "Oh, they'll let you in. Come on, let's find the owner." Sure enough, the anglophile owner – who had a poster of Princess Diana and Union flag bunting on one wall – was happy to let a couple of strangers loose among what was obviously a close circle of friends.
Hilariously dire French television was broadcasting a cabaret extravaganza as we drank wine and waited until midnight. The bar owner ostentatiously placed a chair under a large bunch of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling. Midnight struck and the room erupted in a frenzy of cheek-kissing – four pecks each in this part of France. Not surprisingly it took a while to get to everyone. The person who gets kissed under the mistletoe is guaranteed happiness for the year. I stood under it and my husband gave me the now customary four pecks. "Not like that!" the crowd chorused. "On the lips!"
Another glass of sparkling wine later (on the house) and we left the bar on a tide of goodwill and shouts of "bonne année!". Even the rain had stopped, and we were ridiculously pleased with ourselves for having stumbled into such an unexpectedly delightful New Year's Eve. The glow carried on into New Year's Day, when the sun came out and we joined what looked like half the northern French population taking a seaside stroll along the promenade in the nearby beach resort of Wimereux. Lunch of mussels and whelks at the Cap Nord restaurant on the seafront was an excellent way to start the year. Even the sea behaved itself and was as smooth as glass on the return crossing.
As so many of my travels have to include meticulous planning ahead, sometimes it can be a joy just to go with the flow.