If there has been a period in which we felt frequently awkward, uncomfortable, and even scared, it was these three days in France. Yes, there has been sunshine, and yes, some of the scenery was really beautiful, but in this part of our hike, a different reality made itself seen and felt. We realized, stronger than before, that we are two very lucky people. We are able to do a trip like this, we can decide every moment what we want to do next, where we want to go, where we want to stay.
Even in the most depressing moments, however, we saw the goodness of people, the willingness to help and not to hurt the other. This is what we took with us and want to share with you.
Day 217 started sunny and joyful, with a delicious breakfast in our lodging in De Panne, the last stop in Belgium. To be sure we would be allowed to cross the border, we invited a real French person to see us off. So Gigi and us walked along the flat and compact sand beach for about 5 km, until we saw… nothing. No stone, no coat of arms, no barrier – only our GPS indicated that we were about to leave Belgium. We looked a little harder and really found an old border stone hidden in the sand. Gigi quickly set up the border line to welcome us in her country: We had arrived in France!
As she had to travel back on that day, she returned to De Panne and we followed on towards Dunkerque, where we would spend the night.
After a few hours hiking through sleepy beach towns and a natural reserve in the dunes, we saw a powerful reminder of history – the ugly part of it. A row of bunkers, some still sitting on top of the dunes, others gradually sliding down to the beach, had been used by the German troops in WWII to defend their conquered territories against the allied forces, as part of the so-called Atlantic Wall. It was hard not to think about all the senseless waste of lives when looking at those concrete monstrosities. A little relief came from an artistic intervention on one of the bunkers. An anonymous artist has covered the whole building in mirrors – making it almost disappear and at the same time attracting more attention to it.
The city of Dunkerque, heavily destroyed during WWII, is not the most pretty place to walk through. Our mood got a bit darker, when we noticed dozens of groups of young people making their way to a nearby supermarket. Having escaped wars in their countries, they were now “living” in the improvised refugee camp, in tents and under very bad sanitary conditions. We had sent our tent away in September, because we found it already too cold to sleep outside. Now it was December.
After a good night’s sleep and our first breakfast with crêpes, baguette and croissants, we walked further west along the French coast. We explored the century-old fortress of Gravelines, before following the river Aa to Grand-Port-Philippe. We had to pick the correct side of the canal early on, otherwise we would have ended up in Petit-Port-Philippe, without any possibility of reaching our destination. On the other hand, the division of the village by the canal allowed for some beautiful pictures.
On day 219, we followed a GR (Grande Randonée, the long-distance trails of France) path through the dunes. We couldn’t entirely enjoy the flora and fauna of this region, because all around us, shots could be heard. Agreed, hunters are only practising their hobby and are aware of hikers in their hunting grounds, but it gives you a strange feeling thinking about stray bullets and passing next to a man with a weapon in his hand.
On the way to the coast, we almost stumbled over hundreds of … bananas! They were still green, with black spots and the brand’s sticker on them, some were even wrapped in foil. How this shipment of unripe fruit arrived at the shore, remained a mystery to us, but it made for a couple of interesting theories. When we thought we had arrived at the sea, it was still far away from us. Tides are really strong in this region and we happened to walk at the beach at low tide, so a kilometer-wide strip of of wet sea ground separated us from the water. It was used as a spacious practice ground for race carriages and kite buggies, and we were able to cut some curves of our path.
When we were back behind the dunes, we followed the way in direction to Calais.
It’s hard to describe what goes through your head when you suddenly walk through a refugee camp, but here are Moiken’s first thoughts after we arrived in town:
The closest we got to “the refugee crisis” in our trip so far. Only we didn’t see the crisis, we saw people. Quiet, peaceful, some laughing, queuing up for shoes, brushing their teeth in front of makeshift tents, returning with their groceries from the supermarket 6 km away from the camp. We felt really stupid with our top-of-the-line hiking gear, crossing Europe by choice, not by necessity, heading towards a warm lunch in a nice restaurant, a bed in a cozy room.
Life is good to us and hopefully will continue being, but this is not many people’s reality.
After we had settled into our room, Moiken went out to do some laundry, so we would arrive in the UK with clean clothes. All machines in the laundromat were full, and there was no space to sit down. Of course, the refugees have to wash their clothes somewhere, so they walk about an hour into town to take care of that. The moment a machine became available, a young man helped me put my laundry inside and didn’t give me a chance to buy washing powder. “Here, use mine”, and before I could say anything, the machine was running in the desired cycle. While we are all waiting for our laundry, I was offered snacks and had a chat with a group of refugees. They told me where they were from and asked me the same question, only to reply: “Ah, Germany! I really would like to live there. What brings you to Calais?”
I just couldn’t tell them that we had left our home and quit our jobs to walk through Europe, because we felt like it. I also avoided mentioning that we would be taking the ferry to Dover the next day.