Where is everyone? Covid and Brexit empty the Normandy seaside | Holidays in Normandy
WWith the approach of the summer holidays, the two French seaside towns of Saint-Valery-sur-Somme and Crotoy would normally prepare themselves for the annual wave of neighboring Belgian and especially British tourists.
The stations face each other across the majestic Bay of the Somme, a wetland of quicksand and tides where the quiet river suddenly extends into a spectacular estuary opening onto the English Channel. The bay is a popular stopover for British travelers to Paris and the south of France, as well as a place of pilgrimage for its war memorials, museums, cemeteries and battle sites.
But it’s not a normal year. France is just emerging from a long lockdown and six months of early evening curfews, with customers not allowed into bars and restaurants until June 9. Belgian visitors are few in number as most wait for the EU’s Covid digital passport to be put in place to plan their vacations, hoping to avoid PCR testing every time they cross a border. And the British are simply absent, with France on the UK’s orange list.
Residents of Saint-Valery believe the repercussions of Brexit could make this more than a temporary trend. As I walked around the port of Saint-Valery this week, everything is still very quiet, with plenty of space in restaurants and hotels. I easily get a table on the sunny terrace of The pilots, facing the bay, and order a seafood platter of oysters, shrimp and crab with a fresh Muscadet – a taste of what everyone loves in France. I’m the only foreigner around.
Laurence Gautier, who transformed Les Pilotes into an elegant boutique hotel-restaurant 10 years ago, says: “We have to rely on local French tourism this year, and we are definitely missing the more affluent visitors who usually come from the Kingdom. United and Belgium. The restaurant has lost 40% of its capacity with social distancing rules, and our international clientele – who don’t quibble over prices and are always ready to order a good bottle of wine – have so far disappeared.
I flew from Italy and, after a lifetime of traveling through Europe, I was shocked to be asked by the immigration officer for proof of where I live. He sighed in relief when I presented my new French residence permit – which meant he could let me in without questioning.
Joël and Vanessa, my hosts at At the Presbytery – a guest room in a former 18th-century priory, with rooms in the house and in Gypsy caravans in the garden – have not had any reservations from British holidaymakers since last summer. “We bought the place in 2019, and for our first year – before the pandemic – we had a constant flow of British guests, stopping off after they arrived in France or returning home for a last French meal at our guest table. We hope they will be back soon, as this year is obviously not easy with our mostly French holidaymakers reluctant to book too far in advance, and always asking for our cancellation policy. Everything is very “what if? ”, With everyone fearing a new wave of Covid. “
Among the trendy boutiques that line the main street of Saint-Valery, one of the most popular is the foodie deli Sardines. “When I opened La Sardine in 2009, I had to speak English all the time,” explains owner Anne-France Rouxel. She has not spoken a word of the language in the past 12 months.
“Over the past 10 years, the bay has changed,” she adds. “It is becoming a destination for outdoor activities, with the opening of innovative restaurants, old-fashioned hotels and guesthouses that are getting a chic makeover, and specialized shops are popping up, highlighting design, craftsmanship and local gastronomic specialties. A more sophisticated traveler began to arrive, not only from the UK but from Brussels, Paris and Lille. Then the British started buying property here as well. Several houses on my route have English and Scottish owners, but that has changed since Brexit. One family has French nationality and refuses to return to Britain, but I haven’t seen the others for a year and a half – their houses are barricaded and just waiting to be sold. So all I can say is please come back, we miss you.