Written by Carolann Martys
(One of the runner-up entries in the City, Town or Village Writing Competition.)
Standing in the centre of the picturesque town of Eu in Normandy, it is bizarre to come across a proliferation of the very Irish name of Lawrence O’Toole.
This is the town where 16 years after the battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror brought his betrothed, Matilda, to be married in the imposing collegiate church. Here, in 1430, Joan of Arc had a night’s lodging in a lion’s pit en route to a fiery death in Rouen, and Henri and Catherine de Guise built a castle in the sixteenth century to which Queen Victoria was invited in 1843 by King Louis Phillipe for the momentous signing of the original Entente Cordiale.
It is a town of architectural dignity, justly proud of its natural and historic heritage, but Lawrence O’Toole Square – let alone Lawrence O’Toole Church – is sufficiently at odds to provoke curiosity.
It turns out that Lawrence O’Toole is the patron saint of Eu, and of Dublin. A quarrel over taxes between Ireland and England in the twelfth century resulted in Lawrence being sent to mediate at Henry Plantagenet’s court in France. Exhausted by his journey, old and sick, he arrived in Eu, the entrance to Normandy, on November 10th 1180. Taken into shelter by the monks of Sainte Victor, he passed away four days later.
He was canonised in 1225 following many claims of miracles that occurred either at his tomb or through his intercession. His shrine remained an important pilgrimage centre throughout the Middle Ages.
Situated only three km from the sea, in the heart of the Bresle Valley, Eu is blessed with the peace of comparative anonymity – unlike its more sophisticated cousin, Le Touquet, and the nearby ports of Boulogne and Dieppe. Belgian, German and English cars tear past on
the A26 autoroute during the high season, yet few stop to enjoy the uniqueness of this flower-filled town.
A huge deciduous forest lies on its outskirts, home to a range of wildlife that includes deer and wild boar. If you fancy something more adventurous than a stroll and a picnic, you can join an organised walk led by a forester. These walks usually end at a carcahoux, or traditional woodcutter’s hut, deep in the woods, with a drink and maybe an opportunity to pick and cook the forest’s prized wild mushrooms.
One of the attractions of the town is its accessibility to Calais – a mere one and a half hours’ drive on the near empty autoroute. You can drive from London to the Chunnel terminus via the M25, M26 and M20 in approximately an hour. The Dover ferry is not much longer. Door to door, it’s quicker – and far more pleasant – than a trip from London to Manchester.
The best hotel to stay in is Le Domaine de Joinville on the Route de Treport. But there are delightful small seaside towns like Le Treport and Mers Les Bains with pleasant accommodation very near. You will be spoilt for choice with the amount of excellent
bistros in and around the town often serving fish caught that morning. A brand new boutique hotel has recently opened in Ault, ten minutes from the centre of Eu: Hotel Victor Hugo, Rue de la Peche. This is the place to dine on a special occasion: chandeliers, cut glass and a meal to match.
And don’t forget to cheat our ridiculous import tax and fill your boot with good wines at knock-down prices from the supermarket. The local market on Friday mornings provide a selection of delicious cheeses, and free-range chickens filled with mountain herbs will be
cooking on spits to stimulate your appetite.
Eu is a place of paradox. Not only because its most famous resident – with a shrine that dominates the town – was not French but Irish, but also because the beautifully renovated timbered buildings, witness to so much dramatic history are bypassed in favour of the prosaic ports. Not just by the Brits either.
Ask most Frenchman if they know the town and the answer will be: “Eu, c’est oú?” (Where is it?). I guarantee that after your visit, you will want to keep the answer to yourself!
Posted 31st May 2015 by Steve Hanson on behalf of Carolann Martys. The photographs were supplied by Carolann Martys after the Writing Competition had been judged.