The flat-bottomed wooden boat called here “bacôve” glides quietly on the canals of Saint-Omer. The sound of its electric motor hardly disturbs the calm of the marshes. It doesn’t bother the white-billed coots and moorhens who watch over their chicks with red bills and bluish feathers on their heads.
Let’s go for an hour of walk on the water, in the company of Maxime. This trained biologist is unbeatable on the local flora and fauna. On the history of marshes and their evolution over the centuries. From October to June, he gladly introduces schoolchildren to this fragile ecosystem. He also guides tourists to the marshes he knows like the back of his hand.
It is better besides! With their 700 km of “wattringues” (canals), of which 170 km are public and navigable, dug by men at the beginning of the Middle Ages to clean up a hitherto marshy area and transform it into a market garden belt, their ponds, their small islands. , the marshes of Saint-Omer are a labyrinth as vast (3,726 hectares!) as it is inextricable.
The legend of Marie Groette and the turbulent children
Of course, this universe with very distinctive habits and customs, now included in a Natural Park, can also be discovered on foot, by bike, on horseback and even by Segway thanks to marked trails. Whichever option is chosen, the legend of Marie Groette will prevail on visitors: this evil creature reputed to haunt the marshes and drag turbulent children to the bottom of the water is so omnipresent in the local imagination that her effigy is still there. placed at the head of the “Giants parade” organized in July during the carnival of the marshes.
→ READ ALSO: Industrial tourism in mining country
As on that day, we are in a boat, Maxime quickly returns to geographical considerations. “Here, we are in a basin between the mountains of Artois and the mountains of Flanders”, he said. Then, while the bacove crosses a windmill perched on the bank, he insists on the usefulness of these constructions formerly equipped with an Archimedean screw (a kind of screw pump) to “Remove water from the marshes when there was too much”.
“If we continue straight ahead, we will go towards the sea”, continues Maxime, just to recall that Saint-Omer held, until the 14the century, its prosperity of a cloth industry whose exports were facilitated by the Aa, a coastal river channeled to Gravelines and the North Sea.
400 species of plants
If Saint-Omer is just a stone’s throw away, everywhere in the marshes, and not just in their wildest part, nature imposes its laws. More than 400 species of plants and 240 species of birds have been recorded there. Many species of fish, too: pike, eels, pikeperch, bream, etc. Fishermen elsewhere are busy, numerous, in silence, on their boats, for want of being able to settle on the banks because they are private. And still inhabited.
Several dozen houses are accessible only by boat, in particular the typical brick farmhouses with their colorful shutters and flower-filled surroundings. Some now house lodges or guest rooms. But the time has passed when the school bus service was done by boat. And, if a little further on, the house of the former manufacturer of traditional boats Charles Register falls into ruins, in Saint-Omer, Remy Colin and his uncle Vincent show their workshop. They are the last “makers” of bacoves and other “escutes” (smaller traditional boats).
Further on, cabbage fields line the banks for hundreds of meters. If the marshes of Saint-Omer cultivate their particular language (here, the marshes are broucks, the inhabitants of brouckaillers, the private waterways of watergangs, etc.), the taste for a job well done is always transmitted there. Champion of the Tilques carrot, Saint-Omer is also the French capital of summer cauliflower with 4 million heads in good years thanks to some forty market gardeners. Their vegetables are sold on Saturdays at the Grand-place market.
Originally, a bishop appointed by Dagobert I
It is also difficult to separate the city and the marshes as the two have been linked since the Middle Ages. At the origin of the digging of the canals, there was, in fact, the need to settle and feed the populations after they had been evangelized by a certain Audomar, the future Saint Omer (600-671). Appointed Bishop of Thérouanne by King Dagobert Ier, he founded, at the gates of the marsh, the powerful Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Bertin (its ruins are as romantic as they are imposing) and, in 648, on a hillock, a church which will become a collegiate church in 820, a cathedral in 1558 (after the destruction of that of Thérouanne by Charles V) during the Revolution before being later erected into a basilica.
Flanked by a porch tower at the entrance of its magnificently lit high nave, it houses the polychrome stone funeral monuments and the private chapels of its canons, the Cenotaph of Omer, an astronomical clock and a superb organ from 1717. And also a Descent from the Cross by Rubens.
→ READ ALSO: In the Hauts de France, gardens of peace
In the Middle Ages, a “city within the city” was established all around this building, made up of 17 beautiful houses to house the thirty or so canons, completely enclosed: “Alone, insists Marie-Claude Vandaele, guide-lecturer, five doors allowed access. “ The medieval town which unfolds around the current Place Victor-Hugo, was built on the same hillock, around a castle destroyed in the 12the century. It also had fortifications from the year 1000. It was only later that Saint-Omer expanded.
The charm of yellow brick
If the yellow brick, splendid and very local, often dominates, the red brick, more solid, is also present, just like the stone. In the center, Flemish gables with sparrow steps stand side by side with classic French-style houses from the 18th century.e and XIXe with ornate coach doors, facades with pilasters and garlands and the beautiful mansions of great local families such as those which today house the Tourist Office or the Sandelin museum. Other gems are added to it, for example the Jesuit chapel, now restored, or the Italian-style theater hidden in the old town hall.
With 17,000 inhabitants, the current Saint-Omer is much less populated than in the Middle Ages. You must nonetheless stay there for several days if you want to discover the marshes, stay there for a night or two to soak up its special atmosphere, enjoy Flemish gastronomy in pretty, affordable bistros. gentle and truly approaching a city with an architecture as mixed as the influences which followed one another until the conquest by Louis XIV in 1677.
♦ Inquire: pas-de-calais-tourisme.com
and also tourisme-saintomer.com
♦ Go there : TGV to Hazebrouck then TER to Saint-Omer.
♦ House of the Marais in Saint-Martin-lez-Tatinghem. Nice exhibition on the history of the marsh and market gardening: lamaisondumarais.com
♦ Accommodation: Villa Marguerite, boulevard de Strasbourg: villa-marguerite.com, Ch’ti Gîte, rue de la Poissonnerie: chti-gite.business.site. And also, in the marsh itself but accessible only by boat, the Fermette de Marie Grouette: fermette-marie-grouette.fr
♦ Eating out : Le Colegram, 86, rue Carnot: lecolegram.fr. And, Chez tante Fauvette, 10, rue Sainte-Croix: 03.21.11.26.08.