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If you’re looking for an outdoorsy weekend in northern France that won’t break the bank, we might have just the thing for you. Recently, we took a trip to Saint-Omer (a mere 30 minutes from Calais) and made some interesting new friends...

A shaggy llama story

First up, we stopped off en route on Friday afternoon to pay a visit to the Lamas d’Ecorigan, Benoît Daveau’s llama farm is in the picturesque village of Zutkerque, 15 minutes drive south of Calais. We met him and a horsebox full of fuzzy creatures on the town square, where we were introduced to Elliott, Monsieur Lulu and Lutti the alpaca.

Benoît promptly handed us the llama’s halter ropes and with a few words of introduction, wandered out of the square and into the local countryside with us (and our new found friends) following.

It’s an odd thing leading a llama. They kind of bounce-hop alongside you while all the time looking around - with funny little heads at the end of their long camel like necks. Once the shyness had worn off, on both sides, we all got into our pace (although regular roadside grass snacks seemed to feature high on the agenda) and headed off along an ancient trail that leads out of the village towards the forest of Eperlecques, past the house of the Dame des Loups (the wolf lady) - a wiley local character if ever there was one according to Benoît.

Along the route, Benoît peppered the trek with snippets of local history: up until the end of the 15th century Zutkerque (which means ‘south church’) was in Flanders. You can still feel the Flemish influence today in the place names and local cuisine. The plateau where the village stands was drained by monks (who were pretty keen on draining the local marshes as we were to find out later). We stopped off in a grassy meadow, where Benoît demonstrated how to spin llama fleece (he makes felt and sells llama wool) whilst our fuzzy friends chomped the new grass and made funny squeaking noises like the Eewoks in Star Wars.

If you want to do this: Llama trekking is a really fun way of seeing the local countryside - we loved it. Benoît will take you for a 2-3 hour walk (plus wool weaving demonstration) for just €9.80 per person (minimum of 5 people). Day walks and other activities can also be arranged. www.leslamasdecorigan.fr Tel: +33 620 55 17 62.

Romelaere

We arrived in Saint-Omer on Friday evening just in time to enjoy an aperitif outside at a cafe in the Main Square and swap llama leading techniques. On Saturday morning, we headed off to the Romelaere nature reserve, where we were met by Frederick, one of the local ‘greeters’.

Greeters are local residents who you can ‘book’ to guide you around Saint-Omer and its surroundings. The system is based on one set up in New York, and is totally free of charge. Just go to the website (see below) and decide who you fancy - whoops, I mean who you’d like to show you around and where, book them up and Bob’s your uncle!

Stricly speaking, Frederick’s patch is actually the local Audomarois marshes, where his father was one of the local market gardeners. He wasn’t really supposed to be at the nature reserve, so we won’t mention that any more. However, he does know everything there is to know about the marshes at Saint-Omer, a criss-cross of waterways and parcels of land which cover 3,500 hectares and offer 100km of navigable waterways. They took 13 centuries to create, and for the last 100 or so years, have been used for growing local veg.

A huge chunk of the marshes has been designated a nature reserve for the amazing bird life (I wasn’t into birds before I came here – suddenly I’m jabbering about grebes, cormorants and marsh harriers to everybody I meet) – it’s a really important stopping off point for many species on their annual migration around the globe. A bit like a French gite for birds. The Romelaere reserve features a massively long boardwalk, which meanders around the marshes and leads to hides where you can sit and take a furtive peek at our feathered friends. The good news is it’s perfect for wheelchairs and prams too.
 
If you want to do this: Details of the Romelaere reserve can be found at: www.tourisme-saintomer.com/gb/VIS-mar-ro.htm If you’d like to meet Frederick or any of his fellow greeters, log on to www.greeters62.com

Messing about on the river

Walking around Romelaere whetted our apetite for water life. Thankfully we’d anticipated this and booked an electric boat from ISNOR, who run guided tours around the marshes in eco-friendly (and really quiet) boats. You can also hire individual boats, canoes or wheelchair boats and do your own thing.

We kind of cheated and met up with Perry - an Englishman abroad. To be more correct an Englishman living on a square of land in the marshes surrounded on all sides by waterways. If you think that sounds idyllic - it was. We floated over the Clairmarais marshes to his place for a picnic lunch (available from ISNOR) and stuffed ourselves silly sitting in his waterside garden, entertained by his cats, Margot the airdale and assorted chickens, guinea fowl, doves and the odd marsh harrier flying overhead.
 
We got more of the local info from Perry - some of the land is still farmed and the veg (such as cauliflowers, carrots, endives - sound boring, taste delicious) are sold in the local markets. Other plots have been bought as weekend homes or even permanent homes. I can see why - it’s so quiet and the wildlife is truly amazing. Not sure I’d fancy it in the deepest winter, but for a boat trip it is something else.

En route to Perry’s, we moored at Joseph’s farm - he’s well into his 90s and has been living and farming the marshes all his life, as did his father, his father’s father etc, etc. If you visit the marshes, you may well see him handing out bunches of flower to passing boats - totally free.

The only way to access a lot of these smallholdings is by boat and before modern transportation, they’d use long wooden punt-like boats made of oak called ‘bacoves’. They can take up to 4 tons of produce and were also used to transport horses to the vegetable fields. Smaller versions called ‘escutes’ were the boating equivalent of the family car. You can see bacoves and escutes around the marshes, still being used to transport people and produce. You don’t need a friendly Englishman to offer you hospitality either - there are plenty of picnic spots on the marshes and ISNOR will pack you up your own (scrumptious) picnic if you want.

If you want to do this: ISNOR provide guided trips of the Clairmarais marshes from €6.50 per adult. You can also hire your own boat. More details on www.isnor.fr or call +33 321 39 15 15

E-solex

On Sunday morning, we thought we’d try viewing the marshes from two wheels instead, so we paid a visit to Bruno Delforge’s Les Belles Echappées. Bruno has a nifty collection of Citroen 2CVs you can hire to drive around the local countryside, complete with GPS and local information.

However, the weather was sooooo nice, we opted for his electric e-solex bikes. With a top speed of 35mph, they’re not really for adrenalin junkies, but we donned our beetle-like helmets, and looking possibly as uncool as you ever could, we whizzed around Clairmarais forest and the marshes having a spiffing time. As they are electric (and of course very environmentally friendly), the bikes are really quiet, although they are equipped with really loud horns that you can use to scare the heebies out of upstanding local citizens out for a peaceful country walk...

If you want to do this: E-solex hire starts from €18. You can also hire Citroen 2CVs and other assorted tandems, tricycles etc. www.les-belles-echappees.com or call +33 3 21 98 11 72

You’ve got to end with a good meal 

...of course, so on our way back on Sunday, we returned via the pretty little village of Ardres, which is just a stone’s throw away from the port at Calais. A little birdy had told me that the Francois 1er has some pretty decent nosh, and they were absolutely right.

We started off with an amuse-bouche of courgette foam, mini croque monsieur, herb quiche and a salmon parcel, followed by shellfish in a delicate filo pastry wrap with lobster sauce, melt in your mouth lamb with a herb crust and an amazing desert trio. Gérard Lewandowski, the chef and owner of the restaurant has been in business there for the last 17 years, in a picturesque converted timbered house (which once used to house prisoners in the dungeons!). www.lefrancois1er.com

Just opposite the restaurant, is Guy Boursot’s wine shop – really worth a visit if you have time. Best to call in advance and arrange a tasting. Guy is an English wine expert who’s moved over to France and has a great range of wine starting at some extremely affordable prices. www.boursot.co.uk