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Visiting Bray-Dunes, France: the north blowing in the wind
Icelandic heritage in a French resort very close to Dutch-speaking neighbours
Icelanders used to come here regularly, the local businessman in Bray-Dunes told me.
At first I was suprised: what would a group of Icelandic nationals be doing here in Bray-Dunes? I wondered to myself. Then I realized that the reference to les Islandais denoted people from Bray-Dunes who embarked on regular fishing expeditions to Icelandic waters, rather than to a colony of Icelandic nationals formerly resident in Bray-Dunes.
On reflection, it all made sense, because the northern coast of France is dotted with historic sea-ports which are associated with regular sea voyages to large areas of the Atlantic Ocean. For example, St.-Malo, Brittany, was the port after which les Îles Malouines (English: Falkland Islands; Spanish: Islas Malvinas) were named by French seafarers. Dieppe, Normandy, has many historic associations with Canada and Newfoundland. There is also a former northern French port which was formerly associated with the fishing journeys to the waters around Iceland and this is the town of Bray-Dunes.
Islandais in Canada refers to Canadians of Icelandic extraction, who did indeed settle in Ontario and Manitoba. The word as employed in northern France typically refers to those involved in the fishing fleets which formerly plied their way through wind and hardship to the waters around Iceland. Pierre Loti's Pêcheur d'Islande is a classic tale of this life, which has long been widely read in France.
Today, the Eglise de Bray-Dunes has a number of interesting artifacts dating from when the fishing boats used to depart for Iceland. An inscription in the church says: "To its sons who never returned from the Iceland fishing. To all its sons who perished at sea, to all its deceased sailors". On one notable, tragic occasion, 12 men were lost on the Marie-Robert in 1897.
While the First World War brought changes to shipping which greatly altered fishing patterns in the region, at one time large numbers of people were involved in the Icelandic fishing expeditions from France, particularly Bray-Dunes. At Gravelines in the region, a local restaurant is still named Au retour d'Islande, in reference to this period.
There was even a small, French-speaking village on the south-east coast of Iceland, Fáskrúdsfjórdur, where a cemetery for perished French sailors may still be visited.
Close, Dutch-speaking neighbours
Being the northernmost town in metropolitan France, with various hotels, Bray-Dunes is situated close to the Belgian border and within sight of the Dutch-speaking Belgian town of De Panne. Indeed, the town is considerably closer to Dutch-speaking De Panne (7km away in Belgium) than to Dunkirk (15km away). The dunes which are indicated in the town's very name separate it from De Panne, although it is possible to walk the few kilometres along the seashore to the neighbouring Belgian town. During the First World War, De Panne became a poignant symbol of Belgian sovereignty in that it was the only locality in the country not to be occupied by the German invaders, and King Albert I of the Belgians consequently resided there.
The boundary across the extensive dunes between Bray-Dunes and De Panne has long been difficult to administer. Smuggling has in the past played a significant rôle locally and Maxence Vander Meersch's La Maison dans la dune has, since the 1930s, been a well-known local French novel which expresses some of the tensions associated with illicit, cross-border trade in the vicinity. While the formal linguistic boundary between the neighbouring Dutch-speaking part of Belgium and France runs along the eastern boundary of Bray-Dunes (Dutch: Brayduinen) , yet traditionally the Dutch language area extended west of this border. Indeed, one local writer from Dunkirk, Michiel de Swaen, wrote exclusively in Dutch. Traditionally, Dutch-speaking Flanders was more extensive than the state of that name within Belgium. The area around Bray-Dunes, which retains a Flemish character, is known as le Westhoek .
Both physically, through the bracing winds which blow from the North Sea (French: La mer du Nord; Dutch: de Noordzee) across Bray-Dunes's boardwalk, but psychologically also, they are northern winds which blow in this interesting French sea resort.
How to get there: A number of North American airlines fly to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, and the French SNCF railroad links Paris with nearby Dunkirk. But the nearest large international airport is Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ). Belgian rail links exist between Brussels and nearby De Panne. Car hire is available in Paris, Dunkirk, Brussels and elsewhere. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.
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