The last Sunday every July is the date of the annual nautical procession of St Omer’s traditional flat bottom boats – La cortège nautique. On this day the suburban area of Haut Pont in St Omer transforms itself from a sleepy area of houses jostling for space along the side of the river Aa into a place of colour and noise.
St Omer is a lovely town, lots of fabulous architectural features – some wonderful Flemish style houses, a great cathedral with an amazing astrological clock, a train station that is pure belle-époque and loads of great restaurants and bars. Surrounding the town is a huge expanse of marsh known as the Audomarois, where for centuries vegetables have been farmed and continue to be so to this day. The farmers of old used flat bottomed boats to get around the marshes and in fact some still do and it’s the humble boat that takes its turn in the limelight at this yearly event celebrating the marshes of St Omer.
On the last Sunday of every July a fair arrives at Haut Pont, a market is set up, local tradesmen decorate their boats and groups of people practice their dancing and singing for weeks before and then board the decorated boats for a parade along the Haut Pont stretch of the river. Every year thousands of people come to watch the boats and cheer on the participants, buy gourmet food products and indulge in a spot of funfair fun.
This year although the weather has been a bit iffy with fairly persistant rain for weeks before hand it made no difference and when I went along to join in the fun I had never seen the main square of St Omer – Place la Foch – so deserted and yet so many cars parked up in the streets around. No surprise then to find when I arrived at nearby Haut Pont – a small residential area – that there were several thousand people lining the side of the river awaiting the arrival of the traditional boat procession.
As is normal at these country fetes – although it was due to start at 16.00 it was a little late and the sun which had been out all day disappeared and the sky turned grey but it made no difference – when the first boat came into sight there was oohing and ah-ing from the many kids (of different ages) and the giant witch sitting on the leading boat gently paraded along. The man at the rudder turned the boat full circle every 20 meters or so – it was slow progress, but when there were several boats, all brightly decorated – a giant on one, Sam Le Pompier’s fire engine on another and many of them filled with teams of dancers, twenty highly decorated boats – all turning full circle in the river – it was like a very strange boat ballet and oddly enjoyable!
Sophisticated entertainment it is not. It was amateur, heartfelt, noisy, colourful and friendly – but everyone really enjoyed themselves. The boats park up and allow everyone to admire the handy work that has gone into decorating them and at 10.30 there are fireworks off the quayside and then everyone goes home and Haut Pont is quite again – for another year.A bientôt Janine ps if you go to St Omer – check out The Good Life France’s Things to do in St Omer… and more things to do in St Omer!