Route du Poisson

Get those toe nails shiney Cob Normand Two horses - really! The English Team The English Team Getting ready for Paris Who you lookin' at ? Persherans
Click on the thumbnails for a larger picture Getting hitched to the boat

When the boat comes in

23 September 2005

In the days before motorised transport, the fish markets in Paris relied on teams of horse drawn vehicles to bring the fresh fish down from Boulogne sur Mer on the north western coast.

Boulogne is still France's largest fishing town and a few years ago it was decided to celebrate the old method of delivery by having a competition every two years.

What started as a local affair has now grown into an international event with teams coming from neighbouring countries, including England.

Part celebration, part contest, the route passes through the villages in my local area as it heads to Paris by means of over twenty staging posts. It will take the horses about 24 hours to reach Paris.

I saw part of the competition in Boulogne many years ago without fully understanding what it was I was watching, and thought I would take the run up the autoroute to take a second look.

Jean-Jacques came up with me and we had a pleasant evening as we watched the teams of horses getting prepared; hooves polished, tails trimmed, manes tidied and harnesses tightened.

I think that you would need to be a real horsey, green wellies sort of person, to fully appreciate everything that is going on, but we wandered along the quay past the teams before going down to the start point.

Each team of two horses with a cart, is loaded with a box of fish which will be the team payload to Paris, This will be transferred from one team to the other as the horses take their turns on the road between the staging posts.

I am still a little unclear as to exactly where all the horses were coming from, as I assume that none of the teams had enough horses to make 22 changeovers. I would assume that modern transport takes them so many more stage posts further on, allowing them a bit of rest before taking the cart on a bit further.

Anyway, we watched the first half dozen teams take their horses out onto the road, but that was about as much of the commentary about who the sponsors were and other banalities to fill in the five minutes between contestants that we could cope with - lets have a beer.

I have been using the Victor Hugo café in Boulogne for some 15 years we reckon now and it is always fun to visit. The patron: M Lefebvre comes from the area around my house and thus talks about all the villages and byways.

JJ found himself being quizzed about who lived where - many possibly dead by now !

After a couple of beers we went back out onto the beach for a sausage and frites before watching one of the tests that the teams have to undergo.

A Flobart appears to be one of the small fishing boats that used to be used. It is flat bottomed and weighs just over a tonne.

Two horses from each team have to attempt to drag the boat across the sand for as far as possible up to 125 metres. The test recalls the days when the teams of horses would have pulled the boats out of the water each night.

Unfortunately just as it started, the rain set in and we were all getting soaked very quickly.

What surprised JJ and I, was that it seemed to be the smaller horses that had the advantage, though no doubt a lot of it had to do with the teamwork between the two horses and the driver.

Most of the bigger teams failed to move the boat very far if at all, whilst we stayed just long enough in the downpour to see one of the Belgian teams with their Ardenese race down the course at remarkable speed.

I reckon that it is all to do with technique. If the driver got the horses to properly take up the slack on the chains and then pull together, once they had the boat moving they were up and away.


See also

Jean-Jacques's Trip to London

Peter's Birthday Party